George Bearup, in The Australian, 30 August 2016, where the title is “Maldives: Islamist terror could sink Indian Ocean paradise” …. but note Editorial Caution at End
“Welcome to the Maldives,” says the country’s tourism website, “where the sands are as white as the smiles of the locals, where fish swim happily in the warm waters of the Indian Ocean, where the weather is a dream, and the deep rays of the sun wait to engulf you in their arms.” It is also engulfed in something more sinister; the Maldives is teetering on the edge of a coup, with a cabal of exiled opposition leaders meeting in Sri Lanka over the weekend, attempting to work out a way to topple President Abdulla Yameen. The President’s office issued a statement saying the strongman was aware of the coup plans and condemned them as being “a clear breach of international norms”.
Beyond the white sand, the first executions since 1953 are to be carried out in the Maldives to prove the country’s “Islamic credentials”. It is a place where a couple of hundred jihadists were raised and are now fighting for an Islamic caliphate in Syria; and where a 15-year-old girl who’d been raped was found guilty of fornication and sentenced to 100 lashes.
The Maldives’ finances are a mess, it has been radicalised by the influx of hardline Saudi preachers and while opposition to Yameen’s rule is building, he is unlikely to step aside without a fight. Things look set to get ugly in paradise. In June, Yameen’s former deputy Ahmed Adeeb was jailed for 15 years on a charge of plotting to assassinate the President as part of a crackdown on opponents, most of whom are in jail or exile. And no matter how dreamy the weather and how happy the fish, if there were to be a single terrorist attack on one of its 105 unprotected luxury resorts, dotted on remote islands, its billion-dollar tourism industry — the backbone, heart and lungs of its economy — would sink without a trace in the azure waters of the Indian Ocean.
Welcome to the Maldives that the honeymooners and hordes of Chinese on package deals never see. According to a World Bank report, more than a million people visited the Maldives in 2014, including almost 7000 Australians.
“It makes me very, very scared to see what is happening there,” says Azra Naseem, who was born in the Maldives and now specialises in researching Islamist radicalism at Dublin University. In the past, she says, the Maldives, which adopted Islam when Arab traders came to the islands in the 12th century, had never really distinguished between the Shia and Sunni sects of Islam; theirs had been a fairly laid-back interpretation, blending island traditions and Islam. “And now the only Islam that is being accepted is Saudi Salafism,” Naseem tells The Australian. “The Saudis have been funding the new Islamic University where the whole philosophy is based on something called the ‘Islamisation of knowledge’.”
Almost half the Maldivian population of 300,000 is crowded on to the tiny island capital of Male, where unemployment and drug use are high and there has been a proliferation of criminal gangs. Few Maldivians find work in the resorts, which are on islands uninhabited by locals; they are managed by Europeans and Australians and staffed mainly by tens of thousands of poorly paid Bangladeshis. After 30 years of corrupt rule under the dictatorship of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the country elected a president for the first time, in 2008.
Following the election of Mohamed Nasheed, a liberal former political prisoner, his opponents began portraying him as anti-Islamic and whipped-up religious fervour to unseat him. It worked and he was toppled in a coup in 2012. Yameen, is the half-brother of Gayoom; however, the two have recently fallen out. In an article in The New York Times over the weekend, Yameen was accused of selling almost $400 million worth of oil to the dictatorship of Myanmar when it was under economic sanctions — it is alleged that $181m of that money has gone missing. “Yameen has systematically alienated, exiled, jailed and trashed pretty much everyone who helped him come to power,” says JJ Robinson, a British-Australian journalist who ran a newspaper in the Maldives and this year published a book on its recent political history, The Maldives: Islamic Republic, Tropical Autocracy.
“I would say that they are heading towards another coup,” says Robinson. “And I would say that with reasonable confidence.”
Exiled politicians opposed to Yameen’s rule met in Sri Lankan capital of Colombo over the weekend, including Nasheed, under the banner of the Maldives United Opposition. “The opposition leaders are meeting in Colombo to work out strategies to legally topple Yameen,” one plotter told the news service Agence France-Presse. To stay in power, Yameen has stoked the Islamist fire and announced he will reintroduce capital punishment as a means of proving his “Islamic credentials”.
Despite the country’s parlous finances the government budgeted $350,000 to build a “death chamber” in the Maldives’ main jail. More money was set aside to build solitary confinement cells. While howls of protest have erupted from the international community, Yameen is adamant he will start executing prisoners on death row. “This is a classic case of local versus international politics,” says Robinson. “The domestic support for the death penalty is really very high. At the same time you have a completely warranted mistrust of the judiciary.”
Robinson interviewed former Victorian Supreme Court judge and Tasmanian integrity commissioner Murray Kellam QC when he was flown in to observe the Maldivian judicial system on behalf of the UN Development Program. “There is a real problem when you’ve got members of both the executive and legislative body administering judicial affairs,” Kellam said in the interview. “You have the Speaker, the attorney-general and an MP sitting in judgment on their own recommendations … ‘Rule of law’ does not mean ‘rule of judges’. Judges are not free to do as they wish.”
While the government has been diligent in cracking down on political opponents, it has done little to halt the flow of Maldivians heading off to fight for Islamic State and the former al-Nusra Front in Syria. Some estimates put the number of Maldivian jihadists at 200 (others put it higher) — which makes it the largest foreign contributor of fighters on a per-capita basis. “There have been whole families who have gone over,” says Naseem. “There has been a Maldivian baby born in Syria.” When Islamic State first emerged, the stories of people going off to fight would be reported in local newspapers as their families proudly talked of their bravery. Naseem says the government seems to have cracked down on the publication of such reports, but “it doesn’t mean that people aren’t still going”.
The problem, of course, is what happens if some of these Maldivian jihadists, trained and hardened on the battlefields of Syria, come home. “You have 100 soft targets (the resorts) that are almost impossible to defend,” says Robinson. “And an economy where 90 per cent of the foreign exchange comes from tourism and 70 per cent of the economy is directly reliant on tourism.”
The Maldivian jihadists recently posted a video on a website with the pictures of the three most recent Maldivian presidents including Yameen. It showed a man being buried alive and depictions of the presidents being shot up with an AK-47. The video stated this was a warning for the leadership of the Maldives to adopt strict sharia law.It’s an ominous threat for a country that earns its living providing beaches for women in bikinis to sunbathe on, and overpriced poolside bacon sandwiches, washed down with ice-cold pina coladas.
A NOTE: This essay shows traces of the “Orientalist” readings of the East which Edward Said warned us about — lands with despotic rulers, corrupt politicians and ruthless mayhem lurking around many corners an implicitly in contrast with the upright West. This caution should not encourage dismissal of the dangers from Salafi extremists or the not uncommon tale of political machinations among ruling elites. The reference to Asra Nasrem also adds weight to this essay. Since the Maldivian economy rests so heavily on tourism the dilemma facings ardent Salafists and their less ardent brethren is of great political moment: do they permit their hatred of licentious WEstern ways of habit and being spark attacks which will wholly undermine their sustenance. Michael Roberts