The contrast between the islands’ violent politics and its image as a tropical paradise has never been starker, writes JJ Robinson. An unlikely alliance is now trying to force the president from office
As movie cameras rolled, a large and colourful plywood cake slowly emerged from the Indian Ocean, and was hauled up the beach by a pair of black-clad scuba divers. They retreated as the cake began to eject an alarming quantity of fireworks. Entering the haze of burning ash, which had blackened and singed the nearby expatriate extras, the producers opened a hatch in the top of the cake and inserted a small Maldivian boy, aged about eight.
The blonde female lead approached the smoking cake with an expression of delight at her ‘birthday present’, feigned astonishment as the child emerged, and presented her cheek for a kiss. He refused, shaking his head and looking nervously around for his father. After several takes and some coaxing from the parent, the child was persuaded to give the woman the briefest of pecks. More fireworks exploded, this time behind the line of extras, causing them to scatter in panic and forcing another take.
It was 2011, and the production was a thinly-plotted German promotional telemovie, Das Traumhotel (The Dream Hotel). Filmed on one of the Maldives’ remote and expensive upmarket resorts, the entirety of the capital island’s expatriate population had been drafted at $60 each to attend the make-believe finale – tellingly, a party with the theme ‘white’.
The tiny island nation has managed to perpetuate and peddle this fantasy version of itself to a foreign audience for almost four decades. A million-odd tourists visit the famous honeymoon paradise of the Maldives every year. Landing on a runway reclaimed from the sea adjacent to the capital city of Malé, they are whisked to their islands by speedboat or Twin Otter seaplane.
The system means that few tourists set foot on the capital island of Malé, or what a Maldivian would consider an ‘inhabited’ island. The separation is deliberate as it is geographical, and has led to one of the most extreme dichotomies between the reality and foreign perception of perhaps any country in the world.
Tourism developed during the 30-year dictatorship of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who concluded that Western couples on romantic champagne getaways probably did not want to learn that the rest of the country was ‘100 percent Islamic’, with pork and alcohol banned and extramarital sex punishable by 100 lashes. For these islands are another world entirely: Maldivians are constitutionally mandated to be Muslim, with those violating the state’s interpretation of Islam criminalised under ‘religious unity’ laws and subject to extreme social ostracism. Other religions are outlawed.
Malé, accommodating more than half the population of 360,000 despite being only 2.2 square kilometres in size, is the byzantine heart of Maldivian politics, a cyclical drama of warring families. The current President, Abdulla Yameen, is Gayoom’s half-brother, and came to power in 2013 using the old regime’s command of the judiciary to usurp electoral control. The elections commissioner, Fuwad Thowfeek, was forced to flee abroad. He was just the first of many.
The coronation of the dour and reclusive strongman marked the end of a brief hiatus from authoritarianism. The Arab Spring had struck the Maldives early, with Gayoom’s ousting in 2008 at the hands of a former political prisoner – the liberal and progressive Mohamed Nasheed. He left office in 2012, resigning on state television amid a police and military mutiny attributed to remnants of the former regime. Sentenced to 13 years’ imprisonment on charges of terrorism, he opted for political asylum in Britain.
In three years Yameen has transformed the Maldives from a promising emerging democracy into a sinister and corrupt police state. Lacking the manipulative charm and diplomatic demeanor of his older half-brother, he opted to remain in the background, using his control of the courts to engineer the demise of his adversaries and acting through proxies to command Malé’s gangster underground. Protest has been outlawed, opposition MPs arrested, reporters abducted, foreign journalists deported and defamation re-criminalised. The publication of which I was editor for four years – one of the few surviving media outlets in the country – was raided in September, its new Maldivian editor forced into hiding abroad.
Growing paranoia has seen Yameen’s government turn on itself, shedding one by one the ambitious regime officials who forced Nasheed from office and brought him to power. These include the former defence minister, Mohamed Nazim, who personally delivered the ultimatum for Nasheed’s resignation by loudspeaker as the rioting mob stormed military headquarters; former vice president Dr Mohamed Jameel, who built the justification for Nasheed’s ouster by exploiting popular Islamic sentiment to paint him as a heretic; and former foreign minister Dunya Maumoon – Gayoom’s daughter – who soothed the escalating concerns of foreign diplomats. This may have been the final straw for her father, who had become increasingly estranged from Yameen over his attempt to allow the lease of islands without a bidding process.
The largest fall from grace has been that of the rotund and ambitious tourism minister Ahmed Adeeb, who at 33 would become the world’s youngest vice president. Known as ‘the ATM’, he amassed a sizeable fortune while implicating himself, Yameen and the Maldivian state in an international money-laundering scandal worth at least US$1.5 billion. Following his arrest for an alleged presidential assassination attempt, involving an exploding yacht, his golden iPhones fell into the hands of Al-Jazeera’s investigative team. Stealing Paradise, released in September, documents his ordering of gang members and special operations police to firebomb media outlets and intimidate institutions.
The Auditor General, Ibrahim Niyaz, fled the Maldives for his life after uncovering evidence of massive state corruption. Al-Jazeera filmed his reaction as he was shown a transcript of the tourism minister’s orders to have his department ‘blasted’. Wide-eyed, he declared it ‘state-sponsored terrorism against its own people and institutions’.
Gayoom’s falling out with Yameen, and the growing number of cabinet refugees in the UK, has been embraced as an opportunity by Nasheed and led to an improbable alliance in exile. Operating under the banner of the ‘Maldives United Opposition’, the group, which calls itself a shadow cabinet in exile, has vowed to overthrow Yameen’s dwindling government by ‘legal’ means. Exactly what this means in a country without a credible judiciary is the subject of intense speculation in Malé’s many coffee shops.
Freshly allied with those who had him first frog-marched from office and then hastily sentenced to 13 years on dubious charges of terrorism (before being freed for medical treatment in Britain, where he stayed), Nasheed uncomfortably depicts himself as an unwilling pragmatist. His Maldivian Democratic Party commanded almost half the vote in the last election, the country’s single largest support base by a significant margin, but his present marriage of convenience could sow political cynicism among the party’s grassroots.
The group’s recent trip to Sri Lanka coincided with excitable rumours of a coup, suggesting that if nothing else, the exiled opposition has succeeded in unsettling Yameen. The Commonwealth’s Human Rights Initiative has also issued a damning report, calling for the Maldives’ suspension. But Yameen is propped up financially by China and Saudi Arabia, with a compliant parliament, democratic institutions stacked with cronies and a judiciary doing his bidding. Elections scheduled for 2018 will almost certainly lack credibility, and both institutions and the population are cowed.
Tolerance for growing extremism has meanwhile led to several hundred Maldivians travelling freely to fight in Syria – making the country among the largest contributors of foreign fighters to the conflict on a per capita basis. It seems unthinkable that a pro-Islamic State rally could be indulged in a country which derives 90 per cent of its foreign exchange and up to 70 per cent of its economy indirectly from Western resort tourism, but the Maldives has always embraced contradiction.
So far the resorts have thrived in isolation from the reality of the Maldives, but with growing international awareness of the human rights situation – and potential expulsion from the Commonwealth – the tourism industry may ultimately find it cannot have its cake and eat it too.
JJ Robinson is a former editor of Minivan News, the first independent English-language news outlet in the Maldives, now renamed the Maldives Independent. He is the author of Maldives: Islamic Republic, Tropical Autocracy, a first-hand investigation of murky politics in a globally renowned tourist destination