Page last updated at 00:50 GMT, Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Extreme makeunder in the Maldives

By Chris Morris
BBC News, Male


The BBC's Chris Morris explores the private presidential island

As we headed out to sea from Male, I still had the president's words ringing in my ears: "Last time I talked to you," he said, "I ended up in jail."

That was nearly 20 years ago, when Mohamed Nasheed was a young political activist forbidden from contacting foreigners.

But times have changed.

Last year Mr Nasheed won a democratic election against Maumoon Gayoom, the man who ordered his imprisonment and who had ruled the Maldives for 30 years.

And now the new regime is determined to shed the trappings of presidential power.

Presidential trappings

Our speed boat accelerated past the island where the new president was incarcerated for years as a prisoner of conscience.

We were heading for another island, Arah, the former president's weekend retreat.

Presidential yacht
The presidential yacht will be auctioned off, possibly on eBay

A multi-million dollar presidential yacht was moored in the tiny harbour. It will now be auctioned off, possibly on eBay.

I was shown luxury beach villas, a tree house for the presidential children, a private cricket pitch, and of course the presidential beach.

The island used to be the exclusive preserve of President Gayoom and his guests.

But the new administration wants to open everything up. There's already talk of turning Arah into a marine research facility or even a writer's retreat.

In the capital Male, the presidential palace stands empty. Mr Nasheed says it is too big - he's happier in more humble surroundings.

So there are suggestions that the palace could become a museum, or the country's first university.

'Bit extravagant'

But some Maldivians aren't impressed. You can't, they argue, be a political activist for ever. Once you've been elected president, you have to start acting like one.

The new president of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed

"I think he should move here," said a man wandering down the street outside. "I want to see him waving from this gate. Like the Queen does at Buckingham Palace."

But President Nasheed has other ideas.

"It's all a bit extravagant for me," he said.

He showed me the old president's office, including his gold-plated toilet.

The new man has moved in down the corridor, sharing an office with his secretary.

"When we started this administration, the presidency was costing more than $150m (105m) a year," he said. "This is something we simply can't afford. We've brought it down to $4m.

"I don't feel the cut, and we can use the rest of the money for old age pensioners, for schools, for housing and very many things we need now."

Perhaps I looked surprised, because he was quick to add a rider.

"No one should be concerned about my niceties and my comfort," he said. "I'm fine, I'm happy."

Text message

So there is certainly a new style of government in Male. In one of the world's smallest capital cities, half the official fleet of cars is also heading for the auction room.

Sink in presidential palace
The former president's bathroom included gold-plated fixtures

But former President Gayoom has rejected accusations of extravagance during three decades at the top.

We weren't able to interview him, but he did send a text.

It said allegations of extravagance were "baseless and ludicrous".

"It's all government property," the text said, and the presidential buildings are "the landmarks of the modern Maldives."

One of Mr Gayoom's aides was even more blunt.

Mr Nasheed, he said, is not only selling off the presidency, he's selling off the country.

So politics in paradise remains rough and tumble. But bling is no longer king. Or even president.

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