In neglected Dhiggaru, people are content

Additional reporting by Ismail Humam Hamid

Abdul Sattar Hussain, an 80-year-old retired fisherman on Meemu Atoll Dhiggaru Island, has seen six presidencies in the Maldives. For him, the worst rule was that of the first president Mohamed Ameen Didi, and the best was that of the second president Ibrahim Nasir.

“Ameen made us all hungry,” he said, recalling the famine of World War Two. “We were hungry all the time. But Nasir, he is the best president this country ever saw. He got us out of eating cereal and millet.”

Lounging on a woven rope joali in the ruling Progressive Party of Maldives’ (PPM) haruge, Sattar took off his dark glasses, rubbed it with his checkered sarong and declared: “After Nasir saved us it hasn’t been all that bad. It’s not that bad now either.”

Sattar is content. He does not expect much from the central government.

The people of Dhiggaru are proud fisherpeople. Their wives dry tuna, and make rihaakuru, a tuna paste famous throughout the Maldives. Their young men take up fishing or go work at luxury resorts nearby. Most invest their earnings into building single-storied brick homes on family plots.

Life, on this small and quiet island, has remained unchanged for decades.

On Saturday, Dhiggaru was at the centre of Maldivian politics. A parliamentary by-election, triggered by the surprise imprisonment of MP Ahmed Nazim, took place.

The PPM candidate and son of a former president, Ahmed Faris Maumoon, won against the main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party’s (MDP) Ahmed Raazee with 59.4 percent of the vote.

For the besieged central government, the by-election victory was a demonstration of support in a politically charged time. The PPM’s coalition partners had allied with the MDP in March and had launched daily protests in Malé over the jailing of ex-president Mohamed Nasheed.

But here on Dhiggaru, the politics of Malé is far removed.

Successive governments have neglected Dhiggaru. The people lay the pipes for a rudimentary sewerage system by hand and built half of the sea wall encircling the island. The men prefer to work hard during the day and sleep with their wives at night. Political party rivalry exists, but is muted. The economy, unlike that of most small islands, is self-sufficient.

Political party membership is divided according to neighbourhoods. The north supports the MDP, while the south, where the majority live, support the PPM.

Sattar lives in the southern ward. “I go with whatever they pick. That’s not for me as an individual to decide,” he said.

“I don’t know much about that”

Some 1,300 people are registered as Dhiggaru residents, but only 944 live on the island. The majority is middle-aged. Here, everyone knows everyone. Most are related to each other.

“We do not take political party rivalry personally,” Mariyam Hassan, 53, said. “What is the benefit of that? We talk to each other, help each other and try to live peacefully.”

Most people do not have much to say about democracy, the government’s performance, or the jailing of the MP who had represented them for 20 years.

“What is democracy? What is it like? I don’t know anything about it,” said Aishath Hassan, a dedicated 61-year-old PPM activist.

For the people of Dhiggaru, a parliamentarian is not a lawmaker, but an official elected to help the community in their time of need, mostly in paying medical bills.

Nazim is admired in Dhiggaru. Most, no matter which political party they support, have received his help. He was jailed for life on corruption charges, after he reportedly fell out of favour with President Abdulla Yameen and his tourism minister Ahmed Adeeb.

“When I was little he bought me my school books. He bought schoolbooks for my daughter. And recently, when one of my family members got sick Nazim sent him abroad for medical treatment with a family member,” Khalida Hussain, 42, said.

In his 20-year tenure, Nazim built a computer lab at the island school and is credited with the construction of the island health post, although the funds came from the state budget. Most voters said they want a man like Nazim to represent them in the Majlis.

“We are hoping to elect a man as loyal to us as Nazim,” Afeefa Abdulla, 53, said.

“Nazim is a very kind, loyal man. He brought many developments to Dhiggaru. If you go to him ask for help he would never turn you down,” Usman Mohamed, 64, said.

When asked about Nazim’s imprisonment, many said: “I have nothing to say about that.”

A 28-year-old MDP supporter, Dawood Abdul Gadhir said: “If anyone commits a crime he has to pay for it. But I have no information about it.”


Dhiggaru islanders do not have much, but they seem content.

Mohamed Munavvar is only 20 years old. By dawn he is out at sea. But on Friday, he was home because of bad weather. “It’s just fishing. It’s not hard if you love what you do,” he said.

A fisherman makes an average of MVR10,000 (US$648) per month. The fisheries sector is small and dependent on skipjack tuna.

“People ask us why we don’t build bigger fishing boats to catch yellow fin tuna, which is more lucrative. But then, we would have to travel longer distances and we will be out for at sea for weeks. We would rather spend all the money we get on this island and come back to our wives at night,” Mohamed “Gadha” Hussain, 38, said.

Some young men, however, expressed discontent with the lack of employment opportunities.

“There are no jobs here. You either go fishing or end up in a resort. I just finished my A ‘levels. I will have to go and work in a resort probably,” Ibrahim “Dida” Humaid said. “The other option is going to Malé City for work. A lot of young people are there already.”

Dhiggaru islanders have one wish – for the government to reclaim land from the lagoon and increase the land area of the now-13 hectare island.

“We want to own land. We want more people here. Every government has promised that, but its all lies,” Munavvar, the 20-year-old fisherman said.

During president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s time, a small sliver of land was reclaimed at the harbour. During Nasheed’s time, another area was reclaimed to the south of the island.

In the weeks leading up to the by-election, the government promised several development projects. An x-ray machine and air-conditioning units were delivered. A contract was signed for harbour renovation. President Yameen promised a new power generator, a new sewerage system, and said PPM constituencies will be prioritised for development in 2016.

Meanwhile, Faris has promised that the government will develop five resorts close to Dhiggaru.

Excavators and heavy machinery were brought on to Dhiggaru. But work has not begun yet.

With Faris’ win, some hope the island will be reclaimed, but many opposition supporters said they do not expect much progress.

“These machines are not going to be here for that long. Whatever the results of the elections may be, these are going to go from here,” Dawood Hassan, 28, said. “We haven’t seen any development in Dhiggaru for ages. But now that its election time, we are hearing many stories and plans for development. I think there is something awfully wrong in this.”

“Yameen recently said he is hoping the work will be done by next year. So we don’t know anymore. It progressing slowly,” Ahmed Nishan, an MDP council member of Dhiggaru island council said.


Maldivians will survive climate change, says tourism minister

Tourism minister Ahmed Adeeb has urged Maldivians to adapt to the impacts of climate change instead of considering relocation to higher ground abroad.

Maldivians will continue to live on Maldivian soil for the next 500 years, he said, at a festival held to mark the World Environment Day on Saturday.

“Maldives are innovative and always looking for new innovations. We will live here in the Maldives even if we have to reclaim land or live on floating contraptions,” he said.

The Maldivian islands lie just a meter above sea-level.

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in a 2013 report said global sea-level is rising and predicts accelerated rise for this century.

For high emissions, the IPCC now predicts a global rise by 52-98 cm by the year 2100, which would threaten the survival of coastal cities and island nations such as the Maldives.

Sea-level rise will be accompanied by coastal erosion, surface-flooding and saltwater intrusion into soil and groundwater, scientists have said. Climate change will also bring frequent and severe weather extremes and coral reef die-offs because of ocean warming and acidification.

Foreign minister Dunya Maumoon in a message on World Environment Day said: “The Maldives continues to take a proactive approach in building resiliency to the adverse impacts of climate change through pursuing a low carbon development strategy.”

President Abdulla Yameen has pledged to explore for oil in the Maldives.

Rubbish Island

In his speech, Adeeb also pledged to allocate a US$6 green tax – to be levied on tourists in November – to tackling waste management on Thilafushi Island, where garbage from Malé and resorts are sent.

“Tourists, who travel via air taxi, have asked if Thilafushi is a volcano, if volcanoes exist in the Maldives. I tell them that is not the case here and that I cannot give further details,” he said.

More than 200,000 tons of industrial and domestic waste were sent to Thilafushi in 2013, the most recent year for which statistics are available, according to government figures.

While some of the waste is sorted and sent to India, most is simply used as landfill or burned. Campaign groups have highlighted the risks to workers from toxic fumes and the contamination of surrounding lagoons by floating garbage.

The former Maldivian Democratic Party-led government had signed a contract with India-based Tatva Global Renewable Energy in 2011 to provide waste management services in and around Male, including establishing a system to generate power from recycling waste.

However, the current government of President Yameen cancelled that deal late last year, having previously sought to renegotiate it on “more mutually beneficial” terms.

Photo: social media 


Police conduct random checks on flights bound to Turkey

The police have begun conducting random checks on passengers on board flights to Turkey in a bid to deter the growing numbers of Maldivians seeking to join radical Islamic movements in Syria and Iraq.

A police spokesperson said the police have been randomly questioning Maldivians en route to Turkey on different airlines for their reasons for flying to Turkey and their return dates.

The operation has been ongoing for more than 90 days.

The police declined to give additional details.

The government has drafted a new anti-terrorism bill that would criminalize the act of leaving the Maldives to participate in foreign wars.

The bill, however, also grant the president the exclusive authority to declare groups as terrorist organizations, and also criminalizes the promotion of certain political or religious ideology as a terrorist offense.

When reports of Maldivians joining in the Syrian civil-war and dying in battle first surfaced in local media, President Abdulla Yameen said he was not aware of Maldivian participation in foreign wars.

In December, home minister Umar Naseer acknowledged the problem of Maldivians fighting in foreign wars, but said only seven Maldivians were active in war. In January, the commissioner of police Hussain Waheed estimated the figure to be more than 50.

But the main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party says the figure could be as high as 200.

Waheed said that police were monitoring the activities of militants and would reveal details of plans to prevent radicalisation at a later date. The MDP has said the government is doing little to counter radicalisation and prevent recruitment of would-be fighters.

Atleast seven Maldivians are reported to have died in Syria.

On May 31, newspaper Haveeru said two more Maldivians had been killed while fighting with the Islamic State.

Many would-be fighters migrate with their families and children. Several officers of the Department of Immigration are reported to have left the Maldives for jihad.

A UN report has raised concerns over an increase in fighters leaving the Maldives to join terrorist organisations including al-Qaida and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

The expert report to the UN Security Council, obtained by The Associated Press, said the flow of fighters globally “is higher than it has ever been historically”, increasing from a few thousand a decade ago to over 25,000 from more than 100 nations today.

The UN report, written by a UN panel monitoring sanctions against Al-Qaida, listed the Maldives, Finland and Trinidad and Tobago as countries from which numbers of fighters were increasing, while the highest number of foreign fighters come from Tunisia, Morocco, France and Russia.

Most fighters travel to Syria and Iraq, to fight primarily for the Islamic State and the Al-Nusra front.

A Facebook page had published, the obituary and pictures of Maldivian jihadi Azlif Rauf on May 24, who reportedly died in Syria in mid-May.

The former Maldivian National Defence Force (MNDF) officer is a suspect in the brutal murder of MP Dr Afrasheem Ali in 2012. He reportedly left the Maldives in December with six members of the Kuda Henveiru gang.

He was under house arrest at the time.



President pledges to write off fines for traffic violations

President Abdulla Yameen has pledged to write off fines accumulated for traffic violations and illegal parking.

Speaking at a function with youth supporters last night, Yameen observed that the fines for some motorcycles impounded at the tow yard has reached up to MVR80,000 (US$5,188), which most youth were unable to afford.

“We have submitted a bill to the People’s Majlis to write off debt or arrears built up like this. So from the day this bill passes, those youth will no longer be in debt,” he declared to loud cheers.

Yameen said the pro-government majority will pass amendments to the land transportation law before Ramadan or during the current session of parliament.

MP Ahmed Nihan, parliamentary group leader of the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), had revealed last month that President Yameen was considering writing off traffic fines.

The capital does not have the parking capacity for the increasing number of motorcycles, Nihan said, and many young people owed money to the state as fines for illegal parking.

According to a 2011 report by the Environment Protection Agency, one in six residents of the capital own a motorcycle.

The president made the pledge during a “meeting with youth” at the carnival area of Malé. President’s office spokesperson Ibrahim Muaz Ali told Minivan News yesterday that the event was arranged for the president to share information about his youth-related programmes “and for the youth to share their views straight with the president.”

Yameen’s 2013 presidential campaign had focused heavily on youth empowerment with pledges to create 94,000 jobs and build futsal pitches and sports arenas across the country.

The opposition has, however, accused the government of failing to fulfil its pledges, imprisoning opposition leaders to pave the way for autocratic rule, and maintaining illicit connections with criminal gangs. The government denies the allegations.

“Greener pastures”


In his speech last night, Yameen said youth were “neglected,” used as “weapons” by politicians, and had fallen prey to drug abuse before he assumed office in November 2013.

The current administration was elected with the support of youth, he continued, who voted for housing, jobs, and sports facilities.

Yameen urged young people in remote islands to migrate to the reclaimed island of Hulhumalé, which the government is planning to develop as a ‘Youth City’ with the capacity of housing three-fourths of the country’s population.

Youth must abandon small islands that lack economic prospects or job opportunities, he advised, and move to “greener pastures.”

If 85 percent of the government’s targeted 94,000 jobs are filled by youth, Yameen said they would be able to afford rent or mortgage payments for the new housing units to be built in Hulhumalé.

He vowed that construction on the Malé-Hulhulé bridge will begin this year.

“Then even [opposition Maldivian Democratic Party supporters] will also go for rides on the dream bridge between Malé and Hulhumalé,” he said.

Plans for youth empowerment include the ‘Get Set’ youth entrepreneurship programme and “integrated tourism” projects aimed for small and medium-sized businesses, he said.

Yameen said young entrepreneurs who were previously excluded from the lucrative tourism industry due to high barriers of entry will be able to invest in one component of the ‘guesthouse island projects,’ such as water sports or restaurants.

The government is also planning to privatise rehabilitation centres as part of its efforts to “redeem” drug addicted youth.

Yameen urged youth to “say no” to those who encouraged them to commit crimes.

Maldivian youth is the “dynamo of the engine of the Maldivian state” and the “development partners” of the current administration, Yameen said.

“If you want to want to carry this partnership forward, the basis of the bond or contract that is established is sincerity. Both sides must fulfil what they agree to do,” he said.


President Yameen to travel to China

President Abdula Yameen is to travel to China on June 11 to visit the China-South Asia exposition and the Kunming import and export fair, local media report.

The president is to give a keynote speech at the joint-opening of the two fairs.

Leaders of the eight SAARC countries and Saudi Arabia will attend the fairs, Haveeru has said.

The opposition has planned a mass protest for June 12 over the jailing of ex-president Mohamed Nasheed and ex-defence minister Mohamed Nazim.

The Maldives will hold a second investment forum in China’s capital Beijing in September.

“Beijing will be a perfect place for Maldivian businesses to promote their businesses and networking,” minister Mohamed Saeed said in a tweet in late May.