Additional reporting and writing by Mohamed Saif Fathih and Hassan Moosa
A severe and wide-ranging police crackdown on the opposition, including the arrest and investigation of leaders and activists, and the seizure of mobile phones over tweets, is contributing to low turnout at opposition rallies.
Anti-government sentiment is high, fuelled by the jailing and exile of key opposition leaders and an unprecedented corruption scandal that has mired President Abdulla Yameen and his loyalists.
But the Maldives United Opposition, a coalition of former senior government officials and opposition parties, has been struggling to rally crowds for its campaign to oust Yameen.
Ali Zahir, the MUO spokesman, said: “People are still scared. We haven’t seen as many people as we expected.”
On Friday, just over 200 people attended a protest march at the Artificial Beach in Malé. Scores of police officers moved in, with cans of pepper spray aimed at protesters’ eyes. The crowd dispersed within an hour.
The next night, riot police towed 11 motorcycles and threatened to confiscate the licenses of some 50 opposition supporters who had gathered for a motorcycle rally. The protesters “drove in a manner that instilled fear in the community,” a police spokesman said.
An unconstitutional ban on street protests remains in force.
Other tactics have included switching off microphones at the MUO meeting hall, and making arrests over tweets, notably that of Shammoon ‘Lucas’ Jaleel, who remains detained for more than a week now. Some detainees have only been released on the condition that they avoid protests, a ban the high court had previously ruled was unconstitutional.
Most recently, the police have ordered the MUO’s leader, Dr Mohamed Jameel Ahmed, to return from exile for an unspecified investigation. The police had previously announced that the former vice president was under investigation on suspicion of links to a forged warrant for Yameen’s arrest.
The MUO remains defiant. Jameel will return to the Maldives and answer charges on the “trails of Yameen’s arrest,” it said in a statement that condemned the police’s actions as a “devious” but “unsuccessful attempt … to dismantle the coalition.”
The coalition has by turns, threatened and wooed police officers.
Supporters began a Twitter campaign with the hashtag #namethatpolice to identify riot police who have stopped wearing nametags, and lawyers have threatened to file complaints at the watchdog National Integrity Commission, which is yet to publicise findings of a single investigation since it’s reconstitution last year.
The MUO has also promised to reinstate officers who are sacked for disobeying “unconstitutional orders.”
Zahir claims the police force is in disarray. “It’s always the same faces, the same group who show up at our protests. So we know that it’s a certain unit from the special operations officers obeying orders from political figures, and not under a chain of command.”
At the tow yard on Sunday, Zahir said traffic police were unsure how to handle the “arrested” motorbikes. “They said, we didn’t do it. The SO did. They don’t agree with the other.” He added: “Yameen’s administration is gasping for air.”
Many hope that the rifts within the government would break the fear.
All eyes are on Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, Yameen’s half-brother who ruled the Maldives with an iron fist for 30 years. Gayoom has seized control of the Progressive Party of the Maldives and is slowly breaking Yameen’s firm grip on ruling party lawmakers, who make up a majority in the parliament and form the president’s strongest support base.
A few MPs last week spoke out against a draconian bill that seeks to recriminalize defamation.
“The public is hopeful now that there is a way out of the mess this government has brought on, despite all the restrictions on civil and political rights, especially given that all leaders are in a united front,” said Ahmed ‘Simwar’ Anwar, an activist.
A 31-year-old writer, who wished to remain anonymous, said: “The government’s fear-mongering has had an effect, people fear for their jobs, their children and their lives. But I am confident they will come out the moment they see that the government is weakening.”