Vice president commits to preserve Islamic values with development plans

Vice President Mohamed Waheed Deen has used his first televised address since receiving Majlis approval to call for a greater focus on Islamic values when considering development in the country.

The vice president, a businessman whose interests include the Bandos Island Resort and Spa, gave a speech yesterday stressing his belief that the nation’s leaders were required to strive to preserve the nation’s Islamic faith.

Deen also raised concerns about what he saw as the “deteriorating social conditions” in the country, particularly concerning the current social, political and economic situation, according to the President’s Office website.

“The political situation will not improve, unless the socio-economic situation improves,” he stated.

The vice president claimed that education would be a key feature of his proposals to improve the socio-economic situation across the nation.

Deen claimed he aims to provide long-term education loans along with social and entertainment developments like “empowering” sports associations as part of his development plans.


Increasing density of resort development threatens key tourism appeal, warns former tourism minister

The cabinet has decided to increase the development density of resort islands from 20 percent to 30 percent, in a move tourism authorities of the former government have claimed will impact a key appeal of the Maldives’ destination.

In a statement, cabinet said ministers noted that “opportunities for commercial expansion were limited due to unavailability of land area to develop tourist facilities on leased-out spaces.”

“Members also agreed that, raising the land area limit for construction of tourist facilities, to meet market demand, would largely contribute to the prosperity of the island,” the statement read.

Former tourism minister Dr Mariyam Zulfa said “one of the resort owners behind the [February 7] coup” had pressured her to change the density regulations.

“I privately consulted foreign [resort] investors and the advice I got was not to change this, because the Maldives’ ‘islandness’, a key product feature, would be lost,” she told Minivan News.

“Thirty percent is a huge amount of land to developed as a built up area, and islandness is what makes the Maldives competitive,” she said.

Mohamed Nasheed’s government had debated and provisionally approved increasing the development density to 25 percent, Dr Zulfa said, “but that was before the industry feedback that this was not something to play around with.”

“I can categorically say this is something [resort tycoon and Jumhoree Party (JP) leader] Mr Gasim Ibrahim wanted for a long time. If you do an eyeball inspection of his properties already they more than 20 percent,” Dr Zulfa alleged. “I knew this would happen the moment the regime changed. It doesn’t surprise me.”

Secretary General of the Maldives Association of Tourism Industry (MATI), ‘Sim’ Mohamed Ibrahim, said the density increase would “allow some resorts to develop more facilities, entertainment and staff amenities.”

“It will give resort developers more flexibility,” he said. “We don’t think it will have an impact [on the competitiveness of the destination].”

Dr Zulfa has previously contended that pressure from several government-allied resort owners had led the new government to declare that 25 year resort island lease extensions could be paid in installments rather than upfront, a decision she claimed took US$135 million out of the budget overnight.

In March, the Maldives Inland Revenue Authority (MIRA) said it had anticipated receiving a total of Rf375 million (US$24 million) for lease extensions, however due the government’s recent decision to accept resort island lease extension payments in installments, the  income received dropped to Rf23 million (US$1.5 million). The government has meanwhile said it has a budget deficit of US$155 million.

Tourism Minister Ahmed Adheeb was not responding to calls at time of press.


Sri Lankan diplomats make first Maldives visit since power transfer

Sri Lankan External Affairs Minister Professor G L Peiris has become the first official from the country to travel to the Maldives since the controversial transfer of power that saw President Mohamed Waheed Hassan take office in February.

The External Affairs Minister was in Male’ as part of a four-day visit to hold bilateral talks with his Maldivian counterpart, Dr Abdul Samad Abdullah.

During the talks, Professor Peiris pledged ongoing support and assistance to developments in the Maldives. Meanwhile, Maldives Foreign Minister Abdul Samad Abdullah reiterated the importance of contributions made by Sri Lanka relating to socio-economic developments in the Maldives.  Samad welcomed contributions to the development of  “human resources” in particular, the Ceylon Daily News reported.

“The talks were also attended by the Foreign Affairs State Minister Hassan Saeed Hussain, Foreign Secretary Mohamed Naseer, MP Sajin De Vass Gunawardena, Sri Lankan High Commissioner to Maldives Dickson Dela and senior official of the Sri Lankan delegation,” the newspaper added.


The Maldives and the Arab Spring: Institute of Development Studies

A number of recent editorials have referred to the recent coup in the Maldives as the undoing of the country’s own ‘Arab Spring,’ which began with the landmark 2008 elections that brought to an end 30 years of autocratic rule, write Gabriele Koehler and Aniruddha Bonnerjee for the Institute of Development Studies.

Indeed, while the status of democratic process in the Maldives more closely resembles other South Asian nations than nations involved in the Arab uprising, economic and social strains in the Maldives are akin to those that preceded the Arab Spring.

Economically and socially, there are three Maldives:

‘Maldives I’ is that of the sparkling tourist resorts isolated from the rest of the country on coral islands. Tourism is the Maldives’ largest industry and resort leasers represent a substantial and powerful economic interest group. The other Maldives are local economies.

‘Maldives II’ is made up of 1,192 islands dispersed across 90,000 square kilometres, where 205,000 Maldivians make a living from coastal fishing and related occupations.

‘Maldives III’ is the capital island of Malé, home to 103 thousand and one of the most densely populated places in the world.

Under the autocratic Gayoom regime, the Maldives made substantial progress on education and health criteria, despite the high costs of delivering services to widely-scattered islands. By 2000, the country had achieved universal primary and lower-secondary education and had almost eliminated communicable diseases.

In 2008, the central challenge for the newly-democratic government under President Nasheed was to maintain good performance on social services despite a high fiscal budget debt. At the same time, the global financial crisis affected the tourism sector as well as domestic prices of food and energy.

In response, Nasheed’s government focused on expanding inter-island transport, universalising health insurance, protecting the social sectors (health, education, child and family welfare) while trimming the public sector bill. It sought investment through a programme of public-private partnerships.

The financial strategy revolved around monetising the deficit, seeking grants and loans from donors, and rescheduling medium and long term debt obligations. Combined with rising food and fuel prices, this strategy fuelled inflation. Political opposition and low capacity restricted other reforms.

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Parliament to deliberate 2012 loan scheme

Parliamentary Finance Committee has approved loans to be borrowed and loan guarantees proposed by the government for 2012 “as a policy”.

Parliament will decide on the matter.

The committee’s report highlights missing information, and asks the government to provide every detail of the loans before borrowing or providing a guarantee, reports Haveeru.

The borrowings summary provided with the 2012 budget indicates the government intends to borrow over US$358 million (Rf5.5 billion) next year.

Foreign loans will be allocated for budget support, construction of Addu Hospital and support for middle-income businesses, fishing and agriculture.

Local loans will go towards the construction of Maldivian Education Fund’s 10-storey building.

The highest loan is valued at US$150 million, which is to be borrowed from China’s Exim Bank.


Addu Cultural Centre promotes arts in plan for progress

As Addu moves forward with SAARC preparations, local artists are also recommending a look at the past.

The Addu Cultural Center is the first historical replica village in the region, and the second in the Maldives. Founders Saifulla Hameed, Ibrahim Fariq and Min Haj said it serves three purposes: to respect the elderly, to remind the youth, and to introduce tourists to Maldivian heritage.

“Even now, people are visiting the center,” said Project Director Hameed. “They are shocked when they see this replica of how Maldivians lived years ago. For the older generation who remember this lifestyle, it’s like traveling back in time, and they are especially happy to see this. We also plan to invite schools to educate the young people.”

Construction of the center began six months ago, and is due for completion in time for the SAARC Summit, which starts on November 10.

The center includes seven buildings made from palm materials: a blacksmith, a living area, a bathroom, a 60-year-old koda dhoni, a kitchen, a school and a historical display room. A garden is also being cultivated. Buildings are furnished with original artifacts. Local crafts will be sold in one display building as souvenirs.

As SAARC approaches, the centre’s finishing touches are being made during any possible moment.

“It is hard to work because most people are preparing for the summit, but we work at night or during the day, when people are available,” said Hameed.

Project Partner Ibrahim Firaq began collecting artifacts at age 16; he is now 47. The Cultural Centre is the first opportunity he has had to make use of his collection.

“It was one of my dreams to put the collection on public display. I can’t even sleep, I am so eager to open this place,” he said.

Firaq’s collection includes coal-blowers, traditional cookware, rope bed frames, boat building tools and more. Many items, such as colonial clocks, European pottery and Arab tea and coffee pots, indicate the importance of international trade to the Maldives.

The collection will be used by a team of 20 staff who will “live” in the village.

“We have been training these workers to work, live and behave appropriately to illustrate a traditional lifestyle,” said Hameed. “The elderly picked it up easily, since many have actually lived like this when they were younger. But the younger workers need training.”

Hameed said he had developed the concept years ago, but applications for funding were previously rejected. Recent council elections and SAARC preparations paved the way for funding and expansion.

The centre is privately funded, and supplemented by a government contribution. Hameed said growing interest in developing Addu as a tourist destination has made the centre more significant.

“People staying at resorts have nice food and activities, but there isn’t much to see on those islands. Now, with more paved roads and things to see in Addu, there will be more reason to come here,” said Hameed, who looks forward to the attention that Addu is expected to receive during and after SAARC.

Addu atoll features a mere two resorts and two local hotels; council officials called accommodation a development priority. Mayor Abdullah Sodiq however said Addu offers unique opportunities for tourism within the Maldives.

“Addu is unlike other areas in that it offers places to visit. The remains of the British royal air force can be of interest to Europeans, and the Commonwealth War Grave is interesting to Commonwealth countries,” said Sodiq. “We also offer a protected marine area, as well as excellent diving.”

The Cultural Centre’s team also reported local interest in opening art galleries, crafts markets and Maldivian restaurants.

Haj said Addu should use the new convention center for more than just business events.

“Right now, Addu needs more accommodation to really host big conventions. I’m not sure that they’ll get more than two events a year. They should use the center for exhibitions, concerts or plays,” he suggested.

Few Maldivian schools boast artistic and cultural studies as a strong point. The government, however, has taken steps to foster cultural awareness.

Maldives Hulhevi Media Project recently began the first digital recording and documentary of the traditional Buruni Ballad, funded by the United States Embassy.

In September, the government announced plans to sign the UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage. Deputy Minister for Tourism, Arts and Culture, Mamduh Waheed, said at the time that protecting cultural heritage would improve tourism in the Maldives. “We have a market for the natural aspect of the Maldives, and now we will be able to add cultural attractions and destinations. I think it will draw tourists interested in cultural conservation,” he observed.

Recently, a UN State of the World report found that over half of the global population was under the age of 25. One-quarter of the Maldives’ population is aged between 15 and 24, with a quarter of the young men and half of the young women reported as unemployed.

Vice President of the Maldives Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan recommended creating more job opportunities in the atolls.

Deputy Minister of Finance Haifa Naeem said it was important to “diversify jobs to attract the youth market, in fields such as arts and culture.”

The SAARC summit will be preceded by several days of festivities by local and international dance, music and sports groups.


Addu grows roots with SAARC preparations

“This is the foundation of Addu’s development,” said Addu’s mayor Abdullah Sodiq, referring to the city’s SAARC preparations during a press conference held in Hithadhoo yesterday. He said the projects had been supported by “99 percent” of Addu residents.

Maldivian media was flown to Addu yesterday to observe preparations for the upcoming 17th annual SAARC Summit, scheduled for November 10-12. Festivities will be held in the area starting on the first of the month, in conjunction with the Muslim holiday of Eid.

“We are expecting a lot of traffic through here, and are confident that everything will be ready in time,” Sodiq said. “But this is only the beginning, and we have many more plans for development.”

Addu’s SAARC projects have been underway for six months, officials report. As the deadline approaches, construction teams are working round the clock to finish two harbors, a VVIP lounge, roads and the country’s largest convention center.

Sodiq said the harbors will renovate Addu’s commercial prospects, while the convention center provides new opportunities for locals, officials and foreigners alike.

Construction of Feydhoo harbor continues as the first deadline passes and another approaches.

“The harbor is a central place for Addu, there is demand for it even after SAARC and we have plans to generate more industry and shipping using these new resources,” said Sodiq.

New roads constructed around the convention center have made future road development less expensive for the council’s budget, he added.

Addu’s council also plans to use the Rf115 million convention center, a two-story building of glass, wood and marble with a capacity of 3000, to transform the atoll from a quiet place to a hub of business and tourism.

“We have some representatives talking to businesses in Singapore and Malaysia about hosting events here,” Sodiq told Minivan News. “We will be soliciting bids to find the right event manager to look after the convention center as well. I think there are people interested in what Addu has to offer, and I’m sure we can get a market for it.”

Officials and locals interviewed also hinted at hopes for musical events, theatrical performances, art exhibitions and holiday celebrations.

Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture Assistant Director Ahmed Abeer Ismail said the centre’s origins were a sign of Addu’s potential. “That area began as a swamp, now it’s the biggest convention center in the country.” The swamp was heavily landscaped by MNDF and police forces, and now features a few scenic islands.

One of the Maldives’ most strategic atolls, Addu has been largely left to seed since the British withdrew its forces and influence in 1975. City councilor Ahmed Mirzad called SAARC the beginning of a new Addu.

“For 30 years we had Gayoom, and nothing was done in Addu. Then there was a new president, and unlike Gayoom he didn’t just look after Male’, he looked after the entire Maldives. For 30 years we didn’t even have one harbor that was working for Addu, but in the past six months, we have gotten everything,” said Mirzad.

Addu’s councilors were elected for the first time six months ago. Mirzad said the next three years will be a difficult but critical time for the council to prove itself to Addu’s people. Still, the timing is ideal.

“I don’t think, I know that this summit is the right starting point. Now, we will only keep going with our plans to grow,” he said.

Workers cross a newly-constructed road to continue landscaping across from the convention center.

One particular operation illustrates the grassroots motives behind the SAARC preparations. Selected from Maldives National University (MNU) Addu first-year students in hospitality, 24 Media Liaison Officers greeted Male’s press pack yesterday.

One young woman said the event was as much for the liaisons as for Male’ press.

“It’ll be challenging to handle foreigners and media personnel,” a group of students concurred. “But we are so happy to have this opportunity.”

“I was shocked to be asked to take part in SAARC, I never thought that I would get to work at something I’d heard so much about,” said another student. “And the certificate of reference that I’ll get afterwards will be really helpful for me when I’m looking for a job after graduation,” she added.

Liaisons have just completed a six-month management course and are attending seminars and briefings for SAARC. They will be divided into 11 teams of two to three officers and assigned to press pooles from different countries.

“The ministry was going to get people from Male’, but I suggested we use the local energy. They are good, they can do the job, and this is a key event, so why shouldn’t these students take part?” said Abeer.

Addu’s development isn’t only tailored to foreigners; Sodiq said part of the development plan is to bring Addu residents home.

“Unlike other islands, we have historical places to visit and our islands are connected, so tourists can actually see more than the sun, sand and sea. We will be constructing more lodgings as well, and our hospital and airport are going to be expanded. More business means more jobs, and part of the purpose of all this is to bring Addu citizens back after their migrations to Male’,” he said.

In Addu, infrastructure is a priority for community growth. Noting that education was key to development, Sodiq said that a Kangaroo school is scheduled to open next year, and a Billabong school is being considered.

For the moment, however, Addu’s mind is on SAARC.

With teams working around the clock to complete harbors in Gan and Feydhoo, and MNDF motorcades practicing their moves late into the night, Addu is a bustle of construction and security.

Both harbors were originally due for completion on October 25, yet concrete foundations have not yet been laid. However officials assure that they are 90 percent complete. When asked about setbacks, National Security Advisor Ameen Faisal said, “The weather. Due to heavy rains, many projects were delayed. It was unexpected and beyond our control, but we managed and we are on target.”

Inquiries of Addu’s appearance for SAARC yielded few details. “It’s a secret, we want it to be a surprise,” Faisal and Sodiq concurred.

Security, however, is highly detailed.

MNDF has delegated security teams to specific event components including media, medical, resort transport, and the airport. “Right now we are very confident in our security personnel and do not anticipate any problems during the SAARC summit,” said International Media Coordinator Ahmed Ibrahim.

Ibrahim added that “it will be helpful to have the extra security forces that other countries are providing because Addu is very big.” In addition to ground security, MNDF will be supported by the coast guard, which will establish multiple security layers around Addu’s marine perimeter, special task forces from Sri Lanka, and surveillance equipment from China, among others.

Summit guests include three of the world’s most controversial heads of state from India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Their reputations do not appear to cause anxiety to SAARC officials.

“They will not receive any special treatment, unless requested of course,” said MNDF Commander of SAARC Airport Security, Ahmed Shafeeq.

“There is no risk at all,” said Faisal. “We aren’t even bothered about it.”


Adhaalath Party accuses local science association of leading Fuvamulah students astray

The Adhaalath Party has accused the Maldives Association for the Advancement of Science (MAAS) of attempting to lead the students of Fuvamulah schools astray by lecturing them against the tenets of Islam.

In a press release issued by the party’s Fuvamulah branch, Adhaalath claimed that lecturers from MAAS tried to convince the students that human beings originated from monkeys and that “our forefathers were monkeys and we are sons of monkeys.”

‘’They [MAAS] told the students that everything was created from nothing, on its own, without a God,’’ the press release alleged.

The Adhaalath Party claimed MAAS lecturers taught the students about Big Bang Theory and Quantum Theory, and told the students that the earth, universe and everything in it “was created from nothing.”

‘’Students of Fuvamulah understand that it is impossible for something like a pencil to be created by itself. It is regrettable that this scientists’ association did not know as much,’’ the party said.

When the students refused to accept what the lecturers were trying to explain to them, the lecturers spoke in such a way as to make the students feel they were unscientific, said Adhaalath.

Founding member of MAAS, Ahid Rasheed, told Minivan News that the series of science lectures had been solicited by the school, and that students had shown “excitement and curiosity.”

“We were invited to give presentations on science and astronomy, and mostly gave an introduction to science, such as why it’s important, and how can serve as an introduction to the universe,” said Rasheed. “We introduced key concepts in the field such as findings by Einstein, the discovery of gravity, evolution and the Big Bang. But we didn’t promote anything, and we did not mention religion. That wasn’t why we were there.”

Rasheed said the presentations spanned one week and that school staff were in attendance. “If the school and teachers had any objection to what we were teaching, they would have said something. Until today, we have had no negative feedback from people on the island. They’ve actually been inviting us to do more presentations.”

Rasheed supposed the anxiety generated by the lectures was due to basic misconceptions of science, which he said were evident in the classroom.

“We had to do a whole lecture on basics. For example, a majority of the students didn’t believe that humans had gone to the moon,” he said.

In another case, Rasheed reported that younger students were asking basic questions such as why the sky is blue. “Students deserve to know about the basics of where they are, and the world around them,” he said.

The possible contradiction between science and Islam was broached by one student, Rasheed said. “I said what I tell others: that there might be some reservations from Islamic scholars, maybe because of misconceptions about science. But there is no contradiction between Islam and the Big Bang theory as far as I am aware. A majority of Islamic scientists agree with that.”

Pointing out that Islamic scientists were historically famous for their discoveries, Rasheed said “it’s sad because science is not something we can neglect, science means development.”

Adhaalath’s press release noted that the MAAS team was sponsored by the Fuvamulah council. The Fuvamulah councilor is a known member of the Maldives Democratic Party (MDP), from which Adhaalath recently split.

‘’We strongly condemn this act of MAAS, which was also against the Religious Unity Act. We assure the people of Fuvamulah that we will not let them get away with this and will work on this issue until either action has been taken against them or until a trial is conducted,’’ the party said.

Violations of the Maldives’ Religious Unity Act are punishable by up to five years imprisonment.


Vice President meets Sri Lankan President Rajapaksa during UN General Assembly

Vice President Dr Mohammed Waheed Hassan has paid a courtesy call on Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa at the 66th session of the UN General Assembly in New York.

The Vice President’s Office later refuted reports that Dr Waheed discussed the Sri Lankan human rights situation with Rajapaksa during the meeting, following media reports quoting Sri Lankan officials to the contrary.

Haveeru on Tuesday quoted a senior Sri Lankan official as saying that during a meeting between Rajapaksa and the Vice President, Dr Waheed “assured that he will be supporting Sri Lanka’s stance on the human rights issue.”

The Vice President’s office later claimed the meeting was a courtesy call during which Dr Waheed said it was refreshing to  hear the Sri Lankan President talk about trade unions and north-south cooperation in his speech [to the UN], and that there was “no mention of the human rights situation in Sri Lanka.”

Sri Lanka is currently conducting an internal investigation of these allegations, which refer to acts of violence committed by both government and rebel forces in the final phases of Sri Lanka’s civil war.

Numerous human rights groups, including Amnesty International (AI) and Human Rights Watch (HRW), have rejected Sri Lanka’s investigation on the grounds that its Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) does not meet international standards.

The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) has reported that human rights groups found the commission flawed because “its members were appointed by the government, it has no real mandate to investigate war crimes in the last stages of the conflict, lacks any mechanism to protect witnesses and falls short of minimum international standards of a commission of inquiry.”

The Sri Lankan government has denied committing any offenses. The Maldivian government said it supports Sri Lanka’s wish to solve internal issues without external involvement.

Today, the Maldives President’s Press Secretary Mohamed Zuhair issued a statement expressing support for the Tamil people.

“The President of the Maldives would like to express his good wishes to all Tamil people. The Tamil people have always been like brothers to Maldivians. The President would like to see peace and harmony in our region and has expressed his desire for all people to live peacefully together.”

Human Rights Watch recently applauded the Maldives as one of the seven most important countries on the UN Human Rights Council. It expressed puzzled concern, however, over the Maldives’ “regrettable” support of Sri Lanka at this time.

“The Maldives should revisit its approach on Sri Lanka in order to bring it in line with its otherwise principled approach to human rights at the Council,” said the report.

Minister of Foreign Affairs Ahmed Naseem said he did not wish to comment on the issue.

Meanwhile, UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon has appointed a panel to advise him on accountability issues in Sri Lanka, reports the BBC. The Sri Lankan government rejected the panel, however, and said it would not issue visas to UN panel members visiting Sri Lanka.

The UN Office for the High Commissioner of Human Rights (OHCHR) today said they are urging Sri Lanka “to ensure there is a genuine accountability process to address the serious violations believed to have been committed during the last months of the  war in Sri Lanka.”  The OHCHR is waiting to see how member states take action on the issue, “but, of course, the United Nations hopes Maldives – like other UN members – will encourage Sri Lanka to address this important issue.”

Late last week, President Mohamed Nasheed met with Sri Lankan Prime Minister Disanayaka Mudiyanselage Jayaratne regarding the upcoming South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit, due to be held in Addu City in November. The heads of state also discussed ways to strengthen ties between the two countries.

The SAARC summit could afford the Maldives an opportunity to promote human rights in south asia, a region that is reportedly slower than others to adopt international human rights standards.

The Maldives recently became the 118th member of the International Criminal Court (ICC), a close partner of the UN.

“As a chair of the SAARC summit, Maldives will have quite an influence on South Asian countries attending this year’s event,” she said previously. “It will certainly be constructive in reviewing human rights, a key point we plan to address at the summit.”

Evelyn Balais-Serrano, Asia-Pacific Coordinator for the ICC’s advocacy NGO Coalition for the International Criminal Court (CICC), called the Maldives’ accession to the Rome Statute a significant step for human rights in south asia.

She noted that Sri Lanka is “a long way” from membership at the ICC.

ICC membership requires the Maldives to uphold ICC standards and rulings. “The Maldives cannot do anything if the ICC decides to investigate and put into trial the perpetrators of crimes in Sri Lanka,” said Balais-Serrano. “If suspected criminals from Sri Lanka seek refuge in the territory of the Maldives, as a state party to the ICC, the government is obliged to cooperate with the Court by arresting  the criminals.”

Sri Lanka’s findings are due for release on November 15.

Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect a clarification from the Vice President’s Office that human rights were not discussed at the meeting with Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa.