The scramble for Maldives

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by Mushfique Mohamed

The political changes that marked Maldives’ transition to democracy have not translated into equal distribution of wealth or access to basic public services such as clean water, health care, electricity, waste-management and sewage systems, throughout the country. The rapid political changes and crises experienced in the past decade has done little to confound the popularized image of the Maldives as a hedonistic paradise for tourists, despite being considered ‘one of the most miserable countries in the world’ for its own citizens. Continuing this story of two Maldives: the real and the represented, the Yameen government has submitted the Special Economic Zones (SEZs) Bill to the People’s Majlis. In doing so, the government is attempting to sell the illusory tale that liberalisation of trade by autocrats – granting incentives to multinational corporations (MNCs) – trickles wealth down to ordinary citizens.

President Abdullah Yameen Abdul Gayoom, brother of former strongman Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, announced plans to develop SEZs in April 2014 at an investor forum held by the Maldivian government in Marina Bay Sands, Singapore. Notable investors such as US company Blackstone (which acquired a controlling interest in Maldivian Air Taxi “MAT” and Trans Maldivian Airways “TMA” in February 2013), Singapore-based HPL Hotels and Resorts, China Machinery Engineering Corporation (CMEC), the Carlson Group of Companies, Pan Pacific Hotels and Resorts, United Bunkering and Trading Group, and Singapore Enterprise were present at the forum.

The SEZs bill entails demarcation of specific geographic areas into zones where special customs regime and laws apply for investors and developers. Developers’ Business Profit Taxes (BPT) can be exempted, and Goods and Services Taxes (GST) are exempted initially for ten years, and can be withheld or exempted for additional years if the SEZs board allows. Shareholders are exempt from paying BPT on their dividends, and tax relief can be afforded to developers through special procedures by the SEZs board. The SEZs board can also lease land in the Maldives to foreign companies for up to ninety-nine years and Maldivian companies are exempt from tax when acquiring ownership of land.

The SEZs defined under the bill include the following: Industrial Estate, Export Processing Zone, Free-Trade Zone, Enterprise Zone, Free Port, Single Factory Export Processing Zone, Offshore Banking Unit, Offshore Financing Service Centre, and a High Technology Park (Articles 9-18). Government officials have echoed Singapore, Hong Kong, Oman, Qatar and Dubai as examples of SEZs stimulating foreign direct investment. China and India have been touted by the World Bank as proof of economic growth through introduction of liberal economic policies and legislations such as SEZs. Gradually, China and India began to structurally transform its economies in the 1980s and 1990s respectively, with its GDP growing at an annual average rate of 10% and 6% over the past two decades. In the case of China and India, although SEZs are associated with trade liberalization, studies have shown that it does not always result in human development, economic growth or liberalization of domestic markets (Leong 2013).

Speaking to the media in June 2014, the Minister of Economic Development Mohamed Saeed likened existing tourist resorts to SEZs, possibly to suggest how potentially profitable these policies could be. Contrastingly, the recently published second Maldives’ Human Development Index report by the United Nations Development Project affirms that despite being lucrative and effective at enabling economic growth, the luxury tourism industry has not alleviated socio-economic inequalities, but rather contributed to it. Speaking to local news website Minivan News, Tourism Minister Ahmed Adheeb defended the bill claiming that it is in line with decentralization, and that it will shift the focus away from the densely populated capital Malé.

However, a Facebook Community named The Maldivian Economist a forum where economic and financial policies are discussed – has published a detailed refutation of the notions put forth by the government regarding the SEZs bill. The Maldivian Economist notes that the bill takes power away from the people – local government and elected officials, concentrating wealth under a “centralized autocratic government.” Although the bill purportedly aims to limit Maldives’ reliance on tourism income, it provides additional import duty, tax and foreign labor concessions specifically for hotel, tourism-related, and real estate businesses.

Primarily, the Bill aims to run nine types of SEZs. But the 17-member SEZs board called ‘the Board of Investments’ – made up of unelected government officials, including two presidential appointees – decides how many zones, and of which types would be set up across the Maldives (Article 22). The bill affords the SEZs board the discretion to extend incentives, such as tax relief or increase the allocation of expatriates and migrant workers upon request. If the bill is enacted, it will prevail over existing laws (according to Article 80(b), 14 existing legislations to be exact) and regulations made prior to it. Only special SEZ ‘facilitating’ regulations made by relevant governmental authorities, decisions and regulations made by the SEZs board, obligations cited under the developer’s permit, and terms and conditions stipulated under the investment agreement or concession agreement would be applicable within any SEZ (Article 33(b), Article 70).

Although the bill states that discussions shall be made between councilors, and that the Chairperson of the SEZs board and the Minister of Economic Development shall be answerable to the parliament, it does not afford government oversight any decision-making powers. All the decision-making powers with regard to which investors attain development projects and which areas are designated SEZs is vested with the SEZs board and the President. The SEZs board also decides which existing tourism related businesses could be relocated into an SEZ. (Article 74(c)). Under an authoritarian government, the SEZs board would end up assuming overwhelming wealth through developers, and in the absence of competition laws invisibilize local fishermen and entrepreneurs who call these SEZs home.

Once the President demarks an area as an SEZ, even if it currently belongs under the authority of a local council, its authority is transferred to the Ministry of Economic Development, as per Article 33(a) of the Bill. The Maldivian Economist states that this allows “all the revenue to bypass local councils and go into the state budget.” Article 37(b) of the bill states that if a development project aims to relocate island communities to the area being developed, the SEZs board has the discretion to grant the developer additional incentives.

The concession agreement with GMR Malaysia Airport Holdings consortium and the Nasheed administration signed in June 2010 to develop and run Malé international airport, was the largest foreign direct investment in the Maldives. The coup regime of Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik, which included members of the current government expelled India’s GMR citing ‘void ab initio’, but used religious rhetoric and an ultranationalist anti-India campaign to drive home the now debunked legal argument. Due to the xenophobic GMR fiasco, it seems as if an entirely different government has submitted the SEZs bill, ready to embrace the globalized world economy.

The opposition Maldivian Democratic Party has dubbed the bill, “the Artur Brothers bill”, invoking top government officials’ links to famous Armenian gangsters, and possibility of increased money laundering due to offshore financing.1 Resonating sentiments of SEZs critics, Salma Fikry, one of Maldives’ foremost experts on decentralisation and development, told Minivan News last week that, “it [SEZs bill] is not sustainable nor empowering for the Maldivian population.”

Canadian author Naomi Klein’s book “the Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism” is a literary indictment of the radically liberal free-market policies introduced by economists trained at the Chicago School of Economics. In her view, policies espoused by Milton Friedman and his protégés world-over have historically exploited crises: “wars, terror attacks, coups d’état and natural disasters” in the developing world.

Post-tsunami opportunism during Gayoom’s dictatorship is also mentioned in Klein’s well-researched hypothesis. Following the 2004 Tsunami, with funding from the World Bank and other international bodies, the Maldivian government announced the Safe Island Program in order to relocate island communities. Klein argues that the regime was merely “freeing up more land for tourism.” This argument is convincing as she notes, “in December 2005, one year after the tsunami, the Gayoom government announced that thirty-five new islands were available to be leased to resorts for up to fifty years.”

To a certain degree, the SEZs bill is similar to the Safe Island Program; it glorifies “the blank”, a country with special privileges and policies for MNCs and foreigners, void of its inhabitants. As the Maldivian Economist has noted, in the Maldivian context of escalating socio-economic disparities, and corruption within the judiciary, government and parliament, this bill will not enable the human development it envisions. Instead, it solely empowers the government and corporations associated with it. These policies will do more harm than good to a small economy such as the Maldives, which does not have any existing legal barriers to foreign direct investment.

    Does this government support Maldivian Jihadists in Syria?

    Azra Naseem

    In the last week two Maldivians died in the Syrian conflict. About twenty more are fighting in the war. The news was brought to local papers by a group calling itself Bilad Al Sham Media, which insists furiously that it is run by a group of Maldivians based ‘in Syria, not in the Maldives’. Bilad Al Sham refers to what is known as Greater Syria, currently the main attraction for the world’s Jihadis who are lured to the conflict by what many believe is a divine promise that jihad there ‘will set the stage for the emergence of the true Islamic state’.

    According to the Lebanon-based newspaper Al-Akhbar, the various nationalities currently fighting in Syria—Lebanese, Jordanians, Iraqis, Palestinians, Kuwaitis, Tunisians, Libyans, Saudis, Yemenis, Afghans and Pakistanis—are divided among many factions and schools of thought. Three among them espouse the most hardline takfiri ideology: al-Qaeda’s Abdullah Azzam Brigades, the Doura Fighting Group, and the Jabhat al-Nusra li-Bilad al-Sham. The Bilad Al Sham Media group, which appears to have been set up for the purpose of publicising the activities of Maldivian ‘Jihadis’, has confirmed that the Maldivians are with Jabhat al-Nusra, the deadliest of the three.

    Al-Nusra first announced its existence in January 2012, pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda in 2013 and in April 2014, started its own weapons factory. To remove any doubt about Maldivian fighters being affiliated with Jbhat Al-Nusra, Bilad Al Sham Media posted an Al-Nusra issued identity card which it says belonged to the second Maldivian who died in the conflict. Affiliation with Al-Nusra is a matter of great pride for them.

    Bilad Al Sham Media has a strong online presence—it has a Facebook page, a Twitter handle, a YouTube channel, and a blog. The group is making full use of all the platforms to bring detailed news of their activities in Syria to the Maldivian public. According to its Facebook page discussions with followers, the decision to go public was not made lightly. It was aware that being out in the open could mean that future Jihadists would find it more difficult to leave the country and join others in Syria as authorities crack-down on them. But, in the end, it decided that the gains of going public—calling others to ‘Jihad’ and attracting them to their cause—far out-weighed the potential harm.

    Bilad Al Sham Media appears to have been spot on in its calculations: they have got a far bigger response from their followers and wanna-be Jihadis than from the government. Whereas the glorification of their ‘martyrdom’ has increased with the publicity, the government response has been virtually non-existent. Maldivian Jihadists, it appears, have nothing to fear from this government. In fact, the government appears to be tacitly condoning the whole enterprise if not actively encouraging it.

    Bilad Al Sham Media warned the police not to investigate them, and instructed the Islamic Ministry to stay out of it.

    The Islamic Ministry is following the instructions to a tee. Minister Sheikh Shaheem Ali Saeed responded to news of the Maldivian suicide bomber by saying that while he personally disapproved of Maldivians fighting in wars abroad, the Islamic Ministry itself had nothing to say on the matter.

    President Yameen, meanwhile, has come out with a statement that makes suicide bombing in Syria sound similar to a minor transgression such as throwing some rubbish on the streets of Singapore where there are strict regulations against such behaviour.

    Yameen said that the government had always urged Maldivians to maintain discipline abroad, adding that the responsibility for any crime wilfully committed by an individual must be borne by the individual himself.

    Bilad Al Sham Media has made it clear that Maldivians in Syria are well trained fighters killing in the name of God; not ‘a family of Maldivians’ who, while travelling abroad, have somehow found themselves in a bit of a kerfuffle in Syria, as Yameen appears to suggest. Rest of the president’s utterances on the subject, offering financial assistance to the fighters if they have found themselves stuck in Syria, smacks of someone who is totally ignorant of the phenomenon of violent radicalisation or is having a private laugh about it.

    Does the government’s astonishingly blasé attitude to one of the most pressing security concerns in the world today stem from ignorance, or is it calculated? Is the government deliberately turning a blind eye to the radicalistion—both violent and non-violent—of Maldivians? Does it consider the ‘Jihadists’ to be engaged in a Holy War to protect Islam? Its actions, or lack of them, since the news broke certainly suggests this to be the case.

    Most people were still reeling from the shocking news of the Maldivians killing and being killed in Syria when the national Martyr’s Day rolled around on Friday, 30 May. Death of the second Maldivian had been announced only three days before. Bilad Al Sham Media was busy putting out statements promoting their deaths as martyrdom, a Jihad for Islam, when Foreign Minister Dunya Maumoon addressed the nation on the occasion of Martyr’s Day. Shockingly, in all the talk of martyrdom, she had nothing to say about the Maldivians dying in Syria. Still conspicuously not remarking on the Syrian ‘Jihadis’, she defined martyrdom as ‘loss of one’s life from an attack by the enemy in a Jihadi war being fought for religion and for the country’s freedom’. She later said, ‘if we were to lose our lives during a sincere effort to protect our country’s sovereignty, that death will without a doubt be martyrdom.’ There was no such clarification of whether or not the government considers those killing themselves and others in Syria fits into her definition of martyrs for religion.

    Other government officials were even more vague. Here is, for example, Vice President Mohamed Jameel Ahmed’s Tweet to mark the occasion:

    Which martyrs is he speaking of? The Maldivians ones of days long gone who died fighting for the country’s freedom, or the self-proclaimed Jihadis killing and being killed in Syria?  

    Never the sort to waste an occasion for nationalistic rhetoric, on Saturday evening the government held an official ceremony to mark Martyr’s Day. As Chief Guest, Home Minister Umar Naseer added to the ambiguity. He focused on the changed nature of modern warfare, saying that days of fighting with swords and guns are long gone. Today’s war, he said, is ideological; what is under attack are ‘how people think of their countries, and their religion.’ There was no mention of whether or not he, or the government, considers Maldivian ‘Jihadis’ fighting in the Syrian war as soldiers in that ideological war.

    Added to this recurring ambiguity is total inaction. Although it is the Maldives Police Service (MPS) which has a dedicated counter-terrorism department, recent media reports have quoted the police as saying Maldives National Defence Force is responsible. In this case, however, the buck seems to have been passed to MPS. Bilad Al Sham Media, which has warned the police that probing into their activities is anti-Islamic, is right not to be too concerned. The MPS was unable to identify Justice Abdulla Hameed from the leaked sex videos despite his identity being obvious to the naked eye. And, it was only in last October that the MPS Counter-terrorism chief flew to London with a ballot box for the presidential election and disappeared only to be found when he posted pictures of himself at an Arsenal football match.  

    In addition to the cluelessness, it is not just Bilad Al Sham Media that is warning police that investigating their ‘Jihad’ is anti-Islamic. 

    Screen Shot 2014-05-31 at 7.46.53 PMThey were recently told the same thing by hardline Salafi preacher Sheikh Adam Shameem Ibrahim (of Andalus fame) selected by the government to address the police on the occasion of Martyr’s Day. What he had to say to the police is not the least bit surprising. He recast national heroes of history in today’s Islamist terms— ‘Mujahedin who had martyred for Islam’ and the country. He said all police should always be determined to become a martyr, and took pains to tell the force just what a glorious position Islam has for martyrs. Nothing, of course, was said about it being wrong to blow themselves up, and kill others, in the name of Islam in the Islamists’ ‘Holy War.’  

    The government’s non-action; its sanguine reaction to the news of Maldivians fighting in Syria; its complete lack of any counter-extremism or counter-radicalisation initiatives; its failure to state its position on whether or not it regards the Maldivian fighters who died in Syria as martyrs or not; and its sanctioning of an Islamist preacher to glorify martyrdom to the Maldives Police Service all combine to make a very loud statement—this government tacitly supports Maldivians fighting and killing themselves in the ‘Holy War’ to establish an Islamic state in Syria. Interesting, given that the Jihadists themselves have little respect for it; and we have already had some experience of what Islamists do to governments they have no respect for.

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      The long road from Islam to Islamism: a short history

      Maldivian women at an Adhaalath-led rally on 23 December 2011. Photo: Aznym Maldivian women at an Adhaalath-led rally on 23 December 2011. Photo: Aznym

       

      by Azra Naseem and Mushfique Mohamed

      Popular Maldivian history does not go much further back than the 12th Century, when King Dhovemi Kalaminja converted to Islam and ruled that all his subjects must follow suit. Long forgotten or neglected history books, however, tell us that life in the Maldives—or Maladvipa; Dheeva Maari; or Dheeva Mahal as it was known in antiquity—began centuries previously. The ancient Sri Lankan chronicle of The Mahavamsa connects the origins of Maldivian people to the Sinhalese through the story of excommunicated Indian princes from the Kalinga kingdom in the 6th Century. More recent Maldivian research, A New Light into Maldivian History (1958), traces Maldivian life even further back to the 3rd Century. Some historians have theorised that the first settlers in the Maldives could have emerged as soon as Greco-maritime trade began in the region making it very likely that the first Maldivians were “Prakrit speaking Satavahanas of the Deccan, Tamil speaking Chera, Chola, Pandyas of South India, and Prakrit speaking Sinhalese of Sri Lanka.”

      Among these early Maldivians who predate the arrival of exiled Indian princes were descendants of the Tivaru people of ancient Tamil origin who later came to be known as ‘Giraavaru people’. They practised an ancient form of Hinduism involving Dravidian ritualistic traditions venerating Surya, the Sun god. The Giraavaru people, although now so totally assimilated into Maldivian society as to be indistinguishable from the rest, maintained a variety of their distinct traditions and culture until as late as the 1980s. It took a concerted, and often inhumane, effort by the government to finally make them conform to the majority’s norm. Successive governments also made sustained and systematic efforts to wipe out all history of the Buddhist community that had long existed in the Maldives until about 900 years ago. Just like the history of the Giraavaru people, however, the digging does not have to be too deep to uncover just how ingrained Buddhist ways and culture had been in Maldivian life for years. While archaeologists like HCP Bell have uncovered Buddhist structures buried underground, ethnologists like Xavier Romero-Frais have traced the origins of much of classical Maldivian cultural, linguistic and traditional traits to the Buddhist era.

      The beginning of the end of Maldivian Buddhism came with Arab domination of trade in the Indian Ocean in the 7th Century. Just as the rise of China and India, and the US foreign policy’s Asia Pivot, have made the Maldives geo-strategically important today, so it was with the ancient Silk Route. Foreign powers were drawn to the Maldives by its location and its abundance of cowry shells, the currency of many. The spread of Islam along the Silk Route is well documented. In the Maldives, it is a widely accepted ‘truth’ that the conversion of the Maldives population to Islam was peaceful—people willingly converted with their King. There are, however, historical accounts that dispute the narrative exist in the form of writing on copperplates (Isdū Lōmāfānu) dating back to the 12th Century. These have not been made widely accessible to the public. In their place is a legend, first told orally then formalised as historical fact and included in primary school text books, which depicts Maldivian conversion to Islam as a reaction to the cruel deeds of a sea demon. As the story goes, the demon appeared like a ‘ship of lights’ once a month, demanding virgin girls to be delivered to it at night to a designated location. In the morning the demon would be gone, and the virgin would be found dead. A Berber or Persian, who was visiting Maldives at the time, volunteered to go to the demon in place of the chosen virgin one night. He stayed up all night reciting the Qur’an. When the demon appeared, the sound of the Qur’an gradually diminished it in size until it was small enough to be put into a bottle. The Arab traveller sealed the bottle and disposed of it into the deep blue sea, banishing it forever. A grateful King Kalaminja converted to Islam, and his obedient subjects followed suit. Hundreds of years of Buddhism disappeared, allegedly, without trace. From then on King Kalaminja became Sultan Muhammad Ibn Abdullah and Maldives became 100 percent Muslim.

      The first major threat to the new Maldivian way of life came four centuries later, with Portuguese occupation in the 16th Century. Unlike latter colonial powers like the Dutch and the British, the Portuguese occupiers did not allow Maldivians autonomy in their internal affairs. Stories of Portuguese wine-drinking and merry-making abound in Maldivian historical accounts of their presence. One of the most potent weapons used to rally Maldivians behind the efforts to oust the Portuguese was religious rhetoric—the biggest threat from the Portuguese occupation, it was said, was to the Islamic faith of Maldivians. The day on which the Portuguese were defeated is now marked as the National Day, and the chief protagonists in the story of their ouster are venerated as the most heroic of figures in the history of the Maldives.

      Religious rhetoric as a means of rallying support for political change, established as a success during the battle against the Portuguese, was once again deployed with similar triumph in the 20th Century. In 1953, while Maldives was still a British Protectorate, Mohamed Amin Didi became the first President of the Maldives. Amin Didi is largely credited with ending monarchy and steering the country towards a Republic. He is also known as a moderniser and an advocate for women’s rights. Amin Didi’s presidency—and the First Republic—lasted less than a year. Just as religious rhetoric was successfully used in ousting the Portuguese, so was similar discourse produced to brutally end Amin Didi’s presidency. Even the famine caused by WWII was tied to religious discourse and blamed on Amin Didi.

      The Maldives’ first experiences of ‘Western modernity’ began during the Second Republic, with the arrival of tourists from Europe. The world had just lived through the counter-culture of the 1960s, the Maldives was no longer a British Protectorate, the Second Republic had been established, and Ibrahim Nasir was the President. Unlike its neighbours and contemporaries in other parts of the world, modernity was not enforced on the Maldives by a foreign power—it arrived with tourists and was adopted voluntarily by many locals, especially in the capital Male’ and surrounding areas. The Islam that existed in the Maldives at this time was an amalgamation of Islamic teachings, Buddhist Eveyla traditions and Sufi practises and rituals. Writers and historians such as HCP Bell, Clarence Maloney, Francois Pyrad and Xavier Romero-Frias have provided rare insights into Maldivian Islamic traditions. Many of them have now disappeared, or been made to disappear, as Western modernity and Islamism took hold of and begun to dictate Maldivian life. The total obliteration of Islam as it was practised in the Maldives for centuries began in earnest with the assumption of power by Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.