Aircrafts zoom towards the Maldives, carrying wealthy tourists to enchanting island resorts where they are welcomed with champagne and strawberries. They will be unaware of the political chaos in the capital of Maldives, Malé, as they enjoy their stay in bungalows over dazzling transparent waters of lagoons.
All is not well in this paradise of islands. Democracy has turned to farce and autocracy. President Yameen became president through questionable means, violating articles 107, 262, 268 of the constitution. A new anti-terrorism bill grants him exclusive authority to declare people and groups as terrorists. Thus, former president Nasheed has been convicted and imprisoned for 13 years for terrorism, for his 2011 detention of the corrupt and ill-qualified Judge Abdulla.
Fair trial procedures were discarded to convict Nasheed, who was also portrayed as a threat to “traditional Islamic values.” The global spotlight fell on Yameen. His “politicised judiciary” was condemned by countries across the world, yet the two judges who sentenced Nasheed have since been promoted to the High Court.
On May 1, the air was filled with pepper spray and tear gas from pitched battles between the protestors and the police when 20,000 people came out in the streets of Malé to seek the release of Nasheed and demand that the government negotiate with opposition parties. Police violence and arrests resulting in fear and intimidation has reduced the momentum of later demonstrations.
The Supreme Court’s sui motu has severely restricted the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives (HRCM) which had criticised the judiciary. UN experts pointed out that this ruling against HRCM is contrary to the tenets of the constitution and the country’s international obligations. Although Western nations have recommended that the country take steps to “ensure administration of justice that conforms to international human rights standards through separation of powers and training of judges,” this has largely gone unheeded.
The political upheaval and authoritarian actions of the government have been accompanied by i) the rise of Islamic conservatism, ii) a politically influenced judiciary, iii) militarisation of the police, iv) close collaboration with China, and v) heightened xenophobia among the local people, increasing harassment of migrant workers.
The Maldivian constitutional assembly has declared Islam to be the state religion and that laws enacted in the country must follow the Sharia. The luxury island resorts that break the tenets of Islam were left unaffected. Perhaps for the assembly, God and Mammon can exist together happily where financial gains are concerned.
Religion among average Maldivians has gained impetus. It is estimated that by March, around 70 to 200 Maldivians had gone to Syria to join IS or other extremist groups.
Yameen began his tenure in 2013 with close collaboration with China by transferring the $511m airport project from India’s GMR Group to China. Now China is involved in a massive initiative to connect the capital Malé with the island of Hulhulé Malé. The next investment forum of Maldives will be held in China. India’s earlier confidence viewing the Indian Ocean as its backyard is being challenged.
Tourism necessitated building over-water bungalows and recreational facilities, and the wealth generated from tourism required extensive housing projects in Malé for the new Maldivian rich. The capital comprises only two sq-km, which has made rent there amongst the highest in the world. The construction boom increased demand for migrant workers, mostly Bangladeshis who earn around $100 or less. Their lives are unbearably painful.
In 2007, the government, then under Gayoom, prevented Bangladeshi workers from staging a demonstration in the capital by threatening to deport them. In 2009, gangs of youths assaulted Bangladeshi workers in the island of Kulhufushi. A man was castrated and killed. One worker was chained in a room while another was tied to a tree. The writer, then Bangladesh high commissioner, immediately called a press conference and threatened to pull out the workers. The situation improved for a time.
Yet again, in March 2015, thousands of Bangladeshi workers in luxury resorts were ordered to leave Maldives if a planned demonstration against alleged discrimination went ahead. The protest was organised after a series of attacks on Bangladeshi workers in luxury resorts.
Many Maldivians possess the worst characteristics of “small island mentality” -- insular, cruel, suffering from xenophobia, and treating labourers as inhuman beasts. “Hate crimes” are common as there is a background of “entrenched discrimination” and hostility against workers, who contribute greatly to the economy.
One Bangladeshi worker recently stated that his community was “afraid to go out on streets, they (Maldivians) are stabbing us and beating us.” The current Bangladesh high commissioner has asked workers to refrain from demonstrating after he received assurances from the government that the security of the Bangladeshi labourers would be improved.
But the government has failed to implement established laws and is utilising the political turmoil to militarise the police service and enact legislation that strips away protection of marginalised groups and human rights enshrined in the constitution.
In 2014, a group of Bangladeshi workers employed by a Maldivian approached Transparency Maldives (TM) with complaints of ill-treatment and 13 hours of back-breaking, hazardous work. They had earlier complained to the Labour Relations Authority and were met with reprisals. The electricity line of their living quarter was cut off. In desperation, they approached TM, who intervened and the electric line was restored. The case is under investigation with HRCM, but they are now severely restricted by the court.
The situation improved in 2009/10 under President Nasheed when the writer was able to legalise over 12,000 workers. But the condition has again deteriorated with the lack of good governance and increasing political strife.
The US Dept of State “Trafficking in Persons” Office last year claimed that migrant workers suffered “forced labour, confiscation of identity, and travel documents, with-holding or non-payment of wages, and debt bondage.”
Examination of the automatic formula “Xpat online system” shows that worker quotas issued under the formula are more than requested by employers. It also reveals that 19 websites for which quotas were issued were fictitious.
Furthermore, the immigration department has faced difficulties in implementing the PICES border control system donated in 2013 by the US. Bangladeshi agents, in collusion with employers, custom officers, and brokers in Maldives, are involved in fraudulent recruitment. With an approximate Maldivian population of only 350,000, there are an estimated 200,000 expatriate workers, most of whom are Bangladeshis. Over a quarter do not have legal status. Human trafficking is a lucrative industry and generates over $123m in illegal profits.
Now the political situation might at last show signs of improvement. David Cameron is the first head of government to demand Nasheed’s release. After his party supported a change in the constitution, Nasheed was transferred to house arrest for eight weeks, on medical advice. Yameen has spoken to the UN secretary general for help in resolving the political crisis. This is a positive move.
But what of the Bangladeshi migrant workers, toiling under extremely hazardous conditions and at least one dying every week? Will their situation improve?
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