It’s unlikely that you’d find a mention of street protests in a tourist guide to the Maldives. Yet, they are an integral part of the country’s fabric and have resulted in a string of social reforms along with at least two regime changes.
But when confronted with one, you are neither prepared for its politics, nor dressed for it. On the night of July 21, this was apparent on the face of the tall, blond tourist wearing khaki shorts and carrying a red surfboard as he abruptly stopped in his tracks.
To his credit, it was indeed a spectacular moment: tens of riot police in blue uniform – a baffling colour for what is apparently camouflage gear – trying to hold a crowd of over 5,000 people from spilling onto the streets, even as the Opposition leaders hurled anti-government slogans from a balcony on the other end.
To each allegation, to all the rhetoric, the audience responded with delirious cries. When the police tried to impose restraint, they were heckled into submission.
Around midnight, the leaders decided to wrap up the event. Go home, they told the audience, but make it using Majeedi Magu, one of the most prominent streets in the Maldivian capital Malé.
The crowd charged into the narrow lane. Nearly a hundred more followed on mopeds, their thumbs jammed on the horn.
By now, the tourist with the surfboard had disappeared. I, however, was beckoned by a kind-faced old man, observing the events from a pavement. He must have assumed that I was a visitor and offered to explain what I had just witnessed. He summarised the frustration palpable on the streets of the capital city that night, yelling into my ears: “Our President no good.”
United they stand
The event had been organised by the Maldives United Opposition, a multi-party Opposition alliance whose explicit agenda is to restore democracy in the Indian Ocean archipelago. The group had declared its existence on June 1.
Members of the alliance allege that the current government, led by President Abdulla Yameen, was a throwback to the dictatorship the country had seen for 30 years till 2008. They point to several instances of the government muzzling the press, misusing the police and judiciary for political vendetta and a rise in religious extremism.
The discord began in 2012 when the first democratically-elected government in the Maldives was overthrown in a police mutiny. Mohamed Nasheed, leader of the Maldivian Democratic Party, was stripped of the presidency. He was eventually arrested, jailed and fled to the United Kingdom earlier this year.
As Yameen came to power in 2013, his peers who had helped oust the Maldivian Democratic Party-government, including former vice presidents Ahmed Adeeb and Mohamed Jameel, former defence minister Mohamed Nazim, and Shaikh Imran, the leader of Adhaalath Party, were systematically sidelined.
Some, like Imran, Adeeb and Nazim were jailed, while Jameel was forced to flee the country.
In June, after these disgruntled forces joined hands and announced the fact in London, the Maldives United Opposition declared that it would take to the streets of Malé to start a protest that would eventually force President Yameen to resign. An interim government consisting of their members would then take charge till the elections of 2018.
The group initially chose July 14 to kick off their protests.
“We had started preparing from the very first day,” said Anas Abdul Satar, secretary general of the Maldivian Democratic Party, based in Malé. A team of volunteers was tasked with reaching out to their supporters over the phone, while the rest launched a campaign on social media and advertised on local television channels.
The team knew it would be difficult to pull off a rally as the government had banned street protests in the capital last year.
Politics of obstructionism
The Opposition alliance’s strategy involved wooing the country’s allies, including India, Sri Lanka and the United Kingdom, for their support and intervention. A rally was thus necessary to secure legitimacy for its efforts.
With a day to go and the permissions for the protests still not forthcoming, the Opposition activists staged a sit-in at the housing ministry. “We told them that we won’t go out of the office until they gave us a response,” said Satar. After two hours, they obtained the permissions in writing. “The next day, the housing minister reversed his decision to grant us the permission saying that the [Maldives United Opposition] is an illegal entity,” said Satar.
Still, the alliance decided to go ahead with the event but heavy rains played spoilsport. The rally was eventually rescheduled for July 21.
Maldives United Opposition spokesperson and independent MP Ahmed Mahloof launched a publicity drive using a pick-up truck draped with banners to go around the city and spread the word.
On July 16, the police intervened and detained him and the driver for “using megaphones without permission”. The next day, Mahloof went without megaphones, only to be detained again for “failing to obtain permits for displaying banners”.
The alliance then changed tack.
“We went with motorcycle squads consisting of around 50 people,” said Satar. “It isn’t easy to arrest individual bikers. On the first day, when they tried to arrest them, the bikers simply turned back and reassembled later.”
While the police eventually eased off, other quarters continued to mount impediments. With two days to go for the rally, the Maldives United Opposition was tipped off that Mahloof would be sentenced to imprisonment for six months the following day for “obstructing police duty”, a charge that ordinarily carries a fine of Rs 50,000.
Faced with losing a key figure of their movement, the alliance hit upon a solution: to record a speech and beam it using a projector on the big day, along with speeches of other exiled members like Mohamed Nasheed.
Taking to the streets
On the night of July 21, Mahloof made the biggest announcement of all during his recorded speech, which was broadcast at the rally. The rally was only the beginning, he said. From now on, there will be nightly protests to “bring an end to the Yameen-government.”
In the meantime, the President’s office responded to the protests saying that the Opposition was a sign that democracy existed in the Maldives.
“An organised opposition will, and should, exist in a working democracy,” said international spokesperson Ibrahim Hussain Shihab. “The demonstrations held recently is a clear example that such democratic space exists in the Maldives.”
Shihab added: “While Malé being an urban hub makes it challenging for demonstrations to go forward on the streets and at centres of high activity; the fact that the relevant state and government authorities facilitated it shows that this administration does not oppose organised opposition activity.”
The nightly protests began from the evening of July 25 from the Maldivian Democratic Party office in Malé.
In what is a familiar routine for protestors, the riot police cracked down minutes after the leaders started addressing the crowd. Their tactics were similar, so were the charges: unauthorised use of loudspeakers and inconvenience to passing traffic. This time, they were far more successful in displacing the crowd.
Ali Zahir, a key member of the Maldives United Opposition and vice-president of the Adhaalath Party, was unruffled. “We have just started our activities and will be steadily increasing pressure in the coming few weeks,” he said. “The opposition consists of leaders with very different ideologies. But in this cause, we stand united.”
All photographs by Omkar Khandekar.