Mon, February 13, 2012
World > Asia-Pacific > Maldives crisis - Trouble in paradise

Maldives crisis, paradise at crossroads

2012-02-13 14:07:25 GMT2012-02-13 22:07:25(Beijing Time)  Xinhua English

by Susitha R. Fernando

MALE, Feb. 13 (Xinhua) -- Maldives, the paradise island nation, has been shattered with weeks of protests, violence, agitation and questions over the future of its infant democracy.

Mohamed Nasheed, the first democratically elected president who ended 30-year rule of Asia's longest-serving dictatorial regime in 2008, controversially resigned last Tuesday making way for the vice president but later claimed he was ousted in a coup led by military and political opponents.

The 1,200-atoll archipelago, one of the top tourist hideaways which earns its major foreign exchange income, has been shaken by the latest unexpected upheavals.

The efforts by new President Mohammed Waheed Hassan to form a coalition government is backed by the United States and the international community but former President Mohamed Nasheed insisted on holding early election.

He and his supporters have threatened to continue street protests. Political analysts warn of a tough time for the Maldives in the coming days.

The beginning of crisis

Since the transition to democracy in 2008 Maldives has largely remained peaceful but tensions escalated in January after the president ordered the arrest of a senior judge of the Maldives Criminal Court.

Three weeks of protests over the arrest were widely seen as having hastened the downfall of Nasheed who endured a turbulent time since his election a triumph at the polling booth that was widely seen as introducing democracy to the Indian Ocean nation in the wake of the 30-year rule of the former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.

What appeared to be a consensual power transfer turned to a political turmoil in Maldives, as Nasheed on Wednesday alleged that he was forced to step down at gunpoint. In response Waheed insisted that it was a constitutional power transfer.

Since then thousands of supporters of Nasheed's Maldivian Democratic Party have taken to the streets in the capital in protest at Nasheed's oust and demanded Waheed's immediate resignation and an early presidential election ahead of schedule in October 2013.

The protest took a violent turn when the protesters clashed with riot police and set fire to police stations and court houses.

The cost of the chaos

All police stations including a police training center and more than 25 police vehicles were burnt down in Addu, the southernmost and second biggest atoll which is the venue of last SAARC summit.

The fire spread to several other islands as well. It was estimated that damage to court houses alone is more than 3 million U.S. dollars.

Following the violence, the criminal court issued an arrest warrant for Nasheed.

However, the former president complained that the military and police arrested his supporters and beat them in public.

In spite of the warrant Nasheed is threatening to continue street fights until the president steps down for an early election. "The medicine here is on the streets, in strength," defiant Nasheed who was arrested 27 times under former reign of Gayoom and jailed for six years in all.

Nasheed, who called for international intervention to stop police crackdown on his supporters, said that "the bottom line"is nothing but an election.

International intervention

With increasing crisis, officials from the United Nations and the United States, Britain and the regional power India rushed to the island nation to assess the crisis and break the political deadlock.

U.N. Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs Oscar Fernandez-Taranco who was however on a previously scheduled tour came to the country and focused on the new developments while U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, Robert O. Blake who was in the region touched down the island nation and talked to all parties including former and present presidents.

While Nasheed has hard-line stand in favor of an early election, Blake endorsed Waheed's proposal to form a national unity government and invited Nasheed to be part of it. Blake said that the United States was committed to working with the new government.

"Everybody has to compromise in order to find a way forward," Blake said.

Tourism vulnerable

With a month of protests and a week of tension and violence in the Maldives, the popular high-end holiday spot for wealthy honeymooners and celebrities, there are concerns about the well being of the tourism industry. Though holiday bookings are currently unaffected, tour agents and hoteliers are nervous that the country's biggest foreign exchange earner would be affected.

"We have invested so much. We have come to know there is a dropping in the tourist arrival. It cannot go on like this," Thufeeq Ali, who is running a diving business told Xinhua.

The Maldives gets about one million visitors a year, most seeking a beach or scuba diving holiday getaway at resorts that charge up to 1,000 U.S. dollars per night.

According to a tourist official the recent political violence in the Maldives has tarnished the Indian Ocean archipelago's image as one of the world's top luxury resort destinations.

Although resort managers and tour agents have reported only a small number of cancellations, the unrest that followed the ousting of president Mohamed Nasheed has begun inching closer to key tourist infrastructure.

Around 850,000 mostly high-end tourists visited the Maldives last year and it was voted the world's number one island destination by readers of Conde Nast Traveller in 2011. The tourist sector accounts for one third of the Maldives' gross domestic product (GDP) and more than 60 percent of foreign currency earnings.

Australia, Britain, Germany and the United States have all issued travel advisories on the Maldives, along with China whose citizens now account for around 25 percent of tourists.

However the political turmoil does not appear to have discouraged visitors, but a prolonged strife could weigh on the industry. Amid the tensions and fear of economic downturn, politicians are defiant and seem more concerned about power.

"We will come to power again," Nasheed said. "We will never step back. I will not accept this coup and will bring justice to the Maldivians."

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