The Maldives: Trouble in paradisePosted: 08/02/2012
By Virginia Comolli, Research Analyst
Most Westerners only think of the Maldives when they’re planning to go there on holidays. And perhaps these Indian Ocean islands also impinged on their consciousness when the president and his cabinet spectacularly met underwater in 2009 to highlight the threat that climate change poses to their low-lying archipelago.
But now that particular president, Mohamed Nasheed, has been forced out – apparently at gunpoint – and people are keen to learn the background.
In fact, islanders have never quite found the Maldives to be the paradise marketed to outsiders. From 1978–2008 the country was led by the autocratic Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. He faced growing public discontent towards the end of his time in office, resulting in riots and pro-democracy protests. Even after the introduction of multi-party politics in 2005, and free and fair elections in 2005, Amnesty International warned that ‘the legacies of human rights abuses such as politically motivated arrests, torture, and unfair trials [would] mar the Maldives’ human rights record’ if legislative reforms were delayed.
A former exile and political prisoner, Mohamed Nasheed’s job as president from 2008 has never been an easy one, as Gayoom has continued to cast a lengthy shadow. The opposition – allied to the parties of the former president and his brother – has usually been able to command a majority in the parliament and has used this to obstruct legislation.
Some serious socio-economic issues also undermine Maldivian stability. The country suffers a chronic budgetary deficit; tourism and fishing are the only significant economic sectors, and with per capita GDP of only US$8,400 a considerable chunk of the population lives in poverty. Blaming reforms introduced by Nasheed’s government for a worsening economy, the opposition was able to galvanise social discontent and organise protests in the capital, Male, at the end of April 2011.
Religion is also playing a bigger role in Maldivian society than ever before. Ex-president Gayoom has often criticised the new government for being too secular; and since the middle of the last decade those reacting by embracing a more conservative version of Islam have grown in number and assertiveness. Salafi Islam is spreading, and while support for it is limited the threat of Islamic extremism is a possibility. Disturbingly, the transport ministry’s recent decision to allow direct flights to Israel prompted some anti-Semitic protests. Religious rhetoric in now used by political activists, and protests have started to have religious undertones. Religious pressure groups have even voiced uneasiness with spa resorts and similar ‘anti-Islamic’ activities, which led to a short-lived ban on tourist resorts and spas.
The renewed unrest in 2012 came after Nasheed’s government arrested a senior judge who released an opposition activist. The government accused the judge of failing to respect the principle of judicial independence, and also of blocking corruption cases against former members of Gayoom’s government. But the judge’s arrest highlighted the politicisation of judicial power, and the tension between the judicial and the executive branches of government, and was used by the opposition to discredit the president. Nasheed’s detention by the security forces and replacement by his VP, Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik, were the culmination of such tensions.
It’s also worth remembering the next presidential elections in 2013. The Maldives is a new democracy and the democratic process is yet to bed down. All political parties seem keen to use every opportunity to discredit their opponents and secure more votes, including by exploiting underlying social tensions.