Maldives 2016: At multiple cross-roads

maldives-tourismAs an unprecedented eventful year gives way to one with full of hopes, expectations and anticipation, all at once, the Maldives is at a cross-roads. Not just a single ‘T’ or ‘Y’ crossing on the highway. There is one too many roads meeting at this point in the nation’s destiny, with lanes and by-lanes, hidden from sight and otherwise. Call it options or challenges, at every turn, the Indian Ocean archipelago has one too many choices too to make, not knowing the right one to take at the moment and also for years and generations to come!

Having lived in an idyllic isolation both by geographical accident and historic choice, the Maldives came out of the self-styled purdah only in the second half of the twentieth century. Today, there is unhealthy competition between religion and radicalisation at the level of the individuals, who alone constitute a society and a nation. There are contradictions between and within development and democracy. The nation needs to choose ‘some’ from ‘all’, but is being pushed by conflicting interests, domestic and international, to choose ‘all’ from ‘some’.

Every other society and nation has faced this conflict at some point or the other – or, at various times or all the time. A small and socially well-knitted people, dispersed by the distancing seas in island and atoll pockets, like the Maldives simply cannot afford it. But that is the reality of the situation. How a nation fast-tracked on multiple engines all at once moves forward or backward, sideward or otherwise, is what the Year 2016 is set to witness and pass its judgment at the end. 

Carry forward…

maldives-nasheed-arrestThe imminent question, a carry-forward from the year gone-by, revolves around the larger question, ‘Development versus Democracy’. The concept, however, has got fixated to freedom for jailed former President, Mohammed Nasheed, and the international community’s (read: West) robust campaign for his imminent release – but made to repeat ad nauseum through much of the past year.

The question is if freedom for Nasheed in the New Year, if it became a reality, would end the current democratic discourse, at least for now. Or, will it fan further demands for furtherance of democracy? The obvious occasion could be provided an accompanying question if freedom, if at all now, for Nasheed would ensure liberty to contest the presidential polls in 2018, and how it could be ensured.

All these possibilities are big ‘if’s’, and would centre round the continuing domestic demands and court cases inside the country, and international pressure, for Nasheed’s freedom. Beyond this singular aspect is the larger question that the concerned stake-holders should take up the New Year to pause to re-assess their prescription and/or practices for/in ‘culturally distant’ societies as the Maldives’. 

Western ‘liberalism’

Nasheed and his Maldivian Democratic Party’s (MDP) international partners should evaluate the medium and long-term usefulness of ‘imposing’ western concepts of ‘liberalism’ on a culturally conscious and conscientious society. If nothing else, nations and peoples have to be given time to ‘come around’ to a largely-held view on issues and concepts that they did not even possibly knew existed. It’s more so about the nuances that it entails.

Maldives used to be among the most ‘modern’ of most Islamic nations, maybe owing to centuries-old interactions with other South Asian societies than distant West Asian communities, now countries. It had got used to centuries of monolithic ruling as the community became monotheist.

Yet, to confuse the twentieth century urge and gradual global conversion to democracy and include ‘western liberalism’ can cut both ways. The intermittent international references to the need for freedom of religion in the Maldives in the recent years not only made western democracy near-unacceptable to a substantial section of the local community, but also made Nasheed and MDP a ‘suspect’ in their eyes.

It is a culmination of these interests and concerns that converted independent ‘Islamic’ and ‘nationalist’ sentiments into a combined ‘Islamist nationalist’ movement against Indian infrastructure GMR, but targeting incumbent President Nasheed. It is this double-quick adoption of ever-changing and eternally elastic western definitions for ‘democracy’ and ‘liberalism’ that made Nasheed’s honest motives on the Palestine/Israel front suspect in the eyes of these groups, which proved to be more street-smart than even his MDP cadres.

 ISIS radicalisation

maldives-terrorismCould the MDP learning its lessons from the past have helped change the personal fortunes of Nasheed on the one hand and the MDP and Maldives on the other? The answer is a big ‘yes-and-no’ at the same time. Blame it on the greater access of communication technology by the ISIS groups than its Al Qaeda predecessor in Nasheed’s time, but today, more Maldivians per capita are fighting and dying in distant Syria, on a war which their parents, nationals and Government agree is not theirs by any stretch of imagination or Islamic codes.

Iraq and Afghanistan, and the western targeting of innocent civilians, in the name of ending one more ‘axis of terror’ are among the factors, for greater radicalisation in – and not yet, of – the Maldivian society. What’s not often understood is the case of the discerning individual(s) in the archipelago’s far spread-out islands, about the use of a different yard-stick in and for neighbouring Sri Lanka.

All of it has contributed to a new perception of ‘terror’ and its international definition in the eyes of some individual Maldivians. Stray as they may be, their sentiments and consequent commitments have proved stronger over the past months and years. With the result that the once accepted religion-centric Adhaalath Party (AP) now seems to have lost out lost out its relatively ‘extreme’ position in a moderate polity and society, to even more radical and fundamentalist individuals, who still seem to have not begun operating as an identifiable group or recognised social, political or socio-political outfit.

 Whither ‘development’?

Caught in the midst of all this is President Abdulla Yameen’s revived interest in a ‘development’-functional society and nation, pushing Nasheed’s ‘democracy’ agenda, and hence his own freedom, to a relative background. It is a take-off from where his half-brother and President for 30 long years, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, was forced to cut short with his post-democratisation electoral defeat of 2008.

Through a combination of a pending court case (against Nasheed) and constitutionally-fixed upper age-limit (against Jumhooree Party founder, Gasim Ibrahim), Yameen seems to have – or, wanting to – put competition behind, for re-election bid in 2018. Like President Gayoom before him, Yameen has now focussed on development and job-creation, much of it funded by China. This may have continued to cause ripples in New Delhi and Washington – and also the closest neighbourhood capital of Colombo, with the change of government there – but Yameen seems unconcerned.

The Yameen government seems wanting to have New Delhi trust him on his ‘India First’ security policy viz China. But he does not seem to be wanting to look at the alternate IMF option of development funding, prescribed by the West for nations in Maldives’ place – as was available to Nasheed in power. This has meant that he is ready to take the political plunge more than already viz the West on the domestic political front (read: freedom for Nasheed).

Under Gayoom and afterwards, too, the Maldivian economy grew from the bottom of the cup to the top in South Asia in terms of per capita income and per capita GDP, thanks to ‘resort tourism’ promoted by high-spending European tourists. Though the EU has not considered sanctions on the tourism front, the European Parliament recently advised member-nations, through a big-vote, to apply sanctions on assets held by Maldivian political entities in their countries.

Yameen seems unfazed. He has begun talking about the need for the Maldives to diversify from being a tourism-dependent economy. His China-funded development projects, and promises at job-creation sound attractive and as an independent politico-electoral achiever – provided they get the time to run their course. GMR failed President Nasheed midway.

For, until such time Yameen’s SEZ scheme creates more jobs and investment opportunities for the locals, and a completed Male-Hulhumale sea-bridge (to be taken up in January 2016 and completed in 2017), captures the imagination of the nation’s population, President Yameen, would need the ‘resort tourism’ industry on his side – in every which way. President Nasheed learnt it the hard way, after he had caused political turmoil of his own, by making his Cabinet resign en masse.

By doing so, Nasheed thought that he was forcing a political situation on his adversaries. Instead, he ended up forcing a constitutional crisis on the nation. It took his well-wishers, both inside the government and outside at the time, great efforts to help reverse the situation. But the slide that began then did not stop – until it concluded in Nasheed’s own exit in pressure-cooker style, on February 7 2012, with one-and-half years left for his re-election bid. There is a lesson for Yameen in this, and the rest.

(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, ORF, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. This article has been written for India Writes Network)