Yameen weighs in on civil liberties, terrorism and foreign influence
President Abdulla Yameen has decried what he suggested was double standards by the international community in the handling of emergencies declared earlier this month in the Maldives and France. His rare 90-minute speech weighed in on terrorism, slammed foreign interference and touched on how the Maldives can attract foreign investment.
President Abdulla Yameen has decried what he suggested was double standards by the international community in the handling of emergencies declared earlier this month in the Maldives and France.
In a rare 90-minute speech on Wednesday, he complained that “first world countries” that argued against the state of emergency in the Maldives were not concerned over that set in France.
Yameen had restricted civil liberties here citing fear of imminent attacks following an explosion on his speedboat, while France declared an emergency after multiple attacks across Paris killed more than a hundred people.
The unprecedented nationwide state of emergency declared in the Maldives was lifted just after six days instead of 30.
He said: “A state of emergency being declared in the Maldives became a big issue. But the fate that became clear to the world, the events in France, first world countries that advocated, advanced and argued against the emergency in the Maldives, when something like that happened, an emergency, a curfew was declared, in a manner that was even more burdensome to the public. The world no longer appears to be concerned about the declaration of emergencies. But it becomes a big issue when Maldives does it.”
He repeatedly slammed foreign interference, but welcomed the Commonwealth’s decision to refrain from taking action in the Maldives. The speech titled “Economic dialogue with the president” also touched on terrorism and the government’s economic vision.
The following are unedited excerpts:
“We talk about economics to make our lives happier. Each of you, when you think of your expenses, even as a school student, there are graduates here, there are academics, and lawmakers here. On lawmakers, I spent a lot of time in the legislature, one fundamental question raised is, as a lawmaker when I meet youth, I say, you live in the comfort we provide. And then the youth respond, we live in the misery you provide. This is the flipside of the coin.
I will tell you what happens here. Each of you would use a toothbrush and toothpaste. Today, don’t know the price of toothpaste, if the price of a toothpaste tube is MVR20, and if the import duty is ten percent, 10 percent of MVR20, MVR2, so the price is MVR 22. Fine. Tomorrow lawmakers decide government revenues are too little. Toothpaste is something everyone uses. And if duty is hiked on goods everyone uses, government revenues will increase. And the space for a reduction in this revenue would be narrow. That is the duty on toothpaste is pushed to 100 percent. Duty of MVR 2 becomes MVR20. Tomorrow, the moment the president ratifies the law, the price of a toothpaste goes from MVR20 to MVR40. But, the revenue earned by the student, by their father, mother did not increase. That is why, there is opportunity to say to politicians and lawmakers – but Maldivian lawmakers are more civilized than that, they care about the citizens – that is why you have the right to say, we live in the misery you provide.
But lawmakers, the reason they say you live in the comfort we provide, for instance, acts against humanity are becoming common all over the world. Becoming common in the whole world. Very relevant to our topic tonight. ISIS’ activities, its rationale or its basis, [we] do not question. Its basis is different for various people. Your opinion is yours. Mine is mine. I do not judge. But I question its results.
Fear and terrorism is becoming common all over the world. With that, global travel is coming to a stop, economic slumps in some places, especially in a country like the Maldives, where our economy is based on tourism, this is not good news for us. When such dangers become common in the whole world, what the lawmakers assembly does is, they have the power to restrict a lot of people’s civil liberties, within the parameters permitted by the constitution. Laws can be made to watch those who come back from countries where terrorism happens. Such laws must be made. For the protection of the entire innocent community. In the fight against terrorism, checks on individuals who appear even a bit suspicions, we do so for the protection of the entire Maldivian citizenry. If the results are good, with god’s blessings, if the results are good, politicians will tell students, you guys live in the comfort we provide. This is the dialogue between politicians and the citizens.
With pleasure I say today, our agenda is not all about the economy. But without doubt, the most important is the economy. If you look your own lives, if you look at what your mother and father spends on you, when poverty knocks on one door, as the phrase goes in English, love exits through the other. Domestic peace is gone. This is the truth of the world. That truth, even if the Maldives is in a ocean of strong currents, even if we are isolated, we cannot escape that truth, the truth of human worldly experience. If there is no money, it will create problems, these problems will escalate, and if unmanaged cause pain. That is why the economy is of utmost importance in the Maldives. But everything is linked to the economy, or the only aspect that students, scholars and policymakers must consider is not just the economy. The economy is without doubt the most important thing.”
“Foreigners are watching everything that happens in the Maldives. In one sense, this is very good. It promotes the Maldives. If Maldives is spoken about in the TVs of other countries, it promotes us. But we want good things to be said about the Maldives. But, this has become a time where not so good things are said of the Maldives. Always, in relation to something that happens here, some powerful country, these countries are very far away, their periscopes are focused on us. These are countries that are very far away, but they do not want to avoid interfering in our domestic affairs. So there is always interference in the Maldives’ affairs.
A state of emergency being declared in the Maldives became a big issue. But the fate that became clear to the world, the events in France, first world countries that advocated, advanced and argued against the emergency in the Maldives, when something like that happened, an emergency, a curfew was declared, in a manner that was even more burdensome to the public. The world no longer appears to be concerned about the declaration of emergencies. But it becomes a big issue when Maldives does it. There are those who interfere in everything that happens in the Maldives.
As we speak today, the leaders of Commonwealth are meeting in Malta. I just received news that the situation in the Maldives is on the agenda of the Commonwealth leaders. This is no longer new to the Maldives. Some countries in the Commonwealth have always viewed the Maldives with a dissatisfied eye, this is not new to the Maldives. But the difficulty here is, no matter how independently the Maldives tries to act, the challenge is, if the Maldives is placed once again on the CMAG, on the Commonwealth’s watch, there will be difficulties. For example, during the first eight months of President Waheed’s administration, until we were off the Commonwealth’s watch, the Maldives had to face very difficult days. There were no new foreign investments in the Maldives. Foreign banks stopped lending to Maldivian banks. We experienced a lot of challenges like this. But the world’s justice in such matters, if they want to place a small country like the Maldives on the Commonwealth’s watch, they can do so. Four months, six months, eight months later, when it all ends, despite no fault on the Maldives’ part, we bear a lot of damages, but there is no compensation for that. This is the reality of international politics. There is no compensation for that.
So today as we speak, we were waiting thinking that in Malta, CMAG will take action against the Maldives. We waited for that, however, as I am the one in charge of the nation right now, and since I am quite an optimistic person, I said God willing, that will not come to pass. And I am hearing now, CMAG will not issue any statement against the Maldives this time. This is very happy news. What we were saying is that if it becomes problematic for us to be part of this organization, the Commonwealth, then we must consider quitting the Commonwealth. When we say so, our critics say, why doesn’t the Maldives consider the aid we receive from the Commonwealth?
Today, we are here to talk about the economy. First world countries, being part of international organizations, without doubt, is beneficial to us. But we must rethink if there is prejudice, if there is injustice. The good discipline that comes out of us being part of international organizations that includes first world countries is, in this Maldives, investors believe, a governance structure acceptable to the world, a system of separation of powers as accepted by the world, there will be benefits to the people, and guarantees for investments. If you are not part of such organizations, a country can do additional things. But if we are part of them, the moment we step out of line, they will hit us with [sic] to have us get back into the line. That is the benefits of us being part of organizations that include first world countries. So God willing, I don’t think we will be placed on the CMAG’s watch, the countries on the CMAG have changed, the CMAG this time has chosen dialogue with the Maldives, to find out what is happening in the Maldives, to find solutions through dialogue. The basis of international diplomacy today is to resolve issues through dialogue. Powerful parties, taking harsh action against those who are less powerful, will not bring about solutions. Damage can be caused, harm cam be done, our young would have heard of the Palestinian Intifada from when they were infants. A lot of brutality and cruelty can be unleashed, but that will not bring about any solutions. And that doesn’t destroy or diminish such movements either. That is why dialogue is chosen. So we welcome dialogue with CMAG.
CMAG today is most concerned, unlike before – it is not that I want to speak politics with school students – but I wanted to bring perspective to what I want to say – on recent events that have taken place among us. For example the explosion on the president’s speedboat, was it a bomb or not? The action against those involved, is the investigation proper or not, why was the prosecutor general dismissed or not as a result, such things. [Shaking head] I wonder, even if we are a small country, it is one thing for powerful countries to inquire about such matters, but interference to this level [shakes head] this just cannot be. We Maldivians, will shape our destiny according to our laws. It is Maldivian citizens who wish well for us. It is also Maldivian citizens who will solve our problems. So if there is hope among the Maldivian people, our hope is comprised of the vision of development seen in this video.”
Much later in the speech, Yameen spoke on economic challenges and environmental vulnerabilities and said:
“We must try not to inflict additional troubles on ourselves. And that is political, for example, some of the attempts to portray Maldives as an unsafe place. The nonsense and lies said about the Maldives on Twitter. But even so Maldives is habitable, good for Maldivians and foreigners alike, where high returns are made in the tourism industry.
“Some may think that it is easy for us to get foreign loans. No. Even those who criticize us the most, they do not spend on us. However, with pleasure I would like to note, the work we’ve done through some strategic alliances is proving to be good. India helps us a lot. China helps us a lot. Japan, and recently our brothers Saudi Arabia and the Islamic states of the Middle East help us a lot. So we will proceed with them.”
Attracting foreign investment
“The major thing is that every citizen of the Maldives must be able to live in peace. Without consideration to age and class, every citizen must be able to live in peace, breathe in the independent Maldivian sky. There are institutions to solve problems that arise between individuals. But we cannot allow space for people who believe the law is the force of their fists and act out on the streets. If so, Maldives is not secure.
Just recently, events in Sinai, Egypt, have caused reluctance among foreign investors. In France, major contractors are trapped there, so they are there. It will take some time for new investment to go there. Here in the Maldives, when a state of emergency was declared, our tourism sector has had to bear losses. That includes China, the biggest market, China’s marker is truly a sensitive market. So we have had to face difficulties. We have to do a lot more to resolve this. So inhumane cruel acts such as this causes difficulties in us getting the kind of investment we desire. To bring foreign investment there must be order, and order means safety, institutions that love peace, and a society that enforces the rule of law. That is safety.
Second, they check if there is an environment conducive to investment, business here. Before that, the question of why foreign investment must come to the Maldives is important. In an earlier meeting I said, there was a time when economic literature took two viewpoints. In the late 1950s, to the late 1970s, there were many professors and economic literature that was questioning the need for major foreign investment. They were socialist professors. But they took that viewpoint because, in small countries or those that are not so civilized, there was unjust exploitation of natural resources. The belief was that major foreign investors would only come to exploit natural resources. There’ve been many books and papers written on this, this is what developing countries believed. Even today, we are not able to completely eliminate such practices. Those who work against this boldly with courage are starting to see results.
Here in the Maldives, we believe that if we want development, we need major foreign investments. We do not have the means to do everything by ourselves. So we must allow the widest opportunities for the exploration of resources that we are not able to, in a way that benefits us and the foreign investors. Otherwise, if we were to do things at our own tempo, we would have to remain without development for the nest ten years. We would not be able to gain development to the extent we want. But to attract foreign investment, on our terms, is not wrong, by shaping procedures, making laws to welcome investments and to protect those investments and by making Maldives an easy place for people to live, and giving out corporate residence visas to make living in Maldives easier, by treating foreigners with hospitality, if we are able to do so, foreign investors will come to the Maldives. But ask yourselves, what is it that Maldives has that say, neighboring Sri Lanka doesn’t? Sri Lanka is endowed with more natural resources, more educated people, they have more land, they have a lot more experience.
The challenge for us is to attract investment to the Maldives before it is taken by our neighbors. To do so, we must put in an exceptional effort. We must build an environment friendly to investors. It doesn’t end there. There is much we have to correct in our economy. They will not come here if all of their work, benefits is paid in rufiyaa, and Maldives has no means to change rufiyaa into dollars. There will be no investors if they are unable to obtain dollars. Investors will, after paying taxes, paying wages, take money out of the country as dividends. In neighboring countries, there are exorbitant taxes, withholding taxes on such amounts, or restrictions on the amount that is remitted, on the timeframe, taxes on the remittances, there are a lot of challenges like this. If this is introduced to the Maldives, there will be no difference between us and these countries. That is why we don’t do so. But they have to have the guarantee that there are means to convert their dividends, the net profits into a convertible currencies. In doing so, we must ask if our economy has that tempo, that strength, that pace. And we have challenges.
For example, those studying international commerce will know, the books will talk about a balance sheet and trade accounts, if it is balanced or a deficit. Foreign currency is obtained from services that are exported. In the Maldives it is canned fish and mainly the service industry, tourism. When you look at what we import, from the toothpick, to all the food on the table to toiletries, perfume, everything you can think of, this is all imported. We import such goods at the price inclusive of their production taxes etc. So we do not have the opportunity to decide on the price of imported goods. So global inflation will affect prices. We pay for that in dollars and we have to find dollars. If there is a deficit in the trade account, we have to find other sources of revenue. Otherwise, the MMA and the banks will not convert into dollars the investors want to take out as dividends.
Our gross reserve at the MMA, after two years, has improved. From US$368million to US$627million. If we are able to grow, we want the reserve to grow. Countries like Singapore and Taiwan have reserves worth two trillion, three trillion. We have a reserve of 500 to 600 million. But we want to copy Singapore in the way we live. Looking at our hopes, Maldivian youth also want iPhones, and they want to live like Singaporeans, they want to spend, and if they earn, they also want to go abroad for medical care. If Singapore has the best care, it is there that we want to go. But if you look at the depth of our economy, I have demonstrated our difference in one small example. If the value of the Singaporean dollar depreciates, with a reserve at trillions, their central banks have the space to intervene. But the Maldivian central bank does not have the strength to intervene to hold the value of the Maldivian Rufiyaa. If the value of the rufiyaa erodes, with just five to six hundred million dollars, we cannot make it with open market operations. Our bank does not have that strength.
So we are bringing foreign investors to raise revenue in dollars, to diversify the economy, because we are unable to do so. If we are to do things at our own pace, I will once again give you an example, President Maumoon, in order to solve congestion in Malé, decided to reclaim land, and that was a very good and rewarding decision. But because reclamation is expensive, there were many in the government who opposed it. But President Maumoon decided to go forward. But doing so with the money we had, and at our own tempo, it took us seven to seven and a half years. But today, our thinking has changed, because we want transformation and we want major work done at a high speed. When we decided this is something we wanted to do, we set up credit facilities for reclamation, we were able to reclaim 240 or 250 hectares, an area much larger than the existing Hulhumalé in nine weeks, not seven and a half years.
Students and professors of economics, policy implementers always say, time is money. Lost time has an opportunity cost in terms of money, and opportunity. The most important aspect of the economy is to have a vision, to believe in that vision and to implement it fast. In my cabinet, my ministers are very qualified and young. Their work is to solve major issues speedily. That is why foreign investors are interested in the Maldives. We have heard right, in a neighboring country, the wait for a phone line runs up to 150 days. But here, it takes a matter of days. Maldivians do not have the patience to wait a week for a phone line.
We want luxury. And that is very good. That is consumerism. Consumerism drives the economy forward, but I will also say that you must also save, for the future. But spending what you earn is good for the economy. So we will not wait 300 days for a phone line. When we want something, we want it done today or tomorrow. And that is a good characteristic. But our challenge is, do we have the facilities to do so? If not, we must make those facilities available. But if investors have to wait on permits for months, they do not have to stay in the Maldives. They can take their applications elsewhere, to the Carribean for tourism, there are other places with the same natural environment. If it is difficult to get things done here, they will not wait and watch. If we want to bring an airline, a bank, if we are not able to speed up permits, they will not wait, they will go elsewhere. Our biggest advantage is that we are able to expedite such processes.
Next, the government wants to protect foreign investors to the extent they want, and today’s People’s Majlis is doing this for us. If we are unable to amend laws, then this not doable. For example, SEZ Act, if we want to attract major investments, we have to provide them with incentives, special incentives. Those incentives, protection for investments, and keeping government intervention to a minimum will attract them to the Maldives. This is why we had to make a special law, we had to convince MPs that if we want to attract investment worth US$1 billion, a thousand million dollars, we are not talking about setting up a carpentry shop here, we are not talking about restaurants, we are talking about major investments. One billion dollars or higher.
To do that, it does not make sense to say we are running out of land. God’s blessings bestowed on us include beautiful oceans, beaches and abundant lagoons. There are lots of shallow reefs. In an earlier meeting, I said with just 500 million dollars we have the space to reclaim, if I recall correctly, 35 more Hulhumalés. Land can be reclaimed. We should not be concerned about the sale of land. But the spirit of progress, we need to have the courage to unlock our minds, let go of ancient beliefs, if we are able to open our frontiers – and opening up frontiers does not mean opening up customs, it means opening up people’s minds. I believe we can do so.”