Thursday, November 1, 2007

Growing pains for Maldives as radicals raise tensions

The situation will get worse before it gets better, with tensions likely to escalate ahead of presidential polls next year

THE Maldives has built South Asia’s most successful economy based on luxury tourism, but the atoll nation is now facing religious tensions as it undergoes a difficult transition to democracy.

The tranquillity of the paradise holiday destination was shattered in September when radicals set off a home-made bomb, wounding 12 foreign tourists. The attack was followed by a clash between troops and Taliban-style fundamentalists who want women to be totally covered, singing banned and no schooling for girls.

The government has hit back with restrictions to prevent militancy spreading in the moderate nation, home to 330,000 Muslims on 1,192 tiny coral islands scattered across the equator. “We are going through a process of cultural change, an opening of our society,” Tourism Minister Mahamood Shougee said in an interview.

“But as much as we can’t allow women to cover from head to toe, we can’t allow half naked people on the roads.” The problem of religious extremism has been seen as the result of either increased freedoms or opposition to President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who has served six consecutive terms in office since 1978. Gayoom, 69, is now accusing his rivals of holding up his plan to implement sweeping democratic reforms. “I want to be president to give effect to the reform agenda,” Gayoom told AFP. “This is my reform programme and I want to see it through.” Education Minister Mohamed Nasheed believes the unrest is part of growing pains.

“We are going to have a very rapid transformation and the systems are finding it difficult to cope,” Nasheed admitted. “People are not used to this ‘freedom.’ As a result indiscipline has become an issue.” Tourism and a highly successful tuna fishing industry has pushed per capita incomes to nearly 2,700 dollars, making the Maldivians the richest in South Asia.

However, the islanders have little by way of recreation although their beaches are among the best in the world. Every family is said to be affected by drug-related problem, and the islands have one of the highest divorce rates in the world. Nasheed, who is also acting as the state attorney general, says the country is still evolving legal systems and procedures to deal with economic, social and cultural issues.

“Proving something beyond reasonable doubt is a new concept for us,” Nasheed said. “These concepts are new to us. We don’t even know what bail is.” “It is a learning process for all of us. All of a sudden we have medical negligence cases, wrongful dismissal cases. But we don’t have the proper laws. What we have is a condensed version of the penal code of India or Sri Lanka.”

He said what other countries took years to develop, the tiny Maldives was trying to accomplish overnight. “How can we have an independent judiciary when we are all related either by blood or through marriage,” he said. Male, the tiny island capital of the Maldives, is home to 130,000 people - and virtually everyone knows each other.“Where will Maldives be in another five years? I think the situation will get worse before it gets better,” Nasheed said, adding that tensions were likely to escalate ahead of presidential polls next year. afp

Source: Daily Times

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