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?

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