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Stephen Zunes

Stephen Zunes

Posted: December 9, 2008 10:37 AM

The Power of Protest in the Maldives


Originally posted in OpenDemocracy.org Dec. 2, 2008

The recent ousting of the corrupt and autocratic president of the Maldive Islands, Mahmoud Gayoom, marks another victory in the global struggle for rights and democracy. Gayoom was defeated in a nationwide election on 28 October after ruling the tiny Indian Ocean archipelago as his personal fiefdom for more than thirty years.

There are several reasons why the Gayoom regime finally permitted free elections and accepted their outcome, which include the efforts of the newly constituted opposition political parties and independent media, as well as pressure from international non-governmental organizations, foreign governments and international financial institutions.

Perhaps the most significant factor, however, was a campaign of systematic nonviolent resistance by pro-democracy activists, which shattered the myth of a national consensus around Gayoom's continued rule, prompted a reduction of foreign support for the regime, empowered opposition parties and political leaders, and divided pro-government elites. As a result, the Maldives can be added to the dozens of countries from the Philippines to Chile to Ukraine whose autocratic governments have been undercut or capsized by people power.

For the first twenty years of Gayoom's regime, opposition political parties were effectively banned and political dissent was quickly suppressed. A little over four years ago, however, the people of Maldives began to openly defy the regime. In what became known as Black Friday, thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators took to the streets of the capital of Male in a peaceful protest in August 2004, only to be attacked by police. More than 200 of the protesters were arrested and Gayoom declared a state of emergency.

Protests gathered force in the aftermath of the devastating tsunami in December 2004, in which poor people fared far worse than the privileged elite. Even strictly nonviolent protests could lead to severe punishment under Gayoom's arbitrary rule. For example, in October 2005, Jennifer Latheef, a 29-year old journalist and graduate of the University of San Francisco, was sentenced to ten years in prison on trumped-up charges of "terrorism," and was adopted by Amnesty International as prisoner of conscience.

Growing dissidence in 2006 and 2007 forced the regime to release Latheef and other political prisoners, allow greater press freedom, and legalise opposition political parties - though many other restrictions on political freedom continued.

Many disproportionately young civic activists, who had learned about resistance tactics and strategies from international NGOs, then ratcheted up the pressure, employing creative means of building their movement, such as using blogs and text messaging to bypass government
restrictions on public gatherings. They created web sites with downloadable flyers ready to print, and organised mobile music shows on sound trucks in which popular local bands performed anti-Gayoom songs.

Nonviolent protests and government repression was not restricted to the capital. In January 2006, for example, police stormed the remote island of Fares-Maathodaa, brutally beating scores of peaceful demonstrators.

Seen as an ally in the "war on terrorism," the United States and other Western governments had been largely supportive of the Gayoom government in both practical ways, such as training military personnel and security assistance, as well as through symbolic gestures, such as visits by U.S. Navy ships. Indeed, little support for the pro-democracy movement came from foreign governments, with only human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch bringing attention to the plight of political prisoners and the lack of political freedom in the Maldives.

Eventually, however, the Gayoom regime eventually began to lose sympathy from abroad, as the protests helped stoke international pressure to allow for free and fair elections. After Asia's longest-serving ruler acquiesced, the World Bank helped him keep his word, by threatening to tighten their loan policies towards his government while making funds available for the election itself.

Starting in August 2007 and throughout this year, a series of government ministers turned in their resignations, indicating a serious split within the government and weakening the power base of Gayoom, who had counted on the loyalty of his pampered top officials.

When the elections finally took place, foreign diplomatic missions and observers from the United Nations ensured international monitoring. In addition, the Maldivian branch of Transparency International trained local observers to monitor polling stations across the country.

In the run-up to the election, there were still serious doubts about whether Gayoom would yield power if he lost -- since repressive acts against his opponents continued and efforts were made to disenfranchise civil servants and others who might vote against him. Yet, for every attempted obstacle set up by the government, pro-democracy activists and local NGOs -- teachers, students, lawyers, journalists and others -- exposed the ruler's increasingly desperate efforts and pressured the regime to make the election free and fair.

Public demonstrations grew larger and more dramatic; in one, protesters paraded through the streets with coffins to dramatise what the incumbent ruler had brought his people. Posters sprouted across the islands with a picture of Gayoom's head with the universal "no" sign of a red circle with diagonal bar across it with the slogan "Expires 28.10.2008," the date of the election.

Emboldened by this popular outpouring, the once fractious opposition united behind Mohamed Nasheed -- better known as "Anni" -- a 41-year old former parliamentarian and political prisoner who had founded the Maldives Democratic Party in exile. Despite Gayoom's enormous advantages in resources at his disposal, when the election took place on 28 October, Anni won 54 percent of the vote.

It is likely that Gayoom's decision to accept the results of the election was based in part on awareness of contingency plans by the opposition to engage in massive strikes and other forms of large-scale civil resistance if he tried to steal it. Such fraudulent efforts by the rulers of Serbia, Georgia and Ukraine earlier this decade had resulted in the massive popular outpourings that brought an ignominious end to these corrupt and semi-autocratic regimes.

As a result, though, this dictatorship's final demise was not as spectacular as the recent democratic transitions in and around Europe, the triumph of democracy in the Maldives should be counted as yet another example of the power of civil resistance to create a government by the people, for the people.