Often, when you start to dream about taking a holiday, what you're craving above all is simplicity. You want to strip life down to its essentials, to spend a week or two somewhere far away from the cares of the world. I live in East London, and it's been a stressful year. I've been running around like the proverbial blue-arsed fly, and Islamic radicals seem particularly attracted to my local bus routes. Winter is closing in, and there's no way I'll make it through the grim and slushy months without feeling the sun on my face at least once. I want to chill out. I want to amble from my hammock into the sea, then swim around wondering what to have for lunch.
So the Maldives looked perfect. Where could be more simple? A bunch of green dots in the middle of the Indian ocean. Nothing much to engage with, no great feats of sight-seeing to achieve. Just me and the beach and a few fat novels - the ones I've been saving for an occasion when I could really take a run-up at them. As the official tourist board website puts it, "sun, sand and sea, a thousand 'Robinson Crusoe' islands, massive lagoons with different depths and infinite shades of blue and turquoise, dazzling underwater coral gardens; a perfect natural combination for the ideal tropical holiday destination." Nice, I thought. Where do I sign up?
"However," the tourist board site goes on, "there is more to the Maldives than just that". Too bloody right there is, as I found out the other day when I attended a meeting of PEN, the writers organisation. PEN campaigns for freedom of expression, working with people around the word who've been imprisoned or otherwised abused for writing or saying things their local authorities don't like. The Maldives, while it's one of the world's third-division nations, turns out to be premier league in the torture, imprisonment and disappearance stakes. Since 1978 it's been ruled by the avuncular-looking President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. You can check him out, hob-nobbing with the British High Commissioner, Bill Clinton, and other notables here. President Gayoom was elected for a record sixth five-year term in 2003. Though there were no other candidates, we should still congratulate him on becoming Asia's longest serving leader. His unprecedented popularity is assisted by his total control over the Maldivian media, and his practice of imprisoning anyone who criticises his regime. Government jobs and tourist revenue go to his cronies. Do the maths: per capita GDP is the highest in South Asia but nearly half of the population live on less than a dollar a day. Doh. Last year's tsunami made things worse, but would-be tourists who want to help a disaster-struck economy may find that all they're doing is propping up what Maldivian opposition leaders have dubbed "the world's last secret dictatorship".
Yes, there's a Maldivian opposition, and - you guessed it - being a member requires a lot of guts. The PEN meeting was called because a few weeks ago Mohammed Nasheed, the leader of the Maldivian Democratic Party, was arrested. Nasheed, known to the islanders as "Anni", had been conducting a vigil on the anniversary of a mass arrest of pro-democracy demonstrators. He's been charged, ironically enough, with terrorism. Anni's arrest has sparked huge unrest. People are very anxious about his safety. They have good reason. President Gayoom (among a typical light-opera list of dictatorial positions) happens to be the Commander in Chief of the National Security Service. If you've ever stayed at Cocoa Island, Kandooma Beach Resort, Fun Island or any one of several other holiday resorts near Malé you may like to know that one of the atolls in the background of your snapshots is the notorious prison island of Mafushi, where the NSS torture, sexually abuse and humiliate political prisoners on a daily basis.
The reason the Maldives appears such a 'blank' place, such an unspoilt paradise, is because the regime's international paying guests are kept strictly segregated from ordinary Maldivians. Apart from the capital island, Malé, outsiders are only permitted onto inhabited islands for brief visits. Were they to see a little more they'd realise they were in a place in the grip of deep crisis. You know those big bowls of fresh fruit on the breakfast buffet? The stuff that's presented as if it just dropped from the tree? The Maldives doesn't produce much. Many basic supplies, including a lot of that fruit, have to be imported. Most fresh food bypasses local people and goes straight to the resorts. The UN recently found over 30% of children under five are suffering from malnutrition. That's about the same as Niger. The acute deprivation, combined with the total lack of democracy, is pushing some traditional muslim communities on the islands into the arms of fundamentalists. Which brings my holiday plans full-circle to blown-up London buses. Thanks, President Gayoom, for making me less safe on the way to the shops.
The good news is that this is one situation on which the ordinary British holidaymaker can have a real effect. Deciding not to visit China or Nigeria because you're concerned about human rights is a largely futile gesture, because they're large countries with many sources of income. But in the Maldives, tourism accounts for more than 90% of government revenue. A big chunk of that money is spent on PR, advertising in the British media and sending journalists on free trips, which is why you may not have heard this side of the story before. Like me, you may decide not to go. If you've already booked, and feel uncomfortable about sunning yourself across the water from a torture camp, try to talk to the people serving you at your resort. It may not be safe for them to tell you much, and what they tell you about their lives may not make your holiday more fun, but at least you won't be another dumb tourist, missing the real picture.
PEN www.englishpen.org is organising a campaign to free Mohammed Nasheed. Tourism Concern is trying to make people aware of the real economics of Maldivian tourism. The Maldivian media is state-controlled. Uncensored news can be found at http://www.dhivehiobserver.com/ and http://www.minivannews.com/
[update: The Maldivian government responded to this piece by threatening me. I became increasingly interested in their situation and in 2006 I travelled to the Maldives to attend pro-democracy protests. In 2008, the Gayoom government was forced to concede free elections and Mohammed Nasheed became president. There were celebrations on the beach in Male]