Taimour Lay writes about the reality of power and struggle in the Indian Ocean country better known in the West for its luxury resorts
People tend to fall for Mohamed Nasheed. It’s not because he possesses the specious charm of a politician or the skills of a social operator. It’s not down to good looks or wealth (though he has both). He has made mistakes, inherited privilege and never strayed far from a patrician liberalism. But he has always drawn people in with sincerity and bright humour and a uniquely open kind of moral clarity after years of harassment, torture and struggle.
An investigative journalist, author, political prisoner and finally President of the Maldives before being ousted by a coup on 7 February, he is one of many charismatic individuals who claim they don’t want power but end up having it thrust upon them by popular acclaim. With ‘Anni’, as Maldivians know him, he really did mean it.
‘“I don’t want this or that position, it’s about changing this country”, he said to me in his instantly recognisable, high pitched croak of a voice the first time I met him in early 2006. I smiled politely, thinking I was getting the benefit of a routine line.
Back then, he was still under house arrest at his family home, Keenerege, on the island of Male (pronounced ‘Maa-lay’), the Maldivian capital, facing charges of terrorism. His wife made fish and he played with his daughters while I grabbed a Zadie Smith novel On Beauty off his shelf. He kept trying to persuade me to read Anthony Powell, who he’d loved since studying in the UK. Anni had used his time in prison to write a history of the country and a romance novel set on an isolated island.
His longtime adversary, President Maumoon Gayoom, was approaching 30 years in power and didn’t look like leaving. Police and prison brutality increasingly sparked popular outrage, not least on the sinister prison island of Dhoonidhoo, and the death of Evan Naseem at the hands of the security services in 2003 marked a tipping point against the régime. Anni was usually at the centre of things, on one famous occasion leading a sit-down protest at the very front of a line of ‘Star Force’ military security.
It was Anni’s leadership and the sustained activism of the new Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) he helped establish – in exile in Salisbury, the unlikely setting for a revolutionary opposition (it later emerged that the Maldivian government had been hiring private spooks to monitor their activities in the cathedral city) – which led to the historic election in 2008. He wasn’t sure whether to run for President but knew the transition needed it. Most islanders had only heard of him and didn’t trust the MDP.
He also knew that governing would mean facing down those who hadn’t fallen in love with his project for a new Maldives and who stood to lose from even gradualist reform. His margin of victory was tight. This tiny state had huge divisions between rich and poor, and, increasingly, between liberals and Islamic conservatives.
Luxury and hypocrisy
Over half the population of 300,000 live in cramped, crowded Male. In the capital, young Maldivians listen to Hindi pop music, drive scooters, flirt and like to speak their minds.
The rest of the country is scattered throughout 1,200 coral islands over another 35,000 square miles. These are poor fishing communities, many just a few hundred-strong, sending men out by night to catch tuna while punishingly hot days stretch time out to long extremes. Island life has a rhythm that’s almost too slow for outsiders to bear.
But there’s money to be made in this beautiful stretch of the Indian Ocean and its perverse political-economy of luxury tourism was, indirectly, one of the causes of Anni’s downfall. A seemingly endless chain of stunning islands in calm turquoise sea offered, since the 1970s, perfect locations for resorts.
And so wealthy honeymooners and celebrities seeking the seclusion of a privatised beach brought millions of dollars into the hands of resort-owners who represented the most connected families in Male.
Most ordinary people never even see the tourists – unless they work as cleaners. International flights come into Male airport island and then smaller planes and speedboats carry the travellers off to one of a hundred island-resorts. This segregation suited the government, too. Gayoom portrayed himself as a pious defender of the Islamic faith while across his country Western tourists drank alcohol and took drugs hidden from view.
One of the signs that Gayoom was losing control was the way some resort owners, from families allied to Anni and the opposition, began to fund the MDP after 2005. I worked for an opposition newspaper, Minivan, which benefited from this shift. The paper’s offices were raided, its editors arrested and its contents regularly denounced, but it kept hitting the streets at 5pm every day, in Dhivehi and English.
But the dollars earned from resorts generated rival concentrations of wealth. It enabled the state to build a bloated military police force, fuelled corruption and money laundering, and the Maldives became a shady sea route for illicit trade in drugs. You can’t get a beer in Male but men sell ‘brown sugar’ (a dirty heroin derivative) across the city. It is these military and economic rivals that have resisted Anni’s presidency.
The return of the régime
We did not need the Arab Spring to learn how quickly displaced interests can reassert themselves after democratic revolutions. When Anni took power in 2008, he was no radical. That reflected his own temperament but also a realisation of the caution of the liberal elite families who pushed for democratic transition.
There were other dynamics, too: for many years money from Saudi Arabia has flooded into Maldivian mosques and schools, slowly moving an influential minority away from the islands’ tolerant strain of Sufi Islam.
Anni sought a government of national unity, used ex-government ministers and tried to bring the rich men of rival families on side. One by one, they formed their own parties and broke away.
Men like Gasim Ibrahim, the richest man in the country and former finance minister under Gayoom, couldn’t disguise their glee when a group of army officers held a gun to Anni’s head last month and told him to resign. Gasim had made hundreds of millions from his control of the tuna industry and resorts. He was not the only one concerned by Anni’s periodic campaigns to expose corruption.
That Anni left office to prevent bloodshed is not in doubt, whatever the post-coup public relations is suggesting. This was no resignation. The men in power now are Gayoom’s old guard, the businessmen and the military who despise Anni’s family. Gayoom himself remains in the shadows. Interim President Dr Waheed is a frontman.
Anni is an opposition leader again, on the streets with his supporters calling for elections and justice. International friends have been surprisingly quiet. He had charmed many with his climate change campaigns. David Cameron had called him his “new best friend”.
But the real power broker in the Maldives is India, who had intervened to stop a coup against Gayoom in 1988. This time they did nothing. The other player is China, who have been seeking military and naval cooperation deals to protect trade routes in the Indian Ocean. Anni had repeatedly rebuffed advances thinking an Indian alliance was his best route to security. The real story behind the coup is surely yet to emerge.
Richard Branson, a great fan of the Maldives’ resorts, which his Virgin flights serve, recently weighed in on the controversy, writing: “Dr Waheed says – and I believe him – that the incidents that led to President Nasheed “resigning” had nothing to do with him.”
So history is being rewritten, in inverted commas, on a billionaire’s blog.