Tagged: Maldives

PARADISE WITH HELL’S FURORE

Mushfique Mohamed writes on how the Maldives’ government uses postcolonial rhetoric to justify subjugation and economic exploitation

After just three years of economic transition, Maldivian democratic transition has come to an abrupt end. All recently introduced democratic rights and practices are being eroded daily. In order to deflect blame, autocratic leaders often use anti-colonial rhetoric. Thus, the international system is a continuation of European imperialism, says Maldives’ President Abdulla Yameen. The international community’s admonitions for the country regarding international democratic practices stem from their “envy” of Maldivian sovereignty and faith.

“Undoubtedly, the biggest challenge to our national unity in our contemporary history was the failed attempt, encouraged by a foreign power, to create a breakaway republic comprising of the three southernmost atolls in the country”, the president stated at the ceremony held to mark the 51st Independence Day.

President Yameen equates attempts by Maldivians who oppose authoritarianism and work with the international community to revert to democratic rule with “working against Maldivian sovereignty”. The narrative of Muslim co-conspirators in the attempts to cause loss of sovereignty converge with Takfiri ideas that legitimize intra-Muslim violence: “It was not surprising that a few Maldivians were, yet again, involved in this plot”, he continued.

In President Yameen’s rhetoric, the international community is putting pressure on the Maldives because it is “a Muslim country”. He claims “they” want to “cultivate cultural norms and so-called values that are alien to and frowned upon by our Islamic faith.”

It is ironic that postcolonial rhetoric is being used to re-invent new methods to enslave the majority of the population. The government consistently deploys the façade of democracy to achieve these means, using lawmakers and judges under its payroll. Ensuring that the overwhelming majority of the Maldives remains invisibilized, and that its riches are only accessible to a small percentage, is beneficial to the ruling elite. Leaving the masses under abject poverty enables easy manipulation of local politics. For instance, elections in the Maldives can be reduced to countrywide business transactions where the elite with accumulated wealth of decades can buy-off the less privileged majority.

Oppressing the masses using economic exploitation and exclusion has been a practice used by successive Maldivian governments. From 1984 until 2009 any form of tourism was illegal on inhabited islands (of which there are approximately 200), while uninhabited islands (of over 1,200) were given away for tourist resort development.

These moneymaking islands continue to be awarded to enrich those loyal to Maldivian regimes in power, or as a means to silence budding dissidents. The ability to amass wealth through these pristine islands are now not limited to the Maldivian oligarchy alone.

In the late 1970s, the restructuring of the Maldivian economy through the rise of luxury tourism further exacerbated socio-economic disparities between the vast majority and the autocratic elite in the capital. Majority of Maldivians were excluded from directly capitalising on this lucrative economic pie.

Power relations that determine the distribution of wealth, however, are excluded from the rhetoric of the rulers. A recurring theme is to, instead, blame it on the influence of the Other. President Yameen, for example, has repeatedly asserted that the Maldives has not been able to achieve economic progress because of the “bitter outcome of so-called attempts at improving” freedoms, liberties and human rights—“Western concepts” alien to “us” Maldivians.

Paradise for tourists; hell for the subaltern

Although the Maldives’ luxury tourism industry is ostensibly segregated from the country’s politics, their connections run deep. In 2008, the Maldives began the project of democratisation with a new Constitution following street protests calling for democratic reform in September 2003 and August 2005. A modern tax regime was introduced, and tourism on inhabited islands was decriminalised to alleviate the widening socio-economic gap.

The Tourism Goods and Services Act and Business Profit Tax Act enacted in 2011 were direct threats to the king-making oligarchy that enjoyed a carpe diem attitude over the nation’s wealth. In February 2012 the first democratically elected Maldivian president, Mohamed Nasheed, was forced out by a military coup supported by a cabal of dictator-loyalists with alleged funding from resort-owners.

The Yameen administration has been able to accrue wealth and distort the equal distribution of it at an unprecedented scale in the Maldives. In October 2014 the independent auditor general flagged the state-owned tourism promotion company for corruption of US$6 million. In response, the auditor general was abruptly removed by the ruling-party dominated parliament.

special audit five months later indicated a further US$79 million was embezzled after the former Auditor General’s warning. Of this grand theft, US$65 million were acquired as acquisition costs for uninhabited islands and lagoons leased for tourism. These funds were fraudulently siphoned off to private accounts. The former top auditor later estimated the total amount in damages to the state to be over MVR3.5 billion (US$226 million). Although former Tourism Minister and Vice President—directly under the President’s supervision as his protégé—was made the fall guy for the entire scandal and has been jailed for over 30 years on multiple counts, all the dirty deals that resulted from the dirty deals remain valid. To further enable illicit enrichment of a few, the government recently revised tourism laws to formalize the very practices that enabled the corruption, in essence legalising the methods which allowed the largest corruption in the country.

Past insecurities

The pervasive form of a country’s national identity and its nationalism is determined through many geopolitical factors. Experiences nations have with the outside world; more importantly with its perceived “Other” generates a deep impact on a community’s consciousness. Identity signifiers such as culture and religion play into this mix of identity politics.

The Maldives’ status as a British protectorate from December 1887 to July 1965, its subjection to Portuguese occupation in the 16th Century (1558-1573), and instances of invasions from south India affected the transformations of Maldivian national identity. Historical records show that in addition to Dutch, Portuguese and British forces in the Indian Ocean, the small Muslim island nation suffered attacks from the southern coast of India. In 1609, Malabars who helped liberate the Maldives from the Portuguese in 1573 attempted to conquer the islands during Sultan Ibrahim Iskandar’s rule.

Another invasion came 81 years later, and again in 1752. A new reality to these Indian invasions was the involvement of Maldivian collaborators who had fallen out with the ruling clan.

United Suvadive Republic

QgzQ6NHqPresident Yameen described the secessionist movement in the south of the Maldives as the “biggest threat to national unity”, although British imperial ambitions in the Maldives were limited to its strategic location due to a lack of natural resources. Infighting among Maldivian royal families and domination of trade by Borah traders with the help of Imperial Britain paved the way for the Maldives to become a protected state.

Two decades after Britain established a naval base in Addu Atoll, the islanders seceded and the short-lived United Suvadive Republic (1959-1963) was formed along with two other atolls from the south. Islanders resisting the centralized government were violently uprooted and the secessionist movement was brutally suppressed by the Ibrahim Nasir administration (as Prime Minister from 1957 to 1968 and as president from 1968 to 1978).

In February 1960, Britain brokered a deal with the Maldivian government securing the naval base in the south for another 30 years. At this point solidarity with the liberation of the south was no longer within its interests. When Britain began to encourage an end to self-rule, secessionists had to then resist the unconscious tool of history that helped ignite the liberation movement.

After forcibly depopulating natives of the Chagos Islands to establish a joint military facility with the United States, a naval base a few hundred kilometres away in the Maldives was not exigent for Britain by the early 1970s.

Postcolonial rhetoric

Virulent nationalism is used to gain partial consent of subjects, to detach their grievances from the real site of oppression, injustice and economic exploitation. Ordinary Maldivians are dehumanised through indigenous structures of exclusion and discrimination that has manifested in government policies.

Maldivian writer Muna Mohamed’s book, Falhu Aliran Muiy highlights how development policies have historically been solely focused around the capital. She argues that inhabitants of the outer islands are being forced into internal displacement due to reclamation of new islands for development while leaving existing inhabited ones underdeveloped.

Most of the islands in the outer atolls still consist of ghost towns with highly restricted availability of public services. The book suggests that the causes of underdevelopment and forced internal migration are not just born out of climate change and natural disasters, but through concentrated efforts by successive governments.

Since President Yameen assumed power in late 2013, virtually all of his public appearances send out a clear message: harsh punishments and vengeance are endemic to Maldivian culture; it is the lifeblood of Maldivian Islam. President Yameen, the brother of former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom (1979-2008), envisions a population that is docile with an unflinching submissiveness when Islam is raised. In his view, the end to the de facto moratorium on the death penalty is designed to bring the country’s “youth back to the right path”.

Conclusion

Given the Maldives’ current human rights record, the only nations that provide development aid without criticism are China and Saudi Arabia – both with its own distinctive imperialist agendas. The Yameen administration’s selective anti-imperialism is exposed due to the incontrovertible link between its development goals and the two undemocratic world powers.

Authoritarianism and religious conservatism are projected as necessary civilising forces, independent from “the West”, weaving liberalism and freedom into narratives of “Western decadence”. The fact that the unpopular government has resorted to employing a public relations firm and law firm from the US and UK—to shield its rampant human rights abuse and corruption—is conveniently left out.

Along with increasing relations and economic ties with Saudi Arabia, the Yameen administration’s rhetoric continues to overlap. At the end of 2015 the Maldivian government joined the Islamic military alliance led by Saudi Arabia to battle terror organisations. Saudi Arabia’s rival Iran, with its Shia majority, is not part of the coalition. In May this year the Yameen administration severed diplomatic ties with Iran, mimicking Saudi Arabia’s anti-Iran rhetoric.

Even if the government has spoken out against violent jihad, the brand of nationalism it constructs has undeniable and uncomfortable similarities to Salafi-influenced anti-Western doctrine. The government commonly evokes the notion of a Western conspiracy to undermine Muslim communities using democracy, human rights and secularism, as well as accusations of the opposition, journalists and civil society actors being “native informants”. The Maldives are popular for its natural beauty, but the country is increasingly becoming known for its violent extremists fighting in Syria and Iraq.

Using this brand of anti-imperialism that does not include Saudi Arabia and China as imperial forces, President Yameen has managed to dismantle the nascent democratic framework. His mission to reinstate autocracy in the Maldives is now complete. The parliament continually derogates rights and emphasizes restrictions.

Freedom of expression, which is indivisible from other rights; freedom of thought, right to access information, press freedom, freedom of assembly and freedom of association; has been criminalised through legislative means. Again, religion and terms undefined under the Act, such as “societal norms” were used to curtail free speech. The right to freely hold assemblies without prior permission has recently been abrogated, requiring prior permission from the police. All recent trends signal a return to the Maldives’ long experience with one-party rule under a totalitarian state.

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About the authorMushfique Mohamed is a human rights lawyer. He has an LLB (Hons) Law and MSc(Econs) in Postcolonial Politics from Aberystwyth University.

Photos in order:

1. “Fishballs for curry”, Maldivian women in Laamu Gan, Dying Regime

2. Maldives United Opposition protest blocked in Male’, Dying Regime

3. Royal Air Force in Gan, Discover Addu

Maldives Inc.

HulhuMaleDredging

by Azra Naseem

We are gathered here today at a time of potential crisis confronting our planet and its population, the crisis of environmental destruction man has invoked upon himself. Man’s action over many centuries have transmuted the natural order of his environment to the point where the whole world is ensnared in the consequences. As the scale of man’s intervention in nature increased, the scope of nature’s repercussions have multiplied. Consequences of the actions of individual nations have reverberated globally, and all mankind’s present and future generations may suffer the penalties for the errors of a few. – President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, 42nd Session of the UN General Assembly, 19 October 1987

Twenty years on from Gayoom’s landmark speech at the UN, the scale of ‘man’s intervention in nature’ has risen to unprecedented levels in the Maldives. The present and future generations of the Maldives will, without a doubt, suffer what Gayoom described as the ‘errors of the few’, now led by his brother Yameen Abdul Gayoom.

Maldives today is a capitalist dream. Mega development projects that aspire to ‘change the very map of the country’ are underway across the length and breadth of the 1200 islands spread across roughly 90,000 square kilometres of the Indian Ocean. No less than ten dredging projects are ongoing, reclaiming land at the expense of the coral.

Addu 2006/2016 Photo: @ahmedzahid

A bridge is being built to connect Male’ the capital with the island of Hulhule’, home to the country’s main Ibrahim Nasir International Airport. It matters not that the island is only a 10 minute boat ride away, five minutes on a speed boat. Already connected to Hulhule’ is the aritifical island of Hulhumale’, two square kilometres of land dredged from the ocean to alleviate the extreme overcrowding in Male’ which is home to over 150,000 people. Recently, Hulhumale’ has been expanded further to connect it to the island of Farukolhufushi, once a small tourist resort.

There is talk that once the ‘China-Maldives Friendship Bridge’ is completed, the construction of a new bridge may begin, connecting Male’ to Villingili, another ‘suburb’ of Male’ where close to 7000 people live on 0.3 square kilometres, unable to find accommodation on the capital. Together, Male’, Hulhumale’, and Villingili is to become The Greater Male’ Area where at least 70 per cent of the population is to live.

The Nasir Airport will be developed to cater to at least 7 million tourists by 2018, the government has said. Contracts to develop new terminals have been awarded to two state-aligned foreign companies: the Binladin Group of Saudi Arabia and China’s Beijing Urban Construction Group. The Beijing company will build a new 3.2 kilometre runway, a fuel farm, and a cargo complex for which the Maldives government secured a US$373 million concessionary loan from the Chinese EXIM Bank. The Binladin Group, which will build a new passenger terminal for an undisclosed amount, was recently suspended by Saudi Arabia for the Mecca crane disaster.

Meanwhile, the Chinese company building the China-Maldives Friendship Bridge, CCCC Second Harbour Engineering Company for US$210 million, is blacklisted by the World Bank for fraudulent practices elsewhere. Almost all workers on the bridge are Chinese. The north eastern corner of Male’ from where the bridge starts is now occupied by Chinese workers.  What was once the most popular recreation area for the people of congested Male’ is now off limits to them, reserved for prefab housing for the Chinese workers who have moved in with entire families. The nearby Artificial Beach has become a popular spot for their leisure, leaving little room for locals who have found themselves crowded out of yet another rare open space.

Where big red ugly platforms for the new bridge now rise from the sea once rose majestic waves, which had earned the area its name: Varunulaa Raalhugan’du – Uninterrupted Waves. Raalhugan’du was a popular surf spot where international award winning surfers rode the waves or spent the day watching them in an area of the beach they cleaned, grew a garden in, and enjoyed the beauty of nature Maldives has to offer. Today surfers get arrested for surfing, protests lead to jail and the government’s promise that it will arrange free transport to alternative surfing spots has turned out to be empty. Waveless and ‘homeless’, the surfers despair of ever getting back their way of life.

 

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Yameen’s(?) Maldives

MaldivesYameen

by Azra Naseem

The Yameen administration is putting in place a governance reform agenda with the help of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. There is no arguing that Singapore is a successful economy, and a well-ordered society; but a democracy it is not. Yet, although Maldives adopted a Constitution based on democratic values and principles less than a decade ago, it is Lee’s authoritarian capitalism that Yameen wants to practice in the Maldives. How likely is it that he will succeed?

Do I look good in your policies?

‘Singapore owes much of its prosperity to a record of honest and pragmatic government’, wrote The Economist in March 2015 on Lee’s death. Lee’s success in tackling corruption is legendary, and Singapore continues to score among the world’s top ten least corrupt countries. His government ministers were well paid, and he introduced harsh punishments for those who did steal from the public coffers. In sharp contrast, honesty is not in the Yameen government lexicon. While ministerial pay remains comparatively high, there is endemic corruption in the Maldivian government and society. And Yameen, not just his government, is implicated. “When you are handed a huge sum of money, no one would ask where it came from”, Yameen said this year in the aftermath of the worst corruption scandal in the history of the country involving at least US$79 million.

Although it is his own Vice President, under his direct watch, that is said to have masterminded siphoning off of the millions, Yameen has conveniently distanced himself from the whole affair. “The buck stops here”, he said, jailing Vice President Ahmed Adeeb. Apart from keeping Adeeb and associates under lock and key, no action has been taken to recover the lost moneys, or investigate how it was taken. This is a far cry from Lee’s unwavering stand against corruption.

The failure to stem embezzlement and bribery has had negative effects on foreign investment in Maldives. Multiple attempts to attract private foreign investment have resulted in few projects that are transparent, and of obvious benefit to society as a whole. This is the exact opposite of Singapore where foreign investment ‘poured in’ under Lee’s stewardship. Lee hired economic managers that, ‘kept the government small, the economy open and regulation simple, transparent and effective’. And, to attract foreign investment, Lee’s Singapore relied upon massive investments in specialised physical infrastructure, efficient bureaucratic and administrative systems, generous tax incentives to attract capital, and politically docile labour. In Yameen’s Maldives all of these variables are lacking in most areas and non-existent in others.

There is another crucial difference. In Singapore, Lee did not access the funds for its infrastructure through international borrowing or printing money, but through government imposed savings. In the Maldives, Yameen is borrowing like there is no tomorrow.

“I only have two and a half years left,” he said in a recent speech. “Short cuts have to be taken”, he asserts, if he is to undertake massive infrastructure projects—like the development of a new airport. By shortcuts he means loans. A US$800 million loan to develop the airport, he says, is justified. Debt levels are thus skyrocketing, standing at over 80% GDP this year, and forecast to rise up to over 100% of the GDP by 2018.

Added to the corruption and the bad debt scenario, which the World Bank Group sees as unsustainable, is how far the Maldives lags behind Singapore in the world ‘ease of doing business rankings’.  Singapore is No.1 out of 189 countries while Maldives at No. 128. In terms of reliability in enforcing contracts, Singapore leads the world once again while the Maldives, with the costly GMR debacle fresh in investor minds, and with its endemic corruption, is at No.95.

With such big shoes to fill, following in Lee’s economic footsteps will be a difficult, if not impossible, task for Yameen.

Bookworms and burger technicians

Yameen also lacks Lee’s vision of education as central to the growth of the nation he wanted to create. Singapore’s National University is among the top 25 in the world, and the country taken pride in having an ‘unabashedly meritocratic’ education system where ‘high quality education is available for all levels of academic aptitude’. Things cannot be more different in the Maldives—high quality education is only available in Male’, the capital. The quest to provide good education to their children is the driving force behind mass migration to Male’ from other islands. Even in Male’, a parallel system of expensive tuition is necessary for children to attain levels of education necessary to gain admittance in universities abroad.

On top of systematic failures in the education sector, Yameen’s personal approach to education is lukewarm. Yameen has moved to reduce importance of academic achievement, decreasing awards for and celebration of high achievers; encouraged vocational training for the ‘not as clever’ majority; and has spoken disdainfully of ‘bookworms’. Lee, on the other hand, is said to have read Lewis Carroll, Jane Austen, and Shakespeare’s sonnets—among others—to his wife when she lay ‘bedridden and mute for two years’ before her death.

Whereas Lee worked hard to make the Singaporean workforce one of the key strengths of the country’s economy, Yameen sees the Maldivian labour force as hopeless, unskilled, and unqualified for the tasks he has in mind for them.  He lamented recently that the biggest challenge to running a world-class airport in the Maldives would be having to do so with Maldivian staff.

Significant variables that contributed to Lee’s economic success is thus missing in Yameen’s equation, making it unlikely that the latter can emulate the former in a positive way. Latest World Bank Group report predicts a debt-ridden bleak economic future far removed from Singapore.

Me Yameen, You Lee

This is not to say that Yameen will fail altogether in his mission to mimic Lee. More than a few similarities are already evident in both men’s curtailment of people’s democratic freedoms. Lee locked up members of the opposition to stamp it out, stifled press freedom, and legally hounded critics and opposition politicians, including the foreign press. Lee also arranged the electoral process in such a way as to make it almost inconceivable for his People’s Action Party (PAP) to lose power. In the space of just two and a half years, Yameen has managed to take almost all those steps, and then some, against democratic freedoms. His main project at the moment appears to be emulating Lee’s role as a disciplinarian, the man in charge of creating a politically docile workforce.

Yameen has taken to performing this task like a duck to water. Armed with an award for excellence in governance, and security guards with machine guns, Yameen travels the country to tell people that if they want prosperity ‘like Singapore’, they must accept ‘government knows best’. Not just in terms of economy, but socio-politically as well. People must put aside their fight for civil and political rights, they must demonstrate obedience, be reverent, docile.

Everyone must accept Economies of Scale is king. Bowing to its power, over two thirds of the population must move to what Yameen is calling the Greater Male’ Area—Male’, Villingili, and the artificial island of HulhuMale’—being expanded at breakneck speed with borrowed capital. For a successful economy, Maldivians living on small islands scattered across 90,000 square kilometres of the Indian Ocean must all relocate—willingly, submissively—to living in purpose-built high-rises. It is impossible, Yameen has said, to provide basic services to Maldivians who do not fall in line with the plan.

Yameen’s speeches are often a scolding; full of rebukes and dressing-downs for some wrong committed by an individual or imagined societal groups. ‘Good Maldivians’ are not concerned about assembling freely, press freedom, or any other ‘minor’ civil liberty. Those who speak up for rights are mocked as street performers. When journalists objected to the fast receding press freedoms in April this year, for example, Yameen described them as political activists who had lost all semblance of order. He decries the last decade as one of futile resistance; not for democratic rights but against progress. The agitation for democracy and the short transition period were costly detours on the road to progress. The lesson must be learned from it that fighting for civil and political freedoms will only bring more of the same chaos. Therefore, work with Yameen and his PPM loyalists to make money at any cost, notwithstanding that they may come at the expense of human rights, the environment, and the Maldivian ways of life.

While Yameen may be on the same page as Lee on placing democracy behind economic progress, there are vast differences in how the two leaders persuade their peoples of the suitability of their plans for their countries.  Whereas Lee led by example, Yameen leads by fiat. In Singapore, Lee was ‘incorruptible, capable, and completely committed to Singapore’s interests’.

There is a long way to go before Yameen achieves that kind of credibility with the people of Maldives. Almost half the population is vehemently opposed to his rule; he has not proven his capabilities as an economist, nor has he proven himself incorruptible. Given these factors, it is going to be difficult, if not impossible, to cultivate belief among the majority that he is completely committed to Maldives’ interests.

Lee admitted to being Machiavellian in his approach to being loved or feared. “If nobody is afraid of me, I’m meaningless” he said. President Yameen, wants people to fear him—Gatu Raees, President with Guts, PPM supporters call him. A crucial difference remains, though. Whereas Lee was both feared and respected, there is little respect for Yameen among most people. There is fear, and there is intense dislike. Respect, despite legal and administrative demands for it, has not been forthcoming. The question of love is not even entertained—either by people, or by Yameen.

Go boldly forth, to realise someone else’s dreams

Yameen’s vision for the Maldives is problematic in a variety of ways.

Most fundamentally, it is plagiarised; somebody else’s idea for another country. It is not an organic vision shared by, or arrived at through consultation with the Maldivian people about their wants, aspirations and ways of life.

Yameen was not elected to change the system of governance in the Maldives but to govern according to the 2008 Constitution in place for  five years when he came to power. As president he has no right to curtail the rights provided by the Constitution, or to deviate from the democratic path.

Under the plan for reform, Yameen is making criticism a crime, is removing all opposition through legal and other means, wants to establish a one party system, and will engineer the electoral system or the voting system in such a way that he will remain in power for a long time to come.

Economic success that line pockets can, as Lee showed in Singapore, be a ‘winning’ strategy if it provides people with opportunities for better lives. Without such success, the politically docile society will remain a pipe dream.

These reasons, and other differences with Singapore that have not been discussed here–such as cultural background, religious controls, intolerance, xenophobia and a foreign policy rapidly moving away from democracies to align with autocracies–make Yameen’s attempts to morph Maldives into Singapore unlikely to succeed.

It is also important to recall here that the ongoing attempt by Yameen to super-impose Lee’s ideas for Singapore in the Maldives is not the first time its been tried. Someone else had this same plan before, and 30 years in which to make it a success:

The government now wants to attract international investment, as it is keen on the concept of profit and is not committed to sociologist ideology. Male’ is a free port, and, inspired by the example of Singapore, the government wants to bring in banking, insurance, ship bunkering and other clean but profitable enterprises. Whether Male’ can fulfil its hopes in this regard is doubtful, for it lacks the economic infrastructure.

That is a description of Maumoon’s government, by Clarence Maloney, at the start of the 1980s. Did we get anywhere near being a Singapore?


Further reading: Fareed Ahmed, 2015, Can Maldives Replicate Singapore Story: A Comparison