In a part of the world not lacking in unstable, politically fractious countries, it’s easy to overlook the Maldives, writes Ishaan Tharoor for Time Magazine.
But the Indian Ocean archipelago state of under 400,000 people, known for its paradisiac atolls and honeymoon hotels, has gone through months of turmoil after democratically elected President Mohamed Nasheed was unseated by what some observers deemed a coup in February. Prominent figures in the three-decade-old dictatorship that preceded Nasheed’s government have insinuated themselves back into the frame. All the while, human-rights groups have documented systematic abuse by security forces allied to the current regime.
“The police seem to think they’ve impunity,” says Nasheed, who spoke to TIME over the phone from the Maldivian capital, Male. “They’ve gone on the rampage and beaten up so many activists and reporters.” An Amnesty International report published earlier this month charted “a campaign of violent repression” against Nasheed’s supporters and the country’s nascent civil society. Protesters have been met with egregious force and subject to arbitrary arrests. “The picture [these actions] paint,” reads the report, “is completely at odds with the tranquility of the waters and scenic islands of this elegant archipelago.”
Nasheed says the new government, led by his former deputy, Mohammed Waheed, knows that it would lose an election to Nasheed and his allies if it was held in the near future and is doing what it can to create conditions tilted in their favor.
“It’s perfectly mapped now, they’ve got all their people exactly in the places they want,” says Nasheed, who speculates that relatives of the septuagenarian Gayoom will challenge soon for the presidency.
Meanwhile, a worrying trend has developed in the once laissez-faire archipelago: a strain of Saudi-funded Wahabist Islam has taken root. Islamists were at the forefront of those calling for Nasheed’s removal from power; some even attempted to brand him a blasphemer, a loaded charge in a country that’s technically 100% Sunni Muslim. This past week, the country’s Islamic Ministry issued an order prohibiting mixed-gender dancing, while Maldivian protesters angered by the fringe American film Innocence of Muslims attempted to storm the U.N. headquarters in Male, wielding placards that read, among other slogans, “Maldives: Future Graveyard for Americans and Jews.”