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Undercurrents ripple through paradise

April 29, 2009

It’s another glorious day of sunshine in the Maldives. In the luxury resorts, honeymooning couples walk arm in arm across silver sands, delighting in the perfect weather.

But something is awry in the air. It is the end of April. The monsoon should have come weeks ago. Recently the rains come later, most probably the so-called Asian brown cloud is to blame. This smog of soot and sulphur particulates has its origins in the kitchen stoves used throughout the subcontinent – the ones we’ve seen in India, Nepal and Bangladesh, in which wood, cow dung and agro-waste is burnt in choking cooking-fires. The brown haze has altered monsoon patterns as far away as northern Australia, and the cloud particulates have been identified in the Arctic ice at Svalbard.

The weather is just one disturbance in the surface tranquility. Under their easy smiles and friendly demeanor, Maldivians are broiling up. On 9 May there will be parliamentary elections in this very young democracy. Campaigning has been underway on every inhabited (local) island, and it looks to be a close match for the new president, Mohamed “Anni” Nasheed.

This is a country unused to democracy and to political campaigning of any kind. Many people cannot remember a time before the former president, 30-year incumbent Maumoon Gayoom took office. His dictatorial governance was very different to that now offered by Anni, and for many people, it’s better the devil you know.

I’ve met and spent time with both Gayoom and Nasheed, and I can see how some people might find Nasheed’s forthright, and occasionally undiplomatic way of talking shocking and unsettling. For me, it’s wonderfully refreshing. I was, and remain, incredibly impressed with Nasheed and his genuine commitment to the Maldivian people – god knows they need some help after so much neglect.

But every day there is a new ripple of dissatisfaction that works its way onto the streets of Male as a protest – occasionally violent. Nasheed is attempting to modernise the country, to allow regional governance so that atolls separated by many days’ boat journey do not have to rely on the capital, Male, for everything. He is trying to address one of the world’s highest heroin addiction problems by introducing methadone programmes. The opposition has labelled him a drug dealer and condoner for this. He is trying to overcome a vast budget deficit, left by Gayoom, by reducing the government’s monopoly n business and encouraging enterprise and foreign investment – this is desperately needed to build hospitals (there is only one, semi-decent hospital in the country and it is in Male), and reform the education system. At the moment, schools double up so that children are taught in two short sessions; one lot will have classes in the morning, then the other will attend classes in the afternoon. So in fact kids only get half-day schooling. His efforts towards this have been interpreted by the opposition as selling off the Maldives: more protests.

But it’s Nasheed’s attempts to route out corruption and his refusal to be bought that have won him the most respect – and enemies. Rich people used to buying their own fiefdoms here, do not like this new democracy. Many of Gayoom’s old buddies have changed their clothes and are now running as independents, but the effect for Nasheed will be the same. If his party doesn’t win a majority in parliament, it will be impossible for him to get any of his reforms through.

Perhaps the most difficult task will be taxation. At some point, Nasheed will have to broach this subject if any of his reforms are to come to fruition. Maldivians do not currently pay tax. But neither do they own land – it all belongs to the government. With the population doubling over the past decade, the need for social security and new enterprise opportunities is urgent. A young Maldivian who wants to start his own business, for example, cannot get a bank loan because what equity can he offer as security? He doesn’t even ow the land his house is on. Everything stalls.

Anni Nasheed visited the Conrad resort a couple of weeks ago. He stood in line at the staff canteen like everyone else, refusing to be served first. Resort staff were gobsmacked and newly impressed. I just hope that episodes like this will see him through the increasingly nasty political war that’s churning up these placid waters.

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