More than a year ago, on November 4, 2015, martial law was declared in the Maldives, prompting the European Union to call upon President Abdulla Yamin to restore ‘all constitutional rights and freedoms’ and begin ‘a sincere dialogue about the country’s future with all political parties’. Easier said than done, as the country was then gripped by even more chaos than usual after an explosion aboard the presidential cutter. Maldavian authorities say it was a bomb, adding that the president survived only because good fortune saw him occupy a seat other than his usual spot. Others say there were no explosives at all, that it was an accident. A third body of opinion professes to see a spectacle stage-managed for political gain by the president himself.
All this might seem strange, but this is the Maldives where police recently arrested a demonic coconut.
What is certain is that the explosion happened one month after a video of three masked men, posing before a black jihadi flag, threatened the president with death unless he freed Adalaat Party head Sheik Imran Abdullah, then awaiting trial on terrorist charges for which he has subsequently been sentenced to twelve years imprisonment. Ahmed Adib, vice-president for three months after his predecessor was charged with high treason, also was accused of the same crime. Keeping himself busy, President Yamin found time to dismiss the heads of the internal affairs and defense ministries.
To fill out this picture of turmoil, it is worth noting that Yamin imprisoned former president and election opponent Mohammed Nasheed seven months earlier. Held in February, 2012, the vote was conducted in an atmosphere of toxic suspicion that saw, among other bizarre scenes, the arrest at a polling station of a “magic” coconut observed by vigilant cops to have been inscribed with Koranic verses.
The Maldives, population 345,000, is both tiny and an uncommon success story for an Islamic country with no oil. The 340,000 locals hosted some one million visitors in 2014. Tourism accounts for 33% of the GDP and has been the mainstay the economy — indeed, it has been the entire economy since 1978, when dictator Momun Abdul Gayum opted to build a tourist paradise rather than another of the socialist ones pursued by other former colonies which, like the Maldives, gained their independence in the Sixties.
Spread over 1900 atolls, none rising more than two metres above sea level, and producing nothing the rest of the world wants to buy, the former British colony nevertheless achieved a definite prosperity. In the Eighties, when charter jets brought a thousandfold increase in visitors, the economy grew by an average of 10% every year. Personal per capita income of $14,000 placed it at the level of a moderately self-sufficient Eastern European country. To use another yardstick, GDP was almost five times higher than that of the Solomon Islands, with which the Maldives bears rough comparison. Gayum was no saint, being most charitably described as a benign despot, but he did bring his people prosperity. Alas, that wasn’t what Europe wanted to see. Their holidaying nationals were soaking up the sun and enjoying the beaches, and their governments wanted to see those tans develop under a democratic sun.
International pressure mounted and, after 30 years in power, Gayum allowed himself to be prodded to the ballot box. He lost in a landslide to young upstart Mohammed Nasheed, who saw a new growth industry: global warming. Infamously, he convened an “underwater cabinet meeting” to suggest what conditions would allegedly be like a few years hence, when rising seas would cover his nation. The only remedy, one gathered, was for the West to send him lots of money. Championed and feted by David Cameron and other world leaders, he preened for the cameras as an “ecological hero” and “Earth’s champion”, to quote just a couple of the paeans lavished upon him. That there was no evidence nor truth to Nasheed’s florid claims of imminent drowning mattered not at all. Stockholm University’s Niels-Axel Morner, for example, argued that the Maldives had nothing to fear, only to be denounced by Nasheed as the hireling of industrialists bent on global destruction.
While the seas weren’t rising, something else was: radical Islamism. Nasheed’s response was to encourage its growth with the establishment of the Fik Academy to promote Islamic law. This only encouraged further demands and led to Islamist protests against so-called “spa salons” which were widely believed, not without the reason, to be brothels. Nasheed shut them down, inspiring their owners to stage counter protests. Having trounced the peddlers of illicit carnality, the Islamists next demanded legislation against the sorcery, which has long been part of Maldives society and politics. In 1994, for example, a prominent witch, Dondidi, was imprisoned for lending her sorcery to the cause of President Gayum’s son-in-law’s political ambitions. More recently, police were pelted during civic disturbances with dead chickens thought to be infused with magical powers.
With Nasheed busy posing for cameras and green documentarians, punctuating those exercises with international jaunts to climate conferences, the domestic political scene sank into a state of of ongoing turmoil. In a bid to strip his predecessor of residual powers, Nasheed ordered the arrest of the chief justice. This brought the criminal gangs that exercise effective control of the capital onto the streets, along with the security forces and the military. Nasheed resigned and an election was called, which saw him emerge as the apparent winner. This result did not stick, however, as the regular “irregularities” in voting, a Maldives tradition, saw Abdullah Yamin, step-brother of ex-president Gayum, declared the winner. Yamin had Nasheed arrested on terrorism charges and, for good measure, indicted his own vice-president for treason. None of this has brought tranquility to the palm-fringed paradise, with ex-President Gayum ading to the disquiet by promoting the view that Yamin is afraid of sorcery. Others posit that the unrest in the capital, Male, is the result of witches’ midnight incantations.
One can laugh at the island nation’s travails, but there is a sad and sorry lesson in the descent into madness, arrests, protests and general chaos. The autocrat Gayum, despite his many faults, was able to radically improve his countrymen’s prosperity. Democracy, however, has allowed the nation’s key players to indulge their worst angels and now, with radical Islam gaining ground, the future is clouded to say the least. When Churchill said that democracy is the least worst of all systems he had never heard of the Maldives.
This report was translated from its original Russian for Quadrant Online by Michael Galak