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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2710

Maldives: Tourist Dollars Feeding Human Rights Violations?

By Raj Gonsalkorale

Idyllic Maldives is renowned for its tourism. Hundreds of white sand bathed islands, sapphire blue waters and the best of resorts that are frequented by thousands of tourists from all over the world. Tourism is Maldives' largest industry, accounting for 20% of GDP and more than 60% of the Maldives' foreign exchange receipts. Over 90% of government tax revenue comes from import duties and tourism-related taxes. Maldives would be in dire straits if tourism is affected and the foreign exchange it brings is reduced.

A State that basically survives on tourism owes a lot to the tourists, and tourists who enjoy the warm hospitality of a poor country’s people also owe something to the people of that country.

The Republic of Maldives has been struggling to have a more democratic and representative form of government for some years, so that its people could have a better say in how the country’s economy is managed and how its social policies will be fashioned to meet the people’s needs.

While tourists do not, and generally should involve themselves in local politics, as a collective, they are an economic pressure group that can effectively exert some pressure and influence on the Maldivian government to better respect human rights of its people.

Maldives has relatively young population with nearly 97% of it being less than 64 years of age, and about 54% of it between 15 and 64. It has a very high literary rate of around 95%. Clearly, their political and social awareness has been growing and they have demonstrated that changes are needed to a political system that may have suited them at a point of time in the past, but perhaps not any more. The country has been governed by an Executive Presidential system and the current President Abdul Gayoom has been in power since 1978. Analysts believe that his rule has been turning increasingly authoritarian and that he has been devoting money and attention to keep a firm grip on power by acting against those who have been agitating for an effective Parliamentary system of government to replace the Executive Presidency. There have been mass arrests of voices of dissent, imprisonment of some of them after questionable trials and a general crackdown on those who have attempted to promote a more participatory democracy. Despite the introduction of political parties in 2005, President Gayoom still retains executive power, control over the judiciary and control of Parliament through his unelected appointees.

Tourists who bring in much valued foreign exchange and who probably keep the country economically afloat very likely do not know anything about the simmering political dissent and opposition to the Executive Presidential system of governance that has been building up over the last few years. Neither are they likely to be aware of alleged human right violations that have been going on in the country that is supported by them. However, they are probably the very people who could send some pertinent messages to the country and its current administrators that they do not like what they are hearing about alleged human rights violations.

In June 2004, pressure from dissenters of the current authoritarian rule of President Gayoom had resulted in him presenting a draft new constitution to be debated in the Special Majlis (Parliament).

However, after 2 years, 123 debates and 3 million dollars of Special Majlis members’ salaries, no clause has yet been agreed upon. In October 2006, the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) called for a demonstration to take place on the 10th of November, to call for their Members of Parliament to complete the new Maldives constitution. MDP supporters were to travel from all around the Maldives the days preceding the 10th of November to take part in what was to be the largest-scale demonstration of the country. The MDP requested assistance from international bodies and NGOs’ in the form of neutral observers and media coverage. The Friends of Maldives (FOM) arranged for British volunteers to travel and act as observers and also contacted different media outlets and journalists to cover the events. What followed was a wave of arrests of pro-democracy activists by the Maldives authorities, and a clampdown on peaceful protestors traveling from the islands by the coastguard.

On the 9th of November the MDP, fearing bloodshed, had cancelled the demonstration.

Friends of Maldives (FOM), a non-governmental organisation (NGO) dedicated to the protection and promotion of human rights in the Maldives established in 2003 and based in the UK, in a recent damning report has stated that in total, 102 people were arrested in connection with the planned demonstrations of the 10th of November. At the time of writing their report, they claimed that 90 remained in custody. FOM, in their recent report, points out that a referendum was to take place in the Maldives in September 2005 in which the people would choose between a presidential or a parliamentary system. The Government had decided to postpone the referendum and no date has since been set.

The FOM report states that based on available information, human rights violations appear to demonstrate a pattern in the Maldives judiciary:
• arbitrary arrest without clear justification

• fabrication of charges against the detainee while in custody

• charges pending for months (sometimes years) used in an excuse to re-arrest the activist when the regime is under pressure

• lack of time given to the detainee and his lawyer to prepare a defence

• lack of evidence from the prosecution

• gravity of the charges disproportionate to the actual "crime"

• lack of information given to the families of the detainees

• speed in which the accused is found guilty

It is sad that President Gayoom, once a popular leader, should turn authoritarian and not heed the people’s clamour for change, considering what they are clamouring for is a more participatory, representative and a fairer system that will help to maintain and foster democracy. As has happened to some leaders, too long a period in power gives them an unreal sense of immortality and they fail to realize the inevitability of change arising from the continuously evolving aspirations of their people. They fail to realize when its time to go and then end up being pushed out of office, often unceremoniously and discredited.

- ASian Tribune -

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