Tagged: Maldives

First they came for Faafu

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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

Party like it’s real

by Azra Naseem

If you want an example of how people in power try to create your reality, Yameen’s bash tonight to launch The Real PPM is a classic

Fact is, The Real PPM is a thing that does not exist. At least not as a political party.

PPM is a registered party of some thirty thousand members, the elected leader of which is Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. After all the laundry has been done and all shades of family dignity have been hung out to dry on public lampposts, PPM remains the party of its members, led by the man they picked as their leader. These are material facts. That’s PPM for real.

A court saying the party is Yameen’s doesn’t make it so. The ‘courts’ have no business meddling, uninvited, in party affairs. Maumoon’s leadership of PPM is not limited to hosting great office parties. Preventing him from ‘even cutting the cake!’ does not stop him from leading the party. As for locking Maumoon out of his own office, putting a padlock somewhere and shouting “It’s mine!’ is as legally binding an ownership claim as pissing around a disputed area to mark territory.

Drawing on walls to insult others, perhaps popular entertainment in the caveman era, isn’t all that clever anymore. For one thing, it can backfire, as when Maumoon ended up owning Goruhan’daa and looking Gatu. “Grandpa totally killed it,” said the millennials.

And that business of deleting the name from the wall. Is a party ever only its office?

Just as clear is what  a political party is not. A group of men and women who, having claimed ownership of eight truckloads of party paraphernalia, take over the physical office of an established political party and declare themselves leaders of close to 40,000 people without so much as a by your leave, is not a political party.

The Real PPM is a gang of men and women, led by Abdulla Yameen, the President, who have staged a hostile takeover of the Maldives and a majority of its people, and are exploiting their leadership of the country to make as much money as quickly as possible from the people, the islands and their unique natural beauty.

That is what is being packaged as a new political party, ‘The Real PPM’, and being presented to anyone who will look and listen.

Yameen has a story to promote his product.

The West wants to colonise ‘us Muslims’. We must fight against Them. More, there are enemies within, eating us up from the inside like an autoimmune disease. These enemies were born to Maldivian mothers, the traitors. In these dangerous times, we must be afraid. We are all victims in need of protection. We need a strong leader, like Yameen.

Maumoon, the lazy, meddlesome, old brother, must bow out, his time is past. He should make way for young blood. Young Yameen has balls, he gets things done. He brought back the death penalty, no sissy him. He is tough on the criminals he is not on a first name basis with. He is ‘brave enough’ to change the Constitution whenever he wants, for whomever he chooses.

He will do whatever it takes to ‘develop the Maldives’.

What Maldives needs to grow as a nation is money. Money will end social inequality, money will guarantee a happier life, world class infrastructure will end poverty, dredging will solve the housing crisis.

Trust me, I am an economist.

Selling everything will get us money, it will cost us nothing.

Progress is skyscrapers, artificial trees, man-made beaches, imported marble.

Development is never again having to be on a boat to cross even a kilometre of the ocean. Chee, lonu.

Sustainable living? Takes too long. We can get fifteen million dollars for that island over there, and twenty for the other one in the distance, now. People are unhappy? Let’s cut down those trees, build an ice-rink and host a party.

You can’t beat us. Join us, let us buy you.

Yameen has great plans, and great plans need time to execute. We must reelect him. For ‘God and country’.

Are you watching Yameen’s product launch? Are you buying it?

Let them eat Basmati

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by Azra Naseem

The price of rice, sugar and flour went up by 100 percent in the Maldives this month. Rice, sugar and flour—‘han’doo, hakuru, fuh’ always said together, always in that order, and collectively known as kaadu—are essential ingredients of the Maldivian diet. Without han’doo there would be no lunch and no dinner; and without fuh there would be no roshi, no hedhikaa, and without hakuru, tea is not really sai.

Any difficulties in getting Han’doo-hakuru-fuh triggers existential crises, and, raises the spectre of famine. The oldest generation alive today begins reliving memories of when the knock-on effect of the Second World War led to a shortage of kaadu in the Maldives and people had to eat magoo faiy, leaves of the Magoo plant (beach lettuce, or Scaevola taccada), that grow abundant in salty island soil. It is no surprise then that talk turned to magoo faiy recipes as soon as the government made its shock announcement it was cutting off state subsidies that made kaadu affordable for most people.

Broadly speaking, no leader has dared touch the price of kaadu since Amin Didi who was president when people had to eat magoo faiy.

He was lynched.

Probably with this in mind, a system was put in place that allows government control over kaadu prices—the State Trading Organisation (STO) imports and sells the products cheaper than they would be if left to the invisible hand of the market. To make this possible, STO gets land in Male’—and on all other islands it has a presence on—at dirt cheap rates, and enjoys a range of advantages and privileges not available to private companies. The system worked, and no leader dared upset the rice cart.

Until President Yameen, the Gatu Raees— or the President with Balls.

President Balls never really interacts with the people directly, especially when there is difficult news to be shared. He dispatches a group of hand-picked loyalists to carry out the task whose brief appears to be ‘Defend my decision no matter what. I don’t care how.’ Justifying the kaadu price hike fell to Chair of the National Economic Council and Minister at the President’s Office, Ahmed Zuhoor. Unlike the President, I am no economist—that is, I don’t have an unapplied dusty old MBA dating back thirty years or a reputation for money laundering or running a blackmarket economy—but even I knew some of these justifications make no sense.

First Zuhoor said the subsidies had to be cut because migrant workers are using them, not just real people. There are over 150,000 migrant workers in the Maldives, and another 10,000 or so undocumented ones, he said. The government intends to expand the tourism industry to cater to seven million tourists a year—more than double the numbers today— which means more migrant workers. “They will be buying the subsidised kaadu too.” These (un)people, coming over here, taking our jobs, and eating our subsidised kaadu. We cannot afford that. We will certainly not tolerate that.

Also, resorts are buying the same subsidised kaadu, charging US$2000 a night for a water bungalow with an attendant Maldivian butler who serves sashimi with government-subsidised long-grain rice. Another reason to cut subsidies for everyone.

Besides, Maldivians—at least everyone in Minister Zuhoor’s circle—live such a plush life under Yameen’s successful economic policies we won’t eat long-grain rice even if our lives depended on it. Nah, it’s Basmati or nothing, baby. (Long-grain rice is subsidised, Basmati is not.)

What’s more, said Zuhoor, people dine out a lot. “Poor people eat at home, in the kitchen. They don’t go out to eat.” Ergo, if you go to a coffeeshop or any number of tea houses, hotaa, or street stalls, to get your hedhikaa, your coffee and your roshi, you are an affluent, spoilt, middle-class hipster who really should know better than to be a drain on the economy by putting subsidised sugar in your Flat White.

Outside the charmed circle of Zuhoor’s friends and family, a substantial percentage of the people who eat from the hotaas —at least in Male’—are people who don’t have a kitchen to cook in. Most of Male’s residents today do not own property on the island, they rent small spaces at extortionate prices. Dozens of people crammed into small flats, sleeping in shifts because there aren’t enough beds—or floor space—for everyone to sleep at night; where there is barely room to breathe, let alone cook. Hundreds of people who are in Male’ for trade trips from the islands, who sleep on their boats and have no choice but to eat from the hotaas. Thousands of male residents who, even if they had access to a kitchen, do not know what to do in one without their mothers, daughters, sisters or wives. And thousands of migrant workers who are treated as subhumans, who live in abject squalor and are only allowed in Maldivian kitchens to cook and clean for their Masters, and who are the only people in the country on whose income the government has levied a tax. These are the people who make up the majority of what Zuhoor describes as ‘the rich people who eat out’ that really don’t need subsidies.

The other justification was that Maldives itself is now too rich to qualify for aid from the international community. “We are no longer counted among the Least Developed Countries”, said Zuhoor. He did not mention this fact dates back to 2011. Problem is, he said, international financial organisations are not giving loans to the Maldives if we don’t cut our expenses. The IMF and World Bank strategies with their Structural Adjustments Programmes (SAPs) that sap the life out of debt-ridden economies in developing countries are not a secret anymore—these are facts readily accessible to the interested. When in debt, especially when in as much debt as the Maldives is in today (over 65 per cent of the GDP last year and counting), there is little else to do but agree to the demands of the higher powers, tighten belts, and pay up. Just look at Greece.

Question is, why were the kaadu subsidies the first thing to go?

Zuhoor said the government can save over MVR100 million by cutting the subsidies. In the grand scheme of things, what is MVR100 million in a country which is spending close to a billion US dollars, at least, on ‘development projects’ all over the country? Dozens of roads are being ‘developed’ with tar on small islands with almost no traffic—highways on islands barely a kilometre long; council flats on sparsely populated islands where land shortage is not even a distant thought in a worrier’s head; and airports on islands within walking distance of each other. Is any of this necessary for the survival of the people? No. Survival of the government, maybe – if you accept the warped strategy that such environmentally and financially costly excesses is ‘development’.

And this is before we begin to take in the mind-boggling waste in and around the so-called Greater Male’ Area.

I’ve talked so much about the Male’-Hulhule’ bridge, I won’t go there again. Enough to say it costs over US$200 million; it takes five minutes by speedboat to travel to Hulhule’. But, there’s still a lot to be said on the mini-projects that have sprung up around The Bridge.

For instance, how much does it cost—keeping in mind electricity prices, too, have been pushed higher—to light up in red unblinking red—‘CHINA-MALDIVES FRIENDSHIP FOREVER’—on a barge in the middle of the sea night after night? As if this is not enough, the government is now paying MVR8 million to build a platform to view construction work on the bridge. Over six percent of the money saved by cutting subsidies spent on providing people a place to sit and watch Chinese labourers doing construction work on a bridge, while sipping their coffee sweetened with non-subsidised sugar, munching on non-subsidised mas-roshi in the afternoon, and Basmati under the moon. Oh, to be a rich Yameenite in today’s Maldives. If this is not super cool ‘development’ worth sacrificing affordable kaadu for everyone, what is?

I share the suspicion of many that the subsidies had to go first so they can make a grand comeback. In their next incarnation they will return as a powerful symbol of President Yameen’s Largesse. To announce the taking away of something, and to return it re-packaged as The President’s Generosity, is now a familiar strategy. So it is likely to be with the kaadu subsidies.

This re-branding is already in the making. In fact, it had already begun when the subsidy cut was first announced: “exceptions will be made for The Needy”, Zuhoor said. Although it was not known at the time how one qualified as a member of The Needy Caste, details are emerging, based on questions asked, and answer required, when people apply for kaadu subsidy. Here’s a sample (sub-text).

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Genuflect, people. Say altogether: Thank you, #HEPY. Long Live Dear Leader.


Photo: Lucas Jalyl