Most of the million tourists who visit the Maldives every year leave without seeing even a hint of the political violence that has shaken the country over the past few years. Sipping cocktails in secluded island resorts, one would be hard-pressed to imagine that the islanders were, until five years ago, ruled by Asia’s longest-running dictatorship, that hundreds have been seriously injured in street clashes and at least one senior politician stabbed to death in the street in recent years, and that hard-line political Islamists helped to topple the country’s first-ever democratically elected president only last year.
It can also be difficult to believe that what happens here matters to the rest of the world. But stability in the Maldives -- a Sunni Muslim nation of 300,000 people scattered across almost 1,200 islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean -- is important. The country lies on a major trade route between East Africa and China and could function either as a bulwark against piracy and smuggling or part of the problem. It also demonstrates the danger of Saudi-funded clerics spreading Islamic militancy to once-moderate Muslim countries, potentially threatening neighboring countries such as India. Finally, as the Maldives holds its first post-coup election, it offers important lessons for other nations in transition. Indeed, the challenges it has faced since introducing its new constitution in 2008 -- dealing with the legacy of past authoritarianism and managing the threats unleashed by democracy -- reflect those of other countries undergoing rapid change, from Burma to Egypt and beyond.
For three decades prior to the summer of 2008, one man ruled the Maldives: Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. During his reign -- the longest in Asia at the time -- he did much to boost the tourism industry while brutally suppressing any hint of opposition and allowing poverty, unemployment, and drug abuse to soar. By mid-2008, facing mounting domestic protests and international criticism, he agreed to introduce a new constitution, which led to the country’s first
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