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

The Insidious Nature of Modern Day Slavery

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Nepali girls recruited into the sex industry in India. Source: Glamour Nepal

Recently one evening in class, a student used the example of modern day slavery to explain a concept, something which the lecturer had a hard time accepting, at least to my observations. When people talk or believe modern day slavery to be something that is nonexistent, I guess the only thing their minds can conjure up is the fact that slavery of the kind that saw the blacks and convicts shackled, bound and collared ended a long time ago. The days when people were sold off as slaves in countries like Australia, and this too in broad daylight in the open market places, that day has perhaps long come and gone. But slavery in itself, it exists in many forms even today, and I do not believe that the concept of enslaving people would ever die out as long as we humans continue to exploit our resources, human and otherwise, in our quest for power and wealth.

Slavery is the concept that drives and thrives in the example of the little Nepalese girl brought to India in the name of giving her an honest wage earning job to make ends meet back at home, the girl who is then sold into prostitution in a bustling city that cares naught how or where the underage child who services you comes from. This girl who finds herself saddled with HIV or some other sexually transmitted disease with devastating consequences, or a pregnancy way before she is past her teens, or most often than not, the whole package deal. The shackles of slavery are what the baby she gives birth to is born with, a life of servitude in the oldest profession in the world, or worse.

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On Child Labor in Philippines – Source: Al Jazeera

What is it other than slavery when child labor is exploited in different parts of the world, for instance in the carpet weaving industry in Turkey, where young and nimble fingers are overworked until they are cracked and bleeding, until their fingers are no longer able to work through the weaves and loops. What can you call the concept of children who are forced into doing dirty, dangerous and difficult jobs such as gold mining in the Philippines where young ones are lowered into pits as deep as 25 meters on a rope, pits where oxygen is pumped in manually, shallower pits not even getting this, which as a result has seen many a death of child laborers through suffocation? What do you call this, but modern day slavery when these children are forced to leave school, leave their childhood behind and start earning their keep for survival?

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Migrant Worker Exploitation. Source: Amnesty International

What do you call the Bangladeshi man for instance, who sells off his assets, mortgages his property and becomes embroiled in a vicious cycle of debt that prevents him from seeking a better life for himself or his family ever again, all because he had to pay off the agent at home who promised him lucrative work in a country like Malaysia or Maldives? He arrives in host country only to find his passport has been withheld, forcing him to work in sectors that provides little or no occupational and safety measures, working for mere pittance in jobs that the locals shun. He is exploited in every single manner possible, churning in a hopeless situation that doesn’t seem likely to improve in countries that look upon their migrant workforce with abject hostility. What do you call this vile form of exploitation where either he dies from a work related accident that could have been prevented, or he returns home years and years later, having finally served off his debt, a broken shell of a man from the one that left, the one who was optimistic that he would be able to turn his family’s luck around.

What should people call most city dwellers caught up in the cycle of “work -> pay rent -> die”; all because they were not lucky enough to be born into the 1% of the families of the world that holds 90% of its wealth? They live their life paycheck to paycheck, not because they spend frivolously, but without having made a frivolous expense all their lives, just surviving in the demands made on the urban poor living in a city that mocks at them with how far they are lagging behind the rest of them.

Modern day slavery may not take place in broad daylight, where auctions are held at the market to sell off little girls and boys into the world of prostitution, whereby they are treated to the ugliest side of human nature, where no one hears their cries for help. Modern day slavery is more insidious and vicious an animal in the way it manipulates, eludes and evades the established systems in place. Majority of us are shielded from this ugly side life here on Earth. Perhaps, the most blatant hypocrisy being that this form of exploitation is even “accepted” when it comes to the capitalist theory of development, where capitalist exploitation of the working class of nations lying on the semi-periphery and periphery are seen as the unnecessary evils of development.

Modern day slavery thrives in every corner of the globe. As consumers, most of us are guilty of contributing to this cycle. Buying that t-shirt manufactured in a barely standing with multiple hazards in existence factory in Bangladesh which might burn down any minute. The love for handwoven carpets that has you buying one at an exorbitant price for your father who loves the intricate designs, only mere pittance of which is paid to the child whose nimble fingers are now no more. Perhaps the gold necklace that you just bought for your wife that contains gold mined by a child whose life has been extinguished by the lack of oxygen in the pit in which he worked more than 12 hours a day; until modern day slavery took away his life, the slavery which some cannot bring themselves to believe exists.

Such is modern day slavery.

Such is the insidious nature of human exploitation at work.

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.

The Politics that Governs Gang Violence

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“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.