Fighting for possession of deck chairs on the Titanic

Climatically and politically, the Maldives is pretty much a hell on Earth, writes Jonathan Manthorpe, with the green, "eco-friendly" resorts are owned by five families, who are also at the heart of a small coterie of inter-related clans that control everything that moves on the islands.  The islands and atolls of the Maldives are, on average, only one-and-a-half meters above current sea level, writes Jonathan Manthorpe, making the Maldives the Earth’s lowest-lying country. Above, Kurumba Island in the Maldives. Photo by PalawanOz via Wikipedia
Threatened by the rising seas of climate change, politically the Maldives is pretty much a hell on Earth, writes Jonathan Manthorpe. Above, Kurumba Island in the Maldives, the world’s lowest-lying nation. Photo by PalawanOz via Wikipedia

JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs 
April 10, 2015 

Perhaps I had spent a sheltered life, but the first time I recall hearing the phrase “global warming” was at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in October, 1987, at a conference centre in Vancouver.

The speaker on that occasion was an unsavoury character named Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the President of the Maldives in the Indian Ocean, an archipelago bobbing on strategic sea lanes between Sri Lanka and India. Like many CHOGM leaders, he was in fact a dictator who, when necessary, held incredible referendums in which he was always returned to power with over 90 per cent of the vote.

But at the Vancouver CHOGM, Gayoom managed to grab the attention of the assembly of fellow dictators, kleptocrats, communist former freedom fighters against British imperialism, and a sprinkling of democrats, who were all primarily concerned about ending apartheid in South Africa. My memory, though, is that his intervention about global warming raised more smiles than shock and horror.

Gayoom proclaimed that if global warming continued and caused the sea to rise a meter and a half, as was then predicted, he would no longer have a country. Indeed, the nearly 1,200 islands and atolls that make up the Maldives are, on average, only one-and-a-half meters above current sea level. The Maldives is the Earth’s lowest-lying country.

In the 28 years since the Vancouver CHOGM, the Maldives has become a green tourist Mecca where approaching one million tourists a year – three times the republic’s population – come to lie on its pearl white sands, wallow in its clear waters, feast in its five-star resorts, and worry about the fate of this earthly paradise. The Maldives’ environmental plight is a hugely successful economic story. Tourism, most of it from Europe, now accounts for close to 30 per cent of the country’s annual income, 60 per cent of its foreign exchange earnings and 90 per cent of government revenues.

Sadly, progress in the economic and political lives of 330,000 Maldivians has not been as stellar. Politically, the Maldives is pretty much a hell on Earth. All those green and eco-friendly resorts are owned by five families, who are also at the heart of a small coterie of inter-related clans that control everything that moves on the islands. We’re talking here about Medici Florence or Plantagenet England where members of the ruling families can be locked up in a dungeon one day, back in favour with princely authority the next, or dead on the floor after a family feud got out of hand.

It’s entirely fitting, then, that it is the Tourism Minister, Ahmed Adeeb, a 32-year-old thug, who is the government’s main enforcer against dissent. Adeeb controls the islands’ youth gangs – and with them the drug trafficking trade – and cheerfully looses them when Maldivians have the affront to publicly complain about the way they are ruled. Mind you, an encounter with Adeeb’s gangs may well be preferable than the attentions of the Maldives’ police and other security agencies. A 2013 report by Amnesty International noted that political detainees are routinely tortured by police. “Beatings, pepper-spraying the eyes and mouth, denial of drinking water and, in certain detention centers, incarceration in dog cages, were all common methods used.”

All this would be of perhaps only marginal passing interest and the sort of behaviour by regimes in out-of-the-way places that the world has come to expect, though not accept. However, the Maldives sit on a strategic waterway between the India Ocean and the entry into the Straits of Malacca, the gateway to the Far East. Both India and Sri Lanka have taken a direct interest in the outcome of power struggles in the Maldives in the past. The archipelago now also plays a role in the efforts by China to create a “string of pearls” naval bases at the entry to the Indian Ocean to contain India’s navy, or at least keep New Delhi’s strategic planners on their toes. As well as securing outposts in Burma and Pakistan, China invested heavily in port facilities in Sri Lanka, expecting to get naval replenishment rights in return. But the coming to power in Colombo of a Beijing-sceptical administration after January’s Presidential election has sent China looking for other havens. The Maldives’ government in Malé is making cooing noises towards Beijing.

Mohamed Nasheed, then President of the Maldives, in 2009 at the launch of the Climate Vulnerability Monitor. Photo by Camadrilena via Wikipedia
Mohamed Nasheed, then President of the Maldives and today a prisoner convicted of “terrorism,” speaking in 2009 at the launch of the Climate Vulnerability Monitor. Photo by Camadrilena via Wikipedia

Meanwhile, the deplorable human rights record in the Maldives has come back to the fore with the conviction last month for “terrorism” and sentencing to 13 years in prison of Mohamed Nasheed, the country’s former President. It was Nasheed’s unexpected election victory in 2008 against the 30-year rule of dictator Gayoom that seemed to many to herald the transition to democracy. It’s still unclear whether his ouster in 2012 was a coup, a forced resignation or just a piece of workplace hysteria on Nasheed’s part. At any rate, the transition to democracy hit a wall and Nasheed’s attempts at a comeback have been blocked at every turn, culminating in his conviction for terrorism.

Nasheed’s imprisonment has become an international cause celebre, especially as the terrorism charge seems to bear no relationship to what he is alleged to have done. In 2009 he ordered the arrest of a judge he accused of trying to oust him from the presidency and re-instate Gayoom by legal slight of hand. But since 2001 and, more immediately, since the rise of the Islamic State league of psychopaths in Syria and Iraq, “terrorism” is all governments’ favourite unanswerable charge, and not by despotic regimes alone. Even in Canada allegations of terrorism are being used when more mundane elements of the Criminal Code would appear to be more appropriate.

The credibility of the terrorism charge is further undermined by the fact that the current President of the Maldives, Abdulla Yameen, is the half brother of former dictator Gayoom. (See what I mean about the Medici and the Plantagenets. Mind you, neither Canada nor the United States is in any position to get too sanctimonious about dynastic political families these days.)

Anyway, the international human rights glitterarti are flocking to take up Nasheed’s cause. Chief among them is British barrister and fashion plate, Amal Clooney, whose trophy husband is Ol’ Bedroom Eyes, actor George Clooney. Clooney’s reputation seems at the minute to exceed her accomplishments. Other famous Clooney clients, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and Canadian journalist Mohamed Fahmy, remain entangled in legal limbo. Assange is approaching the end of his third year camped on a sofa in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London in an effort to avoid charges of sexual assault in Sweden. Fahmy is languishing in Cairo while the shambolic Egyptian judicial system tries to get its act in gear to retry him on charges of belonging to a terrorist organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, and broadcasting false news. Fahmy’s colleague at the Al-Jazeera news network, Australian Peter Greste, was extricated from Egypt by the Australian government faster than a speeding bullet. So far, the Clooney magic has not worked on the Cairo military regime. But perhaps she is being hampered in her efforts by what looks like obstructionism on the part of the Canadian government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, which shows no eagerness to free Fahmy from his plight and have him back home.

So perhaps Nasheed should not pin too many hopes on the skills of Amal Clooney. Anyway, if the history of clan politics in the Maldives is anything to go by, Nasheed might find himself plucked from prison tomorrow and put in charge of a ministry. It’s happened before.

The extraordinary rapidity with which members of the Malivian elite can bounce in and out of favour in the ebb and flow of family politics is well illustrated by the career of ex-dictator Gayoom, who many believe is still pulling strings behind the scenes.

The Maldives gained independence from Britain in 1965 and by 1969 the islands had become a republic under the authoritarian rule of President Ibrahim Nasir. Gayoom was one of the bright young prospects of the post-independence ruling elite and in the 1960s he was packed off to Egypt to get an education. However, the government in Malé stopped his financial support after he and several other Maldavian students in Cairo wrote to Nasir complaining about his diplomatic recognition of Israel.

Gayoom stayed away from the Maldives for a few years and lectured in Islamic studies at a university in Nigeria. By 1971 he figured it was safe to return home, and he took a job at a school teaching maths and Islam. His next roller coaster ride started the following year, 1972, when Gayoom was put in charge of the government shipping department.

That didn’t last. In March 1973, Gayoom was arrested for criticizing President Nasir’s policies and sentenced to four year’s banishment. He was sent to Mukunudhoo Island at the north end of the Maldives archipelago. But only five months later Gayoom was released when Nasir declared an amnesty after winning re-election for a second five-year term as president.

Gayoom was not only back in favour, but back in power. He was appointed under-secretary and, soon afterwards, director of the Telecommunication Department. But Gayoom was no good at keeping his mouth shut and in July 1974 he was again arrested for criticizing Nasir’s policies. This time he was stuck in prison in solitary confinement. But Nasir’s idiosyncratic approach to law and justice came into play yet again. Gayoom was released after 50 days in solitary and, not only that, he was made undersecretary in the office of the Prime Minister, Ahmed Zaki. When the post of Prime Minister was abolished in 1975, Gayoom had a brief career as a diplomat before becoming Minister of Transport in 1978.

At this point Nasir decided to retire and Gayoom was selected by the parliament, the Majlis, to be the sole candidate for the presidency. Gayoom won with a reported 92.96 per cent of the vote. Having achieved the top job, Gayoom soon dispensed with the need to have other candidates, opting instead for regular referendums to endorse his continued rule.

When Gayoom appeared in Vancouver at the 1987 CHOGM he was in the run-up to his “re-election” the following year for a third term in which he won a reported 96.4 per cent endorsement. He was last re-elected for a sixth term in a one-candidate referendum in 2003, but by this time he was getting the message that not everyone was delighted with this style of politics.

There were attempted coups in 1980, 1983 and a major armed effort backed by Tamil Tiger terrorists from Sri Lanka in 1988. The plotters in this last coup attempt managed win control of much of the capital, Malé, and were only defeated after Indian troops answered Gayoom’s call for help.

Gayoom finally agreed to multi-candidate direct elections for President and in 2008 he was defeated by Nasheed. Like Gayoom, Nasheed comes from a good family and received an expensive education abroad. But after his return to the Maldives in 1989 he made himself a persistent irritant to the Gayoom regime. During the 1990s Nasheed was arrested and imprisoned 20 times on various trumped-up charges, all stemming from attempts to create a viable political opposition and from his environmental activism.

During his curtailed presidency Nasheed drew some international attention for the plight of the Maldives if global warming leads to dramatically rising oceans. On one occasion he chaired a cabinet meeting on the sea floor with all ministers wearing scuba gear.

But if the waves cannot be rolled back, the Maldives have a Plan B. That is to use the revenue from eco-tourism to buy sufficient land in Australia or Pakistan to resettle the islands’ entire population of 350,000 people.

Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2015


Manthorpe B&WJonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. Manthorpe has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s  nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has traveled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.



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