Let it not become paradise lost – Why the tiny islands are a focus of geopolitics
Economist Nov 28th 2015
The Maldives: Islamic Republic, Tropical Autocracy. By J.J. Robinson. Hurst; 336 pages; £16.99.
Troubled paradises dot the tropics. Equatorial Guinea, Haiti and the Solomon Islands are just three examples. Add to that list the Maldives, a micro-nation blighted by repression, political gangsters and, increasingly, Wahhabi extremists. Life on the islands in the Indian Ocean can be stultifying. Bored youngsters in Malé, the crowded capital, are heavy consumers of brown-sugar heroin. Few places look quite so fragile environmentally. A fire last year at the country’s only desalination plant left it with almost no drinking water.
Yet the story of the Maldives is complicated, because the islands also offer real glimmers of hope. Since the 1970s the small population, around 350,000, has built a luxury-tourist industry that is worth $2.5 billion a year. Maldivians are easily the most prosperous of all South Asians; the country draws Bangladeshis and others to work there. While he was president, Mohamed Nasheed, a bright figure, did much to champion concerns about climate change and promote liberal values at home. The past decade has brought real, if now faltering, democratic gains.
Little is published on the Maldives, travel bumf aside, so it can be hard for analysts to judge whether gloom or hope is ascendant there. J.J. Robinson’s new book is a rare, welcome contribution. A British-Australian who for several years edited Minivan News, easily the country’s best newspaper, he reported close-up on matters to which few outsiders pay great attention.
He finds a lot that is worrying. Socially, the country is growing more intolerant. Those caught having extramarital sex can be punished with a public flogging—and it is mostly women who are abused in this way. Self-declared atheists are pilloried, sometimes to the point of suicide. Women feel under pressure to swelter under a heavy niqab. Religious extremism is growing: probably nowhere else, per person, sends as many recruits to fight with Islamic State.
National politics has long been a mess, and Mr Robinson sees it only getting worse. Political affairs are largely run by several wealthy, resort-owning families, whom he calls “oligarchs”; they also oversee drug- and alcohol-smuggling gangs. Bent judges make life difficult for Mr Nasheed and the rest of the opposition. Paid thugs do their bit, torching newspaper offices, abducting a journalist a year ago whose fate is still unknown, and killing an MP who was seen as a religious moderate.
The high point of democracy was in 2008, when Mr Nasheed was elected president. But the oligarchs forced him from office four years later in what amounted to a coup. He was the front-runner in an eventual follow-up election, but after several postponements another man won.
Young Maldivians, avid users of social media and more and more well educated, are now determined to create a more liberal place. Diplomatic interventions from India, America and the Commonwealth help to preserve some democratic freedoms. Even the ruling families know repression and zealotry must have limits, lest they scare off foreign tourists who account for most of the country’s revenues.
Mr Robinson might have explained more fully why the Maldives matters to outsiders. The country sits on strategically important shipping lanes between Asia and Europe and, in recent years, has drawn intense diplomatic and trade interest from China, which now supplies it with more tourists than anywhere else. In turn nearby India, supported by America, worries about China’s growing influence. The tiny islands are a focus of geopolitics; interest in this troubled paradise will only rise.