The lesson of the Maldives: can a coup win, asks Time Magazine

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.”

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Shangri-La to open Maldives’ first full size golf course

The Shangri-La Villingili resort in Addu Atoll is due to open the first full-sized golf course in the Maldives on March 27.

The nine hole course sits on seven-and-a-half hectares of previously undeveloped land at the southern end of Villingili Island.

Most holes par three and average 123.4 yards in length, and are set amongst the island’s natural veggetation including of palms, pandanus and other tropical plants. The course includes a clubhouse, refreshment bar and a pro shop.

“It’s a recreational course, not a professional course,” explained Shangri-La’s Assistant Communications Manager, Cristina Acenas. “It is accessible to beginners but advanced golfers will also enjoy it.”

Challenged about the environmental impact of a nine hole golf course on an island in the middle of the Indian Ocean, the resort was quick to respond.

“The golf course uses salt tolerant Paspalum grass for its greens which thrives on available grey water and natural environmental factors existing in the Maldives,” Acenas explained. “Seashore Paspalum is used on golf courses worldwide and is said be the most environment-friendly among the types of grass used for golf courses.”

“A salt tolerant plant growing in sandy substrate is not going to need many nutrients, so it’s not so bad,” suggested a marine biologist consulted by Minivan News.

“The main worry would be using well water to irrigate the course, which would impact the island’s freshwater lens and other vegetation on the island,” she said.

Acenas explained that treated grey water from the island’s sewage treatment plant would be pumped into an irrigation dam constructed on site, “so no fresh water or fresh desalinated water is used to irrigate the greens, minimising waste and the carbon footprint associated with operating a full-sized golf course.”

A second concern raised by the marine biologist was the potential for run-off to wash fertiliser into the ocean, disrupting the nutrient balance of delicate reef ecosystems.

“They do have to be careful that nutrients don’t leech into reef,” she observed. “An increase in nutrients can great algal overgrowth that outcompetes corals and impacts reefs. It’s good they’re using a low nutrient plant, but they will need to keep a check on it.”

Acenas said that fertilisers used to maintain the course would be organic and used sparingly.

“It has been determined that the selected Paspalum turf cultivar will thrive well in the conditions present at Villingili. The Paspalum Grass through proper cultural practices should be sustained at healthy levels with minimal use of organic fertilisers and chemicals, and has a very high tolerance to salinity, more so than most weeds. This is a much healthier approach when considering the environment surrounding the course,” she told Minivan News.

The site will be subject to a biannual terrestrial monitoring by environmental consultants to assess fauna, flora and the impact of the course on their habitat, Acenas noted.

The golf course is located near a turtle nesting habitat (August – October), “and turtles can be seen coming to the surface all year round on this side of the island, especially on the ocean side from holes six to nine,” she added.

The marine biologist Minivan News spoke to observed that a golf course was probably a better nesting environment for turtles than a built up area because the course would lack light sources, which can cause females to become disorientated after laying eggs and crawl inland, rather than back out to sea.

Approval for the course was granted by the Ministry of Tourism and the Ministry of Housing and Environment, following following an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) submitted to the Environment Protection Authority (EPA).

The Maldivian government in March 2010 signed a contract with Dutch Docklands of the Netherlands to develop a floating golf course and hotel in the Maldives.

Then Deputy Minister for Environment, Mohamed Shareef, said the floating golf centres would be “much better and more environmentally friendly than reclaiming land.”


Paradise hosts third round of Taliban peace talks

The Maldives last week hosted a third round of peace talks between the Afghan government and members of Taliban-linked resistance group led by ex-Mujahideen Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, one of the three key leaders of the armed opposition in Afghanistan.

Paradise’s manager Qaisar Naseem confirmed to Minivan News that the third meeting, “of 50 or so people”, was held at the resort around November 9.

“It was independently organised and involved some people from Afghanistan, but they were not [identified] as Taliban. There were people from the [Afghan] government as well,” he said. “They brought the media with them.”

The delegates caused no problems and were “very decent, very friendly, and talked to the other guests,” he said.

In a press conference today prior to his departure to Sri Lanka, President Mohamed Nasheed said the government was “aware of these conferences” but had no involvement.

“We do not at all feel that they bring a security risk. The security services of this country – police and other intelligence services – have a very good grip on who is doing what,” Nasheed said.

“Our position is that anyone wishing to have a conversation or bridge a gap to resolve a conflict is always very welcome in the Maldives.”

However, in the event of future talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government, it is likely the gates of Paradise will remain closed.

Naseem said that while hosting the conference itself was harmless, the resort was “fully dependent” on European visitors, and management was acutely aware that the meetings could have a “negative impact” on guest perception.

“There’s no problems actually holding these events, but it does have an adverse effect on perception,” he explained. “To be honest, we’re not going to do it again.”

President of the Maldives Association of Tourism Industry (MATI), Mohamed Ibrahim ‘Sim’, told Minivan News that he had not had heard of any adverse reaction to the meetings from tour operators or the wider travel market.

“I don’t understand why there should be an impact [on perception],” he said. “The fact we are providing a safe haven for people with a peaceful agenda to come and discuss issues across a table does not detract from the image of the country.

“Some of these leaders are seen as terrorists and warlords, and the fact they are coming to the meeting emphasises the safety of the destination,” Sim said.

“We are a tourist destination and we don’t want to dragged into global geopolitics and the animosity between nations. We don’t want to antagonise anybody – that’s how a small and defenceless nation like the Maldives has been able to survive, and will hopefully continue to do so.”


Central Asia Online reported that during the five day conference delegates proposed to form a supreme shura (‘consultation’), the Shura-e-Aali Amniyat-e-Milli, under which representatives from Afghanistan’s political, ethnic and warring groups would review “all major government policies before they are introduced before the parliament.”

“Policies would have to be passed with a two-thirds majority of the shura to be passed on to parliament or be implemented,” the US government-sponsored news site reported.

Taking on an almost parliamentary function, the shura would also approve ministerial, judicial, and independent commission appointments, the site reported. In the meantime, a ‘peace commission’ would be created to broker a ceasefire between the government and insurgent groups. A communique on the final day also called for the “immediate withdrawal” of foreign troops from Afghanistan.

The meeting was the third in a series of gatherings held this year in the Maldives, and the second to be held at Paradise Resort.

The first, under a veneer of secrecy, was held at Bandos Island Resort and Spa in January at the same time as the US, Britian and Japan spearheaded a proposal to ‘bribe’ Taliban fighters to disarm.

State Minister for Defence, Mohamed Muiz Adnan, told Minivan News at the time that he was not aware of the group’s arrival until he “saw it in the newspaper”, and had no knowledge of the meeting.

The second event in May – held at Paradise – was more widely publicised, and filmed by television news network Al-Jazeera. It was organised by Almayoun Jarir, Hekmatyar’s son-in-law.

Image taken during May meeting at Paradise Island Resort and Spa.


Footage of the Taliban in Paradise: Al Jazeera

Thirteen members of Afghanistan’s parliament, an Afghan governor “and a variety of political parties and armed groups” have held the second in a series of meetings in the Maldives, according to news network Al Jazeera.

Press Secretary at the President’s Office, Mohamed Zuhair, on Thursday confirmed that the peace talks were taking place and all involved in the talks had valid passports and visas.

The Maldives is one of the few countries to provide Afghan nationals a visa on arrival.

“None of the representatives involved are listed in UN or other international travel blacklists,” Zuhair said, noting that the MNDF was aware of the meeting. The Al Jazeera report observed that US and NATO were not represented at the talks and that while it was interested the discussions, Afghan government had not officially endorsed them.

Al Jazeera’s report contained footage of the talks and of man the network said had arrived at the last minute “claiming to be a member of the Taliban.”

The representatives told Al Jazeera that their presence at the meeting, which the Maldivian media speculated was being held at Paradise Island Resort, was not official.

The event was organised by Almayoun Jarir, the son in law of former Mujahideen leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar who is one of the three key leaders of the armed opposition in Afghanistan.

Topics of discussion included the need for fresh elections, and the future of foreign troops in the country. The report noted that one of the Afghan MPs who attended was female.

Besides the ease of visa issuance, the Maldives was chosen as the venue for the three day talks “because it is considered neutral ground for all countries [involved]” Al Jazeera said. “It is also an example of what peace can bring to an islamic country.”