Comment: Leaving Las Vegas

The economy is controlled by a handful of big, powerful dons who have extensive business interests in all major industries. The dons supplement their income through the illicit supply of drugs, prostitutes and other contraband. They have corrupted the institutions of state through bribery and inducements, and their violent street gangs deal with anyone who dares stand in their way.

Sound familiar? Welcome to ‘Sin City’: Las Vegas in the 1960s.

The parallels between post-war Las Vegas and today’s Maldives are stark. We may not have the casinos of the Nevada desert town but we have plenty of our own vices: street gangs, people smugglers and the king of crime: Brown Sugar.

In recent weeks, it has become clear that many of our own state institutions have also been corrupted by powerful businessmen who made their illicit fortunes under Gayoom’s iron-fisted autocracy.

For ordinary folk, Gayoom’s reign often spelled poverty, misery and torture but for a cunning few, close to the dictator. Vast personal fortunes could be made through lucrative oil contracts, drug dealing and racketeering. The friends and family of the former President were effectively above the law.

Things started to go wrong for the dons, though, in 2008, when a new sheriff rode into town. President Nasheed vowed to clean up corruption and cronyism and sell off rotten state assets to private corporations, threatening the dons’ control over the economy.

The criminal king-pins are fighting back. Secret telephone recordings, aired in the media earlier this month, strongly suggest that a handful of powerful MPs, who made their fortunes under Gayoom, have woven a web of corruption around the People’s Majlis and the so-called independent Commissions in order to protect their vast personal wealth.

The police have arrested MPs Ahmed Nazim, Abdulla Yameen and Gasim Ibrahim for allegedly bribing fellow MPs, such as Kutti ‘I need some cash’ Nasheed, to vote against government bills that threaten the dons’ interests. Now the judges, who were appointed by and owe their loyalties to Gayoom, have freed the powerful MPs and barred police lawyers from court.

President Nasheed is engaged in a bitter fight to try and clean up corruption and stamp out organised crime but has few allies outside his own party.

Las Vegas’ history may, though, provide him with hope. In the 1980s, huge corporations moved into town. They bought up the mobster’s gambling dens and replaced them with glittering skyscraper mega-casinos.

The Las Vegas mafia fought tooth a nail to protect their empires – corrupting policemen, bribing judges and murdering opponents to keep the corporations out. They spun a propaganda war, warning that Las Vegas would lose its ‘soul’ if faceless companies took over.

But in the end, the corporations won. Today’s Las Vegas is hardly a testament to moral purity. But the gangsters have been forced out of town and the corruption, drug dealing and the criminal gangs have largely gone with them.

Whether the Maldives’ will win its fight against the mafia remains to be seen. The $400 million upgrade of Male’ International Airport by GMR & Malaysia Airports bodes well – not only will it boost the economy, it will also stamp out a dodgy airline fuel racket allegedly run by companies close to powerful MPs.

The future of the country, and its democracy, hangs in the balance. Will the mafia win out? Or will President Nasheed finally force them into leaving Las Vegas?

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to [email protected]


Comment: Thick as thieves

“Would a Rose by any other name still smell as sweet?” wrote Shakespeare. In the case of the Maldives People’s Majlis, call Rose what you like – she will still stink of corruption.

The ‘cash for votes’ scandal has gripped the nation ever since secret telephone recordings between opposition MPs were published on the Internet yesterday afternoon.

In one recording, the deputy speaker of the Majlis Ahmed Nazim discusses with Abdulla Yameen how Gasim Ibrahim took ‘Rose’ to Paradise Island Resort to finalise a Rf1 million deal.

“So Rose is joining Jumhooree [Gasim’s political party] now?” Yameen asks.

“No it’s not that….it is just for these matters,” assures Nazim, before explaining that ‘Maniku’ will complete the deal with Rose for a further Rf2 million. Nazim goes onto say that Gasim “has said everything will be OK… 100 percent and not to worry.”

In another recording, MP Mohamed ‘Kutti’ Nasheed says to Gasim, “I need some cash.”

“Yeah, OK,” replies Gasim before the two MPs discuss how the transaction will be completed.

In the third recording ‘Kutti’ Nasheed explains to Yameen and Nazim how he will “prevent the government from trying to do what it is doing” by moving motions of no-confidence against Finance minister Ali Hashim and Economic Affairs minister Maumood Razee. He reads out a plan to stop “all work on the tax bills submitted by the government to the Majlis.”

Rumours of corruption in the Majlis are nothing new, but never before have the sordid details of MP’s shenanigans been aired in such excruciating detail.

Last week, President Nasheed was being pilloried in sections of the media for being ‘dictatorial,’ following the arrest of Yameen and Gasim for alleged corruption and bribery. Now, significant sections of the community seem keen to lock them up and throw away the key.

“Petty, cheap, revolting, nauseating” – “Have nothing to say except that…I am ashamed. How cheap are our parlimentarians?” – “Thick as thieves. Guilty as sin. Let them hang from the nearest coconut tree!” – a few readers’ comments from Minivan News’ coverage of the scandal.

While many Majlis watchers will not be surprised to hear the tapes involving Yameen, Nazim and Gasim, many people have been shocked to hear that ‘Kutti’ Nasheed is also implicated.

Kutti likes to present himself as an independent MP par excellence, a symbol of integrity who rises above the grubby day-to-day deals of the Majlis. No longer. He has been treating Gasim as his personal ATM. In return, he appears to be chief architect of plans to subvert the government’s tax and privatization initiatives, measures that could damage Gasim’s and Yameen’s extensive business interests.

In his personal blog, Kutti says he simply borrows money from Gasim from time to time and it has no influence on his voting in parliament. Few, if anyone, will believe his excuse.

So far, the corruption allegations appear concentrated on Yameen’s Peoples’ Alliance party, Gasim’s Jumhooree party, and their ‘independent’ supporters in the Majlis. Indeed, President Nasheed said yesterday that the speaker of the Majlis, DRP MP Abdulla Shahid, is “an honourable man.”

How far this scandal spreads is anyone’s guess, but it is likely to lead to both political and cultural change in the Maldives, as people recognise the real damage that corruption can bring to their institutions.

For centuries, Maldivians have pledged their loyalty to rich men, bodun, whose political power and status was measured by the number of their followers. These loyalties often spanned generations, and the practice of honouring the rich and seeking their ‘benevolence’ was deeply entrenched in the Maldivian psyche. The dictatorship and crony capitalism of the previous Gayoom government welded easily with this old cultural tradition. The democratic revolution of President Nasheed’s administration, and the President’s open condemnation of corruption, is demanding new loyalties to the rule of law, honest administration and institutions, and personal integrity.

It’s a painful process for the old cliques who profited so much and enjoyed high social standing, but a welcome change for the young Maldivian population who see an opportunity to compete and prosper without selling their loyalty and bowing to the bodun.

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to [email protected]


Comment: Coronation not Congress

Whether it was reverence for the wishes of former leader Gayoom, or whether it was a lack of respect for democracy, the Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party’s decision not to hold a competitive election to choose their new leader is a fatal mistake. Lacking a clear democratic mandate leaves Thasmeen’s leadership stillborn.

Gayoom anointed Thasmeen as his successor to lead the main opposition party the day he announced his retirement from active politics. Thasmeen was sworn in as leader of the DRP last week, at the party’s congress. No other party member stood against him.

Thasmeen is no doubt pleased he didn’t have to go through the hassle and uncertainty of an election to become the country’s main opposition leader. But he will be forever hampered by his democratic shortfall.

Thasmeen’s democratic deficit means that people will constantly question his authority. After all, what leverage does an unelected leader have? What legitimacy does he have to impose his will upon other party members? Why should party members follow his orders?

The new leader’s legitimacy problem is compounded by the fact that the DRP congress also decided that the party leader will automatically become the party’s candidate in the 2013 presidential elections. Overruling Umar Naseer and Aneesa Ahmed’s proposal to hold primaries, 841 delegates out of 882 attendees voted for the proposal by the party council to make the DRP leader its presidential candidate.

This decision will have incensed many members of the opposition. Umar Naseer might have magnanimously declared after winning the vice presidency that he was giving up the idea of presidential primaries for the sake of unity, but he may well change his mind as the 2013 presidential elections near, particularly if Thasmeen is judged to have been a weak leader. As the presidential election date draws closer, expect more members than Umar to clamour for party primaries.

Younger politicians will not only grumble about Thasmeen democratic deficit, they will be disillusioned as well. After all, what future do they have in a party where the top job is decided not by democracy but by a political fix between party grandees in Alivaage?

And of course, there is the issue of Gayoom himself. Gayoom crowned Thasmeen instead of another would-be successor, Yameen. Instead of being a respected leader on his own right, Gayoom therefore owns Thasmeen. He is the kingmaker, and though Thasmeen is the default leader, it will be Gayoom who will yield the power behind the throne.

Those who reject my line of argument need only to look to British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. When Tony Blair quit office in 2007, Gordon Brown became Prime Minister uncontested because nobody in the ruling Labour Party stood against him for top job. But the new Prime Minister’s lack of a democratic mandate started to undo his premiership within weeks.

Brown’s tenure in office has been bedeviled by plots, schemes and coup attempts emanating from within his own party. There have no fewer than four attempts to get rid of Brown’s since he took office – some of the plots were led by his closest former allies. If Thasmeen is interested to know how he will fare as the new king of the DRP, he need look no further than 10 Downing Street.

Nothing gives a leader greater legitimacy than a clear democratic mandate. President Nasheed – who won a clear mandate from the people in competitive elections widely deemed free and fair – is secure in his job. Even those who dislike Nasheed’s policies or personality, nevertheless respect the process through which he was elected.

Thasmeen, on the other hand, will be considered fair game by anyone in the opposition who feels they could do a better job. Plots to overthrow him, actions to undermine his leadership and backbiting comments designed to damage him will likely become commonplace.

Few in DRP will respect Thasmeen – crowned without proper election, without competition and without debate. The DRP’s disdain for democracy has torpedoed Thasmeen’s presidency before it has even begun. You can almost hear his rivals sharpening their political knives.

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to [email protected]


Comment: Holiday Inn, pariah or promise?

It is amazing how fast a place can fall from grace.

Holiday Inn was opened with great fanfare in September last year. The whole city was abuzz with excitement at the opening of the first international hotel in Male.

Government officials made noises about what a positive impact the hotel would have, while businesses said they would finally have a good hotel in which to lodge their clients and consultants. Maldivians zoomed around in ‘Holiday Inn, I Love Male’ t-shirts, the campaign the hotel used for its launch.

The hotel lived up to the hype. Beautifully finished, it almost makes you forget you are in Male. The views from the rooftop restaurant and upper hotel rooms are stunning, while the food is delicious and unlike any other dishes served in Male’. The wifi in the hotel works like a dream (guests from other Male’ hotels frequently complain about the poor internet facilities). Holiday Inn is like a resort located in Male’.

But alas what a difference five months have made. A series of PR blunders has alienated it from Maldivians, to the point that no one wants to identify with it, or frequent it much either. From the hope and the hype, the Holiday Inn has become toxic: the pariah of the city.

The major mistake was the hotel’s attempt to obtain a liquor license. Opening a bar in the rooftop restaurant potentially enables them to increase earnings manifold, but has nevertheless damaged their brand enormously.

This idea for a bar has found almost no support in Male’. Conservatives claim it was against religion, while expat foreigners are furious their personal liquor licenses might now get revoked (and they would end up paying quadruple the amount for a drink at the hotel as they would at home).

Meanwhile liberal-minded Maldivians couldn’t care less, except that now Maldivians would be banned from stepping foot on the amazing rooftop if the hotel were ever granted a license.

Holiday Inn’s plans for the solar eclipse watching also proved to be a disaster. How out of touch they were with the customs of the country, when they advertised that they would be holding a barbecue on a Friday from 11 to 3 – the time of Friday prayers? And this at a time when they were constantly being targeted by conservatives and was enjoying a good bit of media spotlight.

At the start Holiday Inn bragged about having qualified Maldivians among its senior management. For a while they did have a charismatic Maldivian as director of sales and marketing, who envisaged branding the hotel an integral part of modern Male’. Inexplicably, the manager left the company soon after it opened.

More surprisingly, around 70 per cent of the staff are foreigners, even though the hotel is situated in the capital where one third of Maldivians live.

Whatever happened to the ‘I love Male’’ campaign remains a mystery. Far from enjoying its relatively unique status and becoming a pillar of society, the Holiday Inn alienated itself completely. It is now normal to see police patrolling outside. Things have gotten so bad, the manager of the Singaporean Holiday Inn was reportedly flown in.

For all its early mistakes, however, the hotel has tremendous potential for improvement. It is stunning, in a brilliant location, and the food is among the best one can find in Male’. It has great conference facilities, the clientele give glowing reports of their stays, and it’s one of the few places in Male where the coffee is not burnt and staff actually smile when they are serving you.

The rooftop restaurant – the highest point in Male’ – has stunning views of the airport, nearby islands and the speedboats and dhonis whizzing up and down. The balmy wind keeps you cool and the restaurant could easily compete with any trendy capital around the world.

In a society that’s opening up after being closed for so long, Holiday Inn is well placed to repair the damage done to their image, if only they have the imagination. It could incorporate the music scene in Male, by inviting acoustic bands to play at the rooftop restaurant. It could resuscitate the idea of open air cinema evenings and from time to time let groups like Maldives Science Society, literary or poet’s societies, use their spaces.

It could become the cultural icon of Maldives, a hub for artists and intellectuals, and hold visiting art exhibitions. It could recruit more Maldivian staff and reduce prices to make it affordable for more Maldivians. In short, it could aim to be part of this city.

Of course, all this boils down to the question of whether or not to have the liquor license. No amount of good public relations will be able to undo the damage a liquor license and bar will cause, as it would mean alienating locals. The ball is in the Holiday Inn’s court: either have a liquor license or have a local friendly business and become an integral part of Male’ city.