The ‘Heylaa’ (Awake) youth group officially launched a campaign against foreign freeholds today with a gathering at the surf point in Malè.
Controversial amendments to the constitution allowing foreigners to own freeholds with an investment of US$1 billion was passed in late July with overwhelming multi-party support, two days after it was submitted to the parliament.
About 50 people, including Jumhooree Party (JP) MP Ali Hussain, former environment minister Mohamed Aslam, and national council members of the main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) as well as some members of the ruling Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) gathered at the capital’s eastern waterfront from 4:00pm to 6:00pm.
Speakers at the gathering stressed that the amendments were passed in 72 hours without any public consultation or debate and called for a public referendum.
Participants held up placards and banners that read, “Maldivians’ interest more important a billionaire’s interest,” “Majlis/government cannot hand over my country to others without asking me,” “I don’t want to be a refugee in my own country.”
Speaking to Maldives Independent, Mabrook Azeez, a member of Heylaa, said the gathering was planned as “a networking event” to share views on the issue, enlist participants, and plan a prolonged campaign.
“We see this activity taking place over many days. Today is when we formally began the campaign. We will work towards holding bigger events than this in the coming weeks,” he said.
The group also organised a two-hour public debate on the constitutional amendments at the Salt Café tonight.
Heylaa’s plans for the campaign include further forums at larger venues, public gatherings, and trips across the country to raise awareness and seek public opinion, Mabrook said.
Mabrook said he was satisfied with the turnout: “We wanted to meet people who want to become involved in this and take the initiative to do the work.”
The group collected contact information and sought the views of various participants, Mabrook said.
He noted that opinion on the issue of foreign land ownership ranged from those who completely oppose the move to others who support selling land in principle but were concerned with the lack of due process in passing the amendments.
The question of land ownership is a sensitive issue for Maldivians, he continued, and should not be decided without a public referendum.
Mabrook explained that Heylaa is a non-partisan youth movement formed by a group of friends for the purpose of “bringing the public’s wishes to the political sphere.”
The Youth Integrity Network (YIN) and Dhi Youth Movement joined the campaign last week.
Participants at the gathering today also began collecting signatures on a petition calling on President Abdulla Yameen to exercise his constitutional authority to hold a public referendum on the issue on foreign freeholds.
Mabrook said the group chose the surf point for the gathering as a large number of residents of the congested capital city frequent the area in the late afternoons.
Despite the presence of senior MDP members, Mabrook said the campaign was not affiliated with any political party, adding that young members of the ruling party had also joined the gathering.
The MDP had said the party supports “free ownership of land and property” in principle, but expressed concern with the amendments facilitating “foreign non-commercial logistical installations in the Maldives.”
Some 10 MDP MPs voted in favour of the amendments after the party issued a free whip for the vote as part of a deal with the government in exchange for President Yameen pardoning former President Mohamed Nasheed. However, the opposition leader was not released and the prosecutor general appealed the terrorism conviction on behalf of the state.
Addressing concerns after ratifying the amendments, President Yameen assured the public that authorising foreign ownership of land or freeholds in the Maldives will not threat Indian Ocean security or lead to “enslavement” and shortage of land.
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