Friday, April 1, 2016

The Maldives: Paradise and the Democracy that Wasn't

This week I read “The Maldives:Islamic Republic, Tropical Autocracy”, probably one of my favorite books I've read as a part of this project. Robinson's book is a beautiful reminder that no matter how small a country is (The Maldives has just 350,000 citizens), or how simplistically we imagine it, there is deep complexity and contradiction everywhere you go. 

The Maldives is so close to Sri Lanka, and so tiny, that most embassies here serve both countries. 

The Maldives is a paradox: a global gathering point for debauchery and luxury, while across a tiny strip of blue water from the resorts women are flogged, even stoned to death for pre-marital sex. Tourists drown themselves in cocktails while liquor on inhabited Islands is sold more secretively than hard drugs. Perhaps the most heartbreaking part of this, is that it almost wasn't this way. The Maldives had three years of functioning democracy, thanks to the outrage and grief of one bereaved mother. In 2008, after her son died under interrogation in a prison cell, one woman refused to follow Maldivian tradition and bury him quietly. Instead, she dragged his broken body into the central square in Male and demanded justice. After the resulting protests that erupted around the country, a 30 year dictatorship was miraculously and peacefully overthrown. Elected in his stead was Mohamed Nasheed, himself a survivor of torture under the old regime, and an enthusiastic idealistic reformer who wanted human rights, education, and a future for his country, which stares down the barrel of climate change in a way few of us can imagine. The Islands of the Maldives are barely a meter above sea level. He brilliantly leveraged Western climate change guilt into aid for his country, even conducted a cabinet meeting underwater to raise awareness of the Maldive's fate. He planned to make the Maldives a carbon neutral country, and courted investment to switch the islands to entirely solar power.

President Nasheed signing an underwater declaration  

But it was not to last. The family of the 30 year dictator was unaccustomed to living life as ordinary civilians, and Nasheed's plan to increase taxes on resorts to bring revenue from the tourist industry to actually benefit the people of the Maldives made powerful enemies. So on February 7th 2013 the Island's police force "mysteriously" rose up against him. After the forced stormed government buildings, Nasheed disappeared for several hours. When he returned, it was to announce his resignation on live television. His Vice President was sworn in within 24 hours, and an immediate turnover of government official began. The old dictator's family once again saturated government.

The capitol Island of Male 

Somehow, the international community accepted this 'power transfer' complacently. Within a few days of the coup India, Britain and America all recognized the new 'government', and failed to insist on snap elections. As human rights abuses began to spiral out of control and elections were pushed  back for months at a time for increasingly ridiculous reasons, the international community, far too late, began to sanction and speak out against the regime. The Maldives is dependent on its reputation: a few targeted travel warnings can cripple the only industry it has: tourism. But these warnings came too few and too late. The old regime's cronies bought enough support to carry them through elections, once they finally happened, emptying the country's bank accounts to do so. They now maintain popularity through a cynical manipulation of nationalism and Islamic radicalism: whipping up common Maldivians into Islamic fervor while they sneak to Colombo for drinks on the weekends. The Maldives has become the highest contributor of troops to ISIL of any country not directly involved in the conflict. A woman was recently sentenced to be stoned to death for adultery, a crime her lawmakers gladly and repeatedly commit.

Robinson's book was shot through with bewildered disgust at tourism in the Maldives. He couldn't understand how people gladly give up their savings to get sunburned on beaches where the locals neither want or respect them, and their capacity to be completely blind to the horror which takes place on the other side of paradise. I had wanted to visit the Maldives before I leave: flights from Colombo are just $70. But after this book I have no desire to go. Tourism is intentionally structured to stay in the hands of a small elite which is largely responsible for the economic and social collapse of their society, motivated only by their own greed. I will not, I will never, allow a dollar of my money to fuel their lust for power. 

For more on the Maldives I hope you will check out the Maldives Independent, the newspaper the author worked for during his four years in the Maldives. They worked hard to report fairly despite intimidation and sabotage: one of their reporters even disappeared, probably murdered. Bravery like this surely deserves a few webpage clicks. Besides, a few minutes of digging turned up this gem of an article where a Member of Parliament called women 'screaming cows', and claimed that women are the leading cause of heart attacks and strokes. Ooops. Sorry, yes, causing deadly disease is a rather embarrassing habit of mine. Called out. 

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