The popular tropical tourist getaway of the Maldives has had a rocky political track record in recent years. On 1 February political turmoil flared up again, when the government, led by incumbent president Abdulla Yameen, refused to follow a court order to release nine political prisoners. The main political opposition in the country quickly stated that the refusal amounted to a coup. The president subsequently declared a state of emergency, which is to last until 20 February. The Supreme Court decision was declared unconstitutional by the president’s spokesperson, judges as well as senior leaders have been arrested, and the army was ordered to stop the Supreme Court from implementing the verdict.
Although the state of emergency was not accompanied by a curfew, there have been reports of violence in media. The situation on the ground however appears not yet to have escalated, although peaceful gatherings of people in support for the opposition have been reported to be interrupted and dispersed by the police. Over the weekend, supporters of president Yameen put emphasis on the government’s reluctance to clamp down on protesters as proof of its ability to deal with the protestors’ discontent.
The government has been sending envoys to a few key countries in the region, to convince them of the capability of the government in Malé to maintain the state quo. Representatives from other concerned nations, for example some EU member states, have yet to be granted meetings with the government.
Can new media mobilize external attention?
Scholars of new media generally are of the opinion that online communication may garner attention from outside actors, mobilizing political sympathy or hostility and can create new opportunities to generate power internally (Aday et. al., 2010). On social media, not the least through Twitter, the hashtag #MaldivesinCrisis has accompanied the developments over the past days. So far, the hashtag seems to be used by both government supporters and protesters alike. Is it possible to attribute some of the international attention to new media?
Social media is often described as important tools for activists seeking to replace authoritarian regimes to promote freedom and democracy, and they have been lauded for their democratizing potential (Aday et. al., 2010). According to Freedom House, just a bit above half of the island nations some 400 000 population have access to the internet. An internet that is only considered partly free at best. @OmarWaraich of Amnesty International thinks that the Supreme Court verdict “could be a huge turning point” for the current government.
The situation unfolding on the tropical island has been getting an almost surprisingly high level of international attention over the past days. Less than a week from the Supreme Court ruling the situation was discussed as in the UN Security Council, as an additional order of business, on the agenda of 9 February. In a 8 February phone call between US president Trump and Indian Prime Minister Modi views on security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region were exchanged, specifically touching on the situation in the Maldives. The importance of democratic institutions and the rule of law were stressed.
The situation needs to be seen in a larger picture. Firstly, the most crucial point of the Supreme Court verdict that triggered the #MaldivesinCrisis was the fact that it had declared criminal accusations against political opposition leaders void, including those against the former president Mohammed Nasheed, currently in exile in the UK. Former president Nasheed got strong support from notably the US and India most recently back in 2015, when he was sentenced to 13 years in prison on allegations of terrorism, a verdict that the Supreme Court now has reversed. It is safe to say that the pro-democracy ex-president Nasheed would be a likely favorite for Western democracies to lead the Maldives.
Secondly, the development needs to be seen in a geopolitical context regarding security in the Indo-pacific region. The notion of the Indo-pacific region has been getting increased attention over the past year. It has very much to do with the expanding role of Chinese influence in the region. There are doubtlessly strong ties between the governments of the Maldives and China, as with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. According to media, the Maldives government has for example extended a request for support from China, which the Chinese authorities declined.
Thirdly, attention via new media, not the least through #MaldivesinCrisis, has most likely mattered in conveying information about the situation in the Maldives to the outside world. It is however difficult to conclude that the efforts on social media have been the key factor in bringing the foreign attention. Traditional media has also played a role in getting the situation on the agenda.
Most likely, all of the above-mentioned reasons, as well as other aspects, have all played a part in propelling the developments in the Maldives to the international headlines.
Image by P.K. Niyogi.
- Aday, S., Farrell, H., Lynch, M. et al. 2010: Blogs and Bullets: New Media in Contentious Politics, Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace.