Despite its paradisiacal setting, the Maldives is plagued by political infighting. In 2012, the country’s first democratically elected president Mohamed Nasheed resigned in dubious circumstances amid violent anti-government protests in Malé. In March 2015, Rasheed hit the headlines again when he was sentenced to 13 years imprisonment on trumped-up terrorism charges that have been criticized by the UN.
In September, Nasheed’s successor Yameen Abdul Gayoom was nearly killed when an explosion, said to be a bomb, rocked his speedboat. A month later, the vice-president Ahmed Adeeb was arrested over the incident – despite an FBI investigation that concluded the explosion wasn’t caused by a bomb.
The Maldivian Government rejected the FBI’s findings and declared a 30-day state of emergency on the back of yet another uncorroborated attempt on the president’s life: the discovery of a car bomb near the presidential residence. But six days later – and only one day before my arrival – the state of emergency was inexplicably lifted.
When I meet Joe at the airport, he tells me the state of emergency was lifted because it was damaging the country’s all-important tourism trade. Yet when I ask him for more details he says that’s all he knows, steering me from the arrival terminal to a jetty where we board a ferry for a 10-minute ride to the capital.
Malé is much as I expected: a heaving tropical concrete jungle writhing with color and life and goateed men in robes cut straight out of a Kipling novel. The rubbish-strewn streets are suffocatingly narrow, choked with scooters and lined with dilapidated candy-colored buildings. The Muslim call to prayer echoes out from minarets while women in burqas and headscarves scuttle around carrying shopping bags and babies on their backs.
After turning into a narrow alleyway, we enter a doorway and climb six flights of steps to a one-bedroom apartment where Joe lives with his wife and four children. After closing the door, he turns to me and says: “Did you tell them at the airport you were a journalist?”
“No.” I answer. “Why?”
“Because when we met at the airport… I saw a man… I think a government person watching us.”
Over the course of the next hour Joe describes the Maldives as a soft version of Nineteen Eighty Four – a tin-pot dictatorship where entrepreneurship is discouraged to keep people poor and docile and where alcohol is banned in accordance with Sharia law but heroin is sold with impunity by violent street gangs. The regime, Joe says, use these gangs as a de facto security force to threaten, beat and even kill dissenters like Ahmed Rilwan, a controversial journalist who disappeared in August 2014, and Afrasheem Ali, an MP who was brutally murdered outside of his home in October 2012. But worst of all, Joe says, is the omnipresent government surveillance and spy network that short circuits dissent before it can take root. “This is the worst feeling in the world,” he says, “knowing that I can’t speak freely. Come look outside and I will show you.”
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