The recent arrests of Opposition leaders in Maldives has severely jeopardized the island nation's planned transition to democracy and dented the credibility of President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. These events question President Gayoom's commitment to establish a genuine multiparty democracy in Maldives. Mohammed Nasheed, leader of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), who returned to the Maldives on 30 April after prolonged exile was arrested on 12 August for criticising President Gayoom. Initially, officials had stated that he was detained for his own safety, but after keeping him in detention for ten days without charges, he was charged with sedition and terrorism. On 18 October, another pro-democracy activist was sentenced to 10 years in prison on terrorism charges. Jennifer Latheef was sent to jail after being identified as "one of the instigators" of the pro-democracy riots in September 2003 in Male. She is the daughter of the exiled founder of the MDP, Mohamad Latheef.
These actions have turned the clock back on the recent momentous events in the country. On 2 June, the Maldivian Parliament (Majlis) had voted to allow multi-party democracy for the first time in the tiny atoll nation that has been ruled by President Gayoom since 1978. The Majlis unanimously approved a resolution allowing political parties to seek recognition and contest elections, thereby ending the existing partyless system. The Opposition parties welcomed the change, terming it a revolution and had claimed credit for forcing this change.
After the passage of this resolution, the MDP became the first political party to be registered after enlisting 3,000 members as required by law to register a political party. Other parties to apply for registration were the Dhivehi Raiyyithunge Party headed by President Gayoom, Islamic Democratic Party, a moderate Islamic party of former police officer Umar Naseer, Maldives Labour Party and the Adhaalaath Party led by religious scholar Sheikh Hussain Rasheed Ahamed. These parties were expected to provide the alternatives for governing Maldives, but recent events have quashed these hopes.
Though the government had vacillated on the question of democratic reforms, it seemed to have accepted the inevitability of multiparty democracy in Maldives. The recent crackdown, however, indicates that it was only a tactical retreat to deflect growing international pressure. In May, President Gayoom was confronted by protesters in Geneva, who demanded improved human rights and an end to torture and political oppression in Maldives. The parliamentary resolution was probably the result of these hostile demonstrations that the President faced on his foreign visit. However, the growing public support that MDP elicited seems to have unnerved him, and led to the crackdown. He has also tried and succeeded in weaning away some members from MDP. Ghasim Ibrahim, a top businessman and a former member of the MDP, who was arrested after anti-government riots in Male last year, was inducted into the government as Finance Minister after he severed his links with the MDP.
There has been widespread criticism of the recent crackdown by various human rights groups. Amnesty International and Asian Centre of Human Rights have criticised the Maldivian government. The Asian Centre has urged the UN Secretary General and the Government of India to intercede with President Gayoom for the release of political detainees, ensure fair trials and due process of law for those who are arrested and likely to be charged, and to initiate a national reconciliation process with the MDP to ensure the establishment of a stable, prosperous and democratic Maldives. The Maldivian government has ignored these appeals but a country that is struggling to rebuild after the devastation caused by the tsunami may not be able to withstand international pressure for too long. Its economy is expected to decline by 2.4 per cent this year as against 8 per cent growth last year. Tourism, which is the mainstay of the economy, is dependent on international goodwill and domestic tranquillity.
Though small, Maldives is strategically important for India and had housed a British air base in Gan Island. Off late, China has shown interest in acquiring bases in the islands. President Gayoom's regime has maintained friendly ties with India and has often expressed gratitude for the assistance provided to quell the attempted coup in 1987. The MDP is also favourably disposed towards India, but the other political parties are unknown entities. Some of them, especially the Islamic outfits may not be favourably disposed. India therefore needs to be proactive and watch these developments carefully. Suppression of popular democratic aspirations has often led to the ushering in of radical regimes, which is neither in Indian interest nor of the West.