In September, Maldivians won something very unusual when they went to the polls to vote—a second chance at democracy. For the past five years, Maldivian president Abdullah Yameen has ruled by hook and by crook, including unsuccessfully attempting to steal the election. Yet, the people of the Maldives were adamant and resolute in their fight for democracy.
But now that they have democracy, they have to protect it by embarking on transitional justice: something which will hold to account the people who exploited their power and give comfort to those whose rights were abused. If they do not, the corrupt will walk away, believing—correctly—that they can act with impunity and face no consequences. Such a belief could have dire consequences for our second chance at democracy.
I was born in an era of one-person rule in the Maldives that lasted for 30 years. I was proud that I was one of the many people who took to the streets to bring multi-party democracy to the country in 2008. It was an exciting time for all Maldivians, especially for young people. The sky was the limit and our future was about to change for the better.
Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for that feeling to end when our young democracy was overthrown in a coup in 2012. But Maldivians didn’t sit at home. They took to the streets again and for the past seven years have called for free and fair elections and the rule of law. Those efforts paid off when Ibrahim Mohamed Solih and a coalition-led opposition ticket defeated Yameen who had been among the coup plotters.
Yameen and senior officials in his administration are accused of laundering $1.5 billion, using state resources and the Maldives Monetary Authority to funnel money out of the country and the theft of state funds including millions of dollars in tourism revenue.
In the past seven years we saw young, independent institutions such as the Judicial Service Commission, Human Rights Commission, Anti-Corruption Commission, Maldives Broadcasting Commission, Maldives Media Council and the Elections Commission, being turned into political weapons by Yameen. Instead of serving as oversight bodies that were supposed to guard against corruption and check the power of the judiciary and executive arm of the government, they were subverted.
Most chillingly, we saw journalists kidnapped or murdered, political rivals killed in political violence and opposition leaders jailed. Meanwhile, Parliament has been under siege by the military for the past year with 12 opposition parliamentarians unlawfully stripped of their seats.
Clearly there is a lot of work to do for the incoming government to rebuild the institutions necessary for a functioning democracy. As Maldivians know from their recent experience, the hard work of winning the democratic fight pales in comparison to the work ahead to ensure it takes root.
This rebuilding must also take place while President-elect Solih embarks on a road of healing and bringing the nation together. Reforming institutions including the judiciary should be at the top of the list, along with rooting out corrupt officials in the military and police forces. There also must be investigations and justice for the murders and violent crimes that took place over the past several years as well as the recovery of billions of dollars in stolen state funds through assets recovery.
There are some who want to seek justice for every single crime committed during the past seven years including the coup. There are others who argue that we cannot afford to prosecute every single perpetrator or go on a witch hunt and that we need to forgive and move forward. There are those who believe that Yameen should be given a way out and allow him to leave the country—essentially, a good riddance to bad rubbish policy. Some may even consider this to be a pragmatic solution.
But my question is: can we truly honour the sacrifices of thousands of Maldivians, especially those who lost their lives? It was evident from the voter turnout in September’s elections—almost 90% of people came out and some stood in lines for over 11 hours—that Maldivians want, more than anything, a true democracy with rule of law, justice and good governance. They want an end to the culture of impunity. That means justice for the victims and accountability for the perpetrators is what they desperately seek.
The challenge will be to walk that fine line of serving justice while trying not be bogged down in a witch hunt. After all, the country should look towards the future and move on from the past. But at the same time, moving on means dealing with the past. That means transitional justice.
A transitional justice mechanism will need to be established where people who have lost so much, including loved ones, can find comfort and accountability for the perpetrators who caused harm and destroyed the country’s young democracy. I don’t know how perpetrators should be punished or whether some amnesty should be given. But I do know that the last time we won our democracy in 2008, we failed to create any mechanism for addressing the abuses of the past and the country ultimately suffered for it.
Maldivians cannot afford to lose this chance. Our roles as responsible citizens do not end with our votes. We need to stand by President-elect Ibu Solih and see this through. We need to actively contribute to and support this new administration as active citizens in order to establish justice and reform, and root out autocracy.
Maldivians have been given a second chance at democracy. We dare not be careless with it.
Thilmeeza Hussain is a former deputy ambassador of the Maldives to the UN and a 2018 Aspen Institute New Voices fellow.