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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2609

Maldives : Building a national consensus for democracy

Male, 05 December, (Asiantribune.com): In an address recently to the National Council of the Opposition Maldivian Democratic Party, British High Commissioner to the Republic of Maldives, Dominick Chilcott, emphasized that democracy is a safety valve. He pointed out that a democratic Maldives will be a country more at ease with itself. "This may be difficult for many people to accept right now; but I assure them it is true," he said.Dominick Chilcott: "Firstly, you need to be patient. In Maldives, you are introducing reforms that took hundreds of years in my country."Dominick Chilcott: "Firstly, you need to be patient. In Maldives, you are introducing reforms that took hundreds of years in my country."

Dominick Chilcott in his address said, "I don’t think I need advocate the merits of democracy to a party whose middle name is the word ‘democratic’. But perhaps I should say something about the journey to get there."

He noted "Firstly, you need to be patient. In Maldives, you are introducing reforms that took hundreds of years in my country. Some of you will be better historians of Britain than me but there was roughly 600 years between Magna Carta in 1215 and the Reform Act in 1832."

The High Commissioner praised all those in Maldives who supported democratic reform and said he encouraged all supporters of the reform process to work together in the national interest:

"…introducing democracy should be seen as a national, not a party political, issue. If the government or your party seek to take party political advantage of the reform agenda, it is likely to get bogged down and to become mired in controversy."

High Commissioner warned that heavy-handed police tactics are always counterproductive in long run – and I am not just talking about Maldives. He said that they damage the reputation of the security forces at home and that of the government and the country internationally.

He said, "They create resentment and grievances, which do not go away quickly. They make it more difficult for different parties to work together in the national interest."

Dominick Chilcott also said that the police do have a responsibility to protect people and property and to ensure good order. He underlined, “So theirs is not an easy task. When done well, good policing is one of the hallmarks of democracy. I would have thought in a small society like Maldives it should not be difficult to reach very high standards of good, community policing where the police are seen as the protectors of democratic values, such as respect and tolerance.”

The full text of the address by Dominick Chilcott, British High Commissioner to the Republic of Maldives to the National Council of the Opposition Maldivian Democratic Party is given below:

Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. It is an honour to be invited to speak to the National Council of the Maldivian Democratic Party. I am very grateful to your National Chairperson, Mr Nasheed, and to your acting President, Mr Zaki, for arranging this.

I have not been British High Commissioner to the Maldives very long, only about nine months, and this is shamefully only my second visit to your country. But developments in Maldives have taken up a lot of my time and energy in the past year.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is not a surprise that Maldivian affairs should have kept me and my colleagues in the High Commission so busy. Maldives stands at a crossroads in its history.

The task on which this country and its politicians are embarked, the task of introducing a liberal democracy, if successful, can set this country on the right path for the indefinite future.

On the other hand, if the right path is not taken, the risk is that today’s political tensions remain unresolved or worsen. I do not wish to speculate about the long term consequences if the transition to democracy falters or fails. But we should all fear a failure to achieve democratic change.

No-one, however, need fear democratic change.

Democracy provides the framework within which ideas and policies can be debated and governments can be criticized within agreed rules of the game. So that it is possible to have different views on a particular area of policy and express those views without fear of getting into trouble with the authorities. On the contrary, democracy thrives on different opinions and on opposition parties holding the government accountable through questioning and debate.

And those fundamental freedoms are not just for the political class but for everyone. Freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, right to a fair trial, and freedom from fear of torture or degrading treatment…these basic human rights are the fundamental building blocks of a democracy.

And democracy also, crucially, provides a peaceful mechanism, through elections, for the people to change those who govern them. And this opportunity comes round at regular intervals.

Paradoxically, having all this freedom to express different views, to join different political parties, to criticise governments and to remove them at elections does not make societies more divided but more united. Democracy releases the pressure that can build up in societies when the democratic outlets for expressing and resolving differences do not exist.

Democracy is a safety valve. A democratic Maldives will be a country more at ease with itself. This may be difficult for many people to accept right now; but I assure them it is true.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I don’t think I need advocate the merits of democracy to a party whose middle name is the word ‘democratic’. But perhaps I should say something about the journey to get there.

Firstly, you need to be patient. In Maldives, you are introducing reforms that took hundreds of years in my country. Some of you will be better historians of Britain than me but there was roughly 600 years between Magna Carta in 1215 and the Reform Act in 1832.

The good news is that you don’t have to wait that long. But even in Central Europe, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and with the strong incentive of membership of the European Union and NATO to speed up reforms, it took a number of years before those countries could be called working democracies.

Why should it take so long? Well, introducing democracy is not just about amending the constitution and passing legislation to bring laws into line with international standards, important though that is.

It is also about establishing the institutions that underpin democracy, institutions such as those that oversee free and fair elections, regulate the press and ensure that public broadcasting serves the national, not the party political interest. It is about all political forces and society understanding how a democracy works, changing the habits of a lifetime and living by new values. It is about changing the political culture.

A lot of Madivians tell me that the work in the Special Majlis and in the parliament to introduce reforms is going too slowly. From what I hear, I fear that is right. The work is going too slowly. So while it is important not to have unrealistic expectations about how quickly reforms can be introduced and underpinned with the necessary institutions, it is equally important that those who have the responsibility for taking forward change are seen to be pressing ahead as quickly as they can.

My second message to you is that introducing democracy should be seen as a national, not a party political, issue. If the government or your party seek to take party political advantage of the reform agenda, it is likely to get bogged down and to become mired in controversy.

It is important to remind ourselves that the objective of a liberal, democratic system is one shared by people in both major parties and possibly in other parties as well. The trick surely is to find a way to identify that common ground between democratically minded politicians, from wherever they come, and to build on it.

Building democracy is a win-win business. Everyone should come out at the end of the process feeling that they have contributed to a better system for this country. All of them should feel ownership and pride. No-one should feel they have had to surrender or been humiliated.

That, of course, was the philosophy underpinning the Westminster House talks. Those talks had a number of aims. But broadly we tried to identify the extent of the common ground between the government and your party on the democratic reform agenda and to agree steps that would create an atmosphere in which those reforms could be accelerated.

We were successful in identifying the common ground. We were less successful in building an atmosphere of trust and confidence which would speed up reform. There was a good deal of trust and confidence in the Westminster House talks themselves. But somehow it didn’t always manage to survive the journey from Colombo to Male.

I am not going to say why I think that didn’t happen. Let me draw a diplomatic line under the past few weeks and say that the challenge now is to go back to building a national consensus for democratic change.

How should one go about building that national consensus?

Well there needs to be engagement by all parties in the formal process of democratic change as well as all the different parts of all the parties – so-called hardliners as well as moderates. If any group is left out, it is not going to feel ownership of the changes or any loyalty to them. Indeed it is likely to campaign against those reforms, to work against democratic change itself. So this process needs to be widened so that it is not just a bilateral matter for your party and the government. All significant political forces need to be at the table.

And behind the scenes there needs to be a lot of contact to build trust, to avoid misunderstandings and to ensure that the formal process runs smoothly. I would expect to see close political alliances between politicians of different parties, working together for the common good of the country.

There also needs to be more tolerance and respect in the political debate. These are values that come naturally to Maldivians. They are also the values that should be embedded in a democratic system. One of the outcomes of the Westminster House talks was a recognition that highly personal attacks and vilification of political figures did not help create the common political space in which progress could be made.

People on all sides need to be able to reconsider their positions. They need space to be able to change their minds, to retract from opening stances, to reach compromise and agreement without being made to feel as though they are idiots or weakly giving way to pressure.

Creating that common political space also requires the opposition to impose a certain discipline on itself. At Westminster House, we discussed, at length, the trade off between opposition public demonstrations being conducted within the rule of law and the importance of amending those laws to bring them up to international standards.

Your party did not want to constrain what you saw as your fundamental rights. But the argument that the law of the land, however inadequate must be respected, was a strong one. So there was agreement that the government should act quickly to amend the laws governing freedom of assembly to ensure that there was no conflict with fundamental rights.

Acting within the rule of law and showing respect for it was seen as a major confidence building measure. Indeed, no government of any democratic country can turn a blind eye to a breach of the laws of the land without undermining respect for the rule of law altogether. We do not have the luxury in a democracy of deciding which laws to obey and which to ignore. Nor should the government have the luxury of enforcing some laws and not others. But clearly, where the law is unjust or wrong, it must be amended as a matter of priority.

At the same time, the Westminster House talks recognized that government had a special responsibility to ensure that the police force and the country’s judicial system were not used improperly to harass legitimate opposition political activity.

Heavy-handed police tactics are always counterproductive in long run – and I am not just talking about Maldives. They damage the reputation of the security forces at home and that of the government and the country internationally. They create resentment and grievances, which do not go away quickly. They make it more difficult for different parties to work together in the national interest.

But the police do have a responsibility to protect people and property and to ensure good order. So theirs is not an easy task. When done well, good policing is one of the hallmarks of democracy. I would have thought in a small society like Maldives it should not be difficult to reach very high standards of good, community policing where the police are seen as the protectors of democratic values, such as respect and tolerance.

I hope that one of the confidence-building steps that can be taken soon is recognition by government and opposition politicians that the country needs to move forward in a spirit of national reconciliation, after the turbulence of the past few weeks, and that a fresh effort should be made to unite people in the common cause, not divide them. One element that would help this would be the speedy resolution of the cases of those held in detention so that either their charges should be dropped and they should be released or else the judicial process should run its course, fairly and swiftly.

Another important confidence builder is to underline that democratic change is not about support for or opposition to particular individuals. Democratic change is about introducing the right systems, laws and institutions. It is about establishing fair rules of the game in which all have an equal opportunity and are dealt with equally.

This concept of not using democratic change to pursue any particular individual was also part of our discussions at Westminster House.

And this brings me to a final point and possibly the most difficult for this audience. The main criticism of collaboration with the government over democratic change that one hears is that the government are not sincere, despite there being a number of democratically minded ministers holding office.

Admittedly, none of us can see inside the minds of other people. So there is always going to be an element of doubt in assessing other people’s intensions. But the risk of testing the government’s sincerity by working with it seems to me to be a lot smaller than confronting the government on the street.

It’s not at all clear that confrontation will get what you want without a huge amount of collateral damage. And do you really want young people growing up in an atmosphere where the model for opposing government policies is through direct action on the street rather than using the democratic process?

And don’t forget, just as government behaviour and tactics towards you generates a reaction within your party, so too does the action of your party and its supporters affect the way the government behaves. The more confrontational they see you being, the less willing they are to make the moves to introduce liberal, democratic reforms. Whose position has been strengthened within the government in the light of recent weeks? Not the democratically minded ministers, I can tell you.

The people with perhaps the most difficult job of all are those who have to persuade their colleagues who enjoy the trappings of power and all the advantages that go with being in government that they have to put all that at risk by embracing democracy. They may still retain power after elections. But they have no guarantee. They are being asked to do this for the sake of the nation and the Maldivian people as a whole.

So those in government and President Gayoom himself deserve credit for advocating a liberal, democratic system. It is not an easy thing for them to do given that they benefit so much from the present arrangements.

The incentive for reformers in the government is that they know democracy will lead to a better Maldives, with a happier, more contented people. They know too that democracy is the best defence against extremism. And they know too that they will rightly earn the applause and approval of the international community in bringing forward democratic reforms.

But even people in power need help. And in this case, they need the help of the opposition parties, particularly the MDP. I hope you will find it your party’s big, brave and generous heart to join forces for the common good in the national interest and work to make Maldives a modern, liberal democracy of which you and the world can feel proud.

And yes, you can count on the British government’s support in this endeavour.

Thank you very much.

- Asian Tribune -

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