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Last Updated: Tuesday, 15 May 2007, 10:13 GMT 11:13 UK
Concrete heart of tourist paradise
The BBC's Andrew Whitehead reports from Male, capital of the Maldives, a remote island nation going through rapid political and social change.

Modern high rise buildings in Male
Builders in the crowded capital, Male, can only go upwards

The Maldives conjures up images of pristine white sand, shallow azure seas and unspoilt coral reefs.

Flying in from southern India, I could see all these - an entrancing sight as the plane flew low over wisps of atolls surrounded by crystal clear aquamarine waters.

But the capital, Male, is different. It is one of the most crowded places on earth.

A third of the Maldivian population of 300,000 lives there - in under four square kilometres. And that is not counting the thousands of Sri Lankans and Bangladeshis drafted in to do the menial work.

Male is awash with building sites. There is only one way to go. Up. Eight- and 10-storey blocks are springing up.

The island has a busy, prosperous feel, with well stocked mini supermarkets, smart fashion stores, shops selling Hollywood and Bollywood DVDs as well as films, many of them horror movies judging by the posters, in the local language, Dhivehi.

It would not take more than 30 minutes to walk wherever you want in Male. But every self-respecting youngster has a motorbike.

A street vendor in Male
Male is prospering and incomes are above average for the region

Back streets have become huge parking lots. Traffic sometimes slows to walking pace. My taxi driver told me that tiny Male now has 20 sets of traffic lights.

Not many of the thousands of foreign tourists attracted to the luxury atoll resorts make it to Male. But their spending power has transformed the economy.

The country's average income - more than $2,500 (1,260) a year - is well above the South Asian average.

Signs of democracy

There is another side to the Maldives. I went there to attend a Unesco-sponsored conference on press freedom. There has not been much of that in the Maldives.

President Maumoon Gayoom has been in power for almost 30 years. Critics have described him as a dictator. Opponents have been locked up and there has been international criticism of human rights abuses.

But President Gayoom, towards the close of his career, has opted for democracy. The Maldives is having its first multi-party elections next year. Opposition parties have been permitted. Newspapers and magazines have sprung up as media controls have eased.

Whatever may be said of the Maldives, it is not lacking in ambition

Opposition activists argue that the government's commitment to reform is insincere. They say they still suffer harassment and detention.

The editor of the opposition daily Minivan (Freedom) could face six months imprisonment for an article seen by the government as inciting violence.

She told me that the language used had been too strong, and the paper's own editorial procedures had not been followed. But how, she said, could that justify a jail sentence?

The opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) contains several former allies of the president.

Its supporters say that its strongest links are with the British Conservatives. Three MDP activists are apparently in the UK finding out about canvassing and campaigning, though no one is quite clear how lessons learned in British local elections will translate to remote palm-fringed lagoons.

Fundamentalism

Another rising force is Islamic radicalism. Some Islamic parties are demanding a harder line against drugs. Dealers and users already face stiff penalties, but some observers estimate that several thousand Maldivians are injecting heroin.

Young women in Islamic headscarves
Residents are Sunni Muslims but religious tradition is relaxed

In a Male back-street, I found a VCD glorifying the Afghan mujahideen on sale for 25 Maldivian rufiyaa, or $2. A minister told me that what she called "foreign" preachers were to blame for encouraging fundamentalism.

The Maldives is universally and uniformly Sunni Muslim. No other religion is allowed. Labourers from Sri Lanka cannot even bring in small Buddhist icons.

But the religious tradition in the Maldives - Male boasts some remarkable coral mosques, about the only evidence of its old culture - has been gentle and tolerant.

Most, but by no means all, women in Male wear the "buragaa", the Islamic head scarf. It is becoming increasingly popular. But the culture is relaxed, and women play a conspicuous role in the civil service and other areas of public life.

Literacy levels are high, though those seeking professional qualifications have to head abroad.

Male, of course, is not the Maldives. There are almost 200 other inhabited islands spread across a vast swathe of ocean - none anything like as developed.

And the influx from the atolls for the best schools, hospitals and career opportunities means that what the people of Male most lack is privacy. Flats are small. Every square foot is used. The only beach in the capital island is artificial.

The Maldives has now embarked on a massive project. A new Male.

A brand new island is being built, an overspill which will in time be bigger than the capital island. Already hundreds are living there on reclaimed land. There is talk of constructing a bridge or causeway.

Whatever may be said of the Maldives, it is not lacking in ambition.

Andrew Whitehead is the India Country Director of the BBC World Service Trust


SEE ALSO
Maldives opposition plan protest
20 Apr 07 |  South Asia
Maldives criticised over arrests
29 Nov 06 |  South Asia
Maldives - reform or autocracy?
04 Jun 06 |  South Asia
Country profile: The Maldives
18 Jan 03 |  Country profiles
Timeline: The Maldives
07 Aug 02 |  Country profiles

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