Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Maldives - Jagged islands

EMERGING from their planes, tourists are whisked into lavishly equipped boats which cross the turquoise sea to their resort islands, or onto seaplanes to get to farther-flung islets. Those who visit the capital find a tiny city which functions well and looks strikingly modern by South Asian standards.

Beneath the calm, there are bitter, highly personalised differences of view regarding the former president, Mohamed Nasheed, who was arrested on October 8th in the south, a week after fleeing the trial to which he had been summoned. He was released from custody on October 9th, given 25 days to answer charges that he overstepped his powers while president, and restricted from leaving the capital.

His supporters extol him nonetheless. “For so many years he was the only one fighting for our democracy, our freedom, our right to speak our mind,” says Ahmed, a photographer in Male. He is not a member of Mr Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) but praises the changes it has brought, ranging from better transport between islands to a health-insurance scheme.

Adam, a young doctor, feels differently. He feels that under Mr Nasheed’s presidency it became “not cool to say you’re a devout Muslim who prays five times a day”. He says the ex-president was whimsical, and asks why he had to spend a month personally overseeing the construction of a conference centre in the southernmost atoll.

Those are the mild criticisms. Often the tone is harsher. Last December the Dhivehi Qaumee Party (DQP), then in opposition but now in government, issued a pamphlet accusing the then president of trying to “wipe out Maldivians’ religious identity”. According to the constitution every Maldivian must be Muslim, but the leaflet accused Mr Nasheed of seeking to build temples, elevate Christians and Jews in public diplomacy, abolish punitive amputations and public floggings (there are dozens each year, mainly of women) and promote the consumption of drugs and alcohol.
On social media the comments are even more extreme. Recent anti-Nasheed tweets (in a highly Twitter-conscious society) have called him, variously, a kidnapper—in reference to his arrest of a judge whom he accused of misdemeanours—a terrorist, a madman and an animal. He is accused of seeking to “encourage corrupt music” and of giving credence to people who want to do such things as remove God from the school curriculum, break traditional family bonds, remove all restrictions on sex, encourage bestiality and orgies and debase all art. An especially popular implication is that Mr Nasheed is something more akin to a new-age cult leader than a politician—or even the human-rights campaigner he once was.

The pro-Nasheed side tweet back shrilly, using the word baaghee—traitor—as often as they can to describe figures from the new government and senior officials from the security force. At the camp where they organise their regular protests, photographs of the police accused of having organised the suppression of demonstrators are pinned up and named.

Mr Nasheed’s resignation in February sharpened battle lines that were already in place. The party of Maumoon Abdul Gayyoom, who ruled Maldives for 30 years until 2008, is back in power and government circles are referring to Mr Nasheed in the same disparaging terms they used in the old days. Eva Abdulla, an MDP parliamentarian, recently received a Tweet saying: “Do you know how you will die? Allah willing, you will be paralysed.” She says that since the February events life is dominated by “hate-mongering”. The recent murder of the MP Afrasheem Ali, which the presidential media secretary implied was the work of Nasheed supporters, has made things worse.

In light of the DQP’s pamphlet about religious identity, is a heightened Islamist agenda part of the government’s programme? The MDP says it is. No, replies the government. “In some areas we’re actually more liberal,” says Hassan Saeed, the DQP leader and a special adviser to the current president. But Ibrahim Ismail, a colleague and former adviser to Mr Nasheed, thinks Maldives is moving in an Islamist direction and “the government isn’t doing anything about it”. He says, for instance, that in every primary school several dozen children are being pulled by their conservative parents from their gym classes, practical arts and music, and that the trend is only growing. By Banyan for The Economist (Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons)

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