President Yameen’s First Five Years in Office: The Good, the Bad, and the Despicable

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President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Qayyom with his half-brother, former President Maumoon Abdul Qayyoom and coalition partners. Source: The Hindu

On 17th of November 2013, President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Qayyoom was sworn in as the 4th elected president of the second republic of the Maldives. With the blessings of his half-brother, former President Maumoon Abdul Qayyoom (who is now in jail), and coalition partners that included the likes of Qasim Ibrahim, leader of Jumhooree Party (now living in exile in the UK), and religious cleric Sheikh Imran Abdulla, leader of Adhaalath Party (now serving a hefty jail sentence on charges of terrorism), President Yameen managed to clinch the victory by garnering 51.39 per cent of the votes in 2013’s runoff election. We are now coming towards the end of President Yameen’s first term. The Constitution of Maldives allows a sitting President to contest for a second term; two terms being the maximum number allowed for any President stay on in the position.

One of the most prominent features of President Yameen’s presidency would be his contentious relationships with his vice presidents. The first being Dr. Mohamed Jameel, who was his vice presidential candidate, who fled the country amidst the dirty politics that took place to remove him from office. He too is now living in exile in the UK. The second vice president, Mr. Ahmed Adeeb, who came in with all the glamour and pomposity that had been afforded to him through his rise to stardom in President Yameen’s inner circles,  fared even worse. Accused of plotting to assassinate the President, Adeeb is now languishing in prison, looking to serve consecutive jail sentences that would in all probability place him solidly behind bars for the rest of his life. President Yameen’s third vice president Mr. Abdulla Jihad, is the only candidate who seems to have stuck, who has served in previous administrations as the Minister of Finance, the Governor of the Central Bank, and even as a member of the Civil Service Commission.

President Yameen’s coalition campaigned with a manifesto entitled the Yaqeen Manifesto. Special focus was given to areas such as the fisheries sector, promising an income for fishermen even during those periods in which they are unable scrounge up enough of a catch to make a viable income out of it. Empowerment of women was also a notable pillar of this document, promising the female workforce that policies would be made to pave the way for women to work from home. Another pledge was to establish reliable childcare centers subsidized by the government; once again to pave the way for the female workers to play a more contributory role in the labor force. Come today, none of these policies have fully materialized on the ground.

While the public is geared to vote on Sunday (September 23rd 2018), to elect the leadership of this country for the next five years, no one can accuse President Yameen’s administration of having being an uneventful one. Dogged by one scandal after another, which forced the incumbent to tighten his hold and oft times reveal his true colours, President Yameen’s presidency has been one of the most dramatic of reigns, perhaps even within the South Asian region. With his foreign policy strongly China-centric, President Yameen’s regime has sidelined India and other neighbours, and continues to snub the European Union and the US for “meddling with the country’s sovereignty”.

This article is an attempt on my part to take a look at  President Yameen’s policies during his five year term with as much of an objective mindset that I can muster. It takes into consideration the good, the bad, and the despicable about his government. These are based on various news articles that I have read as well as my own beliefs when it comes to his developmental agenda and good governance. Having an avid interest in public policy, I have this drive to try and understand leaders, their policies, the implementation of said policies, and the idiosyncratic factors that defines a leadership, which I believe goes a long way towards establishing key moments of any administration.

The Good:

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Sinamale’ Bridge. Source; Raajje MV

Whatever good that has come out of President Yameen’s first five year term belongs in the “infrastructural development” category. President Yameen’s presidency will be remembered for the infrastructural development that it brought to certain selected areas of the Maldives, garnering him what little support he has been able to muster throughout the country. How these projects were carried out, at what cost; that is not the focus of discussion at the moment. Highlights of some of the key projects are listed below.

  1. Sinamale’ Bridge: First pledged by President Maumoon during the final years of his 30 year dictatorial regime, the credit for realizing this dream would undoubtedly belong to President Yameen. The bridge which measures 2.1 in kilometres, connects the capital Male’ with the Velana International Airport (VIA), as well as the island of Hulhumale’ which is hailed as part of the Greater Male’.
    A total of 200 million US dollars were reportedly spent on the bridge, out of which 116 million of it was given as free aid from the Chinese government, 72 million procured as loans from China, and lastly with the Maldivian government having spent 12 million.
    Inaugurated on the 30th of August 2018, with the largest fireworks display this country has probably ever seen, the Sinamale’ Bridge is definitely the pride and joy of this regime. All squabbles regarding the bridge aside, connectivity is always a good thing, especially for those who travel between Male’, the airport, and Hulhumale’ on a daily basis irrespective of the turbulent weather conditions at times. Connectivity also ushers in prosperity, which is undeniable.
    However, it remains to be seen the tariff the government will impose as toll charges on those who use the bridge. In the meantime, the bridge remains open for use, free of charge, until most likely the elections are over, and the presidency once again secured.
  2. Implementation of water and sanitation systems in multiple islands: According to PSM, when President Yameen was sworn in, only 30 islands out of the 190 inhabited had established sewerage systems, with only four having proper water systems in place. By mid-June of 2016, 10 islands had sewerage systems established, and 10 had proper water systems. At the same time, 53 islands had ongoing sewerage projects in place whereas water projects were ongoing in 40 islands.
    Having traveled to a mere handful of islands for work, I have also come across the lack of proper water and sanitation facilities in islands, a sad state and indignity that people have suffered for so long. These are basic services that should have been established long back, but sadly has not been the case.
  3. Implementation of airports across the country: Being an island nation, one of the biggest challenges to our development remains the scattered nature of our geography, with sparsely populated islands strewn across the country. Traveling by sea has always been the norm, but changing weather patterns and advancements in technology has meant that there is more of a demand by people to be able to travel from one point to the next without the hassle of rough seas and the time incurred. The most contentious of these projects would perhaps be the airport that was inaugurated at HDh. Kulhudhuffushi on 21st September 2018, during which the President stood in the pouring rain and pleaded the people to vote for him at the polls on Sunday.
  4. Repairing the roads of Male’ City: It was incumbent regime that kick-started the ambitious project of repairing and repaving the roads of the congested capital city of Male’. Initial plan was to complete a total of 13 roads, the work on the main road Majeedhee Magu being scheduled from 1st of October 2016 to 4th January 2017. However, through a myriad of delays, the work was completed only towards the end of 2017. The other roads planned, still remain as they are, with parts of the outer road of Bodu Thakurufaanu Magu having undergone a tremendous facelift to facilitate the inauguration of the Sinamale’ Bridge.
  5. The Industrial Village Project: On 13th January 2016, the Ministry of Housing and Infrastructure signed an agreement with the Maldives Transport and Contracting Company (MTCC) to develop an industrial village in the capital, for which land was reclaimed from south of Male’. Towards the end of the presidential term, while a huge chunk of the land remains with sporadic activity to be seen here and there, a lot of work remains to be done. The Housing Minister stated that MVR 159 million would be spent in total from the state budget for this project.
    If this project is realized as envisioned, garages, hardware go downs, and other industrial work premises would be moved to the location, making things easier for those seeking services of such vendors in the long term.
  6. The Harbour Food Court: Initially, a project that was forecasted to be completed within 7 months and 15 days, the agreement for which was signed on January of 2016, the Harbour Food Court was finally inaugurated by the Housing Minister on the 5th of May 2018.
    With many new attractive food vendors in the mix, the Harbour Food Court which previously used to be a hotspot for locals to sample cheap local food has now become a hip hangout point for those living and visiting the city.
  7. Rasrani Bageecha, Rasfannu, and the Pavilion: Amidst much controversy and criticism, all projects implemented attracts droves of people who have nowhere to escape when it comes to the congested living conditions that is the reality of life in Male’ City.
    Rasfannu Beach provides a brief reprieve for many, drowning out the incessant noise pollution that is often part and parcel of city life. Rasfannu Beach is the second artificial beach to be implemented in the capital, the first being the Artificial Beach in the Henveiru ward, inaugurated during President Maumoon’s time.
    Meanwhile, Rasrani Bageecha was inaugurated on the 21st of August 2017 by the first couple, with edutainment and heritage being the main concept theme of the revamped Sultan Park. According to Maldives Independent, “the Sultan Park was opened on the former grounds of the royal palace after the monarchy was abolished in November 1968.”
  8. WAMCO and Waste Management: With congestion, it is inevitable that services such as waste management will become inundated and overloaded. Previously, a service that was handled on an individual basis by households through employment of the expat workforce, a bold and ambitious plan by WAMCO was implemented to streamline waste management.
    Amidst a lot of false starts and much criticism, WAMCO started collecting garbage from households in Male’ effective December 25th 2016. The difficulties that are faced, both by households and the staff of WAMCO in taking over this humongous venture has to be taken into account, as apartments and buildings in the city are not designed for central waste collection mechanisms that facilitates this kind of project. It was also on August of this year that incumbent regime signed an agreement with the Asian Development Bank for a US$ 35 million grant to implement environment-friendly waste management practices in the Greater Male’ region.

For supporters of President Yameen and his developmental policies, there would be many more programs and projects which they would consider to be a success, worthy of a mention.

The Bad:

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Ex-Auditor General Niyaz, who was ousted through amendments to the Audit Act. He was ousted for investigating the MMPRC scandal. Source; The Edition

Most of what is listed under this category has to do with governance, transparency, and accountability of elected officials and independent institutions that are the guardians of the democratic system. President Yameen’s five years in office has ensured that corruption become endemic, institutionalized, and the accepted norm owing to various rhetoric used by government officials to justify this atrocity. Statements like, “there is development even if there is corruption”, or “corruption is a bi-product of development”, or “we spent double the amount it would have incurred to speed up the implementation” – these are all designed to make norm of a practice that rips off a country’s wealth and destroy its future.

  1. Lack of confidence in long term viability and sustainability of developmental projects: in the era of sustainable development which refers to development that does not put into peril the future of generations to come; these five years have seen a lot of tussle between the government, institutions, and the citizens owing to harmful developmental practices, often bogged down in bureaucracy and the state’s refusal to divulge actual details of projects being undertaken.
    Mahaa Jarraaf
    , the dredger that was purchased by MTCC to reclaim land to pave the way for infrastructural development, is destroying many a reef along with habitats and entire ecosystems, while lining the pockets of the movers and shakers of the country with cash.
    President Yameen who exhibits characteristics similar to that of President Donald Trump as a climate change skeptic, during the presidential “debate” held by the Maldives National University (MNU), stated that he was actually doing the citizens a favour by reclaiming land from areas which had been dump grounds of waste for many years.
    Foregoing the advice of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), projects have proceeded in the fashion that is one hundred percent reminiscent of this government. Furthermore, many of the projects that had been implemented, have been riddled with a host of problems owing to use of poor quality construction materials and lack of proper management, leading to an increasing loss in public confidence in government projects.
  2. Lack of Transparency: Projects, finances, and under the table deals; all of this and more remains under a shroud of secrecy when it comes to incumbent regime. Expenditures incurred for mega projects revealed by the government are hardly trustworthy given the contradicting statements often quoted from different key figures within the President’s inner sanctum.
    Mandates of different agencies often crisscross; it is normal for us to see the Fisheries Minister Dr. Mohamed Shainee handling matters related to the foreign policy of the country, taking a leading role where in reality the Minister of Foreign Affairs should. This leads to a lack of public trust in officials, both elected and otherwise who are touting the government’s message, leading to further issues when it comes to understanding the integrity of the government and its officials.
  3. Derailment of Decentralized Governance: From the very early days of this government, the Decentralization Act and the powers that it bestows upon the people has often being met with scorn and ridicule from officials associated with the regime. Cited often as a failed policy, little is however said of the various policies of the incumbent regime that forced Decentralization Act to lose its prominence and power. This has rendered the councils to flounder and become ineffective, without proper budget and the central government’s support to take their plans forward.
    Recently at the MNU debate, President Yameen professed to be a non-believer of decentralization governance in the current context of the country. He mentioned that with the levels of awareness of the public and officials as they are, it is mighty difficult to work alongside with the councils who give into partisan politics and make things extremely challenging in terms of implementation of projects.
    While I believe this to be true regardless of which political party is in power, this toxic environment is further helped along by the divisive attitude of the incumbent regime at large.
    The Local Government Authority (LGA) in the meantime, headed by the Home Minister Azleen, is quick to penalize councilors and place them on suspension whenever they dare something that displeases the regime. The Decentralization Act was amended on 12th April 2017 to pave the way for the President to have full control of the board of LGA, which is tantamount to the President being in full control of the councils themselves.
  4. Lack of Accountability: President Yameen’s second VP Ahmed Adeeb, who has many charges against him for embezzlement of state funds, became the scapegoat for a lot of scandals surrounding the government, especially in terms of the massive corruption implicating key figures of the regime.
    Often at various podiums, the President deflects blame for what has taken place. This sentiment was echoed at the MNU debate once again, where the President shed light on how it was the “system” that had enabled the rise of someone corrupt like Adeeb through the ranks to become the VP, and at the same time steal so much money from the state funds.
    Investigations carried out by the “independent” organizations are more often than not, based on political affiliation. The minute you switch your political allegiance to what is favoured by the regime, away goes that pesky little problem, or some coffee just happens to accidentally spill on the case file.
    Anyone who dares rise against the tide is quickly snuffed out by levying hefty jail terms to silence other whistle-blowers who might come forward, making an example of people such as Gasim Abdul Kareem, who was arrested in February of 2016 for leaking detailed bank statements of SOF Pvt. Ltd., that is at the centre of one of the biggest cases of grand corruption that has taken place in the country.
    For the people, there are no avenues left to turn to for justice. The entire country is left in a limbo, and the people are helpless in the face of the many grave atrocities that are being committed without shame and paraded in front of citizens, daring a response from anyone who is brave enough to weather the storm.
  5. Erosion of Democratic Norms, Values, and Institutions: I have always held the belief that President Yameen is a page right out of President Maumoon’s handbook. President Yameen has taken the ideals of the dictatorial regime that he himself served in many capacities, and almost perfected them to a sense to ward off any means that can hold him accountable.
    Fear mongering is an age old tactic as such, used by his half-brother to keep people in line. By dangling the security of their jobs in front of them, President Yameen uses at times a more sophisticated and bull-headed approach to do the same.
    Changing laws to suit circumstance, Auditor General Niyaz was “fired” from his position through an amendment to the Audit Act which was ratified on 30th of October 2014.
    Similar tactics have been used to keep other institutions in line, paving the way for erosion of all norms and values that is essential for the functioning of a healthy and vibrant democracy.
  6. Politicization of Law Enforcement and Public Media: This is not a characteristic unique to just President Yameen’s government alone. Regimes that have come and gone have in one way or the other, influenced the functions of the law enforcement and public media to suit their needs.
    President Yameen being part of the “accepted norm” therefore, should be of no surprise to citizens. However, as with everything else that is this government, the politicization has reached new heights, whereby it is now impossible to understand the structure under which officers of Maldives Police Service often operate.
    In the months leading up to the elections set to take place on Sunday, police officers were “trained” to confront the people who might come out to the streets demanding for their “rights”.
    Meanwhile, public media shamelessly continues to propagate campaign messages of the President, acting as the mouthpiece of the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), whereby it is often impossible to draw the line between the functions of Channel 13 (a pro government, privately owned channel) with that of the state TV channels PSM and Television Maldives.

The Despicable:

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The most despicable aspect to the regime is its disregard to the sanctity and dignity of human life. Photo shows journalist Rilwan’s family members holding posters related to the #FindMoyameehaa movement. Source; Maldives Independent

President Yameen’s regime has definitely left its mark on the people in the five year period that he has been president. His MPs have zero shame, following in their leader’s footsteps, taunting citizens with just how untouchable they believe themselves to be. Sexual molestation cases submitted to law enforcement agencies have often being halted because of an affiliation the accused has with a key member from PPM. Similarly, when it comes to the sanctity and dignity of the human life, this is where the government’s actions are unconscionable and most despicable. According to Mv Murders, a total of 27 murders have taken place in the Maldives between 2014 to-date, most of which bear strong evidence of being gang related. However, the President continues to deny the existence gangs, and goes as far as to tell us that they are contributing members of society. Here I list some of the most despicable aspects of this five year regime. I am sure I must have missed out on many, because there are just too many to pick and choose from.

  1. Massive Corruption & Embezzlement of State Funds: No scandal has rocked this regime’s boat more than it did with the MMPRC scandal. Auditor General Niyaz Ibrahim was “dismissed” owing to the investigations carried out to unearth what had taken place.
    Having embezzled MVR 1.2 billion from state funds, the actual amount which Niyaz believes would be higher, the public has yet to see transparent investigations into the matter by relevant authorities. The police concluded a hastily conducted investigation which implicated VP Adeeb, and institutions like the Anti-Corruption Commission have been unable to come up with proper investigative reports that are credible on the matter.
    It is evident that the government is hiding many facts surrounding the debacle, and Al-Jazeera’s investigations into the case with its documentary “Stealing Paradise” just drives home the point further.

    What is more harrowing is the way this government continues to justify their actions, the President talking about the “demand” for speedier implementation of projects everywhere in the country.
  2. Deterioration of Justice, Law and order: Justice in this country has more or less always been the right of the affluent few. It is often said that justice in the Maldives is for the highest bidder.
    Our courts remain trapped inside a vicious cycle of corrupt practices, and our law enforcement remains under the control of politicians who dictate what investigations should be carried out, when they should be carried out, and where those investigations should lead them.
    Listed are some of the most prominent cases that have come and gone in the five year period, which have left its ugly mark on the country as a whole.

    • Rilwan’s disappearance and government’s reaction, gross mishandling, and miscarriage of justice that followed is one of the most prominent under this category. The callous disregard of elected officials aligned with the government towards the family seeking answers, the mockery and insults that have been hurled towards them and Rilwan’s friends, all lead one to circle back to the point that Rilwan’s abduction was state endorsed.
      Four years since Rilwan was last seen at the Hulhumale’ Ferry Terminal, there have been many instances for the public to mistrust the government and its actions surrounding the case, ranging from the President’s dismissive attitude when questioned about it, to the verdict from the Criminal Court recently on the case, where the judge criticized the prosecutors for doing a half-assed job of making a conviction.
    • Blogger Yameen Rasheed’s murder and the fallout is another case worthy of mention. A prominent blogger and critic of the government, Yameen was one of the closest friends of Rilwan and one of the most active figures in holding accountable the concerned authorities of the government.
      Murdered just as he reached home during the wee hours of the night, his murder has scarred many, put fear in the hearts of the most vocal in society, and done the job where corrupt practices fail when it comes to those with integrity.
      The Maldives Police concluded their investigations and blamed religious elements for being responsible for his murder, an easy cop-out if ever there was one.
      Come today, Yameen’s family members stand in solidarity with Rilwan’s and vice versa, knowing that justice is nothing but an oases on the scorching desert that is Maldives.
    • Politically charged trials and use of terrorism charges to put political opponents behind bars became the norm since 2013. Starting with the trial of former President Mohamed Nasheed which saw him sentenced to jail for 13 years on charges of terrorism on 13th March of 2015, this was rapidly followed in succession with the speedy trials of many high profile politicians, who have been given hefty prison sentences.
      The most recent debacles saw former President Maumoon’s son Faris Maumoon, the MP for Dhiggaru constituency, held under imprisonment arbitrarily for months, followed soon with the incarceration of the Maumoon himself, on charges related to a “judicial coup” that had allegedly attempted to usurp President Yameen.
      The international community at large have raised concerns which have gone unheeded, as President Yameen’s foreign policy of forging stronger ties with China has taken precedence, which helps Maldives turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to international condemnation.
    • Gang violence and preventing key policies from being implemented to curb and address the phenomenon; it was once again at the debate that was held recently by MNU that President Yameen stated that he does not believe that violent gangs operate in the Maldives. Going as far as to admonish the use of such a word that paints groups of youth in such a negative light, President Yameen makes light of the many investigations centred around the existence of such groups in society, the many murders that have been committed during this five year term, and even the disappearance of Rilwan himself that is connected to gang elements.
      Furthermore, there is reason to believe that these gangs are infiltrated by those preaching religious extremism in a setting where the violent hate filled minds find a calling.
      It was also President Yameen’s ex-Home Minister Umar Naseer, a hardliner when it comes to gang activity and drugs, who saw his powers reduced by the President during his term in office, which meant that he was prevented from issuing direct orders to police officers in any sort of operation that was being carried out.
      This change in mandate was allegedly owing to Naseer’s investigations into then Tourism Minister Adeeb for his alleged unlawful activities, a man who was suspected of having ties to gangs himself.
  3. Criminalisation of Defamation: 11th of August 2016 saw President Yameen sign into law, a draconian bill that sets hefty fines and jail terms on journalists, if found guilty of slander. Following this, RajjeTV has borne the brunt of the heftiest of fines, followed by Villa TV owned by Qasim Ibrahim. This has created an environment of fear, where hesitancy to write about what matters is quickly becoming the norm.
  4. Constitutional amendments that became everyday business: President Yameen always boasts of how his government does everything within the boundaries of the laws in place. Easily said, when the said laws are changed to suit circumstance and need of the regime, at the President’s whim.
    In line with this, constitutional amendments, which requires two-third majority of the sitting Majlis became an “everyday” phenomenon. At first, it was to pave the way for then Tourism Minister Adeeb to become the next VP, the amendments at the time which also saw new age limits being set for presidential candidates. Furthermore, constitutional amendments also paved the way for sale of Maldivian land to foreign investors, a move that saw the split between President Yameen & his half-brother become prominent.

With all that has happened, there remains the fear that more amendments along these lines will come in the course of the next few years, if President Yameen manages to secure his second term in office.

Critics say that we would most likely see the removal of the term limit for the presidency, alongside with amendments to the requirement of the two-third majority of the sitting Majlis needed for Constitutional amendments.

Furthermore, we have also seen President Yameen’s regime use the military to control the Parliament and storm the Supreme Court premises, which saw the arrest of two Supreme Justices for being party to a plan set to reverse the tide of strong arm tactics being used by a presidency riddled with legitimacy issues, dodging one scandal after another. I believe that the fate which awaits us would be much worse, if the next five years are handed to him on silver platter.

My compilation is paltry in the face all that has happened during the last five years. But it is a starting point for anyone who wants to know more, in order to perhaps make an informed decision, before heading to the polls on Sunday.

“Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the assessment that something else is more important than fear.” ~ Franklin D. Roosevelt

 

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Mental Health & Developmental Policies

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Source: Pinterest

“I searched for a common goal amongst humankind, to which all would agree to strive for excellence. I have not found anything other than the vanquishing of anxiety [hamm]” – Ibn Hazm (d.  AH), famous Andalusian scholar of Islam.

The recent spate of deaths by suicide within the Maldivian community, both at home and abroad has sparked off the debate concerning illnesses of the mental health variety which includes depression, anxiety etc. and associated symptoms. While debate of this kind is healthy because it gives room for people to open up about their struggles concerning mental health issues, certain comments by authorities and public alike tends to do more harm than good. These statements often stem out of ignorance of what mental health issues are about, the root causes that drives them, and how at the end of the day it is the inadequacies of the government of the day that is on prominent display when all is said and done.

Linking and associating mental health disorders solely on one’s religiousness or irreligiousness as some put it, is one of the aspects of what I am talking about. While Maldives is constitutionally a 100% Islamic nation, where politicians spew rhetoric on a regular basis trying to portray a picture of harmony, peace and stability in the country, the truth is far from it. Underneath all the fairy tales that the government conjures up lies a country that is deeply divided on many central issues related to the government, governance itself, the political system, religion, and not to mention the fissures and divides that exists as deep wounds over what some call as the Male’-Raajjethere divide.

Developmental policies since the beginning of President Maumoon Abdul Gayyoom’s time which spanned a period of 30 years before he stepped down in 2008 after losing the first multi-party presidential elections that was held, is a pivotal reason behind the social inequities and imbalances that exists in the country even today. Factor in a coup that toppled a people elected government in 2012 and the upheaval that followed, the Presidential elections of 2013 which was “won” through the Supreme Court of Maldives, the incumbent regime in existence is merely following up and “expanding” on the groundbreaking policies laid by the now President Yameen Abdul Gayyoom’s half-brother himself.

Under President Maumoon’s leadership, the people that he wanted to keep close were fed from the state coffers and as a result got richer and more affluent, while the poor remained more or less at a level where they struggled to make ends meet; in a status of state controlled poverty, being thankful for the “generous” handouts that were given from the Presidential Palace or the President’s Office at the time.

President Maumoon practiced the art of the “benevolent and kind” leader that was generous to those that did not come into conflict with him about his policies and many atrocities. Those that did, bore the brunt of it, either being “reeducated” at the prisons that were notorious then for torture, death and prisoners that were often talked about to have gone missing.

It was President Maumoon’s developmental policies that saw the capital Male’ “developed” as a concrete city of national pride and prosperity while far lying atolls and islands got scraps and pieces of the developmental aid that poured into the country from left and right during his reign. A half constructed jetty here and there, a single storey building as a school on another and a less than adequately equipped health center somewhere else. In the meantime, “Atholhuge” or short-stay residences for visiting government officials were setup in islands considered as the “capitals” within the atolls, with every luxury that could be afforded at the time.

Meanwhile, people were forced to migrate to the greater Male’ that constitutes now of Male’, Vilingili and Hulhumale’, all designed to centralize power, which in the end meant easier control over the masses that the presidency ruled over. Families fell into hardship trying to make ends meet, living in small cramped spaces in the capital paying exorbitant amounts of money for rent, because there exists no rent control mechanisms enforced by the government on land owners even up till today. These families left behind spacious and airy homes in their islands where they could have led a more physically and mentally well rounded life, just because they wanted to give their children a chance at getting a better education and later on perhaps a better future than the ones they were stuck with.

In the islands, the eldest sons often were forced to leave school halfway through secondary education or even before in order to make ends meet in the family, forced to work at a far lying resort somewhere, getting to see their parents, wives and children when the resort management deemed it fit. With no Employment Act in existence, with rights of the employees not guaranteed by law, many employees were left floundering within a system that saw little need in taking a more holistic approach towards the needs of employees.

It is no surprise then that many families that lived within the crowded Male’ city ended up being prime examples of broken homes. No one needs to go into details on how lack of intimacy in a marriage between the husband and wife brings on physical and emotional imbalances to the relationship, how these wounds can fester and explode into messy and ofttimes ugly divorces, leaving behind children scarred and hollowed out by the resultant effect.

When one talks about mental health issues, it is often closely linked to one’s childhood, the effects of perhaps long forgotten traumatic experiences that lingers somewhere in the mind to manifest in uglier ways. One could be totally in control of their lives one minute and sweating over a perceived danger to their very existence the next. The mind after all has a “mind” of its own and it is seldom easy under the circumstances to control its various thought processes and the negative emotions that can arise out of the chemical imbalances that sets in.

There is also the hereditary factor to consider, some studies pointing to a link between depression and a polymorphism in the serotonin transporter gene SLC6A4 which is known as 5-HTTLPR. A 2003 study found that the presence of this particular 5-HTTPLR increased risk of depression, but only for those who also experienced life stressors or trauma, which perhaps points towards traumatic childhood experiences.

Suicide and genetics on the other hand, according to a recently published Q&A article on MayoClinic attests to the fact that it is a complicated association. While research has shown that there is a genetic component to suicide, it is alluded that there are other contributing factors that increases an individual’s risk. What complicates matters further when it comes to the link is a process called epigenetics, the process via which certain genes are turned on or off as a person grows and develops, which can be once again influenced by what happens in a person’s environment. Meaning that once again, childhood factors could play a significant role here.

When people so carelessly point towards mental illnesses and suicide as being caused by lack of faith or one’s lack of closeness to Allah SWT, they fail to take into consideration the stress under which most of the families live when it comes to the heavenly paradise on Earth that is known as the Maldives. A paradise for those that visits its luxury resorts and gets the five-star treatment worth the exorbitant amounts charged, little of this wealth which if at all trickles down to the people.

The income inequalities, social injustices that exists deep rooted within society, the lack of a comprehensive and fair justice system that protects the rights of everyone, especially the most vulnerable; children, mothers and fathers collectively, the lack of adequate support systems that takes over when these institutions fail to uphold their duties effectively, the failure of consecutive governments to nurture a broad based civil society that addresses inadequacies in policies and their implementation that affects social and economic factors are all at play here.

Lack of a comprehensive mental healthcare framework is one of the crucial issues that is faced not only in Maldives, but in well developed countries where the problems are just as profound. In fact, studies carried out have shown that suicide rates are higher in wealthier nations than in poorer countries, and that accessibility to care is a great hindrance to overall mental health of patients that requires treatment for different associated symptoms.

The patient to doctor ratio is crucial when it comes to mental health care systems, the exhaustion that creeps up on professionals without a proper backup system in place which could prove to be detrimental. These are all issues that adds onto an already complex and wicked problem that needs targeted solutions from a government that somehow cannot seem to be able to fathom the multifaceted nature of the issue. From affordability of care to access, to the removal of stigma that surrounds the issue, there needs to be massive transformational movements within and across different spectrums of society to address the issue of mental healthcare and what it constitutes.

Being a practicing Muslim, I cannot deny the role that spiritual wellbeing plays when it comes to mental health issues. For me, religion is very much a part of who I am. It even defines me to a certain point. While prayers and recitation of Qura’n has helped me immensely when it comes to coping with the worst of my symptoms, for others, religion might not hold such a profound value in their lives. For those that do not believe in religion and existence of a higher power, there exists other mechanisms such as meditation which to a certain extent mimics the effects of prayer.

When government ministers point towards lack of religious faith as the main reason behind poor mental health status of large swathes of the population across the country, they fail to understand that this lack of faith as they call it also stems from poor governmental policies on education. Fact that religion serves as a tool that is manipulated at the behest of the government of the day does little to instill faith in a generation that has come to question everything that is in existence and beyond.

Gone are the generations that says yes to everything a ruler imposes upon them. In place now are groups of individuals that question; questions that needs to be answered adequately by learned professionals in terms of religious discourse, especially by people who have the patience to deal with them.

Islam as a subject should be taught by teachers who can bring forth lively discussions and engage students in debates surrounding central issues to society in an Islamic context. Rather than shying away from debates as such, teachers should help and guide students to understand what Islamic literature has to say on important pillars that governs society and life of individuals. Subject matter should touch deeply on aspects of tawh’eed (oneness of Allah SWT), and what it actually means when one says that Islam is a way of life.

Without incorporating these multi-dimensional aspects that addresses the wellbeing of a society as actionable policies on the ground, when officials open their mouth to belittle an issue that is of paramount importance not just locally but globally, it actually brings to light the lack of awareness and knowledge of these officials when it comes to broad based issues that needs targeted solutions that cuts across government and non-governmental platforms in existence.

“Wellness is not a ‘medical fix’ but a way of living – a lifestyle sensitive and responsive to all the dimensions of body, mind, and spirit, an approach to life we each design to achieve our highest potential for well-being now and forever.” – Greg Anderson

Maldives and the Not So Curious Case of its #CWExit

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Foreign Minister of the Maldives – Dr. Mohamed Asim. Source: BBC.com

It is a widely accepted notion amongst intellectuals of political science and international relations that foreign policies of countries for the most part remain stable over long periods of time. It is not so without reason. International relations are forged, developed and nurtured over long & hefty periods of time. Countries put great effort into these relations because it somehow or other mutually benefits them to be in a state of cooperation than conflict. Because if otherwise, a misquoted statement from a public official of country A about country B could pave the way for potential disaster, if not for the first line of defense provided by the diplomatic ties established between these countries.

Intergovernmental organizations (IGOs), i.e. entities formed by states coming together such as the United Nations (UN), The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) to name a few, are established for various reasons. Whether for economic or defense needs or to strengthen bilateral or multilateral relations, these entities form a platform for countries to engage in and benefit from each other, in terms of trade deals and other such mutually beneficial ventures.

Entities like the UN, even though might not hold absolute authority over countries given the state of anarchy that exists when it comes to a universal government of sorts to oversee affairs of all nations, even with the limitations present, it however does provide nations with a sort of check and balance mechanism within the existing framework of the establishment. This helps member countries to work with especially those nations that are considered to be taking a turn for the hostile or are seen shortchanging their citizens on issues of human rights, democracy and freedom etc., so that its citizens in the least have somewhere to turn to when all avenues of justice and hope they seek are not to be found on their home turf.

Similarly for the Maldives, ever since it gained its independence from the British in 1965, it has formed bilateral and multilateral ties with a lot of nations on the diplomatic front. For a country such as ours that is small and seemingly insignificant when considering the larger scale of things, these ties are essential to our very existence. A country, a large part of whose income is derived from high end tourism is in no place to snub the international community over reasons that are as or more abhorrent to say the least.

The news yesterday that the incumbent government of Maldives had finally had it with the Commonwealth and decided to leave the body was one that sent shock waves through citizens of the nation. Considering the fact that Maldives has been a member of the Commonwealth since 1982 and going 34 years – not a small number of years in my opinion, this time, Maldives has with pride, joined the ranks of esteemed countries like that of Zimbabwe which in 2003 announced that it was leaving the Commonwealth after being suspended in March 2002 over serious issues in its elections.

The Commonwealth

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Flag of the Commonwealth. Source: Flags.net

Formerly known as the British Commonwealth, the Commonwealth of today came into formal existence in 1949 and forms a loose association of former British colonies and current dependencies, along with some nations with no significant historical ties to Britain. It was not until 1947 when India and Pakistan achieved their independence from the British that the Commonwealth as we know it today emerged. Even though the word British was dropped from the name then, the British monarch remains the official head of the Commonwealth.

The Commonwealth charter sets an ambitious agenda for member countries. To bring together values such as democracy, human rights and the rule of law – asserting its commitment towards the development of such societies in its member states, all of which spells trouble for countries like the Maldives, that continually seems to be testing the boundaries of what would be acceptable or perhaps of late, not giving a damn about what is the accepted norm for a government that spouts democratic principles to be part of its establishment and setup.

What the Commonwealth Brings to the Table

Unlike the UN, in theory, members of the Commonwealth have equal say, and this does not depend on their size or economic status. One of the benefits to member states being the fact that it gives smaller states just like the Maldives, a platform in the arena of international politics and diplomatic circles – in other words it lends a voice to punitive nations like ours and the room to engage with bigger nations that could prove to be helpful in outlining economic and other such policies that have a broader positive impact on the country and its people.

While most would argue that a Heads of Government Meeting every two years is hardly something to boast about, the Commonwealth does come with benefits for member states in areas such as that of immigration. Especially during a time where Muslims are under constant scrutiny and threat of being denied entrance into certain parts of the world owing to the rise in threat of global terrorism, being a member of Commonwealth does afford citizens of a member country like that of Maldives, a cushion from the blowback if otherwise.

As a Commonwealth citizen, if you are looking to immigrate to Commonwealth nations, you maybe entitled to visa-free entry if the country you are traveling from is deemed to be in “good standing” – a line I believe that the Maldives has already crossed. Bringing to mind the harrowing couple of weeks right after Maldives snubbed its neighbor India on the GMR deal where citizens had to line up near the Indian High Commission from dusk till morning in the hopes of getting their visa approved in order to seek medical treatment in India suffices as an example of how difficult things can get – if countries were inclined to do so.

In terms of immigration, it the Commonwealth also does help member states when trying to gain entrance into non-member countries as well. Maldives is not a country with many embassies established on our shores. This means that, as a Commonwealth member, the British embassy or consulate can step into play the role as required for you to get the proper documents.

Being a Commonwealth member also offers member states with access to participate in the Commonwealth Games, an international sporting event that countries like the Maldives would be hard-pressed to gain entrance to if not. This is tied to the dreams and aspirations of many a young athlete who works with sheer determination and focus towards making a name for themselves in an international setting such as what the Games offer.

The Commonwealth also comes bearing for the studious amongst our young to seek fully funded study opportunities to developed nations which if otherwise, children from even middle class families of a country like ours can only ever dream of. Once again, the aspirations of the young who would lead our country tomorrow are tied to a valuable resource that is hard to come by these days, especially given the lack of scholarships forthcoming from the government itself, not to mention how scarce these chance are, even from other such international organizations and countries that are keen on providing students with such golden opportunities.

Needless to say, though the benefits afforded might not seem to amount to much in the face of 150 million US$ dollars that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia can grant to the Maldives, being a member of the Commonwealth does offer certain privileges to citizens of member states, the loss of which might not be so easy to deal with in the long run.

The Criticism towards Commonwealth

Commonwealth is largely criticized for the passive role it plays when it comes to actively promoting the values embedded in its Charter. It was only in 1995 that the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) was established with 8 ministers, its sole purpose being to deal with governments that are unyielding in their violation of the principles of the Commonwealth. CMAG also comes equipped with the power to take punitive collective measures such as imposing sanctions or suspending members who are seen to violate its Charter and principles.

Even with the establishment of CMAG, Commonwealth is seen to be an entity that takes the easy way out more often than not. Commonwealth’s lack of actions consistent with its principles in the case of Sri Lanka’s human rights abuses under the reign of President Mahinda Rajapaksa is notable. Another example is of how Nigeria was partially suspended in 1995 for hanging a human rights activist Ken Saro-Wira, while the body largely ignored the abuse of the Ogoni people that had been the root of Saro-Wira’s campaign.

The Commonwealth is also damned for its “insidious postcolonial politics” that prevents Britain and other affluent members such as Canada and Australia from providing a better leadership that could perhaps bridge the gap between the Commonwealth and other more focused and efficient entities such as the European Union.

CMAG & Maldives – A Tale with a Bittersweet Ending

A CMAG meeting in action. Source: vnews.mv

A CMAG meeting in action. Source: vnews.mv

It was the CMAG’s involvement in the affairs of the Maldives following the coup which took place on February 7th of 2012, that ousted the first democratically elected President Mohamed Nasheed that saw emergence of rhetoric from members of the rogue government that Maldives should leave the Commonwealth. Some members of parliament were seen mocking the head of the Commonwealth herself in their attempt to sound important enough so that the powers they worship would be well impressed with how they were earning their entitled position.

CMAG placed Maldives on its agenda following the coup from March 2012 to March 2013, until a Commonwealth backed inquiry into the power transfer found it to be a constitutional one. Going into the nitty-gritties involving how this particular event unfolded is beyond the scope of this article. With the establishment of the “truth”, the rhetoric to leave the Commonwealth also more or less died down along with it, not surprising given that the pressure on the Maldivian government eased off for the time being.

It was in 2015, just last year, during the turbulent political trials that saw the arrest and imprisonment of top opposition political figures in the country and some influential members from the government’s cabinet itself that saw CMAG once again intervene into the affairs of the Maldives.

Ex-Foreign Minister Dunya Maumoon then is reported to have said that the Maldives “will seriously consider its membership at the Commonwealth” if it were to be placed on the agenda of CMAG for a second time in 4 years. Furthermore, Dunya criticized CMAG for continually pushing the Maldives for reform when no “serious” violations existed in the country and also lamented the fact that the Secretary General Kamalesh Sharma was too trigger happy to take action without giving Maldives the time to follow due process. Dunya also bemoaned the fact that being placed on CMAG’s agenda posed reputational risks to the country, putting its economy and democratic governance at risk.

So what made the government finally bite the bullet and make a decision that made Maldives appear in headlines of almost all major global newspapers? The reason being that the Maldives once again found its way into the CMAG’s agenda on the meeting that was held on 23rd of September of this year, where CMAG expressed “deep disappointment” in the worsening political situation of the country. This meant that the Maldives had to buckle down and show CMAG that they mean business when it comes to the reforms they have been promising to the group in a bid to buy time to do whatever it is that the government wanted to. This decision by the CMAG of course did not come without reason.

CMAG listed out 5 concrete reasons as to why Maldives might face imminent suspension, some of which includes the flawed and politically motivated trials to imprison those that were deemed to be political rivals of the incumbent President, how the parliament of the country has been hijacked by Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM) and is used as a tool to oppress the people – the recent ratification of the draconian Defamation Bill suffices as just one example, and furthermore, the government’s seeming reluctance and will to stem the spread of radical ideology which was also raised as a point of grave concern.

Intervention attempts by various teams such as the UN Special Rapporteur on Independence of Judges and Lawyers which in 2013 recommended the Maldives to strengthen its judicial independence, which of course has gone unheeded, and attempts by the CMAG itself to try and work out a way to get all political parties together to discuss a way forward, the latest of which involved requirement for all party talks which was headed for trouble right from the onset.

Thus, a regime that seems to be distancing itself further and further away from nations and entities that actually demands of the government to uphold principles of democracy and good governance upon which the country’s Constitution itself is based on, it should be of no surprise that the ultimate decision made by the executive is to leave the Commonwealth, thus plunging the citizens of the country into times of more uncertainty, questions about most of which could not be answered by representatives of the regime themselves. “The decision to leave the Commonwealth was difficult, but inevitable” does not suffice as an explanation for a judgement reached by the executive, that could plunge the lives of Maldivians into unforeseeable difficulties in the near future.

If one were to ask why the need to isolate ourselves from those nations and entities that would attempt to interfere? They would have to look no further than the damning evidence reported on Stealing Paradise, Al Jazeera’s recent documentary into the massive corruption allegations involving the core political elite of the country, which ultimately points the finger towards the man himself.

I rest my case.

Defamation Bill & Its Un-Islamic Defense

Censorship

Source: The English Law Students’ Association

It is being talked about with much fervor today, the Islamic viewpoint behind criticizing the leadership and governance of a country and its head of state. Last year, right after the Independence Day celebrations were held, I wrote about how the government was imminently going to pass legislature that is “required” to put us behind bars for exercising our right to free speech, especially when it concerns the government and its elites. Today would most likely be the day upon which this prediction is going to become a reality, depending on whether government aligned party members pay heed to the sentiments of the people or bow down to their own greed, which has seen them profit most handsomely in recent times.

With the Defamation Bill submitted to the Parliament for the second time around, it went into the committee stage where religious scholars from the Fiqh Academy in the country were invited to have their say. Unsurprisingly, the sheikhs who turned up were in fact in agreement that the Defamation Bill is crucial and an important bill that needs to be passed, and furthermore went onto cite that defamation in fact, is considered to be a criminal offense in Islam. These sheikhs further went onto elaborate how criticizing the leader of a country is not to be done, how Islam forbids this, how Islam asks of society to obey their leaders, even if they turn out to be tyrannical monsters.

Islam on Oppression

Up till now, I have tried to refrain from saying much on the issue, because for one thing, I might not be the best of people to talk about things from an Islamic perspective, given that my knowledge when it comes to the Sharia’ and laws via which Islamic jurisprudence is governed is pretty much limited in comparison to the high heeled scholars of the country, the ones who go through their entire lives with their third eye blind, unable to see or hear of the cries of the sheer injustice that has become the norm in this country of ours.

My knowledge of Islam, the religion I follow and love, which is very much a part of who I am, does not jive at all with what the esteemed sheikhs revealed at the committee floor. In fact, I went on to do some reading to find out what I could about the scriptures being quoted often by the sheikhs who are in support of such a law being passed.

I found out that Sunni scholars agree upon the point that a leader should be obeyed, regardless of how corrupt and tyrannical he or she becomes and tramples the law of the land as they see fit. The only avenue left, according to these groups of scholars, is to advise the despot in place, hoping that his non-existent conscience grows a limb or two before the whole country is engulfed in misery and suffering.

On this note, Shiite scholars disagree and goes as far as to say that a ruler needs to be even forcibly removed from office, if it were to come to the point where he or she starts to trample on the rights of the people, when corruption becomes the accepted norm along with injustice that becomes rampant. According to these groups of scholars, corrupt and tyrannical rulers are not to be obeyed, and they hold the viewpoint that it becomes a “must” upon the people to remove such a leader from that position of power upon which they reside.

Of course, given the Sunni-Shiite split that pretty much makes anything the other group has to say blasphemous over the other, this clearly does not give much insight when it comes to how exactly Islam views the concept of leaders, the sheer magnitude of the responsibility that is thrust upon them, and how society should react and be able to act when it comes to less than stellar behavior from the leaders that govern.

Islam as a religion comes bearing peace amidst above everything else. This does not mean the peace of the kind that exists merely on the surface, but peace of the kind that reigns when there justice to be had in a society, regardless of race, skin colour, blood line or your status of wealth.

Establishing justice in its truest form, the way Allah SWT decreed it might be an impossibility in the context of the world, with its inherently corrupt people, the shifting areas of grey within the established man-made laws and the differences of opinion that arises in defining what the laws mandate, which sometimes are as vastly different from the other as night is to day.

In Surah An-Nisa, Allah SWT says, “O you who believe, be persistently standing firm in justice as witnesses for Allah, even if it be against yourselves or parents and relatives. Whether one is rich or poor, Allah is more worthy of both. Follow not your desires, lest you not be just. If you distort your testimony or refuse to give it, then Allah is aware of what you do. [Ayah 135].

Abu Dharr reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:Allah the Exalted said: O my servants, I have forbidden oppression for myself and have made it forbidden among you, so do not oppress one another.

Furthermore, Anas (R.A) has narrated that Allah’s Apostle (PBUH) said, “Help your brother, whether he is an oppressor or he is an oppressed one. People asked, “O Allah’s Apostle! It is all right to help him if he is oppressed, but how should we help him if he is an oppressor?” The Prophet said, “By preventing him from oppressing others.” Volume 3, Book 43, Number 624: Sahih Bukhari.

What does all of the above indicate? The simple fact that establishment of justice becomes paramount in a society, more so when we claim ours to be an Islamic one, standing firm in its principles. Thus, it becomes the duty upon the ruler appointed by the people to manage their affairs to establish the system of justice that remains removed from other influential forces at work. It becomes a must upon the ruler to appoint judges who are able and remain uninfluenced by corrupt practices, and to create check and balance mechanisms that works properly to weed out vile practices that breaches the establishment of trust that is forged between a people and their government.

Hence, it becomes imperative upon the people to voice out against injustice, corruption, and mismanagement of the kind that hurts the people and society. What the Defamation Bill is geared to do is to stop any voice of reason out there that sheds light on any such practices of the government in the management of our affairs. It is targeted towards instilling fear in the hearts of those that do not want tyranny, injustice and corruption to be the way of life for Maldivians, but are helpless to do much more than voice out their discontent. With humongous fines cited as punishment, not to mention jail terms if people are unable to cough up the fines payable to the state in millions, the Defamation Bill closes the door on the rights of the citizen when it comes to “preventing the oppressor from oppressing others”.

Islamic History & Its Lessons

Looking into the history of how Islam as a religion was propagated through different times, up until the last of the Prophets, Prophet Muhammad PBUH was sent, there exists lessons for all of us in what took place then.

If one were to ponder upon, for instance, why Prophet Musa (AS) was sent upon the people of Egypt, the Pharaoh being notorious in the tyranny that he was imposing upon his people, I believe we would identify what is wrong with the statements of the Sheikhs from the Fiqh Academy. Of course, Prophet Musa (AS) undoubtedly was sent to show the people the right way, but he was also sent to liberate the people who had been suffering for years under the tyrannical rule of a leader that was becoming more and oppressive and paranoid by the day. Paranoid enough that he wanted all male offspring born to the people be killed, for fear that the vision of a leader who would end his reign may come true.

A lot of people talk about how Prophet Lut (AS) was sent upon the people of Sadoom and how it all relates back to acts of homosexuality that was rampant amongst their people, to the extent which men preferred their own gender over women. But what most fail to pinpoint is the fact that there existed more severe problems in their society than homosexuality. Injustice was the law of the day, where judges were corrupt, awarding justice to the highest bidder. The poor bore the brunt of the unequal practices of the state and no message that Prophet Lut (AS) delivered upon the people were heeded upon. The sheer injustice of the people of Sadoom, who had become a law unto themselves was a pivotal reason why they perished under the punishment of Allah SWT. But few of the esteemed Sheikhs remember to tell this part of the story when they regale the life of Prophet Lut (AS).

Moving on, let us think of why Prophet Muhammad PBUH was sent to us, as a blessing upon mankind. Of course once again, he was sent as a guidance for the Ummah, until the Day of Judgement is upon us. He was sent as the last Prophet, not only for the Arab race, but for all mankind, across the globe. But while establishing the principles of Islam such as oneness of Allah SWT and that one should turn to Him and only Him, what else did the Prophet PBUH propagate and teach and establish during his life?

He taught the Ummah the importance of establishing justice, the benefit of seeking knowledge, the peace that would never be found in a society unless the rights of the collective people are seen to and established. He taught us to listen to the voices of the people, to hear both sides of an argument and the importance in establishing the truthfulness behind testimonies taken into as evidence when delivering punishments and verdicts on civil and criminal cases that arose during his time.

He showed the value behind respecting the other, regardless of the differences, even be it when it comes to their faith. He liberated the people that were suffering under the tyranny of the rich and elite in Mecca from a life of servitude or worse, and he showed us that democracy is not a “modern” or rather “un-Islamic” concept as most would like to point out, but democracy in its truest form comes from the practice all of the above.

Subjugation of the People – What makes it so Easy

Why are societies so afraid of giving power back to the people where it rightfully belongs, so inherent in subjugating the people? Why do tyrannical leaders such as Bashar Al-Assad of Syria, late Saddam Hussain of Iraq, Hitler from Germany and even Pol Pot who led the infamous Khmer Rouge, find their footing in society and are able to repress people in a manner that is incomprehensible to the freethinker?

Perhaps, the answer lies in a mix of factors which includes religion in its midst. Religion that is used as a political tool to suppress, a tool that is used to silence the voice of dissent, the discontent that people feel, to impress upon them the fear of the sovereign being upon which their faith resides, all the while forgetting that the Creator looks upon leaders of society just as much as its people.

Leaders tend to forget that we all share the commonality that is death. Whether one believes in the Hereafter or not, we are all going to die someday. Humans, though we would like to assume that we are the most advanced of species to walk the Earth, have not yet figured out a way to prevent death, or perhaps the secret to an eternal life. Thus lies the stupidity in thinking that as leaders they are invincible. That just because they sit on that throne today, they will be there forever.

We the people cast our votes to elect our leaders, be it our representatives at the Parliament or the head of state of the country. While the system has in place organizations specifically geared towards establishing the check and balance mechanism that should rightly work to remove the unhealthy practices of corruption and injustice, when that mechanism fails, there should be other avenues for the people to address the issue, be it even the last resort of removing an elected official from office. There should be legal avenues that protects the rights of the people to this extent, so that they are not left vulnerable in the hands of madmen who are willing to cross every single line out there to serve their needs.

The lesson that leaders, especially those that claim to be Muslims need to learn is that even if people were to listen and obey them forever because they are left with little choice but to do so, there would indeed come a day when that power would be stripped from them, where they too would face the bitter taste of death. Where I believe that they would face a worse torment than what the people could have delivered if they had the inclination to, where they would be answerable to their Creator for all that they had done in this world.

“The best jihad is the word of justice in front of an oppressive sultan.”

The Politics that Governs Gang Violence

Crime-Scene-1200x545_c

“You can’t compare us (Maldivian gangs) to the ones in the UK or to other countries. We are very different…Maldivian gang violence can be much more brutal and frequent as this is a small community and people can’t hide in places for that long.” – Gang member
(Rapid Situation Assessment of Gangs in Male’ – report by The Asia Foundation published in 2012)

The recent deaths of two 14 year old boys just this Friday (03rd June 2016), has once again stirred the outrage of the public when it comes to the existence of gangs and associated violence, especially in the capital. Calls on the authorities to take action has been pouring in from all sides, while the Home Minister Umar Naseer tried politicizing the issue as he is prone to do so to in order to earn his paycheck.

All the voices will die down eventually in a couple of days as it usually does, because for one, there is not much people can do apart from going onto the streets and playing out their own form of vigilante justice, secondly, the issue is far more complex than the very obvious resultant effect of violence and bloodshed, and thirdly, the law enforcement and the justice system has been in a loop of repeated failure for far too long for it to do an abrupt reversal and start being true to the principles of the establishments in question.

The Numbers

“Before we went out to attack…not to kill, but now… we use Nite 10; 30-40 tablets of 10mg each, drink alcohol and smoke cannabis, then we are numbed out and feel no pain when we kill.” – Gang member
(Rapid Situation Assessment of Gangs in Male’ – report by The Asia Foundation published in 2012)

While research into gangs and resultant behavior has been far and few when it comes to Maldives, The Asia Foundation published  a report on “Rapid Situation Assessment of Gangs in Male’” in 2012 which highlighted the reasons behind the emergence of gang culture in the country. A National Values Survey (NVS) conducted by the Foundation in 2011 brought to light that there existed about 20 – 30 different gangs operating in Male’, with 50 – 400 members in each group. I can only imagine that the numbers must have increased by now.

The research while primarily conducted in Male’, conducted 24 in-depth interviews with gang members and held focus group discussions with gang members as well. The picture that emerged then was a harrowing one at that, with gang members themselves expressing concern about escalating violence.

The website mvmurders.com lists down homicides that have occurred in the country, an attempt to document the lives that has been lost to senseless violence. Though not all of the murders recorded resulted from gang violence, most of it in fact can be attributed to just that. With 57 murders recorded, 49% of them have taken place in Male’, while 12% in other islands within the Kaafu Atoll and 7% in Laamu as well as Haa Dhaalu.

In terms of years, the highest percentage of murders (18%) were committed in the year of 2012 followed by 2015 in which 14% of the recorded murders from 2011 to-date have taken place. 2016 is following closely on the heels of 2015, with 6 murders already recorded, and we have barely made it halfway through the year.

For a country with a population that was recorded to be just 344,023 according to the latest census carried out in 2014, 38% of whom live in Male’; the numbers paint an alarming picture, given the continued inadequacy of the institutions in place to take constructive action to address the issue.

Emergence of Maldivian Gangs

“I had a very rough family… had many problems…my Dad used to beat me up. One time my Dad was so mad at me that he stepped on my neck…I see the gang as my family… they are much better…” – Gang member
(Rapid Situation Assessment of Gangs in Male’ – report by The Asia Foundation published in 2012)

It is only natural that the incumbent home minister be blamed on a large scale for the insensible deaths that has taken place. While I agree that he is indeed responsible in a big way since he has been occupying that position for over 2 years now, the inevitable truth is that the culture and existence of gangs that we see so prominently now, emerged during President Maumoon Abdul Gayyoom’s regime.

President Maumoon’s policies on centralizing development created the cesspool that is Male’ City, which in turn led to the unraveling of socioeconomic differences on a large scale. Thus spurred the establishment, growth and activism of gangs in the country, largely centered in the capital. This culture has been for the most part supported by the elites in the political structure, which is how gangs survive, become stronger and more embedded within the system.

According to the report from The Asia Foundation, one of the core reasons driving youth to join and participate in gang-related activities stems from the widespread breakdown in family structures which made them seek out ways of belonging in order to replace the breakdown of their familial structure. Because they want to turn away from problems at home, they seek out the companionship of the less than savory, which in the end means these children become part of the structure that forms these gangs.

Report also highlighted the weak democratization in certain areas which contributed to the problem. The political and business elite making use of gang members as a means to an end forms the cycle of exploitation and indebtedness that exacerbates the issue. This also means that for the youth, gang related activities also become their way of earning a paycheck – as difficult a pill as it might be to swallow this fact.

Lastly, the report also highlighted on the harsh sentencing carried out for youth committing minor offenses, the resultant effect being increased disillusionment among young people about the system that governs.

Ground Reality

“If one of the gang members is harmed or killed…we will have it in our hearts forever…we will only get peace if we take revenge…we will only be satisfied when we have killed the person.” – Gang member
(Rapid Situation Assessment of Gangs in Male’ – report by The Asia Foundation published in 2012)

A little bit of walk down the memory lane helps form the picture that relates back to the findings of the report discussed above. It was in June of 2008 that “gangs declared peace” in Male’, by announcing a new “alliance” or “peace treaty” in a press conference renouncing violence against each other. According to the press conference, the group would work with the government on issues such as blood donation drives for thalassaemic patients.

If I recall correctly, this was following an increase in violence on the part of gangs, which required the Maldives National Defense Force (MNDF) to come out into the streets to show to the public that they were indeed worthy of their monthly salaries. I also vividly recall one of the officers giving an interview to the press on how they had worked together with the gangs to hammer out this deal. In time, people also forgot.

Since then, gang related murders has become a sort of norm in the country. Periods of violence and lulls that people have more or less gotten desensitized to. The murder of Bobby in 2012 remains forever prominent because he was an innocent killed along the way, a case of mistaken identity.

Stories of how the senior judges of the Criminal Court have special procedures in place when it comes to gang related cases is also something we have heard over time. Police officers who are committed to doing their jobs, compiling evidence and presenting them in court to convict members of gangs on the offenses committed does not seem to make much headway when it comes to an issue that is riddled with corruption and vested interests of politicians.

One has only got to bring to mind an incidence that took place during Abdulla Riyaz’s reign as Police Commissioner, who faced the issue of a police officer that refused to testify against a member of the notorious Masodi gang for doing him harm. I remember Riyaz being livid over it; he might have been one of the executors of the coup in 2012, but from what I saw, he was someone who was big on establishing the police culture within which most law enforcement agencies in other countries thrive. But once again, the politics involved, the fear of being faced with a worse fate meant that even the police officer backed down on giving his testimony to court that would have convicted the gang member.

Moving on, we come to the current home minister’s reign. The man, as pompous as he might be, had a vision of grandeur in tackling drugs and gang related crimes in the city. Investment in the dog squad was one such move. Enforcement of MoniCon (monitoring and control) orders was another.

It was Umar Naseer’s move on former Vice President Ahmed Adeeb, a man who has been pictured many a time with various gangs along with his beloved President and wife, that clipped the wings of the golden unicorn that Umar rides on. His powers as the Home Minister were basically cut down to the point where he could still sound like pomposity itself while twiddling his thumbs at work. This was largely attributed to Umar’s orders to low ranking officers within the police service to investigate then Tourism Minister Adeeb for alleged unlawful activity.

In 2014 Maldives Police Service (MPS) launched an operation to dismantle huts used exclusively by gangs in the capital. The operation however, was a short lived one. What began in August of 2014 was quickly brought to a halt in September when President Abdulla Yameen decided cease the dismantling operation. As he stated it, the operation was being brought to a stop “until a solution could be found after studying the whole problem”. The President also stated that, though the operation had been undertaken with “good intentions”, dismantling the huts alone would not provide a long-term solution. So here is where one needs to ask, where does the long-term solution that the President was hinting at lie? And how soon, if ever,  would we see it?

Recalling the speech that was delivered by the President after jailing ex-VP Adeeb on various charges, which includes the alleged assassination attempt on the President, is also evidence enough of the lack of political will behind the rhetoric echoed by the government on gang violence. On a televised speech, President Yameen confessed that gangs were given money by Adeeb, and that an alternative arrangement needs to be sought when it comes to maintaining that particular line of “friendship” after Adeeb had fallen out of favour.

These I believe were statements delivered by the head of state, live on national television. One has to look no further to realize that gang related violence and other such activities are here to stay, as long as politicians who are in power continue to bankroll, make use of and back them.

One interesting development along the way, before the recent murders took place, was the incidence where Special Operations (SO) officers of MPS ransacked three gang hangouts, with no protocol or official mandate backing this “operation”. Equipment used by gang members were smashed to smithereens, blood was shed, though luckily none of it resulted in loss of lives; the story that emerged was that one of their officers had been threatened by a gang member or something of the sort. I believe threats of the sort must be hurled every now and then and that SO officers are more than able and thick skinned enough to handle a few slurs and insults.

This makes me believe that something more happened, something which their superior officers didn’t want to deal with officially, resulting in the officers taking matters into their own hands. While I don’t condone the act itself, I believe that this hints the level to which the issue of gang related violence and other such crimes has fallen – there is no justice to be had, so might as well take matters into own hands to ensure that the gangs receive the message loud and clear. Do not mess around with SO officers.

Not much news emerged in an official capacity on what took place afterwards. There was talk of SO officers being shuffled here and there, but we all know that putting up with SO is a ‘necessary evil’ by the government of the day, as long as they want a squad of people who would not hesitate to follow orders and beat citizens up. That is the most apt and fitting description of the squad I can come up with.

The news this morning that some 19 individuals apprehended right after the spate of violence took place have all been released is another such example. According to government aligned newspaper Avas, a love triangle seems to have been the reason over which the violence began in the first place. The chilling, matter of fact account from the anonymous gang related source cited on the paper says as much.

Interestingly enough, the police were quick to deny that the arrests made had been in anyway related to the murders that were committed within a span of just a couple of hours. The “lack of evidence” cited is just one of the many proverbial slaps on the face of the public, something which I believe will continue to happen long into the future. At the time of writing this article, a police news conference brought forth the news that two individuals had been arrested over the murders.

Is there a way out of this mess?

“I have tried to get a real job but I have not had any luck. Being in the gang allows me to earn some money. If I get a proper job I will leave the gang life.” – Gang member
(Rapid Situation Assessment of Gangs in Male’ – report by The Asia Foundation published in 2012)

While it is more than difficult to view the road ahead with any positivity, a “solution” such as the one proposed by the home minister is one doomed to fail. Umar Naseer told in an interview given to Avas that there are plans to send off minors involved in gangs to a police training facility, I believe with the hopes of disciplining these children. An issue that is multi-dimensional in nature requires multi-pronged solutions in order for positive changes to emerge.

  1. First and foremost, if any change is to take place, there has to be political will behind it. No social issue can properly be addressed without the backing of the government in place. Solutions requires funds, commitment and policies that can identify and address the various issues that can emerge and change over time. Which is why, with President Yameen at the government’s helm, it is near impossible to see the incumbent regime doing anything constructive regarding the existence and operation of gangs within the country.
  2. The law enforcement establishments needs overhauling in their entirety. There will never exist room for justice nor peace for the people of the country, as long as the police and the court system continues to trample on the rights of the people enshrined in the Constitution and the laws of the Republic. Changes need to happen from within, from the attitudes of the officers in place to rooting out corrupting influences and practices. Though easier said than done, I believe that reforming these key institutions is a necessity that needs to happen for any positive change take root on the ground.
  3. Developmental policies of the government needs to undergo radical changes if we are to stem the social issues owing to the centralization based developmental agenda that is currently in place. Everyone talks about how Male’ City is overcrowded, how social issues are rampant, how families break apart having to make do in congested one room “apartments”, the rising costs of living, the inequality divide that is prominent. All of this relates back to the fact that majority of the population has to shift to the capital in order to seek for better services in terms of education, basic healthcare and beyond. President Mohamed Nasheed’s decentralization policies were a starting point towards giving authority with accountability to provincial zones within the country – a dream long forgotten now. However, I still believe that decentralization is the key towards alleviating the burden of citizens who flocks to the capital – and along with it, the social issues which in the end leads to establishment and existence of gang related activities within the country.
  4. Education is the most powerful tool in empowering people. Which is why the educated always accuse the incumbent regime of despoiling contemporary education policies that could make a difference. Subjects on morality and ethics, education in terms of best practices in Islam are all lacking in our education syllabuses. Furthermore, identifying those kids who are having trouble in dealing with the school environment, the root cause behind kids who are acting out – all this requires teachers to go beyond their mandate and care about the welfare of their students beyond the borders of the classroom and school. This in turn requires that teachers be equipped with the skills to do so, that counselors employed in schools work with students to make a difference. It is a tough and ofttimes a heartbreaking journey for teachers who give their all to the “difficult” students, but I believe that this indeed would make a difference.
  5. Employment opportunities for the youth are crucial, if we are to keep them gainfully employed without having to resort to activities that are at most illegal in nature. Maldivian youth shy away from menial labor that can be classified under the 3D sectors (dirty, difficult and dangerous jobs such as construction). This is the reason why the government needs to identify areas in which youth would be willing to work in, to step up their efforts in vocational training, and ensure that entrepreneurship thrives and is given a fair chance in the economy. All this requires collaborative effort in terms of agencies specialized in youth, education as well as other sectors that could help pave the way forward.
  6. Family counseling services, as highlighted in the Asia Foundation report is also crucial. The stigma associated with seeking counseling, the policy issues related to giving graduates in the field the room to work and grow is essential. Otherwise, family issues that grows out of hand would continue to fester, leaving behind wounds that might never get the chance to properly heal, if ever. All this relates back to young children turning to the next best thing – gang culture within which they find that sense of belonging that should be nurtured within families.

The solutions outlined are just certain areas that I can think of, which requires proper in-depth study, finances and of course commitment and the backing of the political elites if they are to make a difference. I just hope that the people realize that without any of this changing, our country would become intolerable for the generations of tomorrow, the young ones that we are nurturing to lead this country of ours into the future.