Maldives: Another Dictator Bites the Dust

The recent ouster 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

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
, 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.

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