British postman-turned-journalist Daniel Bosley spent seven years undertaking personal journeys and historical research in the Maldives. In a travel memoir that covers the Maldives’ tumultuous history including imperialists, sultans, presidents and dictators, he presents a view of a precarious democracy and a natural environment on the verge of collapse. Bosley’s account unravels the picture-perfect view of what most see as a tourist paradise.
Bosley is a journalist whose unlikely career path saw him go from being a postman in Cheshire to reporting on political crises in the Republic of Maldives. He was the editor of local newspaper Minivan News. His work has also appeared in international publications, including the Economist, Reuters and Himal Southasian. He later co-founded the history and culture website Two Thousand Isles with his wife, photographer Aishath Naj. He currently lives and works in London.
Aside from learning what I could about the Maldives’ less sunny side, Harriet, Sonya and I were busy finishing the teachers’ final briefings. In mid-December the group was invited from all corners of the UK to London for an induction into island life.
In stark contrast to their resort-ready compatriots, the teachers were told to expect a modest menu of tuna and coconut, prompting optimistic shrugs, but strictly no alcohol, prompting slumped shoulders. While the average Brit heading off to the Maldives packs comfortable beachwear and a bestseller, the teachers were advised that their beachwear be sharia-compliant, and their bestseller should not be the Bible, as it would be confiscated at customs along with their beloved pork products, idols, dogs and pornography (or any combination of the above). Despite limited local entertainment, volunteers were cautioned against romantic entanglements with islanders, as it would contravene local laws without an accompanying marriage. As for same-sex relationships, while the pink pound may be legal tender on resorts, homosexual activity remains an arrestable offence.
Reading between the lines from the back of the room, I began to recognize the precarious practicalities for a liberal government attempting to steer change through these traditionally secluded atolls. The MDP was walking a familiar tightrope, beset on all sides by enemies, with hungry crocodiles waiting below (sometimes quite literally) to seize upon even the slightest wobble. Though this was by no means a new problem.
‘It is a tragedy for one to be ahead of his time,’ a young Maldivian president had once told the Financial Times, citing the case of Amin Didi when asked about balancing new ambition and old tradition. ‘He was a man of vision and courage. But his tragedy was that he tried to do everything too fast and too soon. One has to learn from history.’ But these weren’t the words of Nasheed in 2012, they were Maumoon’s, describing Dhivehi Raajje’s dilemma back in 1980. As our group of two dozen teachers readied themselves for a twelve-month adventure, Maumoon’s democratic successor had less than eight weeks to go.
I left the Maldives in Marylebone for the Christmas period, reading nothing of the ensuing events until my return to the office in January. The first news summary I sent to Farah was a big one: ‘Concern over Maldives spa prostitution closures,’ headlined the BBC News. ‘Maldives shuts down spa resorts over anti-Islamic activities,’ read another in the Guardian. The ‘23 December’ protest to ‘save Islam’ had drawn around 5,000 supporters to Malé’s tsunami monument. They’d brandished placards with slogans like ‘We stand united for Islam and the nation’, ‘We stand for peace’ and ‘No idols in this holy land’.
The protest had culminated in a rousing speech by Gasim Ibrahim – reputed to be one of the Maldives’ richest men – owner of multiple resorts and a former coalition partner in Nasheed’s government. As Speaker of the Special Majlis, Gasim proudly claimed responsibility for the unprecedented decision to codify compulsory Islam into the new constitution, while he continued to import biblical proportions of pork and alcohol. Alongside sheikhs and politicians, he dismissed any possibility of religious tolerance (or, apparently, of irony): ‘We don’t know [that] there is a moderate, higher or lower Islam. We only know Islam, which is above all the religion. Standing in support nearby was the DQP’s Dr Hassan Saeed, who did know, and had skilfully argued in his 2004 book Freedom of Religion, Apostasy and Islam that such tolerance was one of Islam’s fundamental principles. But his new friends had already considerately banned the book in 2008.
Maumoon’s half-brother, Abdulla Yameen, had also taken to the podium, railing against the government’s alleged plans to replace Arabic and Islamic studies with churches and idols. During the SAARC summit, a Pakistani monument depicting Muhammad Ali Jinnah and another of a Sri Lankan lion had been deemed ‘idolatrous’ and repeatedly vandalized.
Months before, Islamic NGOs had labelled a charity project by Israeli ophthalmologists as a Zionist ‘organ-harvesting’ scheme, with flag-burning protests attended by Nasheed’s then state minister for Islamic affairs, Sheikh Shaheem Ali Saeed. My thoughts turned to the volunteer teachers preparing to board their flights: had my induction folders warned sufficiently against the export of eyeballs?
A few hundred metres away, the MDP had organized a counter-rally in which Nasheed implored the opposition to stick to the middle path, as the nation had always done. ‘Should we ban music? Should we circumcise girls? Should we allow nine-year-olds to be married? Is art and drawing forbidden?’ reasoned the raees. ‘Because we won’t allow these things, we are being accused of moving away from religion.’ In an apparent fit of pique less than a week later, however, the government had called its (hypo)critics’ bluff. Though the protesters had been referring to brothels frequented by locals, the tourism ministry chose to misinterpret one of the many demands, announcing the immediate closure of all spas and parlours on every island – resorts and all. But the high drama in the middle of the high season soon seemed over, and as the industry heavyweights moved to sue, Nasheed ended the stunt after just a week. Throughout the tension, the only voice of reason I found came via a comment piece posted on Minivan News by a wonderful writer named Yameen Rasheed.
‘The last few weeks of 2011 have set the precedent of a hard line, no holds-barred brand of politics that could easily prove fatal to the country’s democracy, economy and social stability,’ wrote Yameen, in a satirical send-up which compared the revolting resort owners with the pigs from George Orwell’s Animal Farm. But the savvy writer refused to spare the government either: ‘It appears both sides have decided to engage in a high-stakes game of Russian roulette.’ It wouldn’t be the last time I’d rely on this wise voice to explain these political parlour games and Dhivehi doublethink.
Part of the face-off Yameen alluded to included the government’s request for the Supreme Court’s ‘consultative opinion’ on the sale of pork and alcohol on both ‘inhabited’ islands (local villages) and ‘uninhabited’ islands (including resorts), where different rules apply. In the part-sharia, part-common law country, the Constitution stipulates that no law or right can contravene the tenets of Islam. Nasheed’s implied message was again clear, warning his opponents against opening this billion-dollar can of worms. It was unlikely that the court would actually rule to destroy 90 per cent of the economy, for it had become clear by now where the loyalties of the unreformed judiciary still lay.
Unsurprisingly, I’d read little about judicial reform in the Maldives, as the soporific nature of the subject had allowed a so-called ‘silent coup’ to take place long before the events of early 2012. Dismissing the new constitution’s instruction to replace unqualified, unethical or incompetent judges within two years as ‘symbolic’, the entire bench had re-appointed itself in 2010 with little public opposition. It would be this issue, rather than the headline-grabbing clashes between Islam and tourism, that was – returning to Yameen’s roulette analogy – to put the bullet in the chamber for Nasheed’s government. On 16 January, Anni pulled the trigger.
Exasperated with politicized rulings by a Maumoon-appointed bench, the final straw came when a rogue judge repeatedly blocked the prosecution of DQP deputy leader Dr Jameel Ahmed for his part in the latest hate-laden pamphlet.
The military were sent in to take the criminal court’s chief judge Abdulla Mohamed from his home and place him in detention on a nearby island. Commonly known as ‘Ablo Gazi’ (‘gazi’ meaning judge), he was considered the worst of a bad bunch, accused of disrupting police investigations, disregarding decisions from higher courts, stalling cases against favoured politicians and repeatedly releasing serious offenders – one of whom went on to commit murder.
Amid the reports urging reform that landed on Maumoon’s desk in 2003, one from his attorney general Dr Hassan Saeed – future DQP leader, author and pamphleteer – included multiple allegations of misconduct against the same judge. Even the newly formed Judicial Services Commission (JSC), despite ignoring mandatory reforms, had made Ablo Gazi the subject of the first-ever report on a Maldivian judge’s conduct the previous November, before the subject himself thwarted its final release. While the ultimate folly of Nasheed’s decision would become clear in hindsight, with the rule of law itself becoming the plaything of such men, the dilemma seemed clear even to the casual observer.
But, regardless of the mess in Malé, a casual observer is what I was, and unlikely to find work via the constitutional crises of a country I’d been oblivious of just two months prior. Opportunities to network had been slim and were not helped by the political situation. With Minivan’s Eleanor and the mantelpiece missionary David Hardingham my only new contacts, I needed to get creative. Either one, I was told, could introduce me to Minivan’s editor, JJ, so I could ask how one might (hypothetically) find employment in the Maldives. I certainly had no thoughts of a career in journalism, a profession I understood to be a middle-class enclave very difficult to break into. I just needed steady work, and this was only a far-fetched plan B. Surely a plan A would soon show up in London.
(Excerpted with permission from Descent into Paradise: A Journalist's Memoir of the Untold Maldives published by Pan Macmillan India.)