Saturday, May 9, 2009

The Maldives' Struggle to Stay Afloat

On a plane to the Maldives, tourists sigh about the luxury resorts and sun-dappled beaches to which they are bound. From above, the country's coral-fringed lagoons in the Indian Ocean look computer-generated: arrayed in turquoise pods, they stretch over an azure expanse that would span from Rome to Budapest. Ibn Battuta, the 14th century Arab explorer, hailed the archipelago as "one of the wonders of the world." Ever since, the Maldives has enchanted shipwrecked sailors, Hollywood celebrities and Russian oligarchs fortunate enough to wash up by its shores. Yet beneath this outsiders' vision of paradise lurks a more troubled reality — one shaped by 30 years of a suffocating dictatorship that ended only last year.

No one knows this better than Mohamed Nasheed, the nation's new democratically elected President, who unseated Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the Maldives' ruler since 1978, in a landmark election last October. In 1991, Nasheed was named an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience, a victim of repeated government crackdowns on dissidents. Though he is tight-lipped about the particulars of his own ordeal, testimony from many other detainees tells of men dunked into the sea, forced to eat glass, kept in solitary confinement or left exposed in the sun for days, or doused in molasses and tied to palm trees, at the mercy of the inevitable insect swarm. "It was God's will that I didn't die," says Nasheed of his experience as a political prisoner, in an interview with TIME at his presidential office. "They wanted me to capitulate, but I just couldn't do it."

Now, 41-year-old Nasheed says he is determined to secure liberal democracy in the Maldives. He sees the dissident struggle he helped wage in the Maldives, an orthodox Sunni nation, as a lightning rod for change in the Muslim world. But there are more pressing challenges at home. The Maldives boasts South Asia's highest GDP per capita, but the figure is inflated by the country's significant tourism revenues, which do not trickle down to everyone. Some 40% of the Maldives' population still earns less than $2 a day. And Maldivian youth are in the middle of a drug epidemic that, proportionate to the nation's population, may be one of the worst in the world. The legacy of Gayoom's rule lingers, and the process of unraveling it will last far longer than Nasheed's current five-year term. Entire political institutions — a free press, an independent judiciary, a multiparty legislature — are emerging where there were none.

The Swelling Sea
As if all that was not enough, the archipelago nation faces a more elemental challenge. It could find itself submerged, its fragile coastline and coral reefs facing extinction as sea levels swell. "We are sitting on a time bomb," says Abdul Azeez, a leading Maldivian environmentalist. For a nation of so small a size (the Maldives' population is less than 400,000), the new government's task is monumental. "It is as if, in the same country, both Saddam Hussein was toppled and the Berlin Wall fell," says Ahmed Naseer, a painter and dissident who lived in exile in Sri Lanka with Nasheed. It falls to the new President — a slight, erudite former journalist who peppers conversation with quotes from Dostoyevsky and Dante — to save the Maldives from sinking under the weight of its problems. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an international body of scientists, forecasts that sea levels will rise an estimated 2 ft. (60 cm) this century, enough to inundate a good portion of the country, many of whose 1,200 isles sit just 3 ft. (1 m) above the ocean. "For us, fear of sinking is no different than the fear of persecution," says Ali Rilwan, head of Bluepeace, a local environmentalist group.

With that in mind, Nasheed announced a contingency plan late last year that titillated the foreign press. From its tourist revenues, the Maldives would set aside a chunk of money each year. It would combine that with aid from richer nations and the Commonwealth, and build a sovereign fund that could one day go toward purchasing new territory for the country's climate refugees in far bigger nations like India or Australia. "At the end of the day, we are talking about needing dry land," says Nasheed bluntly. "It is a myth to assume that humanity has always been stationed in the same place."

See TIME's pictures of the week.

But few Maldivians — who pride themselves on thousands of years of unique history at the hub of Indian Ocean sea routes — want to leave, and Nasheed knows the sovereign fund is a last resort. Efforts now aim at shaping the country into a climate-change laboratory. In mid-March, the government announced its intention to be the world's first carbon-neutral nation within 10 years. The archipelago's coral reefs can also provide an invaluable testing ground for scientists. "Coral is the bedrock of our nation," says Azeez, who works at a coral-research and -regeneration facility at the Banyan Tree resort. With enough investment, he reckons the country can not only pioneer methods to mitigate rising waters, but also provide a vital gauge of how nature itself can adapt to the ravages of global warming. Far more populous low-lying countries, from Bangladesh to the Netherlands, will watch with interest. "Very small places can offer very big answers," says Ahmed Moosa, the editor of the online Dhivehi Observer, who has also been appointed the nation's climate envoy.

Sins of the Father
The Maldives' coffers, though, are perilously low. In part that is a consequence of the global downturn, which has hit international tourism hard. The crunch was exacerbated by profligate spending in the final years of the Gayoom regime, as it sought to cement votes with new infrastructure projects. In February, Nasheed's government moved to auction off some of the former ruler's more extravagant state possessions, including a personal yacht, a private pleasure island and a gold-plated toilet.

Gayoom's supporters point to the influx of foreign cash that flooded into the country after he assumed power. His government opened dozens of the archipelago's islands to international tourism, which now directly contributes to 30% of the Maldives' GDP. In a country short on land, construction became a lucrative business: the cramped capital Malé, where more than a third of the population lives, is a maze of concrete. Rents sometimes match those of world cities such as Hong Kong or New York City, and a bleary-eyed community of foreign laborers hammers away at building sites daily. That's quite a change. Not long ago, Malé was a sleepy fishing island with sand-packed streets and pens for livestock, only reachable after a perilous weeklong journey by ship from Colombo. Now, most people there sport flashy cell phones; at night, a few Porsches and Maseratis rev their engines impotently around the 500-acre (2 sq km) capital's congested roads.

But this prosperity, say some, is only skin-deep. "Gayoom developed resorts and buildings," says Aishath Velezinee, a journalist and consultant for the U.N., "but he didn't develop people." After 30 years of Gayoom's rule, the Maldives still has no university. The absence of a public ferry system makes travel to India or Sri Lanka, 400 miles (640 km) northwest, more affordable for some Maldivians than going to other islands in their own country. Many of the outlying atolls lack basic sewage-treatment facilities, while in Malé, political power and privilege have until recently remained tightly clustered around a coterie of Gayoom's family and friends.

Gayoom's regime retained its hold on power like many classic dictatorships: what media that existed were run either by the state or the President's closest allies, and dissidents were locked and beaten up, often on the most spurious grounds. Nasheed — who eventually fled to exile in 2003 with other members of his Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) — was, in separate instances, accused of being a terrorist and then a Christian missionary, bent on converting the country's Muslim population.

With the aid of the Internet and radio broadcasts produced in Europe and Sri Lanka, the country's activists chipped away at the edifice of state control. U.S. State Department reports rebuked Gayoom's government for its brutal prison practices, particularly in September 2003 when Evan Naseem, a teenager in detention on petty-drug charges, was killed by guards. His death was a catalyst for change, triggering mass riots that, combined with mounting international pressure, forced Gayoom to initiate the process of reforms and liberalization that would finally lead to his defeat in the polls last year.

See TIME's pictures of the week.

Now the head of what is the main opposition group, the Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP), Gayoom declined to talk to Time. Thasmeem Ali, his deputy, defended Gayoom's record, insisting the pace of development and reform that Gayoom oversaw suited the Maldives' particular conditions. "People borrow all sorts of political terms — dictatorship and so on — that don't fit here," says Thasmeem. "Gayoom remains our party's and this nation's greatest asset."

Nation Builder
Most outside the drp, though, are shocked that Gayoom is not facing further scrutiny. His own ascent to the presidency three decades ago saw the arrests of some 400 political opponents in the first year of his rule. Nasheed prides his party — many of whose members suffered in Gayoom's prisons — for not creating a climate of retribution. He delights in the lessons this little country's democracy struggle can teach the outside world, drawing a parallel between Gayoom's autocratic rule, with its layers of corrupt bureaucracy, censorship and repressive police, and that of the state-domineering Baathism of Iraq under Saddam Hussein — a man who ranked among Gayoom's personal friends. "We have a blueprint here in the Maldives," Nasheed says. "You don't need to bomb a Muslim country for regime change."

What was once a country run out of Gayoom's palace will now be organized into seven new provinces, as the government lays down the architecture of a decentralized liberal state. Nasheed has already embarked on trips to Europe and the Middle East to gin up private investment in public projects, from treating sanitation to investing in green energy to establishing the much-needed ferry network linking the archipelago's far-flung islands. Election fever is growing: Nasheed sits in office with the tenuous backing of a coalition of increasingly fractious parties, fitful after decades in which politics could not exist at all. Parliamentary elections on May 9 could give him and the MDP a stronger mandate — or cripple his ability to execute his agenda.

Breaking a Habit
Whatever the political shakeout, the country still needs to cope with a crisis that may be more urgent than global warming. A generation of underemployed youth has gone sour. With space a premium in Malé, most residents live with their extended families, some even sleeping in shifts; there's no privacy at home, but even less compunction to leave. In the vacuum, drugs have taken hold. An estimated 30,000 Maldivian youths are addicts, almost 10% of the country's population. "There is nothing to do here," says Ali Adib, one of the directors of Journey, a drug-rehabilitation NGO in Malé, and a recovering addict himself. "The whole social fabric is torn."

A stroll through some of Malé's alleyways brings the crisis up close. "Brown sugar," or low-grade heroin, smuggled past the country's thinly stretched coast guard, is the narcotic of choice, and wiry, gaunt boys lurch in the midday sun from its effects. "Getting drugs," says Mohamed Arif, another ex-user, "is like pizza delivery." Their abundance, according to virtually everyone in Malé, from members of civil society to junkies, can be traced to groups within the old government. Nasheed says that the problem has less to do with the country's law-enforcement capabilities and more with endemic corruption: "People in all sorts of places had connections and links." On May 2, Nasheed claimed at a rally that his government had identified the country's six "top drug dealers," but would resist arresting them until after parliamentary elections were held, intimating that some of the suspects may be figures in the opposition.

Many in the Maldives now call for a reckoning with elements of Gayoom's regime, some of whom have left the country. Nasheed, though, refuses to go after the former government and its deposed dictator. "Few have been tortured, or brutalized, as much as I have," he says. But Nasheed insists he wants civil institutions to mature, and for an independent judiciary, not a new President, to judge the excesses of the previous 30 years. "Establishing real democracy here," says Nasheed, "will be the greatest justice of all."


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