On November 4, a joint press statement by the Maldives Police Services and the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) declared the presence of illegal firearms and explosives that posed an imminent national security risk. Immediately afterward, the attorney general read out a presidential decree imposing a state of emergency for 30 days, on the ground of national security. Constitutional provisions guaranteeing the right to privacy, the freedom of movement and assembly, and the right to protest were suspended. Security forces were given sweeping powers to arbitrarily detain people, and search and seize property without a warrant.
Beneath the postcard image of the Maldives lies a volatile political scene. In the two years since Abdulla Yameen came to power, the regime has dismissed one auditor general, removed two Supreme Court justices, impeached two vice presidents, replaced eight cabinet members, sacked one police commissioner, purged senior military officials, detained the head of his security detail, and shuffled the heads of several police departments. Serving long sentences in prison are a former president, a former vice president, two former defence ministers, and a former deputy speaker.
This year witnessed the largest anti-government protests in Maldivian history. The government responded with the biggest political crackdown in over a decade. The entire opposition political leadership remains under arrest or in exile. And now, yet another vice president is in prison over his alleged involvement in a speedboat explosion on September 28. Following the explosion, the government has conducted a series of almost nightly midnight raids targeting the vice president’s associates.
Given the regime’s track record, it is perhaps fair to say that the declaration of emergency seems redundant. In practice, the state already exercises the power to arbitrarily detain opponents and conduct raids at will.
Hours after the emergency was declared, the Maldives Broadcasting Commission released a statement threatening to suspend the licences of media outlets that aired content that “threatened national security”. But the desire to muzzle the free press doesn’t explain the emergency, either. Airing content prejudicial to national security has always been illegal, and the constitution explicitly forbids any restrictions on media freedom even in the case of an emergency. In practice, however, press freedom too has been increasingly curtailed in the Maldives. Today, the Maldives ranks lower in the Press Freedom Index than it did during the Gayoom dictatorship.
Why, then, has the Maldives declared an emergency? Most international media has focused on the massive opposition rally planned for the November 6, which has now been impeded. However, there is evidence to suggest that the more immediate reason pertains to the impeachment motion against Ahmed Adeeb, the once all-powerful vice president and tourism minister who virtually ran Yameen’s government until that speedboat explosion.
In his emergency promulgation, the president also decreed that the constitutionally mandated 14-day notice period before an impeachment motion has been shortened to seven days — a provision that appears to have little to do with IEDs or national security. Following Adeeb’s arrest, Yameen claimed in a 45-minute-long diatribe on national TV that Adeeb had acquired massive influence over politicians and the security services. Sources close to the government say that Yameen wasn’t quite certain that he had the numbers in parliament required to impeach Adeeb. The opposition MDP announced its intention to boycott the impeachment vote. The travel restrictions allow the state to prevent ruling party MPs from flying abroad on the day of the impeachment vote — a common tactic to avoid uncomfortable votes.
One day after imposing the emergency, the government extracted a three-line whip from the parliamentary majority group to vote in favour of the motion. The same day, Adeeb was voted out unceremoniously in a sudden impeachment motion, without being afforded the opportunity to defend himself before parliament.
However, Yameen’s position is still far from secure. Within minutes of declaring a national security crisis, the Maldives foreign ministry posted a tweet reassuring tourists that the Maldives remains “calm and normal”, ostensibly to bring in vital tourism revenue. But for a regime that wants to have its cake and eat it too, it appears to be suffering a crisis of credibility. Social media is awash with commentators ridiculing the security services’ claims of finding IEDs. The US and UK have issued stern statements demanding the restoration of constitutional rights, end of political persecution, and the release of the former president, Mohamed Nasheed. Neither acknowledges any security risk from firearms and explosives, suggesting that the international community is not buying the Maldivian government’s line.
The declaration of emergency in the Maldives doesn’t indicate any sudden loss of democracy but merely represents a formalisation of the freefall the country has been in since the collapse of the first democratic government on February 7, 2012. Now that the Maldives has temporarily shed its pretence of democracy, perhaps it will be easier for the international community to crack the stick it has been threatening to wield.
While the opposition has been calling for targeted sanctions on select regime figures, it appears almost unnecessary at this point. The emergency is scheduled to stretch into December, which marks peak tourism season. After news of the emergency hit headlines, outbound travel advisories have been issued in key tourism markets. Reports of cancellations are rife. With falling occupancy rates, it will be Yameen’s few remaining allies, like Maldives Development Alliance leader Siyam, and other resort owners, whose pockets will be hit hardest. In other words, the regime might be unilaterally wrecking the tourism industry that props up its administration.
The Maldives regime appears to be caught in a death spiral of its own making, led by an increasingly erratic autocrat with a dwindling number of allies. But unless external forces intervene to restore stability, Yameen might take the country down with him.
The writer is a Maldives-based political commentator and blogger