Thursday, August 13, 2009

Celebrating Black Friday anniversary with freedom

I am celebrating the fifth anniversary of the Black Friday with freedom. There was no joy in the past four anniversaries as we were living under tyranny. Lets resolve on this day to never let our country slip back to tyranny.

Black Friday: Flashback to a crackdown


Tuesday, October 7, 2008

I am voting for Anni

I am voting for Mohamed Nasheed (Anni), not because he is dubbed as the 'Mandela of Maldives' but because he is the candidate from the largest political party in the Maldives, which has won the hearts and minds of thousands of Maldivians. I am voting for Anni because I can see a logic in the five pledges made by MDP -- the five pledges that are symbolically embodied in the five petals of the campaign logo temple flower -- and see that there is immense public support for the promises made by MDP.

I am voting for Anni because I have travelled to different atolls in the Maldives and have seen the suffering of the people as they dwell in 'locked islands' having to pay their savings for a boat trip to the nearest hospital. I am voting for Anni because I have sensed long before this campaign started that we need a sound transportation network to connect the islands. I have visited rural areas of several South Asian countries, and seen how easy and affordable it is to travel using a public transportation system. We boast of having the highest per capita income in the region but we lack even a basic public transportation system.

I am voting for Anni because I believe poor people with low incomes should not have to beg to raise money to undergo a basic operation. I am voting for Anni because I believe our young people should not be school dropouts and end up as heroin addicts on streets. I am voting for Anni because I believe we should have a better and decent life than living in the congested and crowded Male' with sky high prices, or living in poverty-stricken islands with only paracetamol tablets in the pharmacy, or some islands without a pharmacy at all.

All candidates are promising us to take us to new heights. However, I don't believe they are sincere promises. I have some faith in MDP. I don't agree with all their policies or all the strategies they have used in the past three years. However, I believe MDP is better than the rest, and with the grassroots support, they can transform this nation if they are willing to do it.

I will always remain a critic. If we see dictatorial tendencies under an MDP government I will be among the first dissidents to oppose it. If we see an MDP government fooling the people like the current regime did for the past 30 years, I will be among the first to start the work to topple it. But at the moment I am giving MDP my vote. Just like the thousands of people who gathered at Artificial Beach Monday night, hoping for a better tomorrow and hoping for a country where justice prevails and poverty is reduced, I will be voting for Anni.

I admire Anni, not just because he spent 18 months in solitary confinement in a small cell in the 90s. I admire him because after being imprisoned several times, he had the courage to face the regime again and again and work for democracy in the Maldives. I admire him because he did not accept a high government post afterwards, or start a business offering shares to a cabinet member. I admire him because he could have had a luxurious life but sacrificed the prime of his youth for us. I admire him as a fearless journalist who brought the cabinet ministers down to ground through his sharp interviews. I admire him because he is a writer like me, a dissident like me, and a critic like me.

But on Wednesday, when I cast my vote, it will not be because Anni is the 'Mandela of Maldives', but because the common conscience of the country is calling for change, and destiny has placed Anni as the leader to take us to The Other Maldives.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Black Friday: flashback to a crackdown

Four years ago on this day I was standing on the Republican Square, among thousands of people gathered, to demand democracy, freedom and justice. We have come a long road since then, we have achieved much, but the amended constitution in itself will not provide us with freedom. We have more work to do to save our country from greed, violence, intolerance and injustice. On 13 August 2004, I left the Republican Square around 2.00 pm, having spent a large part of the previous night and Friday morning there. I left because I wanted to write an article to update concerned people abroad on the events unfolding in Male'. News of the crackdown came just as I was finishing the article. Had I been there on the square at that time, I may have been arrested, beaten and tortured by the brutal National Security Service. I was lucky. I was also fortunate enough to send the article to Maldives Culture, minutes before the internet service was shut down in a desperate attempt to salvage the regime of Gayoom. My article, published anonymously in Maldives Culture, provides a detailed eyewitness account of what happened on Black Friday in 2004.

What started as a vigil at the Republican Square in Male' at dusk on Thursday turned into a mass gathering of people demanding for democratic reform, release of detained political prisoners, resignation of cabinet ministers and resignation of President Gayyoom himself. However, in a nasty twist in this tale, NSS used tear gas to quel the protest, the riot police beat the gathered protestors and arrested a number of reformists.

A group of pro-reform activists gathered at the Republican Square in protest against the detaining of five reform activists. They were mainly maintaining a vigil for Mr Mohamed Yoosuf (Fulhu) who was detained inside Shaheed Hussain Adam Building, where Police Headquarters is located. The building faces the Republican Square.

Fulhu was released on Thursday evening but the people demanded the release of four other activists who were detained in Dhoonidhoo detention centre near Male'. Ahmed Adam and Abdul Rasheed were arrested after the police raided their photocopy shop on 9th August. Firshan Ahmed Zahir and Hussain Rasheed were arrested on 10th August, reportedly after they responded to an intimidation by a police officer by saying police had no right to act like that.

By early morning of Friday, a large crowd had gathered near the Republican Square demanding the four detainees to be transferred to Male' and released.

The government tried to negotiate with the people, by talking to some pro-reform MPs. The government then gave in to the demands of the people and brought the four prisoners to Male' and released them.

When a government spokesman announced this, the crowd reminded that there were more political prisoners detained. They called for the release of Naushad Waheed, and the people detained regarding Sandhaanu; Ahmed Didi, Mohamed Zaki and Fathimath Nisreen.

The government spokespeople then tried to calm the crowd by addressing them through loudspeakers. When Ilyas Ibrahim, Minister of Transport, tried to calm the crowd, they called him a thief. They reminded him that he had taken millions of dollars from Fisheries Projects Implementation Department (FPID).

Brigadier Moosa Jaleel was also among the people who tried to calm the crowd in vain. People's Special Majlis member Gasim Ibrahim also tried to calm the crowd but the people were getting restless and his voice was not heard above the voice of the reformers.

People's Special Majlis member for Male', Ibrahim Ismail (Ibra) then told the crowd that the government was considering the demands of the people. He called for patience. Ibra, who was standing in front of the NSS Headquarters, then proceeded to the flag-mast in Republican Square, where a large flag is hoisted. To calm the crowd, NSS allowed their loudspeaker system to be taken there.

Ibra once again called for non-violence, peace and patience. He asked the crowd what their demands were, and they responded by calling for the release of Naushad Waheed and the Sandhaanu prisoners, and the resignation of a number of cabinet ministers. Ibra assured the crowd that the people's demands were conveyed to the government and that he will try to mediate and achieve a solution.

Brigadier Moosa Jaleel from NSS also assured the people that their demands were being sent to the government and the people will be told about the decisions of the government.

A number of pro-reform activists then started addressing the crowd through the loudspeaker system. They included Ismail Asif, Zuhaira and Fulhu. The crowd continued voicing their demands including the resignation of State Minister for Defence Anbaree Abdul Sattar, Commissioner of Police Adam Zahir and Gayyoom himself.

The crowd were determined not to resort to violence but their peaceful protest was continuously disrupted by mob groups hired by Trade Minister Abdullah Yameen, who is a brother of Gayyoom. Those were the same groups that tried to disrupt the peaceful gatherings at Lonuziyaaraiykolhu at Male'.

At one time, a group came towards the flag-mast and the platform there, and tried to pull down the flag. The protesting crowd shouted their firm opinion that the Maldivian flag in the Republican Square should not be pulled down. After a brief verbal fight, the mob backed off.

The GSM mobile phone service was also stopped during the protest but was resumed after the crowd called for the service to be resumed.

Contrary to some reports, Naushad Waheed and Sandhaanu prisoners have not been released. The government had announced that they were considering the demands of the public to release them. However, Naushad Waheed, who is detained in Male' at the time, joined the crowd and detailed the torture he and fellow prisoners went through in jail.

Sandhaanu prisoner Ahmed Didi also joined the crowd and started addressing them. Didi said he heard about the unrest in Male' and came to Police Headquarters and asked them what he should do and that he was willing to stay in a cell. He said they told him to join the crowd. He explained the torture he and fellow prisoners went through and the reasons for the publishing of the Internet newsletter Sandhaanu.

Didi addressed the crowd several times. As dawn arrived, the crowd stayed in the Republican Square, firm in their resolve to bring democracy to Maldives.

Fathimath Nisreen, the girl who was imprisoned for her alleged participation in publishing Sandhaanu, also addressed the gathered people. She denied that she had any involvement in publishing Sandhaanu and said the reason for her jail sentence is calling Gayyoom 'a Pharaoh'. Nisreen also highlighted that the constitution of the Maldives gives arrested people the right to get legal assistance from lawyers but that she and other Sandhaanu prisoners were denied their right for legal consultation. She also challenged police investigator Abdulla Riyaz to come into the crowd and give a single evidence for her alleged participation in Sandhaanu. Nisreen's jail sentence of ten years was halved recently and she was banished to an island in Faafu Atoll, but she was in Male' when this protest started.

While Nisreen was speaking, NSS tried to disrupt the gathering by using a dirty trick. A group of uniformed NSS servicemen climbed the platform and the crowd shouted at them to go back. They stayed and the some of the gathered people started to run towards them. Using this commotion as a distraction, the Yameen-sponsored mob climbed the platform and hijacked it.

They could not stay there long and backed off once again. The mob went running around in another part of the Republican Square chanting their support for Gayyoom.

Another trick on the part of NSS was played by Chief of Staff Major General Mohamed Zahir, who tried to grab the loudspeaker system after pretending to address the crowd. However, he could not succeed and had to flee the scene from an increasingly restless crowd.

When the time for Friday prayers came, the crowd tried to perform the prayer in the Republican Square so that the crowd will not be dispersed. Sheikh Fareed was to lead the prayers.

The NSS kept reminding the people to go away from the scene. NSS Headquarters is also situated next the Republican Square. A cabinet meeting was supposedly going on inside the NSS Headquarters to discuss the demands of the public. The reform activists urged the crowd to stand their ground, and stay firm in their protest.

The mob once again came to assist the crumbling regime of Gayyoom. This time they started threatening Sheikh Fareed so that he and some supporters had to leave the area. The prayers could not be performed in the Republican Square. As the men went for prayers in the nearby Islamic Centre, the women guarded the microphones and loudspeakers. Even though the reformist crowd outnumbered the mob, they were committed to continue their protest without resolving to violence.

The mob consists of groups that usually represent sports teams in the country such as BG and Maziya. The members of 'Galolhu Kanmathi' are also part of this mob. Yameen and his buddies have supposedly paid huge sums for the mob. Madih and Shah Ismail, two people who control the BG group, were seen in the area during noon and after instructing the mob to threaten Sheikh Fareed, 'the bosses' were seen leaving the area.

Also leading the mob activities is Ali Suzeyn, coach of Victory Sports Club football team. Suzeyn is also a member of 'Galolhu Kanmathi' and joined the Gayyoom's BBC-bashing in 2003 after BBC aired reports of Gayyoom's totalitarian rule in Maldives.

After the prayers, Ahmed Didi once again started addressing the crowd. Calls for the resignation of Gayyoom is increasing. The government still refused to announce anything concerning the demands of the people.

Even though the NSS had assured the protesters that they will not shoot at the crowd and nobody will be arrested concerning the event, it was a completely different tale at the 2.00 p.m. news on TVM. The government said only a small crowd had gathered and caused disharmony at the Republican Square, the people who caused this had been noted and that action will be taken against them.

The helpless situation prompted the regime to use a very dirty trick in its sleeve. It encouraged a very young group of people to come and throw bottles and such stuff towards the Police Headquarters. The protesters tried to calm this group but they could not. It is believed that this group is part of the mob paid by Yameen. Using this commotion as an excuse, the riot police pounced on the protesters, beat them brutally with truncheons and arrested a number of protesters. Most of the protesters who were taken in were those who tried to calm down the young group.

Women were also beaten with truncheons and they sustained severe injuries. Ambulances are rushing to the hospital with casualties.

Tear gas was used at about 3.00 p.m. Now the sounds of sirens fill the capital city and the people are once again faced with uncertainty and fear from the brutal regime of Maumoon Abdul Gayyoom.

Monday, February 25, 2008


There she was, standing among the thousands gathered. She was one out of thousands, but I could clearly see her, the crimson rays of the morning sun casting a glow on her face, dark straight hair half-concealed by a scarf.

It has been almost a year since I last saw her. She must be back for a holiday. She does not recognize me now; my physical appearance has changed considerably over the years. Apart from that I have grown so thin and my friends always notice this and some of them are bold enough to ask if I am into drugs. Day by day I am shrinking; the years of frustration and suppression have shrunk my mind.

I had this urge to go and speak to Hana. But I refrained, restrained myself, and mingled with the crowd. I felt hungry but despite the hunger pangs I stayed. It was like an intoxication, staying there within the crowd, listening to the speakers, discussing with friends and sometimes shouting.

The previous night the crowd looked like a sea, each person in the gathering like a ripple moving across the water. We joined the shouts of others calling to free Sandhaanu writers. It was the first time that I felt the overwhelming power of the gathering. We felt we were in charge, demanding justice, calling for the freedom of fellow citizens. We were standing in front of the NSS Headquarters, the sinister and gory building, the epitome of torture, and we were shouting without fear, without any hesitation, for the release of political prisoners such as Naushad. I felt energy flow right through me, adrenaline increasing.

What was the crime of the Sandhaanu writers? They were just expressing their thoughts, writing what they felt, just like I am doing right now. What they did was for the benefit of us all, for a better and just society, and did they deserve to be locked up and jailed?

Dawn at Republican Square that day had a surreal feel. Many of us had not slept and were deeply thinking about how things would unfold. Many people were coming and joining us, alerted by the news. When the first rays of the morning fell on the square there were more than 5,000 people gathered there. Most of them expecting something good to happen that day.

It was just like a dream; things were moving as if in slow motion, as if it was a movie. The past few weeks could have been scenes from a movie. The debates, the gatherings at Lonuziyaaraikolhu and the protests. The night the Defence Ministry banned the gatherings at Lonuziyaaraikolhu there were more people there. People were in a defiant mood and freedom was in the air.

We listened to Sandhaanu writer Ahmed Didi speaking. He was very weak from his days of captivity but he had an inner strength, a defiance, which was carried in his voice. He was an inspiration to us all, a symbol of human patience and sacrifice enduring torture and suppression.

Across the Republican Square another group, armed with microphones and loudspeakers, were chanting their support for the regime. This was quite understandable; a tyranny built over years will not collapse without a fight. That mob had tried to fuel violence previously, once trying to bring down the large flag in the square. They came and harassed us now and then, but we were committed to our non-violent protest.

I thought about Hana and the 1990s. In 1994 Aminiyya School organised a carnival to mark its Golden Jubilee anniversary. Each night there was music. We mingled with the crowd there, quite carefree, watching the girls and listening to the music. During those days there were things to expect, and most of the time I was looking for Hana.

I thought about the early 1990s and how life was so different back then. Drugs were not as widespread as now. It had not enslaved the young generation back then. Zero Degree Atoll had released their Dhoni album. More tourists were coming to Maldives. More dollars were flowing in. The economy was in a boom. Thinking of those days I believe that Gayoom could have avoided the mess he is in now.

Intellectually we were suppressed even then. The freedom movement of 1990 was crushed. Sangu, Hukuru and Manthiri, popular magazines of dissent, were prematurely aborted. If Gayoom had opened up the society more, distributed the wealth more equally, curbed corruption and allowed more freedom, he would not have faced the dissent that is squeezing him today.

Almost before noon I saw a group of girls arrive. Among them was Ana. It had been a long time since I last saw her. She is from the new generation. The lost generation. Like many girls of her generation she smokes. For some of them it stands for the empowerment of girls. For some it is merely an escape. I am not sure if she is into drugs or not. I rarely see her on the streets these days. I think her parents are locking her up.

All parents with adolescent boys and girls are full of stress. They are at a loss as to how to keep their children away from all the vice that is slowly leading to a social breakdown. Sex is so free. Drugs are abundant. The jails are full of drug addicts. There is no room in the rehabilitation centre to accommodate more addicts. Heroin. It's the new religion.

It is not love that I feel for Ana. There is a physical attraction. Ana was very beautiful standing there in the Republican Square, in an olive green t-shirt, black jeans, hair tinted. There is something delicate about her and I don't want her to turn into a heroin addict.

Do I love Hana? Yes. After all those years, even now. I wonder if Hana is married now, whether she has settled down after all those turbulent years. On second thought marriage does not become a salvation here. The country is already in world record book for having the highest divorce rate.

I wonder what went wrong between me and Hana in the 1990s. And I wonder what went wrong with the whole country in the 1990s. I remember the Zero Degree Atoll's Dhoni show, so many of us inside the social center, listening to Nashid sing and Mohoj on guitar.

"Othakas maa kandu hithakah libifaa,

Atha, viha, nora, dhosha nakathun nubalaa

thariyaa burujaa ragalhah nufilaa

Aruvaa jahamun dhathurah nufuraa"

After the show some of my friends were rolling some joints. They have outgrown their addiction now and I am very happy for them. Back then it was relatively easy; they did it very openly. But now the society is more aware of drugs, and this awareness is leading us nowhere.

By noon the warnings from NSS became harsher. An NSS man was stabbed in the morning. I suspected something foul in the air. The mob was coming again and again to try to disrupt the gathering. I felt hungry, sleepy and my legs felt weak. But my mind was alert as if it had woken up from a century's sleep. After the Friday prayers more people gathered. Then the crowd became thin. Maybe they were leaving, hours of fatigue and hunger overcoming their resolve. Or maybe they would join again after a short break.

A young mob hurling stones at NSS buildings. Young people who became prey to drugs, mentally programmed, ready to dance to the tunes of the regime. Green uniforms. Tear gas. Sticks and batons. Maniacs. Men and women screaming. Running. Scared. Running for their lives.

I have not seen Hana or Ana since the Black Friday. Many women were taken, beaten, tortured and sexually abused. Several children were brutally beaten.

Hana is studying nursing. In one or two years she will return. Maybe by then things will be different. Maybe by then we will need people like Hana to dress our wounds, to put the bandages and to care for the injured. The whole nation is wounded; the scars will remain forever.

Note: This is an attempt at short story writing. This fictional story was based on real life experience at Republican Square on 12-13 August 2004. The story was published in more than a year ago. Photos by unknown photographers.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Gayoom's Regime Makes fun of Hinduism and Buddhism

The Maldives converted to Islam from Buddhism in 1153 AD. A large number of Buddhist places of worship were destroyed and mosques were built. Even though there were pockets of resistance from Buddhists in major centres of worship such as Gan of Laamu Atoll, the King in Male' defeated them and eventually the whole country converted to Islam. Some monasteries remained and they are regarded today as historic sites even though the mismanagement of the government has led to the destruction of several sites and loss of relics.

Even though there is no evidence at all to indicate that Buddhism survived in Maldives and monks were groomed generation after generation, the people in Male' received a shock on 3rd November when they saw three 'monks' walking on certain streets in the Maafannu ward of Male'. The young men were dressed in saffron robes and they carried an umbrella with them. It was not clear whether those 'monks' were Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh or Jain.

Hindu and Buddhist monks wear saffron robes. Saffron colour has significance to Buddhists, Sikhs and Jains as well. But the colour is more visible in Hindu flags, robes, Tilaka (mark applied on the forehead) etc. The colour is of significance to all religions branched from Hinduism. It is a militant colour for the Sikhs representing fight against injustice. The origin of usage of saffron as a religious colour is traced back to the time when pigments were rare and saffron colour was derived from the saffron plant which grows in the sub-Himalayan regions. Rarity of saffron could have pushed its value upwards. At the time of Buddha the robes were of saffron colour. But in China only the Emperor was allowed to wear that colour and the monks wore grey or black robes. Since the saffron-coloured dye wasn't available in Tibet, the Tibetan monks started wearing robes of a dark saffron or maroon.

The three young men were not aspiring monks but they were there to provoke the crowd that had gathered near the residence of Mohamed Nasheed, the Chairperson of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), who was transferred to house arrest recently after spending over two months in detention. The crowd had gathered to shake hands with Nasheed, popularly known as Anni, as it was the day of Eid and it was a Muslim tradition to shake hands. Anni was arrested on August 12, 2005 while he was sitting quietly, with a few others, in the Republican Square in Male' as a vigil to mark the anniversary of a demonstration that took place there the previous year. The ruling regime has proceeded to charge Anni with terrorism and treason, charges which many people believe to be fabricated.

Before the morning of Eid, Anni was informed by police that he was not permitted to go down to the ground floor of his apartment building to shake hands with supporters. Anni was warned that he will be transferred to Dhoonidhoo Detention Center again if he is suspected of creating unrest.

“The whole thing is totally ridiculous and highly comical,” Anni told Minivan News. “Woody Allen would say it is a travesty of a mockery!”

Perhaps Anni was not aware of the extent that the mockery will go.

As supporters flocked to the residence of Anni in the morning they received the news and reacted with anger. Many supporters opted to stay there as more people gathered. To provoke the crowd, the regime first sent young boys on motorbikes who sped through the crowd. The appearance of the three 'monks' was a further step by the ruling regime to provoke the people.

The current regime in Maldives, which has been in power for 27 years, has used naive young people to create unrest and to jeopardize peaceful protests in recent months. In early October a march calling to free Anni was interrupted by thugs sponsored by the regime who beat two journalists at the scene. Often brown sugar addicts are also lured into the regime's nasty schemes.

The young people pretending to be monks were dressed in saffron robes because the colour of MDP is golden yellow. As opposition websites had urged people to wear yellow when they go to shake hands with Anni, this was a deliberate mockery of MDP.

However, the regime did not realize that by using the sacred colour of Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and Jains and dressing the young people as monks and parading them on the street to mock MDP, they were also mocking the religions practiced by millions of people in neighbouring countries.

The young 'monks' did not show any qualities of the real monks but they were acting as street thugs. This was a mockery of the said religions which are practiced in several friendly countries including India. Ironically it was the Indians who rescued the Gayoom regime from Tamil terrorists when they attacked the country on a 3rd of November seventeen years ago.

It is sad that this shameful display of arrogance occurred on a day of Eid, a special occasion in which Muslims show tolerance and unity.

Note: This is one of the articles I had written and was published in Minivan News on November 6, 2005.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Workers of All Atolls, Unite!

A wave of red and yellow flowed through the main road of Male', the capital city of a country at crossroads, lifting the spirits of thousands of people and bringing hope to a population that has been suffering for too long.

May 1, 2006, will go down in history as a day of hope. The first May Day ever marked in the history of Maldives ended with jubilation for thousands of people who gathered and marched on the streets. Part of the success of the rally can be attributed to the sheer number of people it attracted and due to the fact that it came to an end without violence or confrontations with the police.

Workers from Male' Port area started the march from their work area, clad in red t-shirts, carrying banners and waving the national flag. Simultaneously, members of Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) and supporters, who were gathered at the southwestern harbour of Male', started the march waving yellow flags and banners. The two groups converged at the western end of Majeedhee Magu, the main road of Male', and marched eastwards. Initially, the two groups were separated by hundreds of people on motorbikes, joining the rally. Eventually, the two groups joined together, the national flag with its predominant red colour, intermingling with the yellow hues of MDP.

It was a perfect union, of people who aspires for change. MDP was celebrating May Day with a rally to lobby for better labour rights and improved working conditions in the Maldives. Both the workers from the port area and MDP members called for a minimum wage to be introduced, and for Maldives to join the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

The workers from the port area, who work long hours for a meager wage, need radical improvements in their working conditions. They want Friday to be off. Despite Friday being a holiday for most Maldivians, those workers have to toil in the port area on Fridays. They argue they too have families and need time free from work. They want a number of bureaucratic hurdles placed in front of them to be removed so that they could enjoy better work conditions. They complain about lack of basic facilities in the port area. Even drinking water and toilet facilities are not widely available according to them.

They say work safety is below expectations in their work environment. Mohamed Haneef, who works in the port area, told Minivan Daily that sometimes containers are carried over workers heads using forklifts. Such work habits have led to accidents in which containers fell on people and caused injuries, according to Haneef.

The area in which those workers work is commonly known as Customs Area, even though Maldives Ports Authority has control over the area. Some people refer to those workers as 'Customs Workers' but they are not employed by Maldives Customs. The nature of their work is intricately linked to clearing cargo that arrives at Male' Port. Some of them are lorry drivers, some load the cargo to the lorries, and unload them at warehouses in different locations of Male'. Before the formation of Maldives Ports Authority, it was the Customs which had control over the area for decades, and the name 'Customs Area' is still used by several people as a relic of those days.

Workers at Male' Port or Male' Commercial Harbour, as it is officially known, are very much dependent on one another. Customs officers, Ports Authority staff and staff from the 'security forces' are to be present when a container is opened and its cargo inspected. Port Security is to be alerted before cargo can pass through the gates of the port.Yet the soul of the Port may as well be the labourers, the lorry and pickup truck drivers, who work there for long hours. They keep the port in motion. As most government officials in the port area such as Customs officers work on shift duty, government offices in the area are able to continue work even after 8.00 pm without unnecessary pressure on workers.

However, the labourers have to work from morning to late night. They argue that the government offices such as Customs and Ports Authority are indirectly forcing the independent labourers to work long hours by having their own staff on duty even after 8.00 pm and having the port open to cargo clearance services. Similarly, a Customs officer, who works on shift duty and gets off-days during the week, may not show any reluctance to report to work on a Friday. On the other hand, the labourers do not get a break throughout the week and are forced to work even on Fridays.

The high living costs of Male', and the low wages they earn, force the workers to remain chained to this oppressive work environment. The lure of the currency is too good to miss. The tyranny of poverty has made them helpless. Nevertheless, the workers at the port area have been very vocal in demanding their rights. Minor protests have already brought some improvements to the work conditions, even before they burst into national limelight on Labour Day, sweeping into Male' as a wave of red.

The workers want a Labour Union to be formed to voice their complaints, anguish and fears. The government is known to block such initiatives through red tape. However, this time the government should better listen, because the workers vow to continue protests till they achieve what they demand.

Workers have been instrumental in bringing drastic political changes throughout the world. The mutiny on Potemkin in June 1905 was one of the crucial factors that led to the eventual fall of Tsar Nicholas II in Russia. The mutiny occurred when sailors went into action against pathetic working conditions. History also shows a significant rebellion of port workers when economic problems led to an uprising of sailors at the northern port of Kronstadt in Russia in March 1921. Since the workers were previously loyal to the government, the uprising gave Lenin the message that he had to change his economic policies.

Whether Maumoon Abdul Gayoom will learn any lessons from the May Day march and bring any improvements to the work conditions of thousands of people in the Maldives is uncertain. His government has failed to enforce any concrete legislation to safeguard the labour rights. The call to formulate a Labour Law was echoed during the May Day rally.

A large percentage of Maldivian workers are employed by the government. There is no independent Civil Service, and political decisions cast ominous shadows over their work environment. A number of government employees face the prospect of losing their jobs unless they join the Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP), the party formed by Gayoom and his cronies. Several people have already lost jobs by refusing to succumb to such intimidation while the weaker ones have joined DRP against their own beliefs, for the sake of winning bread
for their families.

Maldives is a country that enjoys one of the highest per capita incomes in the region. But the figures are misleading because of the wide gap between the rich and poor. The nation is in a sorry state, with 42% of the people living below poverty line. Tourism contributes to the high per capita income figures that are shown on paper and are proudly spoken about at international conferences and written in gloss official publications. However, a look at the work conditions in the tourism sector makes one take a step back in horror.

Years of centrally controlling the tourism industry, without letting tourism expand to outer islands, have made life difficult for thousands of workers in the tourism sector and their families. While most of the resorts are located near Male' or in atolls near Male', a number of workers are from far-flung islands and atolls. They spend most of the years at the resort, without being able to spend time with their families.

Meanwhile back in their islands, progress mostly creeps forward or takes a step back because there are few able workers on the island. The money sent back home by the resort workers offer some consolation but it does not bring the warm sense of togetherness or belonging that occurs when a family lives together. The intention of controlling power and riches within a reachable distance has bled the nation.

Resort workers complain about discrimination between them and expatriate workers, the horrible food they are fed, and about unsuitable accommodation.

These are issues that people consciously and subconsciously think about when they chant for political change. By bringing these issues to the forefront, MDP is winning more members, supporters and sympathisers. These are issues that MDP should talk about, if it wants to topple the regime and come to power. After all, it is the daily bread that is the main concern of the people.

The chant for Gayoom's resignation was quite naturally heard throughout the May Day rally. It was a deafening roar at times. It is the national anthem for the masses, a rock song for the youth, and a lullaby of consolation. As I flowed with the tide of the human wave, I saw large numbers of people gathered at street corners watching the rally. I searched their faces for signs of hostility. But most of the time I was rewarded with smiles. It seemed as if the whole nation was pulsing with the same urgent need. The success of May Day rally was not only due to the pathetic working conditions but also the urgent need we all feel, that we need to move forward with our country, after disposing the stagnant regime in power.

Whenever a person saw a friend within the rally, there was a handshake, and warm smiles. The feeling of being in the crowd is difficult to describe. The numbers boosted confidence, and added to the resolve. There were several generations gathered; all with the same need. The faces were a kaleidoscope of age; young people, elderly women, middle-aged men, couples holding hands.

Lines of security forces blocked the rally from marching towards Republican Square but we remained near the Bank of Maldives, only a few feet separating us and the riot police. Several people were bold enough to go straight to the riot police line and take their photos. The fear that Gayoom has built over nearly three decades is crumbling.

As the sun set over the lines of riot police sporting their truncheons and shields, and as the twilight of the dusk cast various shades over yellow and red flags, we sat there, with the lagoon of Male' and then a blue sea to our right. What was being said and what was being done were indeed creating ripples. We were there with a message of peace to the armed forces and riot police. Our numbers spoke a lot. The ripples will create waves soon.

The large number of people gathered on May Day indicates that MDP is on the right path. It illustrates that MDP is in tune with the aspirations of the people. It shows that rather than negotiations with a failed regime, it is time for people power.

As a beautiful crescent appeared in the sky above us, one woman remarked, "Look! Even the moon is smiling at us."

Note: This is an article I wrote in May 2006 before I became disillusioned with MDP. It was published in Minivan News on 8 May 2006. With the first organized strikes (taxi drivers and Maldivian Air Taxi cabin crew) in the Maldives, issues concerning workers' rights are coming back to public discussions.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Time for Unity and Solidarity

Note: This article was published by Minivan News on February 12, 2006. With the defection of Ibrahim Shareef (Ma Vota) to DRP, and the still unresolved differences within the ranks of MDP, some of the issues I had raised still hold relevance.

I could not hold back the tears that gathered in my eyes, as I watched the concluding session of the MDP Congress. Standing there in Dharubaaruge, in a hall that was open to the public, watching the Congress from a screen, I could not understand why I had such a soft spot for MDP. As a person who takes pride in being critical of the inherent problems within MDP, I could not believe myself. Later, I found out that many people were moved to tears while they watched the last session of the Congress.

The speech of MDP Chairperson Mohamed Nasheed (Anni), the speech of MDP President Ibrahim Ismail (Ibra) and the calls to free Anni by delegates were indeed emotional moments. There were tears of joy because we all felt that the final session of the Congress was a watershed for MDP and for the struggle to bring democracy to the Maldives. Despite being under house arrest Anni was allowed to join the Congress; the government finally allowed the Congress to take place in Dharubaaruge after refusing it for weeks; the atmosphere was victorious and euphoric.

It was a remarkable achievement, and Anni's presence there was just a symbol of the struggle the leaders of the movement have gone through. It was also the long and winding road ahead; the continued detention of political prisoners; and the realization that there were several others in self-exile unable to join the loved ones in Maldives, that made this small step a giant leap.

Indeed, it is a long and difficult road ahead. If one has any illusions that the brutal regime of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom is giving in to demands of the Maldivian people, then it is a wrong perception. Gayoom is spinning a web of deceit and suffocating the Maldivian people with a chokehold of insincerity. It is time that MDP challenge this brutal regime with all weapons in its arsenal and bring down the oppressors.

That is why the members and supporters of MDP show solidarity and unity at this crucial stage of the struggle.

Cracks and divisions appeared within MDP in the build-up to the Congress held in December 2005. The Congress itself was not the perfect example of democracy. As the existing structure allowed presidents of individual cells to elect the leader of the party, it led to a fierce battle to win over the cell leaders. The alliances some cell leaders formed were not in line with the wishes of members of the cells. There were irregularities and the leadership contest was extremely competitive and to some extent ugly.

The wounds of the election did not heal as soon as some people expected it. The cracks widened. While the candidates themselves did not show any visible disappointment over defeats, there were divisions among various groups of people who lobbied for different candidates.

There are rumours that MDP Chairperson Anni sided with Ibra at the last moment and lobbied for Ibra. Similarly there are accusations that the party's Co-founder Mohamed Latheef was in favour of Dr Mohamed Waheed. Both Anni and Latheef insisted prior to the election that they remained neutral in the race to elect a leader for MDP.

Several activists from Addu were promoting Dr Munavvar, who they insisted would be attentive to their grievances and pain, if he were elected the leader of MDP. After years of neglect from Gayoom, the people of Addu needed a leader who understood their plight, Addu people were told. The bitter defeat of Munavvar in the election was seen by some activists from Addu as a grand conspiracy, a masterplan by the Male' elite who did not want a person from Addu winning the leadership of MDP and quite possibly the leadership of Maldives in the future.

It is with these accusations, rumours, grievances and resentment that the Congress of MDP ended. Ibra found himself increasingly accused of incompetence and his policies drew criticism from various circles of MDP. Some of the criticisms against Ibra did not have much substance and it could be attributed to the state of denial some people remained after a bitter election defeat.

When MDP decided to organize demonstrations to protest against the Gayoom regime, rumours surfaced again that Ibra was against demonstrations. There was also talk in town that Anni was favouring protests and that there were some divisions between Anni and Ibra. When MDP's demonstration was officially brought to an end at 6.00 pm on 24th January, fingers were once again pointed at Ibra. However, majority of MDP members and supporters agreed that it was a good idea to stop the demonstration before the regime could incite the violence it so conveniently foretold on state television.

Divisions between Ibra and Anni are not just mere rumours anymore. After Ibra's recent threat to resign, the news has been reported by the media sympathetic to MDP. The fallout between Anni and the person whom some people accuse Anni of collaborating during the leadership election has been a shock to a number of MDP members and supporters.

While I agree with most of what Ahmed Naseer has expressed in a recent article in Minivan News concerning the current crisis, I totally disagree with the following remark: "If Ibra is unable to see eye to eye with his Shadow Cabinet members on a frequent basis, then he must gracefully exit and make space for other potential leaders so that the ground gained so far is not lost."

First of all the Shadow Cabinet of MDP is not elected by the members of MDP. It is formed by the President of MDP. Even though the current procedures for electing the President are not ideal, the President has more legitimacy than the Shadow Cabinet. If Ibra faces frequent fallouts with his cabinet members, he can remove those members and appoint new ones.

The whole idea of a Shadow Cabinet is still a bit puzzling to me. I know that it has stemmed from the aspirations of influential leaders within MDP who personally favour the Westminster system – leaders such as Anni and Ibra. However, from what we hear, MDP is favouring the Presidential system to be in place after the constitution is revised. Shadow Cabinet member Mariya Ahmed Didi is the only person who convincingly told a single reason why a Shadow Cabinet has to be there. In a General Meeting of MDP, she explained that members of the Shadow Cabinet will act like shadows to their counterparts in the government's cabinet, watching and monitoring their actions and performance.

Relying so much on a Shadow Cabinet, which is a feature of Westminster system, while MDP favours a Presidential system, is characteristic of the confusion that seems to be norm of MDP.

A number of MDP members and supporters feel that the whole reform process is in a dangerous deadlock. The government is refusing to release the political prisoners; the amendment of constitution at People's Majlis is moving painfully slowly. Increasing numbers of people are getting fed up with the General Meetings held by MDP. It is a bit boring to listen to the same rhetoric repeated all over again. It is simply not enough to call for Gayoom's resignation or boast that MDP will be in power soon, or very soon, or within a few months.

Several people believe that if MDP does not bring something new to the political scene, and inject fresh ideas, Gayoom will start gaining ground. Gayoom's regime has already done a rebranding exercise and their new born baby, the 'New Maldives', is being marketed both within and outside Maldives with a great fervour. Hardly a week goes by without a visit from the wonder boys of New Maldives, the self-proclaimed young geniuses of Gayoom’s cabinet, to the atolls of Maldives to spread their message. Surely there are areas of Maldives which are not strongholds of MDP. What is MDP doing to secure support from such areas?

These are prime concerns of MDP members and well-wishers. If Ibra, who has been elected with high hopes, cannot deliver, if he cannot provide the people some plans or vision, then he should "gracefully exit". If Ibra is unwilling to follow the sentiments of MDP members and if he intends to follow his own plans for MDP, then he may as well resign. If he is willing to follow the sentiments of MDP members and work with team spirit, then he should continue. He should not bother about his Shadow Cabinet members.

It will not be easy to hold another Congress and have another leadership election soon in the even that Ibra resigns. Another election will also lead to a widening of the divisions within MDP. However, if another election becomes necessary, let’s hope that it will be more democratic than the first one.

Anni deserves praise for his relentless efforts to make MDP more democratic. He was in Dhoonidhoo when the preparations for MDP's leadership election started. Soon after he was transferred to house arrest, he expressed his concerns over the way the election would be held. He urged cell leaders to listen to the views of members of cells before they voted. Anni admitted that there were faults with the MDP constitution which was drafted rather hastily. Promoting internal democracy within MDP should not be a task left only to Anni. The National Council must take initiative to reform MDP's constitution speedily if they want to avoid more confrontations within the party and more grievances of members.

It is very difficult for people of different ideologies to work together. A split within MDP is inevitable given the differing ambitions, intentions and plans of the people involved. If power is what attracts some of them, if they have plans to form a party in the future, they may as well do so now. However, the only point that is holding them back is they realize that whoever splits from the party now will not be able to gain support easily at the moment. Sadly MDP is like train station where passengers do not have a common destination but are waiting in transit.

My belief is that a split leading to exit of some people, or even formation of new political parties, from the current elite of MDP will be healthy to MDP rather than working with concealed resentment and pretension. However, a number of people who see MDP's task limited only to toppling Gayoom will disagree.

The defection of Qasim Ibrahim to DRP was a healthy turn of events as it exposed the facade behind which he stood. It naturally shocked the people who saw him not only as a philanthropist and tycoon but as their saviour and possibly leader. However, for people with doubts about him, it proved that their concerns were valid. The whole affair could be said to have cleansed MDP considerably.

Those who still opt to be onboard should work with a set of common goals. Or else they should jump ship.

It is time to reflect. It is time to go back to the days following September 2003, when the shock over what happened in that fateful month was still fresh in minds, when a group of dissidents left their homes and loved ones and went into self exile. It is time to bring back the mood, the resolve, the goals and objectives felt and perceived in a series of meetings in hotel lobbies in Colombo. It is time to go back to those meetings held in cafes of Male' when the parliament so conveniently rejected the request by 42 people to form a political party.

We have come a long way, but it is still a long road ahead. And may be some things have changed in your heads, but nothing has changed in reality.