Eleven surfers, including the Maldives’ body boarding champion, were arrested Monday evening when they protested against the construction of a bridge they say could destroy Malé’s main surf break.
Four were released last night, and another seven were released by the criminal court today. Ahmed ‘Ajay’ Aznil, the president of the Maldives Surfing Association, remains in custody on a charge of obstructing government work.
The China-Maldives friendship bridge will connect the capital to the airport Hulhulé and is a key election pledge of President Abdulla Yameen.
The controversial US$210million project was handed last year to the Chinese CCCC Second Harbor Engineering Company, a firm blacklisted by the World Bank in 2009 over fraudulent practices.
Trees were felled in the Raalhugandu area in January and a fence was put up this week blocking access to the waves. Large barges carrying machinery and equipment are currently anchored at Raalhugandu.
Surfers said they began protesting on Sunday when they lost access to the waves. The surfers made Chinese workers halt work on Sunday, and on Monday some swam out to the barge to stage a protest.
Police officers arrived in a speedboat and told the surfers to leave.
“It was a peaceful protest,” said Ali ‘Jaatte’ Javid. “But the police were very rude when they told us to leave the area. We have been surfing in Raalhugandu for many years. These are our waves.”
The group of surfers were arrested when they arrived on shore. A few others who were wearing protest t-shirts were also arrested although they did not swim out to the barge. Another man, Moosa Mohamed, was arrested when he took a video of the confrontation.
The Raalhugandu is the only area in Malé with direct access to the ocean and is popular with surfers, families and joggers alike. But it has been blocked off since January for bridge construction.
A second surf break on the southwest corner of Malé called the Rats is also at risk, with the housing ministry planning a waste management there. A third surf break at Hulhulé will also be affected by the bridge.
Ahmed ‘Rippe’ Rifaee Abdul Sattar, the vice president of the MSA, said: “We began protesting because we got conflicting statements from the housing ministry. They have not been able to ensure that our home breaks in Malé will be safe when they undertake their projects.”
When asked why the protest came so late, the MSA said they are not opposed to the bridge, but to the destruction and loss of access to the waves. The MSA, in a statement, said they had met with the housing ministry on February 10 when they noticed concrete tetrapods were being placed on the reef.
Housing ministry officials had promised that the bridge construction would only pose minimum damage to the waves, the MSA said.
It also said that it had not been consulted for the environmental impact assessment for the project. The body is demanding that the ministry carry out research analysing how the bridge would affect waves and surfing.
“Housing Ministry officials, who don’t have any credible surf knowledge, first assured us that they had all the documents and videos analysing the surf. However, at later meetings, they admitted that the documents were in Chinese,” Rifaee said.
The MSA had offered to translate the documents but have not been able access the documents or videos so far.
“We fear that any analysis the government claims to have carried out may have little, or no relevance to surfing. If that is the case, we could hire qualified personnel to run appropriate tests and research to formulate a way to build the bridge, eliminating, or in the worst case, minimizing the negative effects on the sustainability and development of surfing at Raalhugandu,” Rifaee added.
Housing Minister Dr Mohamed Muizz had previously told local media that the government would arrange transport for surfers to surf breaks nearby.
Malé’s surfers have previously run a campaign to stop a Singaporean company from gaining exclusive access to surf breaks at a nearby island called Thamburudhoo.
The government has now pledged to keep the island open to the public as a surf heritage site.
Surfers said they plan to carry on their protest indefinitely.