A Maldivian man looks at a presidential election campaign poster of presidential candidate Mohamed Nasheed in Male.
A Maldivian man looks at a presidential election campaign poster of presidential candidate Mohamed Nasheed in Male September 6, 2013.
Dinuka Liyanawatte / Courtesy Reuters

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 democratic presidential elections and to his stepping down from power. The charismatic Mohamed Nasheed, whose Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) had spearheaded the protests against Gayoom’s rule, easily won.

Nasheed, who had endured 12 arrests, torture, and six years in jail, during which he was labeled a “prisoner of conscience” by Amnesty International, took power on the tide of popular euphoria. Just four years later, though, he was swept back out to sea amid unprecedented violent protest on the congested streets of the island capital of Malé.

From the start, Nasheed faced serious obstacles to governing, namely, the entrenched conservative lobby, comprised of powerful business figures who had grown rich under Gayoom’s patronage. There was also a sizeable section of the population, particularly on more remote and conservative islands, that still stood by the “father of the nation,” a role that the former dictator had cultivated for 30 years.

In subsequent parliamentary elections in May 2009, Gayoom’s Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party won a majority of seats, taking 28 to the MDP’s 26. DRP supported the new democratic institutions but was bent on opposing the much-needed reforms that would challenge the traditional elite. The result was deadlock: In July 2010, Nasheed’s entire cabinet resigned in frustration at what it called “the scorched earth tactics” of the opposition, which had blocked almost every initiative.

The country’s institutions were particularly resistant to change. The police rank and file had been explicitly trained to see Nasheed and the MDP as ideological enemies. Meanwhile, Gayoom had personally appointed every judge. Only 40 percent had any formal legal training, since merely attending an Islamic university abroad with some mandatory education in sharia was considered qualification enough.

The Maldives’ new constitution set a two-year deadline to review the country’s roster of 200 judges, identify those without adequate qualifications, and remove them from their posts pending re-education. The newly formed Judicial Services Commission, which was tasked with carrying out the review, found that at least 20 judges had been convicted of crimes ranging from public disorder to domestic abuse. However, the government decided to remove only six judges for retraining. Some members of the commission complained about corruption and a lack of transparency in the process, but Nasheed ignored their criticisms, desperate to reach a deal that would prevent a total judicial breakdown. That decision would later spectacularly backfire.

The chief justice of the criminal court, Abdulla Mohamed, had been accused of corruption and refusing to prosecute individuals close to Gayoom and the former regime but had not been sacked. Nasheed tolerated him for a while, but in October 2011, Abdulla refused to press charges against Gayoom’s son, Ghassan, who had been detained for attempted murder. In January 2012, a fed-up president made the rash decision to order Abdulla’s detention. Although some form of action may have been justified, the image of a sitting judge being arrested was seen as a step too far by the international community, which condemned the move. Nasheed's critics also leaped on it as proof that he was acting beyond his powers, thus fueling the anti-government protests. 

By early February 2012, sections of the police and army had sided with the protesters and Nasheed announced his resignation. Although he did so on live television, he later claimed the announcement had been delivered “with a gun to my head” and that his resignation amounted to a coup. “My wife and two kids were in hiding,” Nasheed told me earlier this year. “One of the generals told me that if I didn’t resign, he didn’t know if he could guarantee their safety. I didn’t have a choice.”

Nasheed was replaced by his erstwhile vice president, Mohammed Waheed Hassan, who had considerable legitimacy abroad thanks to his previous career as a United Nations official. The international community was at a loss to know how to react. The United States quickly recognized the new government, although it backtracked two days later, when the State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland announced that the United States would “work with the government of the Maldives,” even though “the circumstances surrounding the transfer of power need to be clarified.”

Six months later, the United States and the United Nations supported the findings of a Commonwealth-backed Commission of National Inquiry that found the turnover to be “legal and constitutional” and Nasheed’s resignation to be “voluntary and of his own free will." The international community glossed over the circumstances that had preceded Nasheed’s stepping down -- and the fact that at least one member of the inquiry commission had walked out of the proceedings, which, he claimed, had ignored key evidence and testimony.

Umar Naseer, one of the main instigators of the street protests against Nasheed, later admitted that he and a group of unnamed conspirators had deliberately instigated the uprising with the intention of overturning the president through violence. Naseer, a former police officer who became a leading member of Gayoom’s party, admitted that Nasheed’s resignation had been the result of “planning, propaganda, and a lot of work.” Speaking to supporters at a political rally in January 2013, he said: “A lot of people told us that Mohamed Nasheed’s government cannot be toppled from the street. I said while contesting for DRP’s deputy leader that I was coming to this post to topple Mohamed Nasheed’s government from the street. We have proven and shown that.”


The anti-Nasheed protests could never have succeeded without harnessing the power of radical political Islamists. For hundreds of years after converting from Buddhism in the twelfth century, the Sunni Muslim population of the Maldives had practiced a moderate and liberal form of Islam. This began to change under Gayoom, who used religion to bolster his legitimacy, passing legislation in 1994 that made it illegal to practice any religion other than Islam. Two years later, he established the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs (later renamed the Ministry of Islamic Affairs) to oversee religious issues. At the same time, he suppressed more extreme clerics -- sometimes brutally -- who questioned his rule.

The transition process in 2008 unleashed fundamentalist religious leaders, many of whom had trained in the madrassas of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. As in many Arab Spring countries, they were able to exploit newfound freedoms of expression to promote their hard-line agendas. They proved a valuable ally in fomenting opposition to Nasheed, whose liberal, secular approach to governance was easily depicted as un-Islamic. The religious Adhaalath Party, which secured no parliamentary seats in the May 2009 election, was later able to build a sizeable street presence by claiming that Nasheed was an agent of Christians and Jews.

The party was further empowered by the unlikely issue of an airport privatization. In June 2010, Nasheed’s government awarded an Indian company, GMR, the rights to operate Ibrahim Nasir International Airport -- an important contract for an economy that overwhelmingly relies on tourism. The Adhaalath declared the deal an attack on the country’s sovereignty and spread ludicrous rumors that the airport would now be used as a staging ground for Israeli aircraft to bomb Arab countries. Protests over the airport coincided with the arrest of the chief justice in January 2012, and the two issues combined to eventually topple Nasheed.

On the same day that Nasheed was forced to resign, a mob broke into the national museum and trashed a priceless collection of ancient, pre-Islamic Buddhist artifacts. Religious radicals have also been implicated in a brutal attack on a secular blogger and the October 2012 murder of a member of parliament who had opposed the rising tide of extremism.

With Nasheed out of the way, the new government under Waheed made the fateful decision to heed the absurd protests against the airport privatization. In November 2012, his cabinet expelled GMR from the country and declared the contract void. Not only has the work on the airport been cancelled, but the Maldives now faces a lawsuit from GMR for “wrongful termination” seeking compensation of $1.4 billion in lost profits. That is more than the country’s annual budget and comes at a time when political instability and the global downturn have left the Maldives, in the words of Zaheena Rasheed of the Minivan news Web site, with “a foreign currency shortage, plummeting investor confidence, spiraling expenditure, a drop off in foreign aid and a crippling budget deficit.”


The Maldives may yet be given a second chance at its transition to democracy. Presidential elections, held on September 7, saw a resounding victory for Nasheed, who took 45 percent of the vote. Since he still fell about 10,000 votes shy of the 50 percent mark needed to avoid a runoff, he will face Gayoom’s half-brother, Abdulla Yameen, who won 25 percent of the vote, in a second-round election to be held on September 28.

That Nasheed was even allowed to stand in the election is something of a victory for democracy activists. The government tried repeatedly to have him jailed. He was arrested in October, and a special tribunal was set up to try him. But pressure from India, the United States, the United Nations, and the European Union succeeded in delaying the trial.

Regardless of the final election result, the acrimonious relationship between the leading political parties will continue to create obstacles to reform in the Maldives and is likely to lead to further confrontation on the streets. Nasheed has made powerful enemies with his efforts to identify and repatriate black money stashed in Singapore and elsewhere, reform institutions, and prevent Islamic radicals from imposing religious laws. And the MDP has its own issues to address: It has been accused of buying votes from opposition policymakers during its time in power and mismanaging reform of the judiciary. Nasheed’s overzealous attacks on his opponents are at least partly to blame for the political crisis that befell his government.

However, the MDP has been the only party to outline a manifesto that clearly addresses the problems of the country’s poor. It has taken steps to spread tourism revenues more widely among the population by allowing small guesthouses to open on inhabited islands, and it has made promises to more equitably distributed housing in the country’s congested capital. It has also vowed to reinstate GMR’s airport contract -- a move that will doubtless prove controversial but may be vital to securing the country’s economic future.

This matters to the international community. India has been worried by reports that militants from the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba have established cells in the Maldives in recent years. India and the United States want the Maldives to provide a base for antipiracy operations in the Indian Ocean. As the lowest-lying country in the world, the Maldives is also the most vulnerable to climate change, and Nasheed was a powerful global advocate on climate issues while in power. More broadly, the country provides valuable insights on the challenges of political transition -- highlighting the importance of raising standards in the judiciary and police that may have atrophied under authoritarian rule and the risk of religious fundamentalists who exploit new freedoms of expression and assembly. Nasheed’s opponents have preferred fear-mongering, religious incitement, and violence to genuine policymaking. If they recognize the dangerous consequences that come with this approach and follow Nasheed’s example by focusing on improving the welfare of ordinary citizens and cleaning up institutions, then the Maldives may yet prove an example for other countries in transition.

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