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MALE – Maldives president Abdulla Yameen is a ruthless political operator who has cracked down on threats to his rule, say diplomats and former colleagues – including jailing his own half-brother in an on-off feud dating from childhood.
The Maldives, a luxury holiday destination and a key nation in India and China’s battle for regional influence, goes to the polls on Sunday.
Yameen, who took power in 2013, is seeking a second five-year term in an election criticised for a lack of freedom.
He has jailed critics, reined in the media, and purged dissenting voices from institutions such as the Supreme Court after a political crisis in February.
Born in 1959, Yameen started work as a clerk in the finance department in 1978, the same year his half-brother Maumoon Abdul Gayoom took power, ruling until 2008.
In the early days, Yameen commuted to work on a bicycle – then a perk on an isolated archipelago with few cars.
He went on to work at the Maldives Monetary Authority and the ministry of trade, where he became minister under Gayoom in 1993.
But a series of cables written in between 2003 and 2008 by the U.S. Embassy in Sri Lanka spoke of rifts between the two men, exacerbated by Yameen’s own political ambitions.
The cables also said Gayoom was committed to introducing democratic reforms but was being held back by “hardliners” like Yameen, “who realize they would lose everything if Gayoom lost power and thus were fighting the reform process tooth and nail”.
Former foreign minister Ahmed Naseem, who worked with Yameen during the 1980s in the trade ministry, told Reuters the president never had a good relationship with Gayoom, right from childhood.
Gayoom’s family came from Malé, the capital, while Yameen’s mother came from a poorer outlying island, a source who knew the brothers said.
“The two families never got along: they were never treated equally and that dragged in to the next generation as well,” the source said.
Gayoom relinquished power in 2008 to Mohamed Nasheed, a British-educated opposition politician who famously held a cabinet meeting underwater to protest against rising sea levels.
Yameen became president in 2013 in a rerun election initially won by Nasheed, before the Supreme Court annulled the result.
Nasheed was sentenced to jail in 2015 for terror offences.
Gayoom, 80, who played a vital role in securing the 2013 election for Yameen, joined the opposition against his half-sibling in 2017. In June he too was jailed, for an alleged plot to topple Yameen.
Yameen is driven around the country in a Mercedes-Benz, with an entourage of soldiers from the Maldives National Defence Force in combat gear.
He stepped up his security after an unexplained explosion on his yacht in 2015 wounded his wife and a bodyguard.
Yameen pulled the Maldives out of the Commonwealth in 2016 after international criticism, and has drawn closer to China, to the alarm of traditional ally India, in a Beijing-backed infrastructure boom meant to stimulate the economy.
In 2016 he swapped his private residence for a larger plot of land located near the construction site of the China-Maldives Friendship Bridge.
Known for referring to himself as “President Yameen” in speeches, he often adopts a confrontational style, demanding votes from supporters. At a rally last week, he compared Maldivians to children.
“I sometimes think our young children are more intelligent than Maldivian adults,” he said. “If there is a children’s vote, President Yameen will win by a (margin of) 100 out of 100.”
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