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The crisis in the Maldives, explained

- February 12, 2018
Opposition supporters shout slogans during a protest in Male, Maldives, on Feb. 4. (Mohamed Sharuhaan/AP)

If you’ve heard of Maldives, a South Asian country southwest of Sri Lanka in the Arabian Sea, you may know it as an island paradise. But severe political crisis erupted there Feb. 5 when President Yameen Abdul Gayoom of the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) declared a state of emergency. Security forces stormed the Supreme Court and arrested two of its five sitting judges, and sealed parliament, arresting two members of the opposition. As his term comes to a close, Gayoom is cracking down on the opposition. Numerous opposition leaders are in jail and others fear arrest, as he attempts to continue ruling as a strongman, despite court opposition.

Can Maldives have free and fair elections in November? How are China and India involved? Will the international community intervene? Here are five things you need to know.

How did this all begin?

The crisis began in 2012 when loyalists of former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom forced Mohamed Nasheed — the first democratically elected president of Maldives — to resign and sentenced him to 13 years in prison on terrorism charges. In 2009, Nasheed made an international splash when he held the world’s first underwater cabinet meeting, with all attendees in scuba gear, to illustrate the dangers of climate change to the low-lying island state. At that year’s Copenhagen summit, he pledged to make Maldives the world’s first carbon-neutral state.

Maumoon Gayoom is Yameen Gayoom’s half brother and founder of the PPM, and he ruled Maldives with an iron fist for 30 years. Nasheed claims that he was forced to resign at gunpoint in a military coup. The U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention found his detention to be in violation of international law. In 2013, Yameen Gayoom assumed power with his half brother’s support after an election fraught with delays and irregularities.

Since 2016, Nasheed has sought political asylum in Britain. He was in Sri Lanka during the recent ruling, when the Supreme Court vacated his conviction, which would allow him to return. He has said he will run for office in November. In the event that he cannot run, Nasheed has said that he will back an opposition candidate.

How does the Supreme Court’s ruling threaten Yameen Gayoom’s power?

The arrests come after the Supreme Court ruled that two of the president’s actions were unconstitutional. First, it ruled unanimously that Gayoom had wrongly imprisoned nine high-profile opposition figures and that they must be released. Those include retired Col. Mohamed Nazim, a former defense minister, who many Maldivians believe was framed, and Ahmed Adeeb, Gayoom’s former vice president. The court found that prosecutors and judges were forced to conduct “politically motivated” investigations.

In these most recent arrests, the government also took into custody 80-year-old Maumoon Gayoom, who has been running his own PPM faction after being stripped of the leadership position in 2016. In March 2017, he joined the opposition coalition in an effort to restore democracy and ensure free and fair elections.

Second, the court ruled that Yameen Gayoom had wrongly removed 12 legislators from their seats in November when they defected from the ruling party. The court order restored these seats, which would have cost him his parliamentary majority.

Maldives’s entire opposition is now united in a coalition dedicated to removing the younger Gayoom — in no small part because of his strongman behavior. Since the Supreme Court’s ruling, Gayoom has fired two police chiefs after police said they would uphold the court’s orders. Now, his administration claims that it stormed the Supreme Court to avert a coup.

What does the state of emergency do?

The 15-day state of emergency grants all powers to the president. It allows security forces to detain individuals and limits the reach of parliament and the Supreme Court. Numerous constitutional rights have been suspended, including parliament’s authority to remove the president, the Supreme Court’s ability to determine disputes related to impeachment, and the Criminal Procedure Code. Normally, parliament can legally impeach the president or the court could issue a warrant for his arrest if he commits crimes or violates the constitution. But the state of emergency prevents the president from being forcibly removed and gives him the authority to keep opposition leaders imprisoned.

What implications does this have for the November elections?

Maldives’s parliament has been sealed by the army, though its opening was scheduled for Feb. 5. Although the emergency lasts only 15 days, it could be extended. It also gives Gayoom time to replace the judges.

The Supreme Court’s three remaining judges have reversed the court’s original ruling so that the convictions against nine opposition leaders hold. They have said that anyone criticizing its decision will be in contempt of court. Nasheed risks arrest if he returns. The 12 legislators the Supreme Court had restored to parliament still theoretically have their seats, but this may not last. Nor does it matter, while parliament is sealed.

Will the international community intervene?

Nasheed has asked that India lead an international effort to enforce the original court orders. However, the Indian government appears reluctant to send in its military. What’s more, Maldives’s once-strong relationship with India has been strained by China’s increasing economic influence.

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In December, China and Maldives signed a free-trade agreement despite the opposition’s disapproval. The 1,000-page document passed in parliament with less than an hour of discussion. China has invested in numerous infrastructure projects, such as the China-Maldives Friendship Bridge between the international airport and Male, the capital of Maldives, and a 1,000-apartment housing project. There are rumors that China may eventually pursue a naval base in Maldives, following its first overseas base in Djibouti. Not surprisingly, China is opposed to Indian intervention.

Aside from China, the international community seems unanimous in condemning Gayoom’s regime. The U.S. National Security Council tweeted that the government must respect the rule of law, freedom of expression and democratic institutions. U.N. human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein called the recent events in Maldives an “all-out assault on democracy.” U.N. Secretary General António Guterres has urged the government of Maldives to lift the emergency order. The U.N. Security Council was expected to address the issue Thursday.

But what the international community will do remains unclear. Nasheed is urging that India send an envoy, along with its military, to free the judges and political prisoners. This will allow the arrested politicians to run for office in November. He has also asked the United States to stop all the regime leaders’ financial transactions that go through U.S. banks.

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But China’s implicit support for Gayoom’s regime complicates the situation; the country holds veto power in the Security Council.

If Gayoom’s government continues to jail the opposition and control state institutions, free and fair elections remain unlikely.

Nayma Qayum is an assistant professor and chair of the Asian Studies department at Manhattanville College.