Democracy between a rock and a hard place

Following her participation at a CHRI mission to The Maldivian capital late last year, Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena assesses the political situation in this troubled island nation, drawing comparisons with her own Sri Lankan homeland and calling on the Commonwealth to speak out.

The signs are unmistakeable. Defensiveness edged with barely veiled annoyance underlies the responses of Maldivian ruling party officials as they respond to concerns regarding the Rule of Law in the Indian Ocean archipelago.
A sense of déjà vu
There is a sense of déjà vu in the experience. The resistance brings back disquieting personal memories of life under the Rajapaksas in Sri Lanka. That same instability seething under a deceptive surface of normalcy is now evidenced in the Maldives.
As the country is gripped by political repression, troubled Maldivians cling to the idea that somehow, some day, things will change. In a charged conversation during a mission of the New Delhi-based Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) to Malé in November 2015, one lawyer remarked in a hushed aside: ‘We look at Sri Lanka’s example in dealing with its rulers and hope that we can do the same.’
But matters are not so uncomplicated in both our countries, I hasten to add. The mere fact of regime change in Sri Lanka has not necessarily meant a miraculous turn for the better. Indeed, we are only now slowly awakening to the unpalatable fact that changing an entrenched culture of impunity requires far more than an election victory or two on a given day.
Commonalities and differences

The oppression of Tamil and Muslim minorities and marginalised Sinhalese extends far beyond the cripplingly autocratic Rajapaksa years. Transforming the aberrant Sri Lankan state is an agonisingly slow process. Since the 2015 elections, the political leadership has faltered in enlightened leadership, giving way to nepotism and corruption in its ranks. A promise made to the United Nations to establish a war crimes tribunal with ‘international participation’ to examine accountability questions during the Northern war has made this task even more complex. A communalistic Rajapaksa backlash, emboldened by the evident difficulties of Sri Lanka’s 2015 ‘rainbow revolution’, is looming in the shadows.


PARADISE LOST: The strong bonds between the 'paradise isles' of The Maldives and Sri Lanka are under strain
PARADISE LOST: The strong bonds between the ‘paradise isles’ of The Maldives and Sri Lanka are under strain

There are, of course, obvious points of departure between Sri Lanka and the Maldives, the strongest being the relatively recent emergence of the latter from feudal patriarchy. The Maldivians have a tenuous experience of democracy in contrast to Sri Lanka’s developed legal and constitutional antecedents. But some commonalities are striking, not least of which is the ‘managing’ and manipulation of internal turbulence in small island states by regional and international big powers. The tug of war between India and China and the strategic interests of the United States in the Indian Ocean has significant pressure points in Colombo and Malé.
Worry over the increased Chinese ‘footprint’
Exceedingly affronted by the docking of Chinese submarines in Colombo harbour amidst largesse flowing from Beijing to Colombo under the Rajapaksas, India appeared to be reassured by the transfer of power in 2015 to a seemingly less China-friendly government, a process in which India itself had more than a particular stake.
Indeed, the pendulum appears now to be teetering from one extreme to the other to the consternation of the Sri Lankan people. The latest controversy to envelop Colombo is a proposed Economic and Technology Cooperative Agreement (ECTA) with India. The secretiveness of the discussions has incensed Sri Lankan professionals led by the influential medical lobby, who argue that the country’s service sector will be overrun by incompetent foreign professionals. If the Sri Lankan government continues to grossly mismanage the dispute, this has all the makings of a mass agitation with potential social destabilisation.
This same regional power-play is evidenced in The Maldives. An increased Chinese ‘footprint’ in the archipelago has begun to worry the Indian government. The Maldivians have taken generous Chinese investment in their stride. Indeed, a recent amendment to the property laws allowing foreign ownership of land subject to particular conditions was passed without much protest, despite dark hints that this was aimed at further enabling Chinese assets.
All is not well in paradise
In the midst of the games that powerful nations play, it is the people who suffer most. Effusively described in tour brochures as the Indian Ocean’s paradise isles, Sri Lanka and the Maldives share strong bonds, not the least of which is the appealing nonchalance with which many Maldivians regard Sri Lanka as their second home. That affinity seems to be the first victim of pronounced strains between Colombo and Malé with the arrest of a Sri Lankan national for alleged complicity in an assassination bid on President Abdulla Yameen late last year.
In turn, the Sri Lankan government increased scrutiny of Maldivians entering the country with acerbic statements calling upon Malé to exercise greater restraint. Three individuals alleged to have hired the Sri Lankan sniper have been (reportedly) released by the Criminal Court due to the absence of credible evidence. No official explanation was given as to the evidentiary basis behind the suspects’ arrest in the first place.
The arbitrariness of these actions encapsulates the failure of the Rule of Law. In the absence of developed criminal justice laws and procedures, confidence in the Maldivian legal process has plummeted to abysmal depths. The grotesquely staged ‘trial’ of former president Mohammed Nasheed lacked basic fair process safeguards. Presidential paranoia became aggravated after the arrest of former vice president Ahmed Adeeb following the failed assassination attempt, with show trials of the vice president and his supporters. Journalists critical of the Yameen regime routinely testified to threats which were disregarded by the police.
Systemic failures of the justice system
As the CHRI mission report Searching for a Lost Democracy, launched from London in February 2016, notes: ‘The Commonwealth’s core value of separation of powers is not respected in the Maldives’ (page 4). Many interviewees, including former judges, opined that the executive, the legislature and the judiciary do not act independently. There is judicial overreach, with contempt notices issued against lawyers who incur the wrath of politically compromised judges.
In a bizarre development, the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives (HRCM) was found by the Supreme Court to have acted ‘unlawfully’ in questioning the independence of the judiciary in a periodic report submitted to the UN Human Rights Council. In the face of this onslaught, the independence of oversight bodies has wilted
These systemic failures are accompanied by the rapid radicalisation of once easygoing Maldivian society, with attacks carried out on secular bloggers and moderate opinion makers. Maldivian journalist Ahmed Rilwan Abdulla has been missing since the middle of last year. Absent an effective counter-strategy by Malé, religious conservatism on the remoter atolls has become pronounced. Women are its first victims through flogging and the introduction of other Sharia punishments. Meanwhile a disconcertingly high percentage of disaffected Maldivian youth belonging to criminal gangs that operate with political patronage have joined the al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State. And the numbers are not going down.
The Commonwealth should not be silent
The problems that the Maldivian citizenry currently face are not necessarily limited to a particular political regime, even though matters may be infinitely worse under the current leadership. As an editor of a national daily observed to me, ‘We have become cynical of the government and the opposition; both are viewed with a degree of suspicion.’ In the final instance, however, the Maldivian people may need to opt for the greater or the lesser devil, as opposed to making a more luxurious choice between the known devil and the unknown angel. This is a dilemma which their Sri Lankan neighbours are also facing, though in a somewhat different factual context.
Meanwhile, as the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) meets in London in February, the Maldives is prominently on its agenda. But the Commonwealth’s record of standing up for its core values is not reassuring. The Rajapaksa presidency’s exuberant hosting of the 2013 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, even while acting completely contrary to fundamental democratic norms, is one illustrative example.
One hopes that this distasteful precedent of Commonwealth inaction in the face of open authoritarianism will not be repeated.

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