MALÉ, 7 February 2018: The political crisis in the Maldives deepened this week after embattled President Abdulla Yameen declared a state of emergency and ordered the arrest of top judges and a former president.
Travel advisories issued by China and India warn against all but essential followed. Both the UK and the US warned its citizens to exercise caution.
The upmarket holiday paradise does not often find itself in the news, but a shock Supreme Court decision last week ordering the release of top opposition politicians has triggered a furious response from authoritarian ruler Yameen.
What’s going on?
Yameen, who came to power in 2013, has presided over an escalating crackdown on dissent that has battered the Maldives’ reputation. He has jailed almost all the political opposition.
The Maldives was plunged into fresh chaos this week after the president refused to comply with the Supreme Court’s Thursday order to release nine dissidents and restore the seats of 12 legislators sacked for defecting from Yameen’s party.
The Supreme Court ruling gives the opposition the majority in the assembly — meaning they could potentially impeach the president.
In a stunning blow to the regime, it also paves the way for exiled former president Mohamed Nasheed — the first democratically elected leader who was controversially convicted of terrorism in 2015 — to return and run for president this year.
On Monday, Yameen sent soldiers to storm the court and arrest judges, with Maldives police also detaining Yameen’s estranged half-brother and former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who had sided with the main opposition.
Hundreds of people gathered outside the court complex and police used pepper spray to disperse the crowds.
Where do the security forces stand?
The head of the armed forces is publicly backing Yameen.
But as ex-president Gayoom — who ruled for 30 years until 2008 elections — was led out of his house, riot police saluted him, according to the local Maldives Independent website, and analysts have warned his arrest could split the security forces as he still commands deep respect.
The emergency declaration gives sweeping powers to security forces to arrest and detain individuals, curtails the powers of the judiciary and bars parliament from impeaching Yameen.
The opposition says it shows Yameen is “desperate” and Nasheed, who has previously expressed fears of unrest in the troubled Indian Ocean nation, said it amounted to imposing martial law.
Yameen has drawn close to China and Saudi Arabia during his time in office, with both countries investing heavily in the tiny tourist archipelago in the Indian Ocean, and may feel he has enough support to weather the storm.
How did we get here?
Mohamed Nasheed became the country’s first democratically elected president in 2008 and swiftly became an international celebrity because of his urgent pleas to address climate change. He held a cabinet meeting underwater to highlight the low-lying archipelago’s plight.
The country has been locked in a slow-burn political crisis since Yameen won a controversial run-off against Nasheed in 2013 presidential elections.
During his time in power “President Yameen has systematically alienated his coalition, jailed or exiled every major opposition political figure, deprived elected Members of Parliament of their right to represent their voters… revised laws to erode human rights (and fired) any officials who refuse orders,” the US State Department said.
What about the tourists?
The tensions have already hurt the tourism industry — the largest contributor to the country’s economy — despite government assurances that visitors are safe.
China — the number one source of tourists for the Maldives — and neighbouring India have already warned their national to defer all non-essential travel, and the UK and the US have warned their nationals to exercise caution in Male.
In 2015, when the government declared a state of emergency because of fears of terrorism, tourist booking plummeted which hit economic growth hard.
Nearly 1.4 million foreigners visited the Maldives last year, up from 1.28 million the previous year.
What happens next
All eyes are on the security forces to see what will happen now that Gayoom is in detention, and whether further street protests will break out despite the state of emergency.
Nasheed has already said he will run again in elections scheduled for this year and has called for regional super power India to intervene.
Yameen, who has previously faced several unsuccessful opposition attempts to impeach him for alleged corruption, looks determined to fight off all challenges to his rule
Opposition legislators have also called on the international community to pressure Yameen.
© Agence France-Presse