Democracy came to the Maldives as swiftly as the wave of change in 2008. This week that chapter appears to have closed and the country is bordering on anarchy, military rule and a possible brutal crackdown.
One step former President Mohamed Nasheed didn’t take was crack down on his political opponents like strongman and dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. That, many moderates in the Maldives believe, was one of the main weaknesses in Nasheed’s administration. To Nasheed’s credit, he wanted the healing process to begin and didn’t want to control the island nation with an iron grip. This however was not a popular move as the country came to grips with an alien model – democracy – with Nasheed’s supporters themselves demanding vengeance against years of harassment and torture during the Gayoom days.
In a recent New York Times op-ed, Nasheed wrote:
“The wave of revolutions that toppled autocrats in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen last year was certainly cause for hope. But the people of those countries should be aware that, long after the revolutions, powerful networks of regime loyalists can remain behind and can attempt to strangle their nascent democracies. I learned this lesson quickly. My country, the Maldives, voted out President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, its iron-fisted ruler, back in 2008, in historic elections that swept away three decades of his authoritarian rule. And yet the dictatorship bequeathed to the infant democracy a looted treasury, a ballooning budget deficit and a rotten judiciary.”
The situation from all accounts is fluid on the archipelago of 1,190 islands touted as one of the most beautiful tourist destinations on earth. Tourism, unlike any other destination in the world, is largely untouched in this paradise of 200 inhabited islands including 100+ resorts purely because the resorts are so far away from the happenings (Male-capital) and the Ibrahim Nasir International Airport – both on stand-alone islands, that visitors don’t have a clue about what happens, politically, unless they take a boat ride to the city for shopping and visiting cultural sites.
So what went wrong in the Maldives after Nasheed rode to power in 2008? A founder of the former ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) and mentor to Nasheed, who declined to be named, says that the situation worsened over the past several months because there were too many cronies and corruption was growing “Nasheed is clean but he allowed others to be corrupt,” the politician, who has taken a backseat, said, adding: “When we decided to challenge Gayoom, there was a unwritten agreement that we’ll (including Nasheed) not take any positions (in government). But Nasheed broke that (cardinal) rule.”
The former President was faced with a hostile public service and judiciary - all appointees by the Gayoom administration. “We are stuck with them. We just can’t get things done,” his advisor and media spokesperson Mohamed Zuhair, lamented in an interview in May 2011, saying they were trying to find ways to overcome the impasse.
Pressure mounted from MDP supporters to jail Gayoom and members of his administration, a step Nasheed was not willing to take saying such a move would have been behaving just like Gayoom, or even worse.
His party was also a minority in parliament and every bill and regulation was blocked by the opposition. By moving towards a more liberal society, religious groups also mounted a challenge and then came the issue of whether the Maldives was to follow the moderate Islamic path (allow resorts to sell alcohol and pork and ban these in Male) or fundamental Islam (total ban). A flow of Islamic theologians and fundamentalists raised issue over the western-tilt in Nasheed’s policies and voiced concern over cultural and religious degradation.
Add to this a slew of new taxes on the people on consumer goods with the government’s treasury empty, things were getting really complicated. The economy was exacerbated by widening debt owing to years of runaway spending by the former regime without little revenue other than from the tourism industry. When the people were asked to pay taxes, support for the MDP waned. Plagued by debt, the government obtained a bail-out package from the IMF leading to consumer taxes, an unfavourable move. UN conventions on human rights and freedom for workers were signed and ILO conventions ratified.
But with some of Nasheed’s aides also resorting to corruption, things were getting out of control and about a month back, religious groups put pressure on the government to ban spas and the alcohol and pork on all resorts. How can tourism, the country’s sole revenue earner, survive in this kind of environment? Saner counsel prevailed and the ban was withdrawn but the arrest of Abdulla Mohamed, Chief Justice of the Criminal Court on corruption charges was the last straw.
The top judge was arrested, held in detention and not produced in court, a disastrous move leading to the international community condemning the action. Protests mounted over the arrest and on Tuesday, police turned against the President and the military forced him to resign.
Many feel that Nasheed, British-educated and a former journalist, was the ideal young liberal politician to lift the Maldives to a democracy.
Faced with the islands vanishing from the face of the earth in 100 years with sea level rise and global warming, Nasheed turned into a champion for climate change and was dubbed the ‘rock star of climate change’ cajoling developed nations to minimize the carbon footprint and take responsibility for their actions in carbon emissions which affected smaller countries.
Such was the concern about the Maldives sinking that there was also discussion at some point on securing another landmass for Maldivians to transfer to as a new homeland in case the island nation sank.
His devotion to the cause of climate change won him many friends abroad but few at home as problems surmounted with cost of living rising, religious fundamentalism growing and widening opposition from the public service and the judiciary making it difficult to govern. Unable to move any regulation or bill in the Majlis (Parliament) due to a house controlled by the opposition, Nasheed was forced to resort to a popular Sri Lankan tactic – buy opposition votes or buy over MPs completely.
In the past 3-5 weeks, residents in Male watched with little interest the nightly protests with some 100-200 people taking part but the crisis worsened after the top judge was arrested.
Continued detention without producing the judge in court and presenting charges was a fatal move, triggering the alleged coup and forcing Nasheed’s exit.
When the July 1983 pogrom flared up in Sri Lanka sending tourists scurrying away, it was the Maldives that benefitted economically sprucing up its image and providing a totally exclusive tourism product.
This year both countries are heading towards a momentous occasion - marking the first millionth traveller in a calendar year.
Tourism is a very fickle industry and prone to recover faster than any other sector. Sri Lanka and the Maldives have had cordial relations over the years and one hopes the South Asian neighbour will recover soon enough to ensure that cherished moment in history – achieving a million travellers.