Maldives meltdown

As political unrest swept through the Muslim nations of North Africa, even the remote island-nation of the Maldives was caught up in its own Arab Spring in the form of political protest and street clashes.
One major difference: Efforts in the Maldives were focused on pushing out a young, democratically elected president and replacing him with an aging despot.

President Mohammed Nasheed, 44, has gained accolades around the globe for his commitment to preparing the Maldives for the coming impacts of climate change on an island nation and simultaneously attempting to turn the country carbon neutral. Since the first of May intermittent protests have wracked the streets of the tiny island capitol of Male – just two square miles and home to 100,000 – with some calling for Nasheed’s resignation; the irony, of course, is that he is the country’s very first democratically elected leader.

As many as 5,000 protestors have been shouting not about green issues, but about homegrown concerns, including a sour economy and increases in crime and inflation.

They have also complained about Nasheed’s alleged “westernization” of the traditional Islamic culture and allowing the economy to crumble. One report has his popularity rating at just 18 percent. The military has dispersed youthful crowds with high-pressure hoses and batons.

Waiting in the wings? None other than Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, 74, whose 30-year dictatorship was ended in 2008 with Nasheed’s election. Nasheed has no love loss for the former president, who still lives in the Maldives. A former journalist, activist and political prisoner, Nasheed was tortured while in prison during Gayoom’s presidency.

Many attribute the economic mess of today to the 30-year long Gayoom administration. It’s no big surprise that it is the former president and his representatives who are working behind the scenes to fan the current protests.

Nasheed spokesman Mohamed Zuhair suggested to the BBC that the former president is encouraging violence in the streets. “In the Middle East, you have democrats on the streets bringing down dictatorships. Ironically in the Maldives, the remnants of the former dictatorship are trying to bring down a democratically elected government.”

It doesn’t help that oil prices are going through the roof, since everything in the Maldives is imported and it spends one quarter of its GDP on oil. Tourism, which accounts for 70 percent of the Maldives economy, has been negatively impacted by the unrest.

On May 25 the government proposed an agreement with representatives of the International Monetary Fund that would raise import duties, lower capital spending, freeze public sector wages, taxes on goods and services and tourist taxes as a way to help fix some of its economic woes.

Nasheed is well known internationally for his outspoked-ness regarding the fate of all island nations as sea levels rise. Among his first pronouncements after he was elected in 2008 was that he would set aside money from tourism to help buy land to move Maldivians as sea levels rose (to India or Pakistan, maybe Australia). To draw attention to the very real impact of climate change on a nation that is barely more than six feet above sea level he held the first “underwater” cabinet meeting, which garnered more than a billion global media impressions.

[Flickr image via Ula Ahmed]