The Maldives may be known for its white sand beaches, pristine water and luxury resorts, but for the nation’s journalists and opposition politicians the archipelago is much less welcoming. Last week, Stealing Paradise, a documentary produced by Al Jazeera’s investigative team, revealed a web of corruption that reaches the highest levels of government, linking the office of the President to money laundering, arson and dodgy land deals.
Ahead of the documentary’s release, the Maldives Government issued a warning to anyone involved in the production or dissemination of the video, saying they could be charged under new, heavily criticised criminal defamation laws or have their passports cancelled. Al Jazeera has withdrawn journalists from the country for their safety.
Hours after the exposé was released, police raided the Malé offices of newspaper the Maldives Independent, the editor of whom featured in the documentary with a warrant alleging the paper planned to ‘overthrow the elected government, getting external help to overthrow the elected government, trying to create hatred between the public and state institutions and planning to create discord and unrest in Malé’.
A short history of democracy
For local Maldivians the crimes alleged in the documentary doubtless come as no surprise. The Maldives has a short and volatile history with democracy. After thirty years in power, former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom was beaten in the country’s first multi-party elections in 2008 by former journalist Mohamed Nasheed.
Although Nasheed made attempts to clean up the rampant corruption resulting from decades of one-man rule, after less than four years in power Nasheed was forced to resign in what he later referred to as a coup. Elections subsequently held in September 2013 saw Gayoom’s half-brother Abdulla Yameen elected in a run-off election with 51% of the vote.
Since then the Government appears to have accumulated a large amount of personal wealth. The Maldives’ major source of income comes from tourism, constituting around 30% of the nations’s GDP and employing almost a third of the population of approximately 345,000. Indeed, the industry can largely be credited with lifting the country from one of the world’s poorest in the 1980s to a middle-income country today.
However, Al Jazeera’s investigation indicates that vast amounts of additional funds are being generated by luxury tourism but is never declared. Indeed, the documentary contains a claim that President Yameen was personally implicated in laundering nearly two million dollars through the Maldives Central Bank.
In addition to money laundering, text messages obtained by Al Jazeera implicate Yameen’s Vice-President Abdul Adeeb in an arson attack on the offices of Raajje TV; and interviews with the Vice President’s driver reveal he was tasked with delivering bundles of cash to officials in return for their towing the President’s line.
A fundamentalist’s paradise?
Another part of the Maldives that tourists don’t see from their deck chairs is the alarming rise in religious fundamentalism. The Maldives has contributed more foreign fighters to the war in Syria per capita than any other country; reportedly 200 men, mostly ex-military.
The Sunni state has a history of religious tolerance, however experts have noted an increase in traditional beliefs over the past few decades. In recent years women have been attacked for not wearing the hijab, and in 2012 a mob destroyed Buddhist statues at the National Museum. Recently the High Court has indicated an end to the 60 year de facto moratorium on the death penalty under the new 2014 Penal Code, a codification of Sharia Law.
This may come as a surprise for many of the more than one million foreign tourists who stay in luxury resorts in the Maldives every year, sipping cocktails in bikinis. However, considering the huge amounts of money brought in by the tourist industry, as well the opportunity it gives the government to launder money, it’s no wonder officials are happy to maintain the double standard.
Where to next?
Former President Nasheed is currently living in the UK where he was granted asylum following his arrest in 2015. Last week he indicated plans to form an opposition coalition with former long-time ruler Gayoom with the goal of unseating President Yameen through legal means—a surprising development for the two former enemies.
It’s hard to see how Nasheed would be able to unseat Yameen from his new home in the UK, or indeed how any change of power could be achieved without a return to the violence of 2012. The Maldives Government seems to do a good job of keeping a low profile, hiding behind its façade of paradise. Perhaps it is time to rethink that island getaway.
Caitlin McCaffrie is the Indo-Pacific fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.