Challenges galore for current regime in the Maldives: Nooshin Waheed

Nooshin Waheed, Chairperson, Maldivian Democracy Network
A human rights defender from the Maldives, with counter-terrorism expertise, Nooshin Waheed is the chairperson of the Maldivian Democracy Network, a non-profit human rights organisation, and a consultant to the Maldives president on counter-terrorism. In an interview with

Elections in the Maldives held earlier this year were keenly watched here in India. We were not confident that the outgoing regime would actually pass on power, but it did. What do you think made the Abdulla Yameen regime bow to democratic pressure?

I was as surprised as you were. There was no doubt in my mind as to the unpopularity of Abdulla Yameen’s regime, and that in a free and fair election he would easily be voted out.  My doubts were whether we would get a free and fair election, and whether his regime would accept the results, if he lost. In the 2013 elections, the Supreme Court annulled the results numerous times until Yameen won, and I expected a repetition of that.

Yameen lost his grip on power for two reasons. First, he did not have as tight a grip on the election commission and other institutions as he believed he did.

Second, there was a naive miscalculation of his support amongst the electorate. I think, to some extent, he sincerely believed that mega projects spearheaded by his administration would sway the vote favourably in his direction, and that the people of the Maldives would not care as much about rampant corruption, brutality and oppression. The voting was, therefore, allowed to go ahead with minimal interference from the government.

Once the results came in that the Maldivian Democratic Party and its coalition partners had won an unprecedented 58 per cent of the vote, it was too late for Yameen to deploy his usual tactics. The will of the people of the Maldives was evident to the world, and no institution in the country dared to challenge it.

The outside world perceives the Maldives – 98 per cent Muslim – as a hotbed of radicalisation. Hundreds of young Maldivians are in Syria to join Daesh. A Maldivian national, Ibrahim Fauzee, imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay for his connections with Al-Qaeda, has since been released and runs the Islamic Foundation of the Maldives in Male. But nevertheless, there is an arm’s length distance between political parties and the clergy. Would this be a correct assessment?

The Maldives does have a serious issue of radicalisation. We have the highest number of Foreign Terrorist Fighters per capita in the world. The previous administration allowed radicalisation to go unaddressed, and downplayed the issue in media. In addition, they also allowed extremist elements to act with impunity in the country. Although we have not witnessed a terrorist attack in the Maldives since 2007, there have been a number of vigilante attacks on bloggers, journalists and human rights defenders. The murder of the moderate scholar and MP Dr Afrasheem Ali, the enforced disappearance of journalist and blogger Ahmed Rilwan Abdulla and the murder of blogger and activist Yameen Rasheed are some examples of this. In addition, human rights defenders are constantly targeted and have received death threats by extremist elements operating in the country. The state in the past has protected those responsible.

Therefore, I would say that certain political parties colluded with extremist elements to attack their critics and political opposition and create a climate of fear in the country. The distinction between certain political parties and extremist elements was not so clear cut. In fact, we still see the opposition use religion as a weapon in order to delegitimise the current administration by labelling them as ‘irreligious.’ Religion and politics have often gone hand in hand in the Maldives in the past and that has become a dangerous trend, leading to death threats and violence against individuals.

What are the counter-terrorism strategies that you propose to put in place, given your recent appointment as a Counter Terrorism Consultant in President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih’s office?

My role is primarily to advise the current administration on counter-terrorism issues in the country. The current transition the country is undergoing, from a despotic regime to a democratic one, is fraught with challenges. We have inherited a political climate where violent extremism was not taken seriously enough and where extremists were given free rein to operate. It is extremely challenging to undo years of wrongdoing, and steer this country onto a safer path. However, I believe that this new administration takes the threat of terrorism seriously, and that we will soon see strong policies aimed at addressing the issues of terrorism and radicalisation.

As a woman activist with a political science and counter-terrorism background, what is life like for you in the Maldives?

Historically in the Maldives, women have played a significant role in the public sphere. Women participated in elections, and a small number were in cabinet posts. With the pro-democracy movement in early 2000’s, there was a significant number of women activists who fought against the dictatorship of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and played an important role in peacefully bringing about democratic elections in 2008, despite the threat of arrest and torture by his regime. Following the coup in 2012 against the democratic government, women were once again at the forefront of protests, spearheading the efforts against the slide back to autocracy. Women activism is nothing new, and I am eternally grateful that these women paved the path for me and the future generations of women to participate in the political process and fight for democratic rights.

The Maldives still faces a number of challenges when it comes to women in leadership roles. There are a number of structural and societal reasons as to why women are underrepresented in leadership. The recent nomination of two very qualified women to the Supreme Court, and the fact that we now have a woman as defence minister, shows promise. However, women in leadership, and especially, women in political leadership have to navigate in a society where they face a lot of pushback from conservative elements who do not believe that women should get a seat at the table, for religious reasons or otherwise. This is the political reality that women have to operate in.

I am lucky that I have friends and family who are very supportive of what I do. Working in counter-terrorism, and speaking openly about radicalisation, terrorism, and human rights can be dangerous work in the Maldives, so it has been great to have such a great support base to lean on.

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