The Silk Highway

The Maldives were once a haven of democracy, moderate Islam and economic stability in South Asia. The election on 28 September offers a chance to redeem it, but recent developments suggest that chance is growing slim.

Since its independence in 1965, the Republic of the Maldives has been run by autocrats who have driven prosperity at the expense of fundamental freedoms. To their credit, they succeeded in building a quiet country in a flammable region and a holiday paradise enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of European each year. But behind the white sands and coral reefs, a tradition of mismanagement has led to structural cracks in Maldivian society which are starting to show.

After a decade of heavy-handed leadership, the country’s first president, Ibrahim Nasir, fled to Singapore under allegations of embezzlement. His successor, Maumoon Gayoom, remained in office for 30 years in spite of accusations from Amnesty International that his government was imprisoning and torturing opponents. Following mounting civil unrest and pressure from the West, Gayoom conceded to a multi-candidate presidential election in 2008 and lost to Mohamed Nasheed – a pro-democracy activist who was obliged to resign last year under unclear circumstances.

Nasheed insists that he was forced out of office at gunpoint by the opposition. The claim has been refuted by a national inquiry, however the impartiality of the inquiry has since been contested by international rights groups. It is a murky matter from which the daughter and son of Gayoom (the last Maldivian dictator) have emerged promoted to ministerial positions in the interim cabinet. This turbulence risks tiring Maldivian voters of democracy altogether. Nasheed’s rival in the coming election is the younger brother of Gayoom. He belongs to the political caste whose cronyism and repression led to the the pro-democratic up-heavals in the first place. Although Nasheed’s passionate struggle may be fueled by his enthusiasm for liberal reform, some of his compatriots have come to fear that he is simply as hungry for power as his autocratic rivals.

The Maldives’ recent taste for democracy has driven thousands of citizens to debate the fate of their country on social media platforms and take to the streets for what they believe in. But demands are volatile in this young democracy. They range from freedom of the press, to the price of food, and enforcing bans on statues of foreign religions. This unsteady start to democracy has remained stuck on discontented protests rather than evolving towards public participation and dialogue. So long as rival parties and coalition partners feud among each other, none will enjoy the unity necessary to drive hard reforms. The Maldives urgently needs to diversify its economy beyond tourism, replace depleting fisheries, counter rising sea-levels, and halt the spread of radical Islam. A trustworthy captain would be welcome on these waters.

Read more on Maldivian democracy and the up-coming election.


Mariyam Imad


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