Beneath the outsiders’ vision of the Maldives lurks a troubled reality – one shaped by 30 years of a brutal dictatorship. No one knows this better than Mohamed Nasheed, the nation’s new democratically elected President, who unseated Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the Maldives’ ruler since 1978, in a landmark election in October 2008.

Nasheed was imprisoned thirteen times by Gayoom and was named an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience in 1991. Nasheed is determined to secure liberal democracy in the Maldives, but the country is facing pressing challenges at home. Despite significant tourism revenue – the Maldives has South Asia’s highest GDP per capita – almost half of the Maldives’ population earns less than $2 a day. And Maldivian youth are in the middle of a heroin epidemic that may be one of the worst in the world. The legacy of Gayoom’s rule lingers, and the process of unraveling it will take time as entire political institutions, like a free press, an independent judiciary, and a multiparty legislature will need to be built from the ground up, emerging from the long shadows of three decades of tyranny.

As if all that was not enough, the archipelago nation faces a larger challenge. It could find itself submerged by a swelling sea. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an international body of scientists, forecasts that sea levels will rise an estimated 2 ft. (60 cm) this century, enough to inundate most of the country, many of whose 1,190 isles sit just 3 ft. (1 m) above the ocean. For a nation of so small a size, the new government’s task is monumental.

© 2009 Charlie Mahoney


Nestled in the middle of the Indian Ocean, the Maldives is an archipelago of ancient coral reefs that extend above prehistoric volcanoes.

The resulting 1,200 islands are of such incredible natural beauty, that they have long attracted sultans, Russian oligarchs and celebrities seeking the ultimate in luxury living.

Its cobalt blue waters, turquoise lagoons and lone islands conjure up images of Robinson Crusoe, as the Maldives has become a synonym for paradise.

Yet beneath the outsider’s vision of the islands lies a more troubled reality, shaped by 30 years of brutal dictatorship under Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.

More than a third of the country’s population lives in the capital of the Maldives, Malé, one of the world’s most crowded cities.

Cars, motorcycles and people clog the streets and the skyline continues ever upward with new construction fueled by immigrant labor. Tourism and tuna fishing give the Maldives South Asia’s highest per capita GDP, yet 40% of the population still earns less than $2 per day.

The former Gayoom regime, like many classic dictatorships, controlled power tightly: the state controlled the media and political dissidents were quickly arrested, tortured and incarcerated.

No one knows this better than Mohamed Nasheed, the nation’s new democratically elected President, who unseated Gayoom in October 2008. Nasheed was incarcerated 12 times and spent years in solitary confinement.

President Nasheed is determined to establish liberal democracy in this Sunni Muslim nation, which he thinks can be a catalyst for change in the Muslim world.

GRAPHIC: “We have a blueprint here in the Maldives. You don’t need to bomb a Muslim country for regime change.”

Many domestic challenges lie ahead. The new government needs to tackle corruption and the wealth divide. Entire democratic institutions have to be reformed; on top of that a university and an inter-island ferry system are gravely needed.

But more pressing problems face the islands.

In Malé several generations of families share tight living quarters. As a result, young people spend most of their time out of the home and an entire generation of youth are underemployed and under stimulated.

GRAPHIC: “There is nothing to do here. The whole social fabric is torn.” Ali Adib Co-director of Journey, a drug rehabilitation NGO.)

That void has been filled by drug use.

An estimated 30,000 youth or 10% of the population are addicted to a cheap, low-grade heroin called “brown sugar”. It’s a drug epidemic of sweeping proportions.

GRAPHIC: “Getting drugs is like pizza delivery.” (Mohamed Arif – a former user)

The increase in drug trafficking, which has ties to the old regime, has provoked gang related violence and more recently attacks on the police.

In the last seven years drug offences in Malé have increased more than 500% and violent crimes by 200%.

In addition to the problems inherent to building a new democracy, and a rampant heroin epidemic, the island nation faces an even larger challenge.

The Maldives could find most of the islands – many of which only rise 1 meter above the ocean – absorbed by a rising sea due to climate change.

Abdul Azeez, a leading Maldivian environmentalist, puts it this way “We are sitting on a time bomb”.

The Maldives is completely dependent on imported fossil fuels and as a result, Nasheed’s first course of action is to develop solar, wave and wind energy to make the country carbon neutral by 2010. The new president put’s it this way:

“What we need to do is nothing short of de-carbonizing the entire global economy –
If you can’t save the Maldives, you can’t save the rest of the world.”