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Maldives: Trouble in paradise
By B Raman

Male, the generally placid capital of the beautiful Indian Ocean nation of Maldives, is yet to recover totally from two days of unprecedented anti-government violence in the streets as well as in the infamous local jail on neighboring Maafushi Island, where many anti-government political dissidents are allegedly often detained without the due process of law and tortured after being branded as ordinary criminals, drug addicts and narcotics smugglers.

Male is a 1.6-kilometer-long island with a population of about 80,000. The Republic of Maldives itself has about 1,200 islands, many of them uninhabited, with an estimated total population of 300,000, the overwhelming majority of them Sunni Muslims.

President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom has been in power since 1978 and is seeking re-election for the sixth time in the presidential elections due this year, for which nominations closed last Friday. In the initial years of his government, he was viewed by his people as a benevolent ruler who tried to modernize the working of the administration, developed tourist infrastructure and made his country into an attractive tourist destination for Westerners. Tourism became its main source of foreign exchange.

In recent years, the perception of his rule by sections of his people has changed from the positive to the negative. He has often been accused by his opponents of stifling the growth of democracy, persecuting political dissidents, suppressing the human rights of his people and ruling through the coercion of the National Security Service (NSS), which performs the role of the police, the armed forces and the intelligence service.

Two years after coming to power, he sought the assistance of India for modernizing the working of the NSS, to which the late Indira Gandhi, the then Indian prime minister, agreed. Some officers of the NSS were trained in the Indian Police and military training establishments in the 1980s. Subsequently, he diversified the sources of assistance and got other officers of the NSS trained in Pakistan and the West. Despite this, its bad reputation as a coercive force that is a law unto itself has remained.

What initially caused the pent-up anger of sections of the people against the government and its much-hated NSS to burst spontaneously into an orgy of street violence was the alleged attempt of the NSS secretly to bury the body of young Hassan Eemaan Naseem on Saturday without informing his relatives about his death. The opponents of the government alleged that he was tortured to death, but government sources claimed that he had died during a disturbance in the prison the previous day.

Somehow, the news of the planned secret burial reached the mother of Naseem, who rushed to the burial ground with a group of his young friends. She forced the NSS men to open the lid of the coffin, which revealed the badly battered body of her young son. The young people accompanying her forcibly took possession of the body from the NSS, paraded it in the streets, had it photographed, and had copies of the photographs disseminated in the capital and through the Internet.

This sparked violent riots involving more than 1,000 people, young and old, during which the office of the election commissioner was burned to the ground, the building of the majlis (parliament) was heavily stoned and seriously damaged, records of the High Court were set on fire, arson attacks were made on two police stations, and many NSS officers were surrounded and beaten up by the rioting youths. An NSS vehicle was overturned and set on fire. Computers from government offices and the High Court were brought out of buildings and smashed.

Police used tear gas and rubber bullets to quell the riots. According to some unconfirmed reports, they also fired on the rioting mob with AK-47 rifles. This and the proclamation of a curfew brought the situation in the capital under control, but when the news of the riots spread to the inmates of the jail where Naseem had died, they went on a rampage and allegedly seized some of the weapons kept in the jail armory, and there was an exchange of fire between the rioting prisoners and their guards.

It is alleged that the NSS repeatedly fired on the prisoners, resulting in at least 25 casualties, some of them fatal. The dead bodies were reportedly buried in the prison itself and the injured were secretly taken from the jail to the Hullule airport by boat and from there airlifted to Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital, for treatment. This was done by the authorities because of fears that if the casualties were brought into Male the situation might get out of control. In fact, when some of the injured in the NSS action in the town and the jail were initially taken to the Indian-donated Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital for treatment, an angry crowd of more than a thousand demonstrated near the hospital.

On Sunday, another angry mob rushed to the local cemetery to prevent the burial of the body of another young person by the name of Abdulla Amin who allegedly had gunshot wounds to the head. President Gayoom visited the cemetery and tried to placate the mob by announcing the appointment of an inquiry committee headed by Abdul Sattar Moosa Didi, who is held in high esteem by the local people, to investigate the deaths of Naseem and Amin.

This did not satisfy the mob because an inquiry into the death of another young prisoner, Ali Shaahir, last January concluded that his death was due to ill health, whereas the opponents of the regime alleged that he had been tortured to death by the NSS. The rioting youth felt that the current inquiry would also be a whitewash and would ultimately absolve the NSS. The suspension and arrest of five members of the NSS by the president and his promise of strong action against those found responsible for the death of the two young persons have not satisfied the youths.

Though no new incidents have been reported since Tuesday, the simmering anger of the people, particularly youths, does not bode well for an early restoration of normalcy. The young people who participated in the riots had been projecting September 20 as Zuvaanunge Honihiru (the Young People's Saturday). The political opponents of the regime, who live in exile in Sri Lanka, Australia and other countries, have alleged a wave of arrests.

According to them, among those arrested as a preventive measure were Jennifer Latheef, a highly educated and popular actress who is the daughter of Mohamed Latheef, a former member of parliament, and Ilyas Hussain, a senior civil servant working in the Ministry of Atolls Administration who was one of the 42 people who had signed a petition to register a new political party in 2000. Ilyas Hussain's sister is married to Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan Maniku, another former member of parliament who has been living in exile in the United States since the 1990s and working for an international organization.

Others allegedly arrested include Ziyaa Abbas, a relative of the president and son of Ibrahim Abbas, a senior government official and a former member of parliament; Maakun Falaah, a local bad character; and Andy, son of a businessman. Ibrahim Abbas is the elder brother of Gayoom's wife, Nasreena Ibrahim.

The Muslims of Maldives are quite conservative and largely untouched by Western cultural influences despite the large tourist traffic from the West, but the society is not mullah-dominated. The small political class has generally been liberal in its attitude. Gayoom himself, who was educated at Al Azhar University of Cairo, was for many years viewed as politically liberal and modern in his outlook, but in recent years he has been increasingly insensitive to the aspirations and demands of young Maldivians and intolerant of criticism.

Despite the visits of an increasing number of Maldivians to Pakistan for studying in the madrassas (religious schools) there, one has not come across any reports of the sprouting of religious fundamentalism in the country. But if the demands of the people, particularly the youth, for more democracy and better observance of human rights continue to be ignored, the youth may start drifting toward religious extremism.

B Raman is additional secretary (retired), Cabinet Secretariat, government of India, and currently director, Institute for Topical Studies, Chennai; former member of the National Security Advisory Board of the government of India. E-Mail: He was also head of the counter-terrorism division of the Research & Analysis Wing, India's external intelligence agency, from 1988 to August 1994.
Sep 26, 2003


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