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Page added on November 22, 2004

One Hundred Days in Gayoom’s Jails

Hundreds of pro-democracy activists – in prison, under house or under Male’ arrest – will wake up this morning having spent one hundred days in detention.

The issue of the pro-democracy detainees is a combustive one. It divides the country and divides the country from the rest of the world. One just needs to look at the reaction of the Europeans – who continue, privately, to chatter about imposing sanctions – to see just how far Gayoom has travelled down the road to becoming an international bogey-man and the Maldives a pariah state.

However, when one thinks of it dividing the country, it is not down the middle, with one half of the population supporting the incarceration of innocent democracy campaigners and the other opposing it, it is more a division between the ruling elite – Gayoom’s family and friends – and everybody else.

More than just dividing the country though, the issue of the detainees also exposes just how fragile Gayoom’s rule really is. How many Maldivians, if you asked them in private, would actually support Gayoom’s polices on the detainees? How many support Gayoom at all? All the evidence – the opposition’s showing in the Special Majlis elections, the popularity of the reform meetings, the popularity of independent media, and of course 12,000 people on the streets in August – leans towards the conclusion that Gayoom is profoundly unpopular.

This entrenched unpopularity – some might say loathing – of Gayoom and his regime shifts the balance of power in the Maldives away from the regime and into the hands of the people. Although many may not realise it, the most powerful force in Maldivian politics today is not Gayoom, nor his supporters, nor even the NSS. It is the people.

As Fathimath Shimla argues in her peice “the limits of foreign intervention in the Maldives”, the power of mass public protest in the Maldives is enormous. Can anyone remember a time – the coup attempt aside – when Gayoom has looked so fallible? Can anyone remember a time when his own cabinet were divided, when his own family members were conspiring against him, when his own security services were dangerously split, and when 15% of Male’ rose up against him? However, there is still a key missing ingredient for real change to occur – a belief by ordinary Maldivians in their own ability to achieve that change.

As key opposition figures spend their one hundredth day in detention, some must wonder why they are still held captive and why Gayoom is still in power. For it is not wishful thinking but the simple truth to say: if enough Maldivians believed tomorrow they would bring down the dictator, tomorrow they surely would.

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