BANGKOK — In the Maldives, well-known, politically active women are being detained and strip searched during protests. A respected civil society leader, who used social media to speak out against what has come to resemble a military dictatorship, has been labeled anti-Islamic and is currently under government investigation. Foreign journalists, meanwhile, have been deported or do not feel safe working inside the country, while recent fact-finding missions headed by international human rights groups have been turned around at the airport.
For much of the last three decades, the Maldives has been considered a development success story, graduating from “least developed country” in 2011 after recovering from a devastating 2008 tsunami. But United Nations agencies and civil society groups are increasingly struggling to enact positive change beneath a government cracking down on human rights at home while presenting progressive ideals abroad.
On March 22, Maldives President Abdulla Yameen lifted the back-to-back state of emergencies he declared in the Indian Ocean island nation in early February after the Maldives’ Supreme Court ordered the immediate release of several high-level political prisoners and reinstallation of opposition figures to parliament. Rather than comply, Yameen sealed off the country’s parliament and detained several judges.
Yameen came to power in 2013 in a disputed election, and the “Maldives has been on a downhill slope since, really,” said Thilmeeza Hussain, former minister of state under the Maldives’ first democratically elected government, which dissolved less than four years after its inception. “Since then, we have not had stability or proper governing systems.”
The declaration of a state of emergency is just the latest in a string of actions that demonstrate disregard for rule of law, said Hussain, who currently lives in New York and leads Voice of Women, an NGO that addresses women and climate change in the Maldives. A vast network of corruption was previously exposed by Al Jazeera’s 2016 investigative reporting project “Stealing Paradise,” which revealed theft, bribery, and money laundering at the top of the Maldives government.
“It was a very young democracy and we were still trying to establish independent institutions, trying to build a civil society space,” she added of the Maldives from 2008 to 2012. “Now, we see total regression.”
The regression, according to development professionals and activists Devex spoke with, comes mainly in the form of human rights’ abuses and development at the expense of marine ecosystems and local livelihoods. Ongoing protests to express outrage at the unconstitutional state of emergency, for example, revealed a government willing to threaten, detain, and humiliate women.
But on the international stage, the government presents an entirely different front, said Humay Abdulghafoor, a Maldivian human rights researcher and co-founder of local women-focused civil society group Uthema.
“I would say the government wants to pander to the women’s rights narrative or gender equality narrative that is the mandate of various U.N. agencies here,” Abdulghafoor said.
The United Nations Population Fund has been working with the Maldives Ministry of Gender and other stakeholders to come up with gender policies and strategies after a Gender Equality Act was passed in 2016. But progress on the adoption of a gender action plan the agency and other partners have helped develop has stalled, and the U.N. body faces increasing challenges in broaching the provision of adolescent health services with the government.
“The government likes to go to Geneva and to the treaty bodies and try to present a very progressive picture of what is happening in the Maldives, but that is not consistent with what happens on the ground,” Abdulghafoor added.
Within the country, grand gestures to win quick favor — such as a nod to 2018 International Women’s Day by presenting women with roses at work — do little to impress activists trying to establish a more robust foundation for women’s rights: “This president is a very sexist and misogynist president,” Hussain told Devex. “He publicly makes comments saying that the development work to address the challenges the country is facing is something for men, and women need to take a backseat.”
The government’s tendency to present an entirely different Maldives abroad than at home extends to environmental decisions, Hussain said. Former president Mohamed Nasheed, the first democratically elected leader of the country, became known as a passionate climate change champion determined to make his country carbon-neutral within 10 years
Now, under Yameen, a swathe of ongoing, largely Chinese-funded infrastructure projects demonstrates an aggressive development agenda and a disregard for environmental impact assessments and the fragile ecosystems the construction affects across the nation’s 1,200 islands, Hussain told Devex.
“We have had reports that some of these [infrastructure] projects in the central Maldives have done so much damage that the local fisher folks are unable to catch bait fish anymore.”— Thilmeeza Hussain, former minister of state of the Maldives
“The government likes to portray that they are very environmentally friendly, but projects for reclamation of land and construction of ports and airports are awarded without a proper bidding process, and without doing due diligence on environmental assessments,” Hussain said. “And even in those cases when an assessment is done, they don't abide by the reports.”
“We have had reports that some of these projects in the central Maldives have done so much damage that the local fisher folks are unable to catch bait fish anymore,” she added.
Access to any kind of official information in the Maldives is increasingly hard to come by, according to one source familiar with the country who wished not to be named: “There's no real paper trail,” the source said. “So the environment ministry, for example, they wouldn't necessarily publish environmental impact assessment reports. So with all this construction that's going on, we don't actually know what the damage to the environment will be.”
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In the recent case of Kulhudhuffushi, known as the "heart of the north" and located on an island famous for its mangroves, the Maldives government approved reclamation work late last year, which “is a very strong indicator of how the government dealt with an issue that affects biodiversity as well as so many women on this island,” Abdulghafoor said.
A group of civil society advocates called on authorities to stop the destruction of mangroves, which have proven crucial in preserving marine biodiversity and supporting livelihoods for many women of the Maldives who rely on the muddy areas of coastal vegetation to make coir rope.
“We are deeply concerned that environmental regulatory processes have been completely disregarded by the Minister for Environment and Energy,” reads an open letter signed by 13 civil society organizations, including Uthema and Voice of Women, in November 2017. The letter did little to stall the project, which will be a new airport, despite the fact that an international airport at Haa Dhaal Hanimaadhoo is a 20-minute speedboat ride away, said Abdulghafoor, who described the government’s take on development as something that “seems quite alien to most of us.”
One change she would like to see immediately is increased oversight of funding committed toward Maldives’ climate change adaptation: “The Global Climate Fund, for example, when they commit large amounts of money to the Maldives, what criteria are they looking at? What assurance do they have that the people of the Maldives will receive, or benefit from, these funds? These funds should be monitored and ensure that they are appropriately utilized. That assurance, I don’t see it.”
So far, increased international intervention in the country’s affairs looks unlikely, several sources familiar with the matter told Devex. In the meantime, civil society — though still a very young sector in the country — continues to protest opaque development projects and human rights abuses, despite an increasingly constrained space to do so.
The number of protests in the country has waned since the expiration of the state of emergency, but many activists have promised to continue speaking out no matter the consequences.
“There could be reprisals against anybody at any time,” Abdulghafoor said. “Things are so unstable, you don’t know what will happen tomorrow. Every day, we hear things about governance that concern us. We are not progressing. What kind of development can there be without democratic governance?”