Unrest in the Maldives

by Rachel Brown

Better known for sun, sand, and scuba than for street protests, the Maldives, a nation composed of approximately 1,200 islands in the Indian Ocean, has recently become the site of political unrest. The trouble in the Maldives began two weeks ago, when then-president Mohamed Nasheed resigned from office. Nasheed initially indicated that his resignation was voluntary, but later claimed he had been forced from office at gunpoint as part of a coup instigated by supporters of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the autocratic former president of the Maldives. Following Nasheed’s resignation, Mohammed Waheed Hassan, the nation’s vice-president, assumed power. Nasheed maintains that Hassan was one of the coup’s co-conspirators, but the new government denies allegations that any such coup occurred. Interestingly, Hassan recently appointed Gayoom’s daughter and a number of Gayoom’s former ministers to his new cabinet.

Nasheed, the country’s first democratically-elected president, is best known abroad for his environmental advocacy and efforts to raise awareness about the harm rising sea-levels would bring to the low-lying Maldives (he even held a cabinet meeting underwater). Domestically, however, concerns have been raised over his government’s commitment to policies in line with the dictates of Islam, the state religion. Tourism accounts for a large portion of the Maldivian economy, and different religious rules are enforced on “resort islands” than in the rest of the country. For example, alcohol and pork are banned in most of the Maldives, but not on the islands where luxury hotels operate. Some more conservative Maldivians would like to see alcohol sales prohibited entirely. Massage parlors and spas are another source of controversy, as some claim such businesses are mere fronts for prostitution. Last December, in light of these concerns, members of Islamic political parties and other opposition groups organized anti-government protests that were attended by thousands.

Another dispute arose when Nasheed’s government permitted an Israeli airline to land in the country, a move that caused one of the major Islamic parties, Adhaalath, to abandon Nasheed’s coalition. Nasheed and his followers claim that these accusations are a smear tactic designed to mar his image with more religious Maldivians. The results of a post-resignation search of Nasheed’s residence, however, did turn up bottles of illegal alcohol.

President Nasheed (right) while in office. (Flickr Creative Commons)

Declining tourism in the region has hit the Maldivian economy hard, dealing a further blow to Nasheed’s popularity. More recently, protests flared in the capital city of Male over Nasheed’s order to arrest a judge accused of corruption and interference on behalf of former President Gayoom. It was these demonstrations that culminated in Nasheed’s resignation.

But, his resignation has only brought more unrest. On February 9th, two days after he stepped down, a warrant was issued for Nasheed’s arrest. Despite the warrant, Nasheed rallied hundreds of his supporters for a demonstration the following day. Violent clashes between Nasheed’s supporters and the police have occurred in Male and the southern city of Addu, and Nasheed maintains that approximately 350 of his supporters have been detained since the riots began.

Much to Nasheed’s disappointment, both the U.S. and India have recognized the legitimacy of the new government. UN officials and other diplomats have traveled to the Maldives and met with both leaders, but thus far no compromise has emerged.

The Maldives isn’t exactly a large or well-known country, so why is anyone besides prospective tourists getting so concerned over the recent unrest? One reason is that the Maldives are located on a central shipping lane for much of the world’s oil supply – in particular oil being sent from the Middle East to China. Even before the current turmoil, both India and China recognized the strategic importance of the islands and had been working to increase their respective influences there. Nasheed, however, indicated opposition to a growing Chinese military presence in the Indian Ocean, saying last year, “We are not receptive to any installation, military or otherwise, in the Indian Ocean, specially from un-traditional friends. The Indian Ocean is the Indian Ocean.” Perhaps the new government will take a friendlier stance.

Others worry that the protests preceding Nasheed’s resignation represent a turn towards more radical interpretations of Islam in the Maldives. Nasheed has warned that an increasing number of Maldivian youths are coming under the influence of extremist groups from Pakistan. No terrorist attacks have occurred in the country since 2007, but the threat of increased radicalization on the islands worries India. In particular, there is concern that terrorist groups could use the islands as staging points for attacks in India.

Although the broader consequences the protests remain to be seen, a clear disruption in the Maldivian tourism industry has already occurred. Worries about unrest and increasing religious extremism have led visitors to cancel planned vacations and the Maldivian tourism industry faces possible losses of $100 million in upcoming months. The outlook for these tropical islands no longer seems so sunny.

Rachel Brown ’15 is in Saybrook College. She blogs about current events in South Asia, and has also reported on China  for the print version of the Globalist. Contact her at rachel.brown@yale.edu.