A bombing in the Maldives reveals political unease
The depth of political intrigue in the Maldives belies the country’s tiny size. A chain of atolls spread across thousands of square kilometres in the Indian Ocean, the Maldives is often dismissed as a tropical paradise and playground for wealthy international tourists. However, the country has been rattled by the attempted assassination of its first democratically elected president in May, which brought international attention to ongoing political turmoil and the rise of religious extremism in Asia’s smallest state.
A bomb in the capital Malé on 7 May seriously injured former president Mohamed Nasheed. Nasheed’s journey through Maldivian politics has been fraught. A dissident journalist and activist who founded an opposition party in 2003, Nasheed was elected president in 2008, ending 30 years of rule by his predecessor, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. Maumoon was criticised for authoritarian tactics and a reticence to permit multiparty democracy. However, four years later, Nasheed was forced to resign amid unrest and a police mutiny, and was then convicted of terrorism in a widely-criticised trial. He was subsequently exiled and excluded from participating in the 2018 presidential elections, yet eventually elected as the speaker of parliament.
Accordingly, Nasheed has long been a polarising figure in the country. Internationally, he is known for his climate change activism, famously holding an underwater cabinet meeting. However, he was heavily criticised for his perceived liberal pro-Western stance in the 2012 protests that led to his resignation. He has consistently spoken out against religious extremism in the Maldives, where citizenship is dependent on adherence to Islam. As the state religion, Sunni Islam plays a pivotal role in public life, but extremism has become a long-running concern.
The Maldives is the highest per capita source of foreign fighters in the Middle East, a phenomenon which some link to the Saudi export of Wahhabism, beginning in the 1970s. Recent years have seen growing links with Saudi Arabia, which has offered the Maldives large loans to service debt repayments. Social issues, high unemployment and weak institutions, combined with conservative religious teachings in some parts of the country, contribute to an environment of “discursive radicalisation.” Multiple bloggers and journalists have been killed or threatened in recent years for perceived anti-religious views.
The attempt on Nasheed’s life follows a long campaign of attacks on his policies and supposed religious shortcomings, which a United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief described as “rampant incitement to violence and dehumanisation.” Maldivian authorities claim that four suspects in the attack have links to religious extremism. In the Maldives, however, the line between religion and politics is often blurred, and there is speculation among Nasheed’s supporters that the attack may have political links. Hours before the attack, Nasheed publicly announced that he had a list of names of individuals involved in a long-running corruption scandal around embezzled tourism funds.
A contributing factor to the heightened tensions in the country is the politicisation of Islam by successive administrations. Abdulla Yameen, Maumoon’s half-brother, who became president in 2013, wielded Islam as a political tool, linking it to anti-Western rhetoric and furthering Maumoon’s emphasis on the Islamic character of the Maldives. Yameen also reoriented the country towards China, at the expense of historical partner India.
Although it is often seen as simply a tourist hub, the Maldives has a rich and textured history, and now finds itself at the forefront of both climate change and jockeying between regional powers, particularly China and India. While the Maldives’ relationship with India has been long-standing, it has also been the subject of nationalist and anti-India opposition, particularly with regard to loans and military support. Yameen’s pivot to China was a matter of some concern for India’s foreign policy aspirations, particularly given the Maldives’ strategic location in the Indian Ocean. Regional partnerships will likely remain crucial for the Maldives, particularly given the devastating impact of COVID-19 on the Maldives’ heavily tourism-reliant economy.
The 2018 elections brought to power Nasheed’s friend and political ally Ibrahim “Ibu” Mohamed Solih. Solih’s victory was widely unexpected, given Yameen’s takeover of public institutions and an election that was expected to be rigged. As speaker of parliament under Solih, Nasheed has been able to command a parliamentary supermajority that he lacked as president. However, although Solih has reoriented the country towards India and sought to boost transparency, his agenda has been hindered by divisions within the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party. “Idealists” and “pragmatists” are at odds over how to proceed with corrupted institutions and powerful players in the aftermath of the last election, according to prominent Maldives journalist JJ Robinson.
The Maldives is an instructive example of the often fraught transition to democracy and long-term stability. Despite the hope which accompanied Solih’s 2018 election, institutional corruption continues to hamper systemic change and progress. The recent assassination attempt on Mohamed Nasheed has brought attention to the troubled reality of life in a supposed island paradise. Living up to its international image will take time.
Samuel Garrett is the Young Diplomats Society’s Regional Correspondent for South and Central Asia, and a student of Arabic and International Relations at the University of Sydney.