On November 3, 1988, the residents of Malé awoke to the sound of gunfire. Tamil mercenaries carrying Kalashnikov assault rifles and hand grenades charged through town, killing some 19 Maldivians, before Indian commandos crushed the coup attempt. Twenty-seven years later, on the eve of Victory Day, confusion swept through the streets of Malé once again, when the home ministry announced the discovery of a powerful bomb in the heart of the capital.
But amidst an escalating struggle for influence at the country’s top leadership over an alleged attempt to assassinate President Abdulla Yameen, the residents of Malé reacted to the news with disbelief and skepticism, signaling an unprecedented loss of confidence in the security forces and the government.
According to the Maldives National Defence Forces (MNDF), the homemade bomb, made out of dynamite, was found at 5pm on Monday, wrapped up in a t-shirt and left in a white lorry parked near the presidential palace, Muleeaage.
Police officers evacuated residents of the buildings near Muleeaage, telling them their lives were in danger. Rumors of a bomb threat began to spread through Malé. But the police spokesman refused to comment, only saying parts of the city would be closed for a routine joint police and military operation.
Even when hundreds were evacuated from the sports grounds at the city’s southwest corner, the police declined to comment, but blasted the media for creating panic. Then at 5pm, Home Minister Umar Naseer, in a tweet, announced the security forces had found a suspicious object and had transported it through the streets of Malé to the Ekuveni Stadium to examine it.
In the four hours that followed, people flocked to the stadium to see the bomb squad in action. Three journalists were arrested from the area and Twitter was flooded with jokes over the bomb.
“What is going on? Nobody knows. Is this a joke? How can anyone plant a bomb in Malé and hide? He must have been a damn good runner,” Abdul Rauf, a bystander near the police cordons said. No one there appeared to take the bomb threat seriously.
“Look, they aren’t even in protective clothing,” one teenager said, pointing to several military and police officers in normal fatigues. “This must be a drill or something.”
“What is this drama? This is like Kasauti,” another bystander said, referring to a popular Bollywood soap opera.
Many Maldivians, in the past month, have expressed the same feeling – that they are caught up in a movie. Just days ago, the security forces displayed a large cache of weapons they had seized from a reef of an island leased to an associate of detained Vice President Ahmed Adeeb. The cache included firearms that had gone missing from the state armory. Adeeb is in custody on suspicion of links to an explosion on the president’s speedboat. The government insists the explosion was caused by a bomb targeting Yameen. But the Federal Bureau of Investigation said it had found no evidence of an explosive device.
Meanwhile, the defence minister has been sacked for authorizing a tourism promotion company to import fireworks, and the police chief and his deputies had been fired for taking money from the vice president. Raids in Malé city have now become a daily occurrence.
Then at 8:30pm, the foreign ministry tweeted that a state of emergency had not been declared in the Maldives. Soon afterwards, rumors of a fire at the airport swirled through the city. The streets of Malé were unusually quiet. Soldiers were stationed at the petrol sheds. By 9pm, it became known that the fire at the airport was put out and had caused very little damage.
At 10pm, the MNDF confirmed the object was indeed a bomb and said they had defused it safely. “If this had gone off, I cannot specify the exact area [of impact], but it would have caused a lot of damage. This is a powerful explosive. This is used to demolish mountains,” MNDF Captain Ali Ihusaan told reporters.
The press conference only appeared to increase the sense of disbelief.
“It probably was a prank. The MNDF would not have moved a live bomb through streets of Malé. It’s a bad joke and everyone fell for it,” one woman I spoke to last night said.
A day after the bomb, I spoke to several ex-military men on the prevailing skepticism and the MNDF’s handling of the bomb.
An ex senior policeman, who was reluctant to give his name, said top government officials should have addressed the public, not an MNDF captain.
“The public should have been assured of their safety. You feel that the government is not serious when you hear of a bomb threat and all you see is military captain talking about it on TV,” he said.
A soldier, who had served in the military for twenty years, said he believed the MNDF had abandoned protocol in handling the incident. When faced with a bomb, the military is to follow the four C’s: confirm, clear, cordon and control, he said.
“The first thing you have to do is confirm what the device is, then clear members of the public to a safe zone. And then you have to cordon off the area and take control of the whole situation,” he said.
The MNDF has equipment to scan and find out how the bomb is wired, as well as bomb-proof containers to carry suspicious objects, he went on. But instead of examining the bomb at the scene, and instead of using the specialized container to carry the bomb, the military transported the bomb through the streets of Malé in a jammer vehicle.
“This was handled very poorly by the MNDF. It all seemed to me like a game,” he said.
Captain Ihusaan, however, insisted last night that the military had followed all protocols, and only transported the device to the sports grounds to ensure minimum damage. “The fact there is was no explosion is an indication of our success,” he said.
Imthiyaz Fahmy, an MP with the main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party, blamed the skepticism on “the government’s opacity.”
“The truth is rarely made known and this has led to a situation where people ignore the threat of a bomb. The people do not trust their government or the security forces which are there to protect them.”
Acknowledging public confusion, Thazmeel Abdul Samad, the home ministry’s spokesman, said: “We know that some members of the public feel skeptical and insecure right now, but I want to assure the public that our military is a responsible institution and will not joke or lie about such matters.”
Thazmeel felt things had gone well on Sunday. “The military is working tirelessly to provide and assure safety for the public. This will all end soon.”