A nation’s dying democracy: The New York Times

“On March 13, former President Mohamed Nasheed began the first day of a 13-year prison sentence on charges of “terrorism.” For those of us who witnessed the birth of democracy in the Maldives in 2008 and its desperate battle to cling to life, news of his sentencing sounded more like a death knell than a court ruling,” writes Mariyam Shiuna, executive director of Transparency Maldives, in an op-ed for the New York Times.

“The Maldives, an island chain off the Southern coast of India, is home to nearly 400,000 people. It attracts tourists and climate change activists (ours will be one of the first nations to sink if the world keeps warming), but few foreigners stay long enough to learn our history or about our struggle for the freedom affluent visitors often take for granted.

“Our hard-won freedoms are now slipping through our fingers. When Mr. Nasheed, an eloquent dissident who had spent several years in prison and in exile, was elected president in our first free and fair elections in 2008, his victory renewed hope for a future in which we could have a say in how the country is governed. Instead, political persecution has intensified, civil society is silenced and media intimidation has become the norm. The United Nations, several Western governments and many local observers have expressed grave concern over the unfair process followed in Mr. Nasheed’s case as well as legal cases involving other politicians and warn that our democracy is rapidly eroding.”

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Maldives elections veered into the realm of farce: New York Times

At a certain point this fall, the presidential elections in the Maldives stopped looking like the hiccups of a young democracy and veered into the realm of farce, writes Ellen Barry for the New York Times.

Mohamed Nasheed was the leader after a first-round election back in September, but the country’s Supreme Court begged to differ. The court, which was allied with one of his rivals, voided the September election before it could reach a second round, citing irregularities in voter rolls.

The court scuttled another vote planned for October, ordering the police to surround the election commission. In November, after Mr. Nasheed had trounced his rivals again, the court derailed a second-round vote with another last-minute delay.

Something about it felt familiar. I had just arrived in South Asia after five years in the former Soviet Union, where I saw one leader after another dispensing with truly competitive politics.

Elections kept happening, but there was only a glaze of competition; for the most part, the opposition candidates were docile, handpicked characters, because no one else was allowed to run. On the rare occasions when actual rivals were able to take part, as in recent elections in Ukraine and Georgia, the candidates who lost found themselves in court or in prison. The experiment in democracy, born in the euphoria of the 1990s, seemed to be ending.

In South Asia, that experiment is much closer to its beginning.

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Nasheed treated like “a fugitive”, MDP tells New York Times

The former president of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, was detained on Monday for failing to turn up for a court hearing in a case involving the unlawful arrest of a High Court judge when Mr Nasheed was president, writes Sruthi Gottipati for the New York Times.

Mr. Nasheed was arrested by the police while on a campaign stop in Fares-Maathodaa island, one of the 1,200 islands that make up the tiny Indian Ocean nation of the Maldives, ahead of the presidential elections in July next year.

While there’s little argument that the police took Mr. Nasheed into custody, there’s plenty of disagreement concerning the manner in which it took place.

Mr. Nasheed’s supporters said he had just eaten breakfast at a party member’s home when masked police broke into the house armed in full riot gear, spewing obscenities, and swept the former president out in what his supporters contend was a politically motivated move solely aimed at stopping him from campaigning.

Maldivian Democratic Party workers said that former ministers and aides in Mr. Nasheed’s government who were in the house were pepper-sprayed and violently dragged out.

“You could only see their eyes,” said Hamid Abdul Ghafoor, the spokesman for Mr. Nasheed’s party, describing the police who he said had burst in to brutally arrest their party leader. “They wanted to make it look like they were catching a fugitive.”

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Airline start-up bucks trend in Maldives: New York Times

At a time when many airlines are filing for bankruptcy or consolidating routes, George Weinmann is jumping into the industry with a start-up, writes Ron Gluckman for the New York Times.

Mr Weinmann, the chief executive of Mega Maldives Airlines, is going after a growing niche, linking increasingly affluent China with the Maldives, a tiny island nation. The American entrepreneur says he has the right ingredients to make it a success: lucrative landing rights in an expanding market, an international network of contacts and crucial government approvals.

“Over the next 10 years, the Maldives can become the playground in the backyard of India and China, similar to the way the Caribbean is to the U.S.A. and Canada,” Mr Weinmann said.

Still in its second year, the start-up recently added Chongqing to its network of flights between the Maldivian capital of Malé and Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. Selling mainly to group tours organised by travel agents, Mega Maldives has grown to about 180 employees, twice the number when flights started in January 2011.

His start-up is all the more ambitious given that the airline industry is hammered by rising fuel prices and cutthroat competition.

“This is an industry where, even if you make $1 billion one year, you can lose $1 billion another year,” noted Martin Craigs, who spent most of his career in aviation, but now is chief executive of the Pacific Asia Travel Association.

Mega Maldives has faced its own challenges, particularly after street protests in February, when President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives stepped down — or was forced out in a coup, as he says. China reacted nervously; many carriers canceled flights.

“We’ll keep flying,” Mr. Weinmann said in February, soon after the unrest hit the islands. “But for how long, it’s hard to say. Right now the planes are still full, but people just aren’t booking” in advance.

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New bug kills young to stop dengue

An experiment by British biotechnology company Oxitec Limited has yielded mosquitoes genetically engineered to prevent the spread of dengue fever by killing their own offspring.

The mosquitoes, formally termed aedes aegypti RIDL strain, transmit a lethal gene to their offspring which kills them before they reach maturity. Only male mosquitoes carry the gene.

The engineered mosquitoes were first released in the Cayman Islands in 2009 in a 25-acre area. A report published yesterday (October 30) revealed signs of success.

According to the traps, genetically engineered male mosquitoes accounted for 16 percent of the total male population in the test area, while 10 percent of the larvae contained the lethal gene. Scientists concluded that although genetically engineered males were half as successful at mating as normal mosquitoes, their activities would still suppress the population in dengue-endemic areas.

A larger trial on Grand Cayman island in 2010 reduced the targeted mosquito population by 80 percent for three months, Oxitec has reported.

“The results, and other work elsewhere, could herald an age in which genetically modified insects will be used to help control agricultural pests and insect-borne diseases like dengue fever and malaria,” the US’ New York Times reported today.

The insects have also been released in Brazil and nearby Malaysia.

Dengue is reported in between 50 and 100 million cases each year, and accounts for an estimated 25,000 deaths. According to Oxitec, dengue threatens 50 percent of the world’s population and costs the global economy US$4 billion annually.

The new bug could prove useful to the Maldives. Though it ranks number one on South-East Asia’s list of malaria-free zones, the Maldives continues to combat dengue fever annually.

This year, hospitals documented the highest number of fatalities when Ahmed Shinah of Vaadhoo in Gaaf Dhaal Atoll succumbed to the disease in July. An Oxitec report shows a steady increase in cases weekly since 2009.

Director General of Health Services Dr. Ibrahim Yasir said health officials are aware of Oxitec’s experiment but are awaiting confirmation that the mosquitoes are a valid solution.

“We have heard about it, but we are not discussing the experiment at a policy level right now,” Yasir said. “We are waiting to see how it works in other countries first.”

Yasir was unable to say if the Maldives would be able to genetically modify its own mosquitoes, but noted that the environmental parallels between Malaysia and the Maldives gave officials confidence in Malaysia’s results.

“We will not pilot the experiment here, but I think the way they are exploring it in Malaysia will help us decide if it safe for the Maldives. It could certainly be a cutting edge solution to dengue,” Yasir said.

The Maldives is particularly vulnerable to the impact of dengue. Using Maldives as an example, Oxitec reported that dengue cases had occurred more frequently this year than in the two years previous in tourism-dependent countries. Travel warnings were issued by various government and international health organisations for these areas.

The economic impact of even a warning can be significant for tourism-dependent countries such as the Maldives, Oxitec claims. A paper by Mavalankar et al. found that French Réunion lost 40 percent of its tourism traffic in the year following the 2005-2006 chikungunya oubreak. The paper estimated that a country such as Thailand could lose US$363 million annually for every four percent drop in tourism traffic.

Deputy Director General of Tourism Hassan Zameel said dengue had never been reported on resorts in the Maldives, and was not expected to become a concern.

“Of course dengue is a problem if it becomes widespread and cannot be controlled, but the government has given this lots of thought and emergency mechanisms are in place,” he said, adding that emergency procedures were carried out effectively for the outbreak in July and August.

“Cases are mostly reported on local islands. Resorts have their own methods involving sprays and smoke to counter the spread of mosquitoes. They’re doing very well at controlling it. But I don’t think it will be an issue moving forward,” Zameel added.

Oxitec lately opened a new facility to serve further experiments in Brazil and Malaysia. However, the program is also being criticised for possible health and environmental risks.

Unlike an antibiotic, mosquitoes cannot be recalled once they have been released. Some scientists interviewed by the Times said the insects could develop a resilience to the gene and survive. Todd Shelly of Hawaii’s Agricultural Department said 3.5 percent of the insects in a lab test survived the gene and matured into adulthood.

The mosquitoes are also sorted by hand according to gender, leaving room for error which could be signficant when thousands are released over an area.

One possible solution is modifying female mosquitoes, which do not carry the lethal gene, to stay grounded.

Chief Scientist at Oxitec Dr. Luke Alphey deemed the new approach safe because it releases only males, while only females bite people and spread the disease. He said it should have little environmental impact, reports the Times.

Meanwhile, authorities in Florida, United States hope to conduct an experimental release of the bugs in December.


Foreigners now able to buy homes in Maldives: New York Times

The Maldives has opened a path for foreigners interested in buying homes in the tourist destination, the New York Times reports.

“Until last year only big-brand hotels were able to secure leaseholds on some of the country’s 1,200 islands. But then the government of President Mohamed Nasheed started allowing designated resorts to sell leases to individuals.

“The primary market is the more than 600,000 tourists who each year visit these islands, home to 315,000 permanent residents.

“The leases, which are for as long as 50 years, are first sold to the resort operator, who then sells them as part of a vacation villa package. The leases can be renewed before expiration, but if the government chooses not to renew it has the legal requirement to buy the property at market value. The resale arrangements vary by resort.

“The first company to introduce a residence option was 12 Blues in October 2010 on the island of Lundhufushi, 130 kilometers, or 80 miles, from the capital of Malé. Of the 40 villas planned, 10 already have been sold, and 10 more will be put on the market next year. The resort was designed by the Singapore company Eco.id, and is intended to include a Franklyn hotel, spa and a variety of restaurants and bars.

“Properties are priced from $2.3 million, or €1.7 million, and owners who want to put their homes into the resort’s rental pool will receive six weeks’ use per year and 50 percent of the net revenue.

“While the ability for owners to arrange rentals has been a key factor in some sales, many buyers have simply always wanted to own in the Maldives, according to Wally Fernandes, a manager at the newly opened Six Senses Laamu resort on the island of Olhuveli, where villas are also for sale.”

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President sends letter to Libyan rebels, calling for modern Muslim democracy

President Mohamed Nasheed has pledged the Maldives’ support to the Libyan National Transitional Council (NTC) in a letter yesterday, recognising the rebel group as the “sole legitimate representative of the Libyan people.”

The letter, which was sent to NTC chief Mustafa Abdul Jalil, expressed the President’s hope that Libya would “emerge as a free and democratic country, in which fundamental human rights can be enjoyed by all.”

In recent days, Libya’s six-month long revolution against dictator Muammar Gaddafi came to a close when NTC rebels seized Tripoli. Currently, Qaddafi’s whereabouts are unknown and over thirty foreign powers have recognised the NTC as Libya’s legitimate representative group.

President Nasheed noted in his letter to NTC chief Jalil that the Maldives was among the first three countries to recognize the NTC. Iraq, Morocco, the US and European Union member countries have also recognised the group, while Russia and China do not recognise the NTC as Libya’s only legitimate representative but are still engaging in talks with NTC leaders.

Ethiopia and Nigeria have called on African Union member states to recognise the NTC, and Hamas had declared its support of the rebel group.

The President’s Press Secretary, Mohamed Zuhair, said today that “The Maldives is in favor of democracy, and feels any government should recognise the voices of its people. We are continuing our support of the Libyan rebels, and asking other countries to do the same.”

Zuhair said the Maldives was one of the first Islamic countries to experience a democratic revolution. In 2005, the Maldivian people began the uprising that ousted former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom in 2008.

“The same thing that is happening all over the Arab world has already happened here,” Zuhair said. “We are ahead of them, and we can share our experience.”

The Maldives, which has been a Muslim state for over 900 years, has one of the longest traditions of shariah law in the Arab world, said Zuhair. He said the Maldives encourages the Libyan NTC to apply democratic norms and values, and to use many small elections as they build a modern Muslim democracy.

“The Maldives would like to see Libya become a modern Islamic democratic state that is fully functional,” said Zuhair.

Colonel Gaddafi was only 27 when he took control of Libya after a military coup in 1969. His 42 years of power brought wealth to Libya, but his reign was also characterised by erratic policies and terrifying punishments. When the revolution began in February of this year, Gaddafi reportedly said, “Muammar is the leader of the revolution until the end of time.”

Earlier this week, the NTC reportedly placed a US$2 million bounty on Gaddafi’s head.


World must prepare for the deterritorialised state: NYT

Rising sea levels could threaten the existence of small island states such as Tuvalu, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands and the Maldives. If the international community cannot or will not slow global warming, the least it can do is help those states prepare for life after land by recognizing a new category of state — the deterritorialised state, writes Rosemary Rayfuse for the New York Times.

“If we do nothing and these nations become uninhabitable, their citizens will not only become displaced persons seeking refuge in other countries; they will also lose control of their vast maritime zones, including valuable fisheries and mineral deposits, which will likely become the property of neighboring states or the global commons.

“A few solutions have already been offered. Disappearing states could try to acquire territory from another state. However, no other government is likely to give up some of its land, no matter the price. The construction of artificial islands has also been proposed, but the financial, engineering, cultural and legal challenges may be insurmountable. The best scenario under current international law appears to be for disappearing states to enter into some form of federation with another state. However, a merger would threaten their cultural identities and likely oblige them to relinquish control over their resources.”

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Battling heroin in the Maldives: New York Times

Fifty percent of Maldivian youth are addicted to some kind of drug, according to a video report produced for the New York Times, ‘Battling heroin in the Maldives’.

“You would not find a family without a single member or near relative not suffering from drug abuse,” Foreign Minister Dr Ahmed Shaheed told journalist Mariana Keller, who visited the country with Mirva Lempiainen in June to run workshops on citizen journalism.

“Heroin was  first introduced 70’s, when Sri Lankan workers brought into the country to pave the roads,” Keller explains. “Most kids start using in school.”

And while it was previously hard to find somebody selling the drug, the introduction of mobile phones has made it very easy.

“Ordering a pizza in Male’ takes 30 minutes, but with brown sugar [heroin], it takes just five minutes for it to be at your door step,”  explains Ali Adyb from rehabilitation NGO Journey.

Jobs are scarce, but parents are willing to give their kids money, often feeding their addiction, narrates Keller.

Adyb places some responsiblity on parents: “Parents don’t want their kids to end up in jail – the path of denial is very strong with parents. Even if find out [about the drug use], they say ‘It’s not my son, it’s daughter’. And they practically give them money.”

The officials Keller spoke to blamed the country’s “porous borders” for the extent of the problem, and a lack of ability to scan cargo.

“We still don’t have equipment to scan certain kinds of cargo,” Vice President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan says, explaining that once the drugs enter the country, the supply becomes so scattered it is difficult to trace.

Adyb notes that Maldivian society was showing a growing acceptance of drug use.

“People don’t care as much anymore,” he tells Keller. “People accept it as part of life.”