Category: Environment

First they came for Faafu II

Scary-Sea-Monster (1)

by Azra Naseem

2. Of myths and monsters

This is a very interesting story.

Today’s Crown Prince and Defence Minister of Saudi Arabia Prince Mohamed was not always a very popular member of the aristocratic Saudi royal family. Those days, Mohamed used to spend a lot of time in the Maldives. He stayed on an island in Faafu Atoll and went snorkelling. When the Prince went past Himithi on these trips, he marvelled at its beauty.

His noble heart took a fancy to Himithi. He made contact with the government, and through it, the varuvaa holders. The Prince got permission to develop the island as his own private holiday retreat. At the same time, Mohamed’s star began to shine bright on the Saudi horizon. King Abdulla died and Mohamed’s noble father Salman ascended to the throne. Mohamed became Crown Prince, and was given the powerful position of Defence Minister. Prince Mohamed is the visionary who designed the present Saudi economy and drew up Saudi Arabia’s new development plans.

With so much responsibility to bear, the Prince no longer has the opportunity to swim in the seas of the Maldives. But the Prince has not forgotten Himithi. Even King Salman knows just how much Mohamed loves the Maldives. The King himself, with his own noble tongue, told Maldivian President Yameen so. What’s more, the King himself also loves the Maldives, just like the noble Son Mohamed. The King made an official visit to the Maldives at the beginning of President Yameen’s rule.

The Prince has now changed his earlier concept of creating his own private retreat on an island. The close friendship President Yameen has with Saudi King Salman and his Noble Son played an important role in making this change happen. The new drawings were created by the very best designers in the world. That President Yameen has been granted the opportunity to view these designs can be understood from what the President said in his latest speech in Faafu Atoll. There have only ever been just two or three such concepts in the entire world.

They will build a big big city like Dubai in the Maldives. They will invest dollars in many billions. Saudi Arabia has such vast riches this is nothing to them. Big land will be reclaimed to build this city.

The ‘interesting story’ above is an extract from the chief narrative the Maldives government is disseminating to tell people the story of how President Yameen has made a deal to sell territory in Faafu Atoll to a group of rich privileged men from the Saudi royal family.

It is a clever strategy.

Every state has its founding myths, narratives repeated so often through time they become ‘truths’. These narratives become the basis on which national identities—and often policies—are built. Take, for example, the narratives of American Exceptionalism, and Satthain Sattha Maldives. These narratives, when repeated in various forms, pull at the national ‘psyche’, and successfully reactivate nationalism, patriotism and other such emotive ideologies the disseminators want during a given period of time.

In the tone and manner of telling, the government’s Saudi sale narrative is very similar to the Rannamari myth at heart of the Maldivian identity of Satthain Sattha Muslim. Non-Muslim Maldivians living in darkness, plagued by monsters, and existing in a perpetual state of fear, were shown the light by a learned scholar from the holy lands of Arabia who, with the help of a wise King open to religious enlightenment, paved the way for Islam, prosperity, and eternal peace in the Maldives. Since then, says the narrative, Maldives has been a Hundred Per Cent [Satthain Sattha] Muslim country.

Until now, that is. Today the Satthain Sattha identity is under serious threat, says the government.

Irreligious Laa Dheenee locals colluding with the Great Satan of the West, have come together to threaten the faith of Maldivians. These monstrous forces have been launching sustained attacks on Maldivian belief systems ever since a majority adopted the Western concept of democracy. Embracing these values have stood in the way of development and prosperity, and weakened Maldivians’ belief in Allah.

Maldivians of the 21st Century need rescuing, just like those of the 12th Century. Fortunately for Maldivians, wise President Yameen, like the enlightened King who embraced Islam in 1153, has become friends with not just a multitude of Arab scholars, but the King of Arabia himself, and his Noble Son, the Crown Prince Mohamed. Mohamed will bring Islam back to the Maldives in its proper form. He will save the Maldives.

The plans for Faafu are far from mere economic genius.

So-called gentry and their jealousy

Another narrative planted in the ‘independent media‘, and successfully taking hold, is that criticisms of the Maldives government deal with the Saudi royal family are manufactured by the Privileged Male’ People jealous at the prospect of mega development somewhere other than Male’.

The Male’/Raajjethéré divide is not in itself a myth. Vast differences exist between the capital island and the rest of the country in terms of economic development and provision of primary needs such as education and health. Fostered by these inequalities  systematically created by the central government in Male’, a ‘truth’ was constructed in which people of Male’ are somehow superior to that of people born elsewhere.

This long surviving inferiority/superiority complex–although weakened substantially in recent times–survives like racism, apartheid and other such systems of inequality do elsewhere. Now the government is picking the scabs of this national wound, and drumming up support for the deal in Faafu by making people feel the injury afresh. The allegations of Male’ jealousy plays to audiences who have long suffered inequalities stemming from the centralisation of power. Given the familiarity of the narrative, it very much rings ‘true’.

The Yameen government has completely dismantled the fledgling structures and nascent plans geared towards decentralisation. In this light, the the idea that the Faafu project  is intended to empower people of the atoll and surrounding areas is laughable. Decentralisation experts have pointed out that when Yameen came to power, existing laws required atoll assets to be handed over to respective islands and atolls. But local councils have since been systematically stripped of any authority and power. If empowerment of the people is a motive that drives government plans for outer atolls, why strip people of the atolls of all authority over their own resources?

Fact is, Yameen has already signed the dotted line on the deal it made with the royal family. The deal was sealed long before people came to know about it. It was done with zero public discussion on the inevitable and irreversible damage the Saudi Mega City project stands to cause to the fragile Maldivian environment; national security implications; or how it will change Maldivian society and culture.  The most powerful way—perhaps the only way—to resist the future they have carved up for Faafu, and by association the entire Maldives, is for the people to consider these threats and unite against the plans.

The (re)telling of powerful national myths in times of crises is a tactic that can be more effective than the brutal crackdowns that bring democratic protests to a stand-still. To drum up support for the War on Terror, US leaders tapped the myths of American Exceptionalim and Manifest Destiny. The narratives being (re)told by the Yameen government work to unite people in support for the Faafu plans against the manufactured threats to their religious beliefs and their right to equality.

In selling Maldivian land to the great Saudi Royal Family, custodians of Islam’s holiest sites, the government has brought not just riches but also blessings from Allah to the people of Maldives. In a single deal, the president has paved the way to resist the Infidels who are attacking Islam in the Maldives on so many fronts, and to shrink the demon of irreligiosity. All the while he is cutting those privileged superior Male’ people down to size by making the people of Faafu equally rich, empowered, and closer than ever before to God (by association with the Saudi Royal Family).

Only the irreligious, the foolish, the jealous and the arrogant would object.


First they came for Faafu I: Of Kings and Pawns

First they came for Faafu III: Muizzing Maldives

Image source

First they came for Faafu

IMG_2284

by Azra Naseem

1. Of Kings and Pawns

Just over a 100 kilometres south west of Male’, rising up  from the deep blue lagoon, are 26 islands forming the atoll formally known as Faafu. This beautiful reef structure, one of twenty such natural island chains in the Maldives archipelago, is roughly 30 kilometres long and 25 kilometres wide. Five of the atoll’s islands are inhabited. Of the rest, four are under the jurisdiction of the Tourism Ministry, five leased on varuvaa[1], and five under the Atoll Council.

A sum total of just over four thousand people live on the islands of Feeali, Bileiydhoo, Magoodhoo, Dharan’boodhoo, and Nilandhoo the capital. Nilandhoo is large by Maldivian standards, measuring 56 hectares or half a square kilometre.

Faafu is historically significant. On Nilandhoo is the Maldives’ second oldest mosque, Aasaari Miskiyy, built over 800 years ago. As Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl recounts in his book, The Maldive Mystery, he discovered the ruins of no less than seven Hindu temples and a Buddhist stupa on the island.

Life in Faafu goes a long way back; much further back than written Maldivian history is officially allowed to go.

Today Faafu is about to change beyond recognition.

Making Faafu Great

On 24 January President Yameen announced the atoll would soon see development ‘never before seen’ in the Maldives.

The president was speaking at a ceremony to inaugurate a ‘beautiful, modern’ mosque—gifted to the people of Magoodhoo by King Salman of Saudi Arabia. The new mosque, Masjid Al Taqwa, is not merely a place of worship, but a manifestation of the ‘special love and respect’ the desert monarch holds in his ‘noble heart’ for the islanders of Maldives. Maldivians would soon have the opportunity to welcome The King in person, said the President, God willing.

“Faafu Atoll is happy. And Faafu Atoll is lucky”, said the President. Because, Faafu is “an atoll that the Saudi government, or rather, leading figures in Saudi, have a special interest in”.

Fortunate Faafu, The Chosen Atoll.

Drawing out the suspense like the host of a cheap daytime TV gameshow, the President continued, “A huge massive project is planned for Faafu Atoll. All charts and drawings have been completed.”

In other words, the future of Faafu is a done deal. Drawn up and signed by the Saudi King and the Dhivehi President. Why should the people be consulted? Why should they have a say? They only live there.

The ‘Huge Massive Project’, Yameen said, could make Faafu the most prosperous atoll in the Maldives. “It will be open to the world, to people from all walks of life, travellers and such.”

It will be a township, he said. Presumably not Soweto in the Apartheid era.

“Only three or four such townships exist in the entire world”, he boasted. “It will set the standards for such projects”, and “will be copied” by future generations. The Faafu Township will be the giant on the shoulders of which future township visionaries will stand.

“That is what those elevated persons [the Royal Sauds] have in their noble hearts. We, too, have good hopes for this. We, too, are praying to Allah, that these things do happen to the Maldives, and that this will bring to Faafu Atoll the kind of development we have never seen before.”

That, and no more than that, is what the President cared to share. Pressed later by Mihaaru for details, his spokesperson said the government will “disclose information about its policies and initiatives as it sees fit”.

But, of course. The subjects must wait patiently for The King’s pleasure.

The questions people want answers to, meanwhile, frantically fly around public spaces on- and offline: How much of Faafu Atoll is the House of Saud taking for the so-called Huge Massive Township? Is it the entire atoll? If so, where are the people of Faafu to go? Will they be made to move en masse to Hulhumale’? If the Sauds are taking ‘only’ some islands, which ones would it be? What purpose the land? How much dredging and reclamation? With what consequences?

Land-grabs are, sadly, common across the poor world. Superrich global developers, with deep pockets and unlimited greed, criss-cross the earth with eyes keenly peeled for the perfect opportunity: natural beauty, corrupt leaders, and populations made weak by disasters both natural and man-made. Today’s Maldives combines those magic ingredients. It is breathtakingly beautiful, its people have been weakened by years of political unrest, societal strife, and continuous lack of prosperity. Most importantly, its leaders are immensely corrupt.

What more could the House of Saud—or the House of Trump, or whichever house sitting on whichever throne of dollars—ask for?

Sweeteners and sovereignty

Maldives has been courting Saudi benevolence for most of this decade. Dr Waheed, the ‘Immediate Past President’, before he finally handed the reigns over to Yameen, visited Saudi Arabia in July 2013. He met the then Crown Prince Salman, and successfully begged for money and patronage.

In March 2015, shortly after the Prince was crowned King, Yameen was granted an audience. The President returned with the promise of more money and a joint communiqué to facilitate investment opportunities in both countries. A US$20 million grant ‘to manage cash flow’ and a US$80 million loan for development projects were announced. Much more—an embassy right next to the President’s Office, additional loans, scholarships, Saudi-cabinet approved sponsorship of Maldives Islamic University—were to follow.

In July 2015, three months after that first visit of Yameen’s to Saudi Arabia, Article 251 of the Constitution forbidding sale of Maldivian territory to foreigners was up for amendment in the Parliament. To pass, it required a three-quarters majority.

Flush with Saudi endowments, the government made sure money was readily available for greasing palms—all the way from the parliament to the regional councils and island leaders.

Unconfirmed reports say part of Saudi money earmarked as sweeteners later went missing. Missing money—whether cash from Saudi as widely alleged, or stolen from MMPRC in the biggest embezzlement in Maldives’ known history—is at the heart of the epic fall-out between Yameen and his Vice President Ahmed Adeeb. Whether the cash handouts came from Saudi ‘generosity’ or from robbery of state coffers, that many MPs gladly received shares of the bounty is a known fact.

The amendment passed with ease. Only 14 out of 85 Members of the People’s Majlis voted against. The Ruling party PPM and its allies cited ‘mega development’ [always good]; the opposition MDP cited ‘being a centre-right party’ [free market always supreme]. These, people were told, were the reasons for pushing the Constitutional amendment through without so much as the customary eyebrow lifted in askance: what do you think?

11 of the seventy MPs who voted for the amendment were from MDP. Without their votes the proposal would have failed. In the days that followed, the party came into criticism from many members who, although in the minority, were vocal in their dissatisfaction. MDP secretariat shrugged off the criticism, justifying it by referencing its ‘centre-right position’. It was as if being centre-right, and being staunchly for neoliberalism, is a law written in stone MDP could not deviate from, whatever the cost.

Dangled before MDP MPs was also the promise of Mohamed Nasheed’s release from wrongful imprisonment. This—not cash in hand or party ideology—some MPs later claimed, was really what drove the MDP vote in favour.

Challenged on Twitter on Wednesday, MP Fayyaz Ismail (who voted against the amendment), explained that discussions within the party ahead of the vote largely agreed ‘the political situation’ should be the chief consideration for MPs casting the vote.

The ‘political situation’ MP Fayyaz referred to is widely understood to mean party leader Nasheed’s continued captivity and the chance to secure his release by voting the way Yameen, his jailer, wanted.

The potentially destructive power Yameen was granted through the constitutional amendment was an issue that could be confronted later, once Nasheed was released.

That this was an important part of the thinking behind MDP’s rationalisation of the majority Yes vote at the time is borne out by the party’s announcement on Wednesday that, (with Nasheed no longer at Yameen’s mercy,) the party will now do everything possible to repeal the amendment that would have been impossible without it in the first place.

Whither the immovable centre-right neoliberal position?

Until the vote cast on 22 July 2015, the constitution safeguarded Maldivian land by prohibiting both government and individuals from selling any of its territory to any foreign party. It was bad enough that the laws as they stood allowed leasing of islands for up to 99 years, in itself a moneymaking racket that has, over the years, created a rich/poor divide so great that less than a minute fraction own well over 99% of the country’s tourism wealth.

Laying claim to the Maldives for a century was not sufficient for the likes of the House of Saud. They need ownership. The government, therefore, engineered the second constitutional amendment with the Saudi Royal family in mind; just as it engineered the first constitutional amendment with Adeeb in mind. Now, all that an interested buyer has to do is invest US$1 billion (pocket change for the superrich), get some territory preferably with an island, reclaim enough lagoon so that the artificial land becomes 70 percent of the entire territory they’ve invested in, and voila, a piece of ‘paradise’ is theirs.

Opposition to the sale is intense, but lacks unity. Adhaalath Party is against, and it voted No to amending the Constitution. But it has only one member in parliament. MDP is against, but only because the government is not being transparent enough in doing the deal. Independent member Mahloof Ahmed–an influential voice, voted No. But he is in jail. Voices of JP and MDP MPs who went against the party position and voted No are subsumed by their parties that have been respectively unwilling and unable to oppose the sale effectively. Civil society campaigns, people-led movements, and vocal individuals, are mostly restricted to social media.

Generally, all dissatisfaction and angst–of party, society and individual alike–is kept in check by Yameen’s repressive policies that have banned democratic protests in the name of social harmony. Democracy is bad for development, he maintains.

The Maldives is on sale to the highest bidder. Islands, lagoons and reefs are going fast. At a time when the world has woken up to the calamities of man-made climate change, when sustainable development has come to the fore of the thinking person’s agenda, this most fragile of countries on earth lacks a unifying leader, party or movement that stands both in principle and practice, for people before profit, for sustainable development over short-term gain, and for development with consciousness over supplication to the so-called invisible hand of the market.

The future is bleak.

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First they came for Faafu II: Of Myths and Monsters

First they came for Faafu III: Muizzing Maldives

[1] A system of patronage dating back to the monarchy when rulers ‘gifted’ islands to favoured subjects. With the start of the tourism industry, the system turned into one of privilege and corruption, as will be explored in more detail later in this series.

Image: NASA

Forced migration around the corner: time to act

by Salma Fikry*

For several years, we in the Maldives have accepted that we are a country with few natural resources. Our development policies were formulated and implemented with the underlying justification that the biggest challenge to our development was the highly dispersed nature of sparsely populated communities, over a vast spread of the ocean.  

This being the case, it was seen as unfeasible to provide services and opportunities to every inhabited island. Priority was given to develop the capital island Male’ and subsequently, Vilingili or ViliMale’ (a resort island in the vicinity of Male’ changed to an inhabited island). Since then, we saw a huge stretch of land reclaimed near Male’, that is HulhuMale’, and the efforts to develop and relocate Maldivians to the artificial island of HulhuMale’. In recent years, we also witnessed a grand project to develop “GulhiMale’’ in the lagoon of Gulhi nearby Male’. And today we witness the reclamation of land for HulhuMale’ Phase II.

These projects at creating artificial islands took place while there remained already existing natural land, undeveloped and underdeveloped, in the north, mid and south of Maldives. Development policies were formulated and implemented such that Maldivians were forced to abandon their land/homes and migrate to one corner of the country. The trend continues even today and at a much more alarming pace.

While we Maldivians accepted ours as a country with few natural resources and understood this factor as the most challenging to our development as a nation; the truth is that a select few individuals became powerful, wealthy oligarchs using the same “few” natural resources. It is also a reality that the gap between the rich and the poor continued to widen through the years. It is also an undeniable fact that the development disparity in income, services and opportunities are glaringly obvious between the capital Male’ and the atolls of Maldives.

Maldivians are paying a high social and economic cost for development policies that enforce atoll populations to migrate to Male’ – the capital island, which today, is among the most congested places on earth. A place, burdened with environmental degradation, societal problems and ever increasing crimes. Regardless, our development policies are still geared in that very same direction that has brought us to the present unsustainable, inequitable development. We are still pursuing policies and investing our finances to congest all Maldivians into one little corner of our archipelago, while abandoning the rest.

Today, we should ask ourselves what will happen to our birthright, i.e the land we leave behind and its natural capital, as we migrate to one corner of the country, in the perusal of better development opportunities and services. Today, we should question who will gain the benefits of the land, the lagoons, the reefs, the seas and other natural resources that we as Maldivians proudly thought belonged to us.


 

* Salma Fikry is a recipient of the National Award for services to decentralisation in the Maldives, and is an advocate of sustainable development through community empowerment.

The above article is a translation of the Foreword Salma wrote for Falhu Aliran Muiy, a book by Muna Mohamed on the inhabited islands of Maldives, including the islands being abandoned to pursue a relentless corporate agenda; and on the history, present and future of forced migration in the Maldives.

Muna Mohamed, Falhu Aliran Muiy, Published: Novelty Bookshop, June 2016, MVR240