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Aditi Phadnis: A Maldivian symphony

Aditi Phadnis  |  New Delhi 

Its new President made all the right noises during his recent India visit.

Of all South Asian politicians, the favourite of Delhi reporters has to be the youthful new president of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, who was here from December 23 to 26 on his first state visit.

As he walked — actually, bounded — into the room where journalists had congregated, it was hellos and high-fives all round. Some were embraced by him, others got pecks on their cheeks. He knew most of them by their first names. It was genuine, deeply-felt warmth that enveloped the gathering, not the practised PR that politicians and bureaucrats from some of India’s other neighbours are so adept at.

Nasheed was born in 1967. So he cannot claim to have been friends with the Gandhi family like the former King of Bhutan and the current one, or indeed, even like the former President of the Maldives, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. He cannot assert familiarity with Indian cities, like Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai who studied in Himachal Pradesh, because he went to school in Britain. Nor can he claim, like some Nepal or Sri Lanka Tamil politicians, to have sought political exile in India — he left Britain and returned to the Maldives to lead the Maldives Democratic Party (MDP), was incarcerated 13 times by former President Gayoom who finally demitted office after 30 years earlier this year following an election that brought a coalition led by the MDP to power.

Consider the geography of the Maldives islands and their importance in the politics of the region becomes immediately apparent. It is a group of around 1,100 islands — atolls as they are known — peppering the Indian Ocean. Some islands are developed, others aren’t. Some are very sparsely populated. Till about 25 years ago, in the Maldivian system of jurisprudence that outlawed the death penalty, ‘hardened’ criminals — those who had murdered, for example — were simply banished for life to one of these islands where they fended for themselves in what have to be some of the world’s most salubrious open air jails.

Although a protectorate of the British, Maldives did not really go through a people’s movement in its struggle for independence. In 1965, the country signed an independence agreement with the British and in 1968, Maldives became a republic from a Sultanate with Ibrahim Nasir as president. Nasir replaced President Gayoom who ruled with an iron hand from 1978 suppressing all political activity and establishing Islam (Maldives is 100 per cent Sunni but rejects Wahhabi Islam) as the state religion. For 30 years, while the world around them changed, time stood still for the Maldivians. Gayoom faced several coup threats but the most frightening was the attempt by Sri Lankan Tamil militant group People’s Liberation Movement for Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) in 1988. Under its leader Umamaheswaran, PLOTE tried to overrun the Male airport and other government installations. The coup attempt was foiled with Indian help but it brought home their geostrategic vulnerability sharply to the Maldivians.

The Maldives has many anxieties, Nasheed told reporters over a glass of Sula Shiraz, and physical security is just one of them. One of his aides suggested reporters investigate more thoroughly the route taken by the Mumbai bombers — it is not inconceivable that one of them might have used the Maldives as a staging post at some point.

This fear is not without foundation. In 2002, 28-year-old Ibrahim Fauzee, a Maldivian national, was arrested in Karachi and taken to Guantanamo Bay by the US security forces for his connections with Al Qaeda. Two islands in the Maldives are virtually in control of the “mullahs”, although Nasheed said many of the mullahs were also in the coalition government, and are obliged to be restrained. Nasheed is one of the few democratically elected leaders in South Asia, who wishes the Opposition was more active — the fact is, he confessed, there is very little opposition in the Maldives which is a political danger for it leaves the field free for Islamic militants to occupy that space.

Nasheed’s other worry is the issue of development and economic reform. The Maldives is going ahead with an aggressive privatisation programme in all sectors (except telecom, he said with a shy smile — British firm Cable and Wireless has 45 per cent of the stock in Dhivehi Rajjeyge Gulhun Ltd (Dhiraagu), a company created to operate telecommunications on the Maldives and this is not going to change). Ports, tourism, airports, harbour development, transportation, education, hospitality. During his New Delhi visit, India has given $100 million as aid to the Maldives. Business is getting ready to leverage the opening up of the country for the first time in 30 years and replace Singapore as Maldives’ biggest trading partner. Indian investment is likely to begin flowing into the Maldives for capacity building.

Nasheed’s other problem is law and order. It is hard enough keeping the Maldives together as a sovereign entity, dispersed as it is. The country doesn’t just need modern transportation systems but also ways of policing that will end the biggest headache for the country. Eighty per cent of the crime in the Maldives is drugs-related. The number of drug addicts is rising alarmingly and muggings by addicts trolling for their next fix are not unusual. For a virtually crime-free society, Maldives is going through traumatic times. The drug smuggling, Nasheed said, is controlled by the Sri Lanka-based Tamil groups, highlighting the need for Indo-Maldivian maritime security patrolling.

A political advisor said a mid-term election to propel the MDP to get a full majority and dispense with some coalition partners is a distinct possibility. Nasheed has a lot of ideas to develop his country. Tackling Islamic fundamentalism is going to be his biggest challenge.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

President Abdul Maumoon Gayoom's predecessor, Ibrahim Nasir went into retirement and was not overthrown as Business Standard reported in this article. The error is regretted.

First Published: Sat, December 27 2008. 00:00 IST