Via Meadia has been watching the situation in the Maldives (population 350,000), waiting for the situation to become clearer before offering a reaction. If anything, things have gotten more complex. Here’s a quick timeline:
1. 2008: Protests sweep the Maldives against a hated dictator, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who had reigned since 1978. In November, protest leader Mohamed Nasheed takes office as the first democratically elected leader of Maldives.
2. 2009-2010: Nasheed’s policies flounder and he is accused of corruption. His Cabinet resigns en masse and but is soon reinstated. Cracks appear in the coalition his party was forced to form in order to defeat Gayoom.
3. Late 2011-early 2012: Protests against Nasheed gather strength. The government arrests opposition leaders. On January 16, Nasheed attempts to arrest Chief Justice Abdulla Mohamed, whom he accused of supporting ousted dictator Gayoom.
4. February 7: Nasheed resigns; he later asserts he was forced to resign at gunpoint. Also that day, masked men ransack the National Museum, destroying 99 percent of pre-Islamic artifacts, including Buddhist statues and centuries-old figures. Officials say the men destroyed the pieces because they considered them illegal under Islamic law.
5. Contributing to the protests against Nasheed and the incident at the Museum, according to some, is the rhetoric of an Islamist party known as the Dhivehi Qaumee Party. In early February, the DQP called Maldivians to stand up to Nasheed “with swords and guns if need be.” In its manifesto, the DQP advocates Sharia law, capital punishment, and “amputation of thieves”, while accusing Nasheed’s administration of “teaching good things about the Jews”, “fostering ties to Israel.”
On February 13, the Times of India ran an article about Islamist terrorism in the Maldives, noting that a Maldivian man was responsible for a suicide attack on Pakistan’s ISI in March 2009. A year later, 9 Maldivian men were arrested in South Waziristan, where they had reportedly been training with al-Qaeda.
Indian officials, it seems, have for some time been worried about terrorism and radical Islamists in the Maldives. The popularity of Islamist parties will become clearer when new elections are held — so far, the current government has refused to commit to a concrete date.
The Maldives have careened into a ditch and nobody really knows what comes next. Radical Islamists might gain power in new elections. Gayoom, supposedly a hated dictator, could return to the islands and even to power: a number of his allies hold important posts in the current government. Nasheed, once popular for his grassroots activism and once admired for his commitment to democracy (he served six years in prison during Gayoom’s reign), beloved by the Western liberal press as his country’s first democratic leader and as a champion of environmentalists, is widely seen now as dishonest, corrupt, unable to govern, and obsessed by the nefarious activities of his rivals.
Fortunately, the power struggle on the island hasn’t sharpened Indian and Chinese rivalry in the region. Should China continue to expand its presence in the Indian Ocean, outbreaks of violence and instability in small countries in that part of the world could turn into major international crises as India, China and others back rival factions in local politics.
For now, the Maldivian mess only involves the islanders and their nearest neighbors in India. Let’s hope things stay that way.