Unravelling democracy in paradise?

The small island republic of the Maldives is facing an arduous ride en route to a more democratic system. Asian Affairs’ Special Correspondent reports.


The Republic of Maldives, an archipelago nation in the Indian Ocean, has become one of the best known names in the high-end global tourism industry today. The narrow stretch of coral islands, home to just over 300,000 people, has been named a paradise for divers, and has refined and redefined the art of sunbathing on its natural white sandy beaches. ‘The art of doing nothing’ has long been a concept that has mimicked the ‘lie back and relax’ atmosphere offered by the country’s tourism industry.

However, the locals today are far from lying back and relaxing as the country’s political arena erupts with a force for democratisation, giving rise to such turmoil that the question has been posed whether or not the process has put the very concept of democratisation in jeopardy.

Whether the country has seen better days politically is perhaps disputable. But at the heart of today’s instability lie public debate and demand for more democratic ruling and justice.

POLITICALLY MOTIVATED?: Human Rights groups have questioned the conviction of former president Mohamed Nasheed
POLITICALLY MOTIVATED?: Human Rights groups have questioned the conviction of former president Mohamed Nasheed

On November 11, 2008, the Maldives witnessed its first ever multi-party presidential election, which was won by the former president Mohamed Nasheed, elected leader of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP). The MDP had long campaigned for democracy during the 30-year rule of former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom from 1978 to 2008, under six five-year terms, during which period Mohamed Nasheed proved a heroic activist, calling for democratic rights such as freedom of media, freedom of speech, transparency, a multiparty political system and more, which lead him to witness what lay behind bars on more than a few occasions. Hence, Nasheed’s win in the 2008 election was meant to revolutionise governance in the country, bringing the Maldives closer than ever to democratic values.  However, during his first year in office, the opposition flagged up issues in the government’s policy approach, including lack of transparency.

In January 2012, the arrest of a Supreme Court judge, Abdulla Mohamed, was ordained by the opposition as unconstitutional and several organisations, among them the Human Rights Commission of Maldives, as well as the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner, called for an investigation. According to the authorities, the arrest was due to the judge’s leniency towards government critics, including the release of some opposition members who had been arrested. The authorities further confirmed that the order to arrest the judge had come from the president himself. This provoked demonstrations by opposition supporters, calling for the release of the judge, as well as for the president’s resignation due to violation of the constitution. The demonstration, which lasted 22 consecutive days, resulted in the resignation of President Nasheed, who at the time said, ‘I believe if I continue as president of the Maldives, the people would suffer more. I therefore have resigned as president… I wish the Maldives would have a consolidated democracy. I wish for justice to be established. My wish is for the progress and prosperity of the people. And I thank you all for your support and contributions to achieve success for the past three years.’ A few days later, Nasheed claimed he had been held at gunpoint during his ‘resignation’.

TOURIST TRAP: The Maldives depends heavily on tourism
TOURIST TRAP: The Maldives depends heavily on tourism

The events that followed, including Nasheed’s arrest in 2015 for violation of the constitution while in office, have seen much deliberated resistance by members of the MDP. The party members had called on the international community to veto tourism in the country until the release of the former president. Currently, Amal Clooney, the human rights lawyer representing Mohamed Nasheed, has called on the UN to impose sanctions on the country until his release, as a measure of their fight for democracy. However, these actions have raised questions in terms of democratic values and economic effects.

For a country that depends on tourism, its number one industry and largest employer, a decline in this sector, even for a few months, would have a drastic impact. The sensitivity of the sector can be seen in rising dollar rates, and even a slight drop in tourism can translate to resort owners delaying payments to the government and of salaries, and to a decrease in employees.

As is characteristic of small island states, the Maldives imports most of its food from neighbouring countries, and a rise in the dollar rate means inflation, which will not sit well with job cuts or delayed salaries.

According to the World Bank, 17 per cent of the Maldives’ population lives below a poverty line of US$2 per day (less than £1.32 a day). Given that most rural islanders earn only a subsistence level income, and the lack of savings among the more urban islanders due to high rents in the capital Malé and the greater Malé area—which are comparable to rents in countries such as Hong Kong—one can only imagine the severe effects UN sanctions would have on the majority of Maldivians, although the wealthy elite who own shares in the tourism industry would remain unscathed.

Though the facts dictate otherwise, the MDP insists Mohamed Nasheed has been arrested unlawfully. Should the former president’s treatment in detention need to be reviewed, a case should most definitely be made, not only with the respective local authorities and organisations, but internationally as well.

However, in a vulnerable small island nation such as the Maldives, it is hard to see a ban on tourism or UN sanctions actually providing democratic reform, as the cost of such practices would be a major increase in poverty. While the former president hails from one of the county’s elite families that would remain untouched by this, the consequences would be felt at the very heart of most Maldivian families. It could, therefore, be argued that it is deeply undemocratic to protect the rights of one person while allowing so many others to suffer, thus denying them the same human and democratic rights.

The Maldives was a monarchy ruled by a sultan until 1953, when Mohamed Amin Didi became the first president of the country—though it was not to last. That short presidency ran from January 1953 till August the same year, cut short by a people’s revolution that took the country back to a monarchy. In 1968 the Maldives re-established itself as a republic through a national referendum, and Ibrahim Nasir became the second president till the end of his second term in 1978, succeeded by the 30-year presidency of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.

Given that the country has been a republic for less than four generations, and since the more democratic values of political choice and freedom of speech are less than two generations old, questions remain as to how well the Maldivian public understands democratic values, the freedom to question within these values, and the consequences of their actions in the name of democracy. Gaining democratic justice for one cause can bring about undemocratic injustice for the wider population.

One wonders: is the Maldives’ political current moving too fast, and does the country need to take a step back and plan longer term if it is to achieve democracy?

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