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Artists protest against coup in Maldives

March 22, 2012

Here is a report on artists protesting against a coup in our neighbourhood that landed in my inbox recently. You would have thought that the Indian media would be as interested in what happens in the Maldives as it is in what happens in some of our other neighbouring countries. But sadly, that is not the case, and so, one gets to hear little of what happens in the Maldives, even though you get to see it often as an unnamed exotic locale or a little beach side remance in Bollywood films.

I am sharing this report as I am sure it would be of interest to Kafila readers in the region. As many may know, last month, on February 13, a coup occurred in the island nation of Maldives, neighbour to India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. The democratically elected president and ex political prisoner Mohamed Nasheed was deposed and political forces close to the former dictator, Gayoom, for long, India’s trusted henchman in the island, returned to power in concert with Islamist conservatives. Most commentators have pointed towards Mohamed Nasheed’s pursuit of anti-corruption cases against the ex-dictator Gayoom as the context within which the coup needs to be seen. India has intervened in the past to ensure that Gayoom’s hold on power is not weakened, and this time too, it seems to want to stay aloof. When it comes to one’s own pet Islamists in the neighbourhood, the Government of India has never had a problem with their conservative, repressive and reactionary politics. That explains why it backs one kind of Islamists against others in Afghanistan, and backs Islamists against secular liberals in the Maldives.

Be that as it may, there is an active pro-democracy movement in the Maldives and in the Maldivian diaspora. Below is the report of an interesting action by a group of artists in the recently opened National Gallery of the Maldives that I referred to at the beginning of this posting.

For more details on the situation in the Maldives as it unfolds – see –

20 March 2012, Male’, Maldives
42 days since the coup d’état, six years after the inauguration of the country’s first National Art Gallery tonight it was teeming with silently protesting young local artists. Walking around with placards depicting the recent gruesome police violence, the silent protestors formed a mobile exhibition parallel to the official opening ceremony of Breathing Atolls: Japan-Maldives Contemporary Art Exhibition. This is the first art gallery opening since a military coup backed by the former dictatorship brought down the first ever democratically elected government. Afzal Shafiu and Ali Nishan the only two local artists that were featured in the Breathing Atolls exhibition and the majority of the visitors unanimously joined in with the demonstrating artistsin supporting their message:
“NO FREEDOM! NO EXPRESSION! Maldivian Artists suppressed under illegitimate government protests for the freedom to express. Freedom of Expression is a fundamental right, yet, a space for creative and artistic flourishing has been denied to us violently and brutally by this Police State. The continuing abuse of fundamental rights and freedom must stop!”

Tonight, for the first time ever there was heavy police presence (in riot gear) at the art gallery and surrounding compound attempting to disperse the demonstrating artists and at times denying them entry into the gallery. These artists demonstrated silently calling for an end to police brutality and restoration of order through immediate elections. International artists may not be aware of the current relapse into repressive situation in the Maldives.

Since the coup violent crackdowns have begun, imposing an atmosphere of fear and repression. Members of the general public including political activists continue to be terrorized by the police and defense forces on the street. Fear and repression by security forces, as well as seeing old faces of dictator Gayyoom’s regime back in power marks a return to darker days of authoritarian rule that Maldivians thought they had overcome during the last three years. These developments treated to undo the huge gains made by the Maldives in strengthening its infant democracy with daily onslaught of violence unleashed upon citizens and violations of fundamental rights and freedom.

It is also noteworthy to mention that the Minister of Tourism, Foreign Minister and the newly installed head of National Centre of Art, Ali Waheed (coup president Dr.Waheed’s brother) were escorted by police personnel while viewing the artwork on display. On the other hand coup president Dr.Waheed’s younger brother Naushad Waheed (an artist currently residing in the UK) is a vocal opponent condemning the coup and calling his brother to step down.

Meanwhile just a few blocks away police were attacking and arresting people peacefully protesting outside coup defense minister’s residence calling for an end to the ongoing state sponsored terrorism against Maldivians. And a couple of hours earlier riot police brutally dispersed a crowd gathered near the Justice Square protesting against the coup.

Artists and artistic expression were systematically suppressed during the dictatorship and art was never considered a medium for political expression. It was simply commodified and sold as souvenirs for tourists. But the young courageous artists tonight took one giant step for all the artists in the nation.

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