On 23 April 2017, the Maldives was hit by some appalling news. Yameen Rashid, a 29-year old liberal blogger from the capital city Malé, was found in the stairwell of his apartment with multiple stab wounds and was declared dead moments after being taken to a hospital. As later narrated by his grieving father, there were fourteen stab wounds on Yameen’s chest area alone. Two months later, in June, the government announced that it had detained seven people as suspects, but has revealed the identity of only three. As yet, his family and friends remain in the dark about the investigation process.
Yameen ran a blog called The Daily Panic through which he regularly offered satirical commentaries on day-to-day Maldivian politics. In his own words, he used the blog to “satirise the frequently unsatirisable politics of Maldives, and also provide a platform to capture and highlight the diversity of Maldivian opinion.” As tragic irony would have it, ten days before his brutal murder, Yameen shared a Facebook post in remembrance of Mashal Khan, a 23-year old student from Mardan, Pakistan who was lynched to death in April for his critical and secular views.
Yameen belonged to a new generation of young, progressive Maldivians who continually resist the shackles of authority and advocate for a liberal, secular, inclusive democracy. They do not shy away from calling out the state’s abuses of power, despite living in the shadow of an increasingly authoritarian government. According to Yameen’s friend, Azim Zahir, he belonged to that generation, which “[does] not have absolutist beliefs, but [are] uncompromising in their advocacy for human rights.”
No one really knows who killed Yameen, despite the fact that he was receiving threats for the last few years. However, the immediate context of his shocking murder is suggestive. In October 2012, a well-known religious reformist scholar and Member of Parliament, Afrasheem Ali, was stabbed to death in a similar way. Uncannily, he too was found in the stairwell of his building. In August 2014, Ahmed Rilwan, Yameen’s best friend and reporter with the independent news website Minivan News, went missing. His whereabouts remain unknown to this day.
Clearly, something is up in this restive island nation of less than half-a-million people that rarely features in international news cycles.
Yameen’s killing does not appear to be an isolated incident or a random hate crime, but rather part of a systematic attempt to stifle secular, liberal, and progressive views in a country that is rapidly descending into an abyss of religious fundamentalism married to authoritarianism. This decisive shift began in 2012 when it’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Nasheed, was overthrown by a military-backed coup led by the current president, Abdulla Yameen.
The half-brother of former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who ruled the country with an iron fist for 30 years, President Yameen and his administration have been accused, from within and without, of sabotaging the constitutional framework of the Maldives and subverting democratic freedoms to serve vested interests. They also face the charge of having joined hands with radicals and violent fringes to keep their positions of power secure. For those Maldivians who staunchly believe in democracy, individual freedoms, and justice, this is a situation of much despair and hopelessness.
Eleventh Column recently spoke to Hussain Rasheed – Yameen’s aggrieved father – and Shauna Aminath – a close friend, human rights activist, and advisor to former President Mohamed Nasheed – to learn more about the current socio-political situation in the Maldives and the sinister circumstances surrounding Yameen’s brazen murder. Following is an excerpt:
Why do you think Yamin Rasheed was killed?
Hussain Rasheed (HR): Well, I do not know of any enemies of Yamin. Most of the threats that he was getting were in the name of Islam. In Malé, there are certain radicals who are engaged with gangsters. These are the people who threatened Yamin. He had been getting these threats since the last four years, but I did not know about them. One thing that I know is that the police has not taken any action on this case. I don’t know whom to blame: the government, the police, or the radicals. ‘Why is the police so inactive?’ is one question that haunts my mind all the time. The people who threatened Yamin are moving around in Malé freely, even today. Yamin’s work stood for freedom of speech and humanity. So, it must be that those who are against these things killed Yamin.
Shauna Aminath (SA): I strongly feel that Yamin was murdered by an ideology that is sharply on the rise in Maldives. This is not the first time a progressive, tolerant free thinker has been murdered. In 2014, a journalist [Ahmed Rilwan] was abducted, and in 2012, a moderate scholar and MP was murdered in a very similar way. I don’t think its “who killed Yamin?”, but rather “what killed Yamin?”
How free do you think Maldivians are today insofar as the rights to express and dissent are concerned?
SA: The Maldives, I think, is one of the least free countries in the world today. If you talk about individual civil liberties, we enjoy absolutely nothing. Yes, the constitution does guarantee freedoms that a democratic society should have, but the government has suppressed these by clamping down. We no longer enjoy the freedom to assembly, the right to protest, or to freely speak our mind. Media freedom is at its lowest too. So, this is the worst that Maldives has seen in terms of civil liberties, in the post-transition [after 2008] period. When people speak freely about issues that concern them, that becomes defamation. If journalists write about these things, they are slapped with criminal charges. TV stations have been torched, print and online newspapers shut down, simply because they were independent and reported on the opposition.
I don’t think its “who killed Yamin?”, but rather “what killed Yamin?”
Do you think something has changed in Maldives in the last five years in terms of the social and political situation, relative to the past decades?
HR: Yes. Maldives has become a very dangerous place to live in. It is not safe for those who question the state or ideologies sanctioned by the state. I think the situation is changing very fast. The country is not safe for anyone who opens his/her mouth in support of democracy or against the government’s policies and Islam. Several media persons have been attacked. While some were killed, others were gravely wounded.
SA: I think so. The government that came to power in 2008 was cut short in 2012 through a military-backed coup. The first democratically-elected government of Maldives, thus, was usurped based on a politically constructed allegation that it was ‘un-Islamic’ and intended to spread Christianity. Since the utilisation of such values, we have seen greater leeway given by the state to groups who either espouse or sanction views that align with intolerant, extremist, and violent groups. The rhetoric used and the inaction of government officials in response to violent attacks against Rilwan and Yamin led us to question their commitment in preventing further atrocities. Public officials must consistently and outrightly condemn these threats and attacks. There can be no room to justify this violence in any way.
What position have radicals come about to occupy in Maldivian society and politics in the past five years?
SA: Its important to go back to the past 8-9 years to answer that question. What happened in 2008 in Maldives was actually extraordinary – we managed to have our first free and fair elections after 30 years of authoritarian rule. That opening empowered many groups, including ironically, ones that campaign against the values that enabled them to do so. In the midst of political instability, greater globalization of violent extremist ideologies and a coherent national strategy to counter these views, many of these individuals have managed to entrench themselves in national structures and institutions. Interpretations of Islam which have been imported from more conservative states such as Saudi Arabia are now becoming institutionalised while religion is used as a political tool to suppress dissent and ferment intolerance, going so far as to legitimize violence in the name of religion.
HR: Most of the radicals are known to belong to criminal gangs. They come from poor families, are unemployed, and are often dependent on jobs that involve contracted violence. We have heard of government officials who are involved in coordinating criminal gangs, facilitating these kind of activities. Why aren’t they trying to track these illegal sources of funding? They have the resources to do so.
How much public support do you think this government enjoys?
HR: Very little. In the last elections, this government got less than 25% of the votes cast. So, the public is very much opposed to the government. But, they are helpless because the government is supported by the judiciary, military, and police. Most of the state institutions support the government. They are in full control of the parliament, and have even bought off some of the opposition MPs by offering huge amounts of money and property.
Interpretations of Islam which have been imported from more conservative states such as Saudi Arabia are now becoming institutionalised while religion is used as a political tool to suppress dissent and ferment intolerance, going so far as to legitimize violence in the name of religion.
SA: I think this is the least popular government that the Maldives has ever seen. The current president is not a charismatic, compassionate, or visionary leader. In the recent local council elections held on 6 May, his party got less than 24% votes. This is reflective of his unpopularity. If he is a true leader, he must accept the views of the people and their calls for reform, and also release all opposition leaders from prison. He has basically rendered political parties dysfunctional and hijacked the parliament, the judiciary, and other institutions. So, the only way he is surviving is through these institutions that are under his control. He hardly even goes out to meet the people. He wasn’t even elected through a free and fair election, but rather through the intervention of the Supreme Court.
How fair and independent is the Maldivian mainstream media in terms of holding the government to account?
SA: We do have a few journalists remaining who want to tell the real story and not tow the government’s narrative blindly. But most of them are either bankrupt or are under a lot of pressure due to lawsuits, government interventions, and threats to sponsors. This isn’t fair to them, but they are still trying to report independently. In 2015, the government passed a defamation law, which severely restricts their freedom. They are now required by law to reveal their sources. They also get slapped by huge fines if the government deems their content to be defamatory. We have seen a significant reversal in media freedom under this Government.
I think this is the least popular government that the Maldives has ever seen.
What are the major legislative reforms that the government has undertaken in order to consolidate its own position?
SA: The government has enacted a counterterrorism law, under the pretext of which it is going after the political opposition. The people arrested under this law so far aren’t really Islamists or terrorists, but rather, politicians. This law has given the government a lot of power to round up those who criticise the government. Then we have the defamation law that severely restricts press freedom. The government has also amended laws to target specific individuals; for example, it tinkered with the Political Parties Act to make fingerprint records mandatory for all members of every political party. This has actually led to a massive decline in the membership of the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party, which is the largest in Maldives. They have also passed laws to restrict freedom of assembly. Recently, the government filed a case in the Supreme Court seeking to invalidate the Parliament’s role in no-confidence motions against public officials. It has also gone after the Human Rights Commission and the Election Commission, with the Supreme Court having handed down certain ‘guidelines’ to these bodies. In doing these, the government has taken away the fundamental tenets of a democratic system.
Do you see any real hope for justice within a judicial setup that is so deeply linked with the government?
HR: Not at all. Simply because, what the judge reads out is nothing but a diktat from the highest levels of the administration. Its not even written by the judge, that’s what I feel.
So, what do you think is an alternative way to go ahead?
HR: There needs to be a popular government in power, that’s all.
How does the civil society landscape look like in Maldives today?
SA: We don’t have a very strong or vibrant civil society, mainly because there is so much restriction, fear, and intimidation. After 2008, the progressives took an easy ride, and the freedoms for granted. So, this gives us a crucial lesson for any future opportunity of a liberal government coming to power – that progressive civil society needs to work as proactively and fiercely during freer times as it did during suppression. I think media has been very strong in Maldives, although most journalists are not professionally trained. But, they are working really hard. I think we need deeper collaborations with the Indian civil society that is far more experienced and vibrant in order for us to consolidate democracy in Maldives.
How has the so-called international community responded to the political situation in Maldives, especially to the series of brutal killings of liberals?
SA: There has not been a single international organisation that has not been concerned with the situation in Maldives, except for Saudi Arabia and China. The UN Human Rights Commissioner has expressed consistent concern. The American ambassador has also issued a statement, in addition to the British government and European Union (EU). All our like-minded allies and development partners have expressed their concerns. But, I think we need more than just statements – we need active engagement from powerful international actors, who I think can do something in the Maldives. We are less than half a million people; but the issues we face are the same as those in the more visibly volatile parts of the world. Finding a resolution to the Maldives’ is achievable and could lead to lessons for others in similar situation, but it cannot be done through just statements of concern. We expect help from democracies around the world to help us forge a more stable country before its too late. But, I think we are not too far from “too late” already.
I think we need deeper collaborations with the Indian civil society that is far more experienced and vibrant in order for us to consolidate democracy in Maldives.
In October 2016, Maldives withdrew from the Commonwealth, accusing it of interfering in domestic affairs and “unfair and unjust” treatment. Do you think it was wise for the government to do so?
It is extremely disappointing that the government has decided to withdraw from the Commonwealth, further isolating the Maldives from the global community. It affects our image and reputation as a country. There are reasons why international organisations exist. We decide to be part of these organisations to facilitate international cooperation. Although these agreements are non-binding, there are expectations from us – that is to treat our people with dignity, ensure human rights and democratic freedoms guaranteed in our Constitution as well as international law. Failure to do so has made the Maldives a pariah in the international community.
How has the Indian government responded to the killings? What do you expect from it?
HR: Well, India is the largest democracy and the most powerful country in this part of the world. The government of Maldives and its people depend upon India for a lot of things – education, healthcare, imports of consumables, etc. So the Indian government already has a lot of influence on the Maldivian government, and it should use that to have a free and fair election in the country. There are also many ways in which it can help the Maldivian people, who are at the moment suppressed under fear and intimidation. So, the Indian government should do something now, visibly.
Where do you see Maldives in the next ten years?
HR: That’s a difficult question to answer. The Maldivians are peaceful, helpful, and brotherly people. Everyone wants peace in Maldives, and are opposed to radical violence and this government. Since there is so much intimidation inside the country, we need to get help from outside. The ones who are in government jobs, they would be dismissed if they speak against the administration. We really cannot do anything from the inside. If we get help from the outside, I think the radicalism will fade away on its own and Maldives will become a beautiful country in the next ten years.
the Indian government already has a lot of influence on the Maldivian government, and it should use that to have a free and fair election in the country.
SA: The future of a liberal democracy in Maldives is on the knife’s edge at the moment. People of the Maldives clearly want something else, they want a democracy and a more representative form of government. But the authoritarian institutions are so strong that it becomes very difficult to uproot the current political culture. Authoritarianism has brought in a new component – radicalism – which does not use logic to make decisions. This toxic mix of authoritarianism and violent extremism puts us in a very unstable position, which could lead to a serious and irreversible political conflict. However, if we strategically try to uproot the authoritarianism, then we might have a chance at initiating serious political reforms. What is happening in Maldives today has actually never happened before: on one hand we see the rise of authoritarian leadership, and on the other, we see opposition leaders, such as former President Nasheed and former President Gayoom, coming together whom we thought could never unite. I do see some glimpse of hope, but am also uncertain about what could happen because of past experiences.
Interviewed by Angshuman Choudhury.
The transcript of the interview was shared with the interviewees prior to publication.
Featured image taken from Yameen Rasheed’s memorialised Facebook profile.