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The Maldives Diary

The Maldives: Not entirely idyllic

Print edition : Aug 04, 2022 T+T-

The Maldives: Not entirely idyllic

Former President Abdulla Yameen from the Progressive Party of Maldives meets his supporters at an “India Out” protest rally in Naifaru, Maldives on March 19.

Former President Abdulla Yameen from the Progressive Party of Maldives meets his supporters at an “India Out” protest rally in Naifaru, Maldives on March 19. | Photo Credit: PROGRESSIVE PARTY OF MALDIVES

The Maldives presents unique governance problems as it is not a contiguous territorial nation state.

The first thing I noticed as our plane descended over Maldivian territory was the colours. Submerged land formations with white sand appeared like turquoise patches in a darker blue sea. The flight landed at Velana International airport on Hulhule island. A new terminal is being built on reclaimed land, our escort said. He added that once the terminal was complete the airport would account for one-third of the island. Indeed, the tourist footprint in the Maldives is so massive that the existing airport requires expansion to handle the snaking immigration queues.

The Maldives presents unique governance problems as it is not a contiguous territorial nation state. There are 1,192 islands, of which 187 are reportedly populated. It has 26 atolls, with both inhabited and uninhabited islands. Some islands classified as uninhabited have been handed over to resorts for tourism. This also allows tourists to be separated from the Sharia norms that govern Maldivian society.

Some islands classified as uninhabited have been handed over to resorts for tourism.
Some islands classified as uninhabited have been handed over to resorts for tourism. | Photo Credit: Allison Joyce/Getty Images

The 26 atolls are also the administrative units. Each atoll has a roughly circular coral edge where waves break and the coral reef is closer to the surface of the water. In Dhivehi, the island’s language, this is called “dhiyares”.

The ‘India Out’ protests

Curious about the hashtag #IndiaOut that trended in the Maldives on May 24, I spoke with Ahmed Azaan, a journalist and co-founder of Dhiyares.com, a news and opinion platform. Azaan explained that the “India Out” protests began in 2020 and are an expression of concern that Maldivians do not fully know the extent of their government’s security and economic entanglements with India. The protests, he says, are peaceful and not anti-India because Maldivian people have a shared cultural history with India. However, he says, many Maldivians are uncomfortable about Indian military presence on some islands.

Former Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen.
Former Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen. | Photo Credit: AP/Eranga Jayawardena/File Photo

The protests have been supported by former President Abdulla Yameen from the Progressive Party of Maldives, who is now in the opposition. On April 21, current president Ibrahim Solih from the Maldivian Democratic Party banned the #IndiaOut campaign, saying that it disrupted ties with India. However, the protesters were back in May. Azaan was concerned about such criminalisation of protest. He was also concerned about why mainstream Maldivian media did not criticise their government’s policies in relation to India.

The Maldives appears to be the latest arena of geostrategic competition between China and India. China built the Sinamale bridge, the first inter-island bridge here, completed in 2018. In 2020, India commissioned the Greater Male Connectivity Project (GMCP), which will cost an estimated $500 million.

However, using the Maldives’ various islands for military or naval purposes has a long history. An inhabitant from Addu, the Maldives’ southernmost atoll, gave me an impromptu history lesson. During the Second World War, Gan Island in Addu Atoll was used as a refuelling base for the Royal Air Force. Few knew of its existence. Seventy stationed personnel from undivided India were killed on Gan Island between 1942 and 1944. In 2021, there was some talk of India opening a high commission on Gan Island. The Maldivian opposition promptly countered this, saying this could be a precursor to Indian military presence on Gan.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi meets the President of Maldives Ibrahim Mohamed Solih in New York.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi meets the President of Maldives Ibrahim Mohamed Solih in New York. | Photo Credit: PIB/PTI Photo

There is no doubt that President Solih is seen as a pro-India president. However, because of the Maldives’ fragmented geography, Male remains the largest locus of concerted political opposition. For its part, India has been pursuing diplomacy and partnerships that seem to further entrench its influence over the current regime. The Maldivian regime, however, has also pursued defence partnerships with the US and Japan, which when combined with India, means that it has ties with three of the four Quad countries. While President Solih was quick to allay any assessments that this signalled that the Maldives was favouring the Quad, it remains to be seen how the Solih administration will walk the tightrope between its engagements with these powerful countries.

Meanwhile, journalists like Ahmed Azaan are concerned about their country and about democracy. The state of democracy seems fragile everywhere. Just like the ecology.

A coral reef bleached white due to heat stress in the Maldives.
A coral reef bleached white due to heat stress in the Maldives.

On our second day on the islands , when we decided to go snorkelling, my friend surfaced with some dismay. A healthy coral reef she had seen on her previous visit a few years ago now appeared bleached.

Bleaching occurs when coral reefs are subjected to thermal imbalances--as surface water starts warming due to climate change, corals start dying. Three per cent of the world’s coral reefs are in the Maldives, but it has seen two major bleaching events: in 1998 and 2016. There is now a concerted effort to recover reefs, but the progress is slow.

Vasundhara Sirnate is a journalist and political scientist. She is also the creator of the India Violence Archive, a citizen’s data initiative that records collective violence in India.