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Last Updated: Wednesday, 9 February, 2005, 13:48 GMT
Maldives reform hope after tsunami
By Julian Pettifer
BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents

With the eyes of the world on the Maldives as it attempts to recover from the Indian Ocean tsunami, its president is coming under mounting pressure to carry out his promised democratic reforms.

A resident of the small island of Guraidhoo which was devastated by the tsunami
Much of Guraidhoo lies in ruins following the tsunami
Guraidhoo is one of 1200 small islands that make up the 26 atolls of the Republic of the Maldives, and one of only 200 islands in the vast archipelago that is inhabited.

Although the loss of life and property in the Maldives is slight in comparison with the worst hit nations, its economy, heavily dependent on tourism, suffered a serious blow.

Guraidhoo islanders relied on visitors from nearby luxury resorts - 12 boat loads a day - who patronised their souvenir shops and cafes.

In the wake of the tsunami, seven of the nine resorts in the vicinity are closed and the islanders are surviving on government handouts. Over 200 people are homeless, living in tents.

As the islands are so scattered and materials have to be shipped in, reconstruction will be slow and expensive.

Repressive regime

Nonetheless, there was a measure of disbelief in the international community when the Maldivian President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom asked for $1.3 billion in foreign aid for long-term relief work.

Many have complained of ill-treatment or even torture while in detention
And some Maldivians have called on potential donors not to give a penny unless aid is linked to democratic reforms.

President Gayoom has been in power for 26 years, and in the past decade there has been a swelling chorus of complaint about the tactics he employs to remain in power.

Human rights organisations have documented many cases where people protesting against government policies have been arbitrarily detained, and have complained of ill-treatment or even torture while in detention.

Opposition in exile

Although the Maldives does have a parliament - the Majlis - it is not a truly democratic institution.

The capital, with a quarter of the population, has the same representation as a distant atoll with only a handful of voters
Of its 50 members, the president appoints eight, and the other 42 are divided between the atolls, with each getting two seats.

This means that Male, the capital, with a quarter of the population, has the same representation as a distant atoll with only a handful of voters.

The final weakness of the democratic process is that as no political parties are allowed, there is no properly organised opposition.

The Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) has its headquarters far away in Sri Lanka.

Offshore media

There is no freedom of expression in the Maldives. The electronic media is government-controlled and relatives of the president own the newspapers.

Ahmed Naseer who presents Minivan Radio which broadcasts to the Maldives from its studio in Salisbury
Ahmed Naseer broadcasts to the Maldives from a studio in Salisbury

The only independent media is based offshore, notably in the UK, where a group of Maldivian exiles in Salisbury runs websites and a short-wave radio station, beaming opposition news and comment to the Maldives.

Another website transmits its challenge to President Gayoom from the headquarters of the Maldivian Democratic Party in the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo.

In June 2004, under mounting pressure, the president announced a wide range of political reforms.

His proposals included the establishment of an independent judiciary and supreme court, and the setting up of a human rights commission.

The right to form political parties would also be guaranteed.

Responsibility for implementing these and other reforms was given to a People's Special Majlis, a body partly elected and partly appointed by the government.

Everyone, particularly the opposition in exile, welcomed the reforms and waited eagerly to see them implemented, but a series of blunders and mishaps has blocked progress.


In August 2004, only a couple of months after the launch of the reform programme, the government was in trouble.

Protestors demonstrating
People took to the streets to demand political reform
The international media was full of pictures and accounts of pro-democracy demonstrators in Male being attacked and violently dispersed by Gayoom's notorious police.

Over 100 protestors were arrested and locked up indefinitely. Among them was the democratic campaigner Ibrahim Ishmael.

Ibrahim's arrest was bizarre, as he explained:

"I was requested by the government to speak to the crowds and to calm them down... So I spoke to the people to remain peaceful... and for that I was imprisoned, and eventually charged in court for high treason."

Ibrahim said he was ill-treated in prison, suffered a stroke and was denied access to a doctor for a month.

Saving face?

Following the tsunami, President Gayoom released all of the detainees without charge "in the interests of national unity".

President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom
If it had not been handled that way, it would have created a lot of chaos
President Gayoom
His victims believe he let them go to save face, they say the charges were absurd, and that with the eyes of the world on the Maldives he would have been humiliated had they gone to trial.

When I spoke to the president, I asked him if he had any misgivings about the way the demonstrators had been dealt with.

He was quite clear: "No, I do not have any misgivings. In fact the government was very patient... if it had not been handled that way, it would have created a lot of chaos and damage to the whole country."

It seems that after 26 years in power, President Gayoom finds it difficult to admit any possibility of error.

But the fact that he has released opposition figures from prison, and that he needs help to rebuild the Maldives after the worst natural disaster in its history, may mean that he is at last obliged to make changes.

The president told me that his reform programme would be his proudest legacy.

BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents was broadcast on Thursday, 10 February, 2005, at 1100 GMT.

The programme was repeated on Monday, 14 February, 2005, at 2030 GMT.

The Maldives: Politics and the tsunami
03 Feb 05 |  Crossing Continents
Tsunami donors 'to adopt islands'
08 Feb 05 |  Business
Tourism revival key for Maldives
07 Feb 05 |  South Asia
Maldives vote results confusion
27 Jan 05 |  South Asia
Maldives democracy plans welcomed
25 Jan 05 |  South Asia
Country profile: The Maldives
04 Jan 05 |  Country profiles

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