Shops vandalised, police station damaged in third night of violent protests

A third night of violent protests in Male’ ended around 4:00am this morning after the windowpanes of a police station were smashed, shops vandalised and fires started across the city.

Police used tear gas to disperse a crowd gathered at the intersection of Male’s main street Majeedee Magu and the tourist strip Chaandhanee Magu, the focal point of the protests so far, after a group of MDP activists arrived and clashed with opposition protesters and young people around 11:30pm.

The two sides were separated by police but continued attacking each other with bricks and bottles. Police appealed for people to leave the area and eventually dispersed the crowd at 12am using tear gas.

“Police dispersed the two crowds using tear gas to minimise the amount of force that would need to be applied,” Sub-Inspector Ahmed Shiyam told Minivan News.

Police, he said, had noticed that “once the criminal activity starts most people leave the protest.”

A group of Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) activists then gathered outside the house of the former President’s half brother, Abdulla Yameen, before being moved on by police and the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF).

Meanwhile, anti-government protesters gathered outside the Maldives Monetary Authority (MMA) building.

“The opposition [demonstrators] gathered in the area for 1-2 hours and started several fires in the road before they were dispersed with teargas,” Shiyam said. “ Later they attacked a police building in Maafaanu and a police vehicle, vandalised the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) headquarters and set several more fires. They also smashed the window of the STO Home Improvement store. The opposition MPs who had gathered at the MMA building left when vandalism began.”

The remaining crowd kept moving, Shiyam said. “Most of those involved were people known by police to be involved in criminal activities.”

More than 30 people were eventually arrested. Some police officers were injured and police property was also damaged.

“We saw some protesters [hurt] but we received no reports of serious injuries,” Shiyam said.

Of the 52 people arrested for violence the previous evening, whom police claimed were connected to various gangs in Male’, most were subsequently released by the Criminal Court while “12-15” remain in police custody.

The opposition has maintained that the demonstrations against the government’s decision to implement a managed float of the rufiya are led by youth unhappy with rising commodity prices, despite the active involvement of dismissed opposition Deputy Leader Umar Naseer, and MPs Ilham Ahmed, Ahmed Mahlouf, Ali Waheed, and Ahmed Nihan.

The government has meanwhile accused former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s faction of the opposition of instigating and organising the protests.

“The government understands that many people are concerned about the economy and recent price rises and we are doing everything possible to ease the situation,” the President’s Press Secretary Mohamed Zuhair said in a statement.

“Peaceful protest is legal and welcome in the Maldives’ new democracy. But former President Gayoom is taking advantage of economic situation to cause violence in the streets. These protests are more to do with Gayoom trying to shore up his position in the opposition, than the state of the economy,” he claimed.

“In the Middle East, you have democrats on the streets bringing down dictatorships. Ironically, in the Maldives, the remnants of the former dictatorship are trying to bring down democracy.”

The Human Rights Commission of the Maldives (HRCM) meanwhile issued a press release urging people not to misuse the right to protest “and obstruct the media.”

The commission said that protesting late at night in densely populated areas “violates the right of many others.”

”We call on the police not to disperse the protests by using methods that harm the protesters and civilians,” HRCM said.

At a press conference today, Deputy Commissioner of Police Mohamed Rishwan said protests would be restricted to the artificial beach and the tsunami monument areas in Male’, unless prior permission was given by police or Male’ City Council.

The government meanwhile defended its decision to float the currency within 20 percent of the pegged rate of Rf12.85 “as part of a package of measures introduced on the advice of the central bank, International Monetary Fund and other multi lateral organisations, in order to reduce the country’s budget deficit and stabilise the economy.

“According to the World Bank, in late 2008 the Maldives was in the worst economic situation of any country undergoing democratic reforms since 1950s. The budget deficit stood at 31 percent of GDP, inflation stood at 12 percent and the economy was reeling from a massive fiscal expansion which saw the government wage bill increase by almost 400 percent between 2004 and 2009.

“Since coming into office, the Nasheed administration has reduced the budget deficit from 31 percent to 16 percent of GDP, helped ease the chronic dollar shortage through a managed float of the Ruffiya and brought the economy from recession to 4 percent growth this year,” the President’s Office said in a statement.

The IMF has pressured the government to cut back on its disproportionate public sector wage bill, however austerity measures attempted last year ended up in a political stalemate and the government instead embarked on a program of corporatisation, allowing it to hire and fire while circumventing what it claimed was the opposition-driven machinations of the Civil Service Commission (CSC).

Opposition spokesman Ibrahim Shareef has accused the MDP of financial mismanagement and recklessly increasing spending, without investing “in productive resources that ensure future revenue for the country, and reducing expenditure in areas that do not affect the people – such as foreign missions.”

“They need not reduce the civil service, because these are the lowest paid government employees and reducing their numbers would have not tangible effect. But the top players in government – the political positions – and positions in the paper companies created by the government are many areas [that can be reduced],” Shareef claimed.

The government recently announced an incentive programme to encourage public sector employees as young as 18 to leave the civil service, offering lump sum payments of between Rf 150,000 – Rf 200,000, which was positively received by the CSC.

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