It was around 2:00pm on March 5 when news of the arrest of former President Mohamed Nasheed became public, leading to gridlock on sections of Majeedhee Magu – the main road cutting through the Maldives capital.
Throughout the day, a few hundred demonstrators aligned to the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) attempted to “bring the capital to a standstill” with a protest to blockade traffic following the arrest of the former president.
At sporadic points during the afternoon, in between clashes with police forces and peaceful sit downs, ugly scenes of confrontation were also witnessed where trucks, bikes and even government-aligned people deemed “Baghee” – a traitor – were swarmed and attacked by the crowd.
“Your photos will be a problem,” isolated figures explained throughout the day, following such confrontations. “Do not take pictures here. Take them from further away,” they said. “Do not give them to police.”
In the battle for international media attention, an image speaks a thousands words – so long as it is the right image.
Following the arrest of Nasheed, who is currently standing trial for the controversial detention of the Criminal Court chief judge during his time in office, men and women of all ages gathered outside the Male’ City Council building (MCC) between the intersections at Alikilegefaanu Magu and Rahdebi Magu.
Among the crowd was Mohamed Aslam, a former Environment Minister under Nasheed’s government, who claimed there was no official plan for demonstrations or a protest at the time.
“People are agitated, they are angry,” he said. “There is no plan, there is just outrage.”
It was earlier in the afternoon that 15 masked police officers had entered Nasheed’s family compound of Kenerege with a court warrant to detain the country’s first democratically elected president.
Police themselves later provided video footage of its officers taking Nasheed into detention.
Sources within the MDP later told Minivan News that the former president was taken peacefully, if reluctantly, briefly saying goodbye to his family before being escorted away by authorities. Police later returned for a second time to the compound, though no further arrests were made in the building.
However, by 2:00pm, there was clear anger among some three dozen predominantly male figures around the corner from Kenerege on Majeedhee Magu. The tension was exacerbated as a group of officers in the back of a van quickly singled out an elderly gentleman across a crowded intersection and took him away.
Media were quick to capture the image, as angry onlookers heckled the officers over a blare of horns from taxis and other motorists now blocked by the unfolding drama.
A group of people including Nasheed’s representative on the Commission of National Inquiry (CNI), Ahmed ‘Gaha’ Saeed, soon blocked the road in what they claimed was a makeshift protest.
Perched on front of delivery vehicle, Saeed told Minivan News that demonstrators had opted to blockade the truck that he said to belonged to one of the country’s largest private retailers alleged to be one of the masterminds behind a “coup d’etat” that saw Nasheed controversially resign from office last year.
“People have waited a year since the coup and are very angry and unlikely to act reasonably now. They could bring Male’ to a standstill,” Saeed stated.
As some attempted to dissuade Saeed from his actions, other figures in the crowd attempted to limit the taking of pictures – an impossible task considering the prevalence of I-pads, camera phones and social media in the country.
By 2:30 pm, as the sun beat down intensely on the intersection, tensions continue to escalate as the crowd singled out a figure passing through the intersection on his bike. The figure was Ali Waheed, the brother of current President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik.
In the first of several such isolated attacks during the day, a crowd swarmed and surrounded Ali Waheed amidst shouts of Baghee, before he was pushed from his bike, surrounded and attacked. After a tense minute of confrontation, Ali Waheed was ushered from the intersection by some figures in the crowd – his bike abandoned on the street. It would not be the last vehicle left on the capital’s street during the day.
The crowd’s attention later turned to a military car with tinted windows. Isolated figures attacked the vehicle, ripping off its mirrors and smashing a rear passenger side window. Some three or four dozen young men appeal divided amidst appeals for calm from Saeed and several other figures asking to let the vehicle pass.
Heavy rainfall temporarily cleared the road and the simmering tension. As the situation calmed, Saeed explained that the crowd had sought out figures perceived to be tied either to senior government or the security forces, particularly the police’s Special Operations (SO) officers.
“They see it as you are either with us or against us,” he said. “We continue to ask for calm, but as always happens, it is the loudest in crowds who have their way.” Saeed rejected the accusation that individuals were being purposefully singled out as they passed through the barricade.
Sit down demonstrations
As the blockade continued, a growing number of men and women began to join the demonstrations, with former Environment Minister Mohamed Aslam joining a sit down in the middle of the street.
Further down the road, a single man lay in the rain soaked road outside the Male’ City Council building. The crowd suddenly appeared happy to clear to one side to let media to take a photo opportunity of the man. Meanwhile, curious and often bemused onlookers and shoppers stepped over him.
However, the lighter mood was at times broken. In one instance, a man riding a bike with a young girl on the back was heckled as a “Baaghee” – prudently he avoided the crowd and detoured down a side street.
At the height of the demonstration, some two or three blocks on Majeedhee were blockaded, with an orange rope set up across the street to stop traffic coming through. A few motorists tried to get through to the derision of the crowd.
Shortly before 4:00pm, around 30 police officers in helmets arrive and begin to clear the intersection outside the city council building, removing Mohamed Aslam from the scene, while coming under fire from plastic water bottles and small sections of pavement stones.
Several other figures in the crowd were also taken by authorities, as police left the scene.
Behind them, some 200 demonstrators remained on the road, continuing with their blockade and chanting. Another group of women soon resumed their sit-down protests and anti-government chants.
The light mood again sporadically broken as another male – accused of being a member of the Police’s SO division – attempted to pass through the crowd. He was quickly swarmed as he was mobbed by a crowd divided over whether to attack or protect the figure.
Shouts of “baghee” from the crowd were punctuated by the screams of a woman travelling with the man. Both are eventually moved to safety.
“There is hatred here,” said one protester. “He was asking for it. He could see there was a [blockade] but came through anyway. It is very hard to control some of these [demonstrators].”
Soon after, individuals once again spoke to media figures, reiterating appeals to cease taking photos as some of the group turn their attentions to breaking through a glass door of a large clothes shop – eventually they are dissuaded by others in the crowd.
At the same time, the Maldives Journalists Association (MJA) released a statement strongly condemning violent attacks said to be carried carried out against a journalist and a cameraman working from private media outlet Sun Online. Earlier in the day, a journalist for the same organisation had stayed in Nasheed’s family compound over concerns about his safety among the crowd outside.
By 4:30pm, Police reinforcements once again arrived to clear the intersections, heckled by the 200 demonstrators who has sought to block sections of the road during the afternoon.
Though some officers were witnessed carrying firearms with rubber bullets, no such measures were witnessed being used by police, though one young woman arrested had appeared to have been pepper sprayed.
During the ongoing police operation, a further two dozen demonstrators were arrested and loaded into the back of a police van – among them a middle-aged women taken for heckling and singing songs. she soon becomes an inadvertent hero among her fellow demonstrators. Aware of her status, she begins dancing in the back of the police truck.
As order is restored by authorities and the arrested are taken from the scene in an open topped van, the crowd cheer and wave at the figures, including an elderly woman who blew kisses and waved to the crowd.
With the police presence again gone, the crowd return to their blockade to songs and anti-government chants. The mood once again light temporarily until protesters attack and roll over a van belonging to Eydhafushi MP Ahmed Saleem, another figure unpopuler among the core MDP supporters. According to local media, milk packets are taken from the van and distributed among the protesters.
Whether demonstrators succeeded in bringing the capital to a standstill as some had claimed, for large parts of the day, one of the capital’s busiest roads was transformed into a protest site for dissatisfaction with the government.
As police began to bring the crowds under control, among a blockaded section of Majeedhee Magu between Alikilegefaanu Magu and Rahdebi Magu, a shop-owner looked out from his door at the deserted road.
“It’s been a slow day for business,” he said.