The P Word: Demonstrating against Dictatorship in the Maldives (2006)

The P-word

There’s a café just outside arrivals at Hulhulé airport. Sit at one of the little aluminium tables, just under the sign reminding passengers of the harsh penalties for drug traffickers, and you’ll see the foreigners arriving, here in the Maldives to experience what the tourist board website calls “the sunny side of life”. The ones on the cheaper packages, the families and the budget divers, are met by their company reps, who shepherd them into groups to wait for the boats which will transfer them to their allocated resorts. The richer types, the permatanned middle-aged couples and the upscale honeymooners, are greeted by neatly-uniformed men who take their luggage and whisk them off to speedboats, to skim over the water towards Reethi Rah, Huvafen Fushi or Soneva Gili, islands with $3000 a night water-villas and personal butlers and infinity pools and brochure copy peppered with phrases like ‘redefining luxury’ and ‘beyond imagination’. These are the places you read about in the travel pages, usually under headlines containing the word ‘paradise’. You may have noticed that you read about Paradise/ The Maldives rather a lot. There always seems to be a free trip for a writer, to suffer a week of pampering in return for a few bland paragraphs describing the coral reefs, the interior design features of the bathroom, the inventive spa-treatments and the variety of air-freighted tropical delicacies available at the island buffet. You may also have noticed what’s missing from all those identical articles. People.

So where are all the Maldivians? True, no one’s vision of paradise includes a large population, particularly not if you’re on honeymoon, but the Maldives of the travel pages is an eerie place, a culture-free series of coral dots adrift on a deep blue sea. This is no accident. Tourism here is a highly-regulated activity, deliberately organised to keep the foreigners and the locals well apart. Resorts are on uninhabited islands, which provide everything the average holidaymaker will need, from watersports to sushi. You need written permission to stay elsewhere, stamped by officials and including the names of local sponsors. Most people arrive and leave without knowing where they really are. If they did know, the p-word might not fall so rapidly from their lips.

A journey to the other side of the Maldives begins when you take the local ferry across the water to Malé, the capital. At the last count, around a hundred thousand people were living on this tiny island, little more than two kilometres square. There may be up to twenty five thousand more staying as temporary migrants, making this one of the most densely populated places on earth. Aerial photos from the sixties show a lush green oval, bisected by a ribbon of sandy road. Now Malé is a concrete warren. Scooters and motorbikes clog its narrow streets, ridden by long-haired boys in surfwear and girls in tight jeans, many with the black Iranian-style headscarves newly-fashionable in this increasingly religious corner of the Islamic world. Above all this is a young country. The median age is just eighteen. It’s also a country which has, on paper at least, got rich from the tourist boom. Per capita GDP is the highest in Asia. Life expectancy, literacy and other indicators of prosperity are all up. In Malé’s shops you can buy fridges and computers and the other status symbols of an emergent Asian middle-class. Absurdly, given that there’s only one stretch of road where you can get above about twenty miles an hour, there’s even a custom car sub-culture, boy-racers who spend more time fiddling with trim and chrome and decals than actually driving anywhere in their garishly-sprayed vehicles.

The next thing you notice, after the consumer goods and the youth of the inhabitants, are the cops. They stand on many street corners, some in the blue camouflage of the paramilitary “Star force”. The police headquarters is an imposing glass structure on the waterfront, in front of a white fortress, bristling with security cameras and manned observation posts, which houses the National Security Service. Why so much security? The crime rate here is low. It’s rare even to see a beggar on the neatly-swept streets. The answer lies with the nervousness of the government of President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, Asia’s longest ruling (and least known) dictator. For the last twenty-eight years, he held power in this scattered chain of atolls, controlling every branch of Maldivian public and commercial life through an elaborate system of patronage, which has ensured that the fruits of his country’s economic boom have flowed disproportionately to his inner circle.

Gayoom’s ponderously sycophantic authorised biography, the work of a British travel journalist who evidently received more freebie hospitality than average, paints a touching picture of a scholar-statesman and family man, educated in Islamic jurisprudence in Egypt, a youthful admirer of Nasser who followed a course common to many developing-world politicians of his generation, joining the Non-Aligned movement, making v-signs with Yasser Arafat, picking up his trademark safari-suit as an academic in Nigeria and at one time enjoying ‘a close friendship’ with Saddam Hussein. The contemporary Gayoom is “a man for all islands”, a gentle climate-change campaigner and PG Wodehouse fan, defender of tradition and vanquisher of immoral hippie nudists, a “shooting star”, whose rise to father-of-the-nation status has been punctuated by telling speeches at the UN and single-candidate ‘elections’ where he received near-unanimous endorsement from his grateful people.

Contradict this picture and you may get more than an icy stare from Jeeves. Gayoom’s political opponents routinely find themselves in jail. Amnesty International has reported a pattern of harrassment, arbitrary detention, unfair trials and abuse in custody, including numerous allegations of torture and rape. Two years ago they produced a report confirming that prisoners in the police detention centre on Dhoonidhoo island were being held in “conditions that amounted to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”.

While the tourists sun themselves in their virtual paradise, Maldivian society is experiencing a convulsion almost as great as the tsunami which swept across the islands in 2004. The Amnesty report came in the wake of protests in Malé, after which draconian sentences were handed down to dissidents accused (often on the flimsiest of evidence) of orchestrating violence. One activist, thirty-two year old film-maker and journalist Jennifer Latheef, became the subject of an international outcry after she was sentenced to ten years in prison for “abetting terrorism”.

The government later released Latheef (unlike several others, who remain incarcerated), but was clearly rattled by the criticism. Unused to international attention of any kind, it took steps to burnish its image, hiring British public affairs consultants from Hill & Knowlton, a controversial firm which has, over the years, worked for a number of ‘difficult’ national clients, notably signing a contract with China just after the Tiananmen Square massacre. Hill & Knowlton’s Public Affairs director Tim Fallon, who was once a commons researcher for Tony Blair and worked for Blair during Labour’s 1997 election campaign, is seen by some Maldivians as a sinister force, propping up an unpopular regime and manipulating national politics, notably in promoting the rise of a clique of young, media-friendly ministers who have, perhaps inevitably, become known as the “New Maldives” group. To others, particularly in government circles, Fallon is credited with steering the elderly Gayoom away from his Middle-Eastern strongman instincts towards the path of liberal democracy.

One tangible result of Hill & Knowlton’s consultancy is a document entitled “Ushering in a Modern Democracy” which promises nothing less than a full-scale overhaul of the Maldivian political system, including judicial reform, free elections and a new constitution. Critics (of whom there are many in the streets and tea shops of Malé) say this glossy brochure is an exercise in window-dressing, a way of revamping the dictatorship for the age of globalisation. Out with the safari suit! In with photoshopped pictures of happy children waving flags! They claim that whatever improvements have taken place since the dark days of 2004 have been won through international diplomatic pressure and the rise of the country’s first ever organised opposition, the Maldivian Democratic Party.

Formed in 2003, in the teeth of fierce government opposition, the MDP is led by a British-educated author called Mohammed Nasheed, known to Maldivians as “Anni.” Since he started campaigning in the late eighties, Anni has spent five years in detention, including eighteen months in solitary confinement. Still only thirty-nine, he’s an icon to many, particularly the disaffected young, who hate the authoritarian conservatism of Gayoom’s government and suffer disproportionately at the hands of the police. He’s been smeared as a thief, a Christian missionary, a drug dealer, a terrorist and a homosexual, all serious offences in a country which denies freedom of religion and whose legal system is based on Sharia . His books are banned and he’s spent long periods in house arrest or living in exile in Sri Lanka. During his first period of imprisonment he was tortured. The son of a prominent family, who was sent to boarding school in Wiltshire and studied at Liverpool University, he’s stubbornly taken it upon himself to act as a lightning rod for the various political energies of his country. Last November, he and his party called for people to get into their boats and come to Malé from all over the islands, to protest against the government’s failure to sign the promised new constitution and hold free elections. He vowed to fill the streets with supporters.

Chugging across the water to Malé, the Club Med boats receded into the background and what with the fumes and the concrete and the uniforms I found myself thinking about The Matrix. If I’d taken the blue pill, I’d have been snorkelling. I dropped into the office of Minivan (“Independent” in Dhivehi), a non-descript shopfront on a narrow street opposite a custom car garage. Minivan is a news organisation which runs a radio station, a newspaper and a website. The government sees them as an organ of the opposition, which may explain why the radio station has to broadcast from a transmitter in Miami and why no commercial printer will handle the newspaper, which is produced on a copier in the office. It’s a shabby and informal place, with activist posters on the wall and a big pile of sandals in the stairwell, slipped off by staff and visitors on their way up the narrow stairs. The atmosphere is reminiscent of shoestring independent media operations around the world – the constant comings and goings, the irregular hours, the friends crashing in the spare office on their way to and from the outer islands.

I arrived into a crisis. The protest had been declared illegal. Across the Maldives, particularly in the southern atolls, where opposition support is strongest, a wave of arrests had been taking place. MDP activists were being picked up in their dozens and placed in ‘preventive detention’. Boats attempting to leave for Malé were being stopped by the coastguard. Not only was the country’s best known political cartoonist, Ahmed Abbas, sheltering at the UN mission after being accused of inciting violence, two foreign journalists, including the Guardian’s photographer, had been told to report to a holding facility at the airport or face deportation. They’d been covering the round-up on the island of Thinadhoo, where police baton-charged a crowd. “Political agitation”, the government’s chief spokesman told me later. “He wasn’t acting as a journalist. We have a dossier of evidence, collected by the atoll office.” I was promised sight of this evidence, but to date it hasn’t been forthcoming.

The next morning the UN, unable under its charter to offer protection to Abbas, asked him to leave. He was arrested and taken to the police detention island of Dhoonidhoo, which for those of you who’ve stayed at Club Faru, Full Moon or Kurumba Village resorts should be clearly visible in the background of your holiday snaps. By the time I left the Maldives a week later, Abbas was starting a six month sentence for ‘disobedience’ (imposed in absentia, without allowing him to present a defence) and another hundred or so people were in Dhoonidhoo, several of them on hunger strike.

In Malé police were blocking all the streets leading to the national legislature, known as the People’s Majlis. The MDP were calling on people to march towards the building, the first action in several days of planned protest. Around the MDP office, a small group of party activists waved yellow flags and tried to encourage a much larger crowd of onlookers to stand with them. Anni, who had earlier been grinning and chatting to people, made a speech from a first floor balcony, wearing a pair of dark glasses which gave him a sinister aspect. The few foreign journalists on the street were obviously a rarity. Some newcomers joined the activists, until the group outside the office numbered about a hundred. I noticed most people were keeping their distance, which might have had something to do with the line of vans drawing up and disgorging squads of body-armoured riot police. Afterwards government media would claim that only thirty troublemakers participated and the thousands lining the pavements were just bystanders, attracted by the spectacle. “If you do almost anything in the street in Malé,” a spokesman told me scornfully, “you’ll attract a crowd.”

Though what happened outside the MDP office on that first day was far from a united act of civil disobedience, Maldivians have good reason to be wary of expressing dissent. Malé is a town where, despite the population boom, addresses don’t even include numbers. People still identify each other as “Imran from the blue house” or “Aminath who is living at the Kali house”. Everyone knows everyone else’s business and like any small and divided community, scurrilous gossip, denunciations, personal feuds and neighbourly surveillance pervade everything that happens. In the midst of the protests, I saw police and demonstrators taunting each other by name. At night there’s a constant traffic of abusive and threatening SMS messages, many of which appear to originate from the police. At all demonstrations police videographers, some in plain clothes, filmed anyone who shouted slogans or became involved in any kind of confrontation. Anonymity isn’t an option.

The government likes to address propaganda messages to parents, warning them of the consequences for their children’s future of being sent to prison for drug crime or opposition politics, activities it tends to blur together. Certainly, the consequences of arrest can be severe. The police don’t wear numbers, or say where they’re taking people. They run their own detention facility and often refuse to release the names of prisoners, even after they’ve been held for long periods. Sometimes the only access relatives can get to someone pulled off the street is when they’re taken to court weeks after the event. Testimonies about beatings, sexual degradation and planting of drugs are remarkably consistent, though the government denies any such practices take place.

As a second crowd gathered some distance away from the MDP office and attempted to move forward, the police charged to disperse them as another detachment pushed and jostled the activists. There was a scuffle around Anni, who was buffeted to and fro at the centre of a scrum of policemen and photographers, beside a female MDP member called Shehenaz Abdulla, who was arrested and carried bodily into a police van. Later she and others arrested that day would go on hunger strike at Dhoonidhoo, in protest at the failure to recognise the “November 10th detainees” as political prisoners. As the police started to clear the street with batons and pepper spray, a boy clowned around, waving a national flag. Ten minutes later I saw him, ashen-faced and unconscious, being bundled into a car.

After a couple of hours, the crowd had been dispersed. The police were maintaining a cordon around the MDP offices and Malé returned to an uneasy normality. For the next few days these confrontations were to be repeated, sometimes turning into running demos which swirled through the streets, at others ending up in stand-offs between police and small groups of angry people. At night, young men on scooters rode around town, looking for the action, a few carrying wooden bats or iron bars. The Maldives has a growing problem with ‘brown sugar’ heroin, and addicts are sometimes used as political thugs, disrupting meetings and intimidating opposition leaders.

From the MDP’s point of view, things were going badly. No one from the islands was making it through. One wooden dhoni with sixty people on board evaded the coastguard and headed into the open water between atolls, only to be held at bay by fast patrol vessels. For two days the passengers and crew refused to allow the coastguard to board. Then they surrendered and were escorted to Dhoonidhoo. Accounts of the stand-off are contradictory. The government says no force was used. Passengers allege that they were sprayed with high pressure water jets and bow waves were created in an effort to sink them.

In Malé there was a weird propaganda war. Leaflets were strewn round the streets claiming the demonstrations had been cancelled. State television repeated that the protestors were criminals and drug addicts and screened pictures of foreigners from an organisation calling itself the Global Protection Committee, who they claimed were mercenaries. When I met the GPC on the street, carrying walkie-talkies and wearing natty blue and yellow caps and teeshirts, their leader told me they were a European Union body, charged with peace keeping. They appear in fact to have been from a private security company based in Hampshire, run by a man who also offers his services as an insolvency advisor and sells bird-flu disinfectant. In the next few hours, a search was conducted around Malé. Along with most other foreigners, I was stopped. Two days later four GPC ‘operatives’ were deported.

One night, after another confrontation between police and protestors, I sat in a café drinking fruit juice with Sarah Mahir, who works for Friends of the Maldives, a tiny NGO based in Salisbury. As she talked, she gloomily thumbed the reject-call key on her mobile phone. The number had been published on a pro-government website and all evening men had been ringing at the rate of two or three a minute to call her a whore. If Anni is the government’s Satan, Friends of the Maldives are Satan’s little helpers, vilified by the regime as Christian missionaries who, when not meddling in politics, are busy handing out crosses and smuggling pork and alcohol. I’ve seen a crude piece of black propaganda, purporting to be a letter to Anni from David Hardingham, the group’s founder. It’s written on letterhead from Salisbury Cathedral and in it ‘Hardingham’ gloats about their dastardly plan to blow up the golden dome of the Islamic Centre and replace it with a place of Christian worship. David Hardingham met Anni at boarding school and his family became a sort of surrogate during the years the young Maldivian was away from home. Their extraordinary friendship is the subject of suspicion among Gayoom’s supporters, who see Anni’s cultural Englishness as evidence that he’s an agent of foreign subversion. Hardingham is blacklisted and can’t enter the country. While I was in Malé his younger brother was arrested at a restaurant where he was eating dinner with some English friends, and deported.

Like other activists I met, Sarah Mahir doesn’t think foreigners should stop visiting the Maldives. This is a country whose life-blood is the tourist trade, just recovering from the devastation of the tsunami, which left twelve thousand people homeless and caused an estimated $470 million of damage. “The problem,” she told me, “is vested interests” and indeed a perusal of the business activities of government ministers reveals that many are also resort owners or shareholders. Friends of the Maldives have called for a “selective boycott” of around twenty resorts with close ties to the regime, in an attempt to help tourists make an ethical choice.

The question of ‘vested interests’ in the Maldives doesn’t stop with resort ownership. President Gayoom’s nickname (not mentioned in the official biography) is “golhaabo”, a Maldivian folk term for someone who shins up trees to steal coconut toddy. The president enjoys a lavish lifestyle, including a private island retreat and an enormous new palace built at a cost (depending on who you ask) of between 16 and 70 million US dollars. He is believed to own property in several foreign countries, including the UK. Many close relatives serve in his cabinet, including two of his brothers and his brother-in-law. The rewards of service can be great. Finance minister Gasim Ibrahim was once a lowly foster child in Gayoom’s wife’s family. He is now the richest man in the Maldives, with interests in shipping, fishing, oil, gas and tourism. On a smaller scale, a Maldivian news magazine recently revealed the existence of a government slush fund, making non-repayable ‘soft loans’ to senior government figures who were using the money to build resorts and office buildings.

As the days passed, it became clear that the MDP was losing the battle against the police. Though a lot of protestors were on the street, they were disorganised and there certainly weren’t the overwhelming numbers they’d hoped for. They blamed the government’s campaign of intimidation, but it was evident that the Maldivian love of mobile phones and a lack of security at the office meant that the authorities were well-informed of their plans and able to counter them effectively. When I met Mohammed Sharif, the government’s chief spokesman, he claimed that the explanation was more simple – the MDP lacked support. At twenty eight, Sharif, known as Mundhu, is one of the rising faces of the New Maldives tendency, young men who’ve taken to the media training run by Hill & Knowlton, and seem, unlike the hard-liners (who are kept well away from journalists) to have some commitment to the liberal ideals set out in the new constitution. He told me the demonstrations were part of a power struggle with the MDP and that the vast majority of Maldivians supported the President. The constitution was now coming along at a cracking pace and problems such as police brutality were a thing of the past. He seemed to be having the same SMS problems as everyone else. “You should see the messages they send me,” he complained. “Disgusting messages. You know what they call me? Sea slug. That’s dehumanisation. Dehumanising people is the first step towards fascism.”

Both Mundhu and the foreign minister Dr Shaheed, the most credible representative of the New Maldives tendency, claim the government’s record on development is good. Malé is undoubtedly booming, but even there the gap between rich and poor is vast. Behind the presidents palace are houses where I saw migrant workers sleeping twelve to a room. But Malé is only one of two hundred inhabited islands. It is also the only place you can stay without a permit. As the MDP’s protest collapsed, I chartered a speedboat and went to Vaavu atoll.

It’s only when you travel over water that you have a sense of the isolation – and the fragility - of the Maldives. We passed a few resort islands with their distinctive lines of water bungalows, then headed out into open water, shoals of flying fish skimming in our wake. It took over two hours to reach Vaavu, one of the nearest atolls to Malé. In the wooden dhonis used by the islanders, that journey time would multiply by four. Finally we sighted the island of Rakheedhoo, home to thee hundred and sixty four people, of whom half are in Malé or working at resorts. This tiny dot of land has a few streets of houses, the old ones made of coral, the post-tsunami rebuilds out of breeze blocks. There’s a mosque, a football pitch, a red and white communications mast and three fishing boats. Some houses have big black plastic rainwater butts, stamped with the logo of the Red Cross. Aid money is also building a new health post, a concrete building which will replace the island’s current medical facility – a chest in the island office containing bandages and paracetamol. Looking around, there was plenty of evidence of aid money, but little of sustained government spending. I met islanders who told me aid was being funnelled to government supporters and withheld from opponents. It was hard to tell why one house should be beautifully rebuilt, and the next still a patched-up shell.

I visited two other islands that day, and each time I left it was a shock to watch the green and white place where I’d just been standing gradually swallowed by the enormous blue of sea and sky. All these islands could be gone by the end of the century: nowhere in the Maldives is more than a metre above sea level. The government is building a two metre high artificial island next to Malé, the national equivalent of standing on stilts.

Back in Malé I found Anni sunk in gloom. He had taken the decision to call off the protest, fearing violence and, I guessed, knowing he didn’t have the numbers to succeed in pushing through the constitution. He was considering resignation. “I don’t think we will have a meaningful democracy here without sacrifice, without the people feeling a sense of ownership.” he told me. “I worry that we might have lost the only possibility for change.” Indeed, it’s easy to see one possible scenario for the Maldives where the government reform process is completed and the country nominally becomes a democracy, but almost nothing changes for the majority of Maldivians because the same few people are in charge. Already, some state monopolies have been ‘privatised’, much to the approval of the World Bank, though the money is still flowing into the same hands, frequently those of the finance minister. The democracy gap and the cataclysm of the tsunami have led many towards religious fundamentalism. Salafist preachers are gaining converts in the outer islands while middle-eastern donors are said to be sponsoring up to two hundred Maldivian boys to attend Madrassas in Pakistan.

Secret talks between the Government and opposition, brokered by the British High Commission in Colombo, are said to have foundered on questions including the speed and substance of constitutional reform and the removal of the hard-line police chief, Adam Zahir, whose name appears in numerous personal testimonies of torture, which he is accused not only of authorising but personally carrying out. Despite the fact that he has become an embarrassment to a government which is trying to present a clean and modern face to the outside world, Zahir still remains in post, fuelling a storm of street rumours about the existence of so-called “punishment books”, incriminating documentary records of torture said to be in the possession of one or more key government players. Recently Zahir’s wife, who lives part of the time in a family house in Preston, Lancashire, was formally cautioned by her husband’s British counterparts after her email account was used to send a death threat to a pro-democracy campaigner.

The night the protest was called off, Zahir’s Star Force made a victory round of Malé. Wearing full body armour they toured around in their trucks, singing songs. It was obviously a time for score-settling. People I tried to speak to were targetted for harrassment. I saw several young men arrested, seemingly at random. I was pulled into doorways and followed down side streets by people asking me to ‘tell the international community’ about the situation. “We want to express ourselves,” said one man. “See how they treat us.” “We don’t believe you’re a journalist” sneered the policemen on one street corner, demanding to see my papers. “Why don’t you just go home.” Sitting in a tea house called the Mercury Light, I had a taste of how things must be when no one is watching. A vanload of police pulled up and started to move people off the street. Passers-by called insults at them. The café patrons appeared resentful but resigned, as the police told everyone to leave. “This is an opposition place” one man told me. “This happens all the time.” One man tauntingly walked up and down outside, his nose in a copy of Minivan news. The police emptied out the Mercury Light and pushed the Guardian’s photographer around when she tried to take pictures. No amount of press ID or governmental business cards would persuade them to let us work. Our confrontation was drawing in a crowd, some supportive, others hostile. Within a few minutes we were causing a traffic jam. We backed down and left. The next night the police came again. Witnesses described to me how an unmarked car pulled up and men wearing the blue headbands of the President’s DRP party went into the tea shop and smashed fixtures and fittings with iron bars.

As the MDP licked its wounds and the government savoured its victory, I went to a resort and sat on a white sand beach, watching Japanese honeymoon couples take pictures of one another. It was still possible to see Malé in the distance, a sort of visual cognitive dissonance. My world was a peaceful place, with angel fish and orange sunsets and yoga classes on the patio before dinner. Sitting in the over-water bar that evening I listened to the splash of reef sharks hunting in the aura of electric light spilling down over the water. I found myself thinking about a young man who’d been sitting outside the Mercury Light, revving his scooter and watching the arrests. He’d jutted his chin out and waved a hand, as if inviting me to enjoy the show. “You see?” he said, laughing cynically. “Paradise.”

- 24th November 2006

An edited version of this piece appeared in the Saturday Guardian