I’ve arrived in the Maldivian capital of Malé, the only capital to occupy its own island. Other capitals can be found on islands, but there are no others that are islands. Its two square kilometres host somewhere between 90,000 and 150,000 people (definite figures are hard to come by). Even by lowest estimates this makes Malé one of the most densely occupied cities on the planet. In stark contrast to spacious whole-island resorts for which the country is famed (and which provide a huge proportion of its earnings) Malé is a warren of tight streets, filled with the buzzing of thousands of scooters.
With limited street lighting I’m amusingly confused several times this evening by what I imagine to be the twin beams of car headlights approaching, which suddenly diverge as two scooters pass either side of me. I think I need to avoid a car and go to make a move only for said vehicle to apparently split in two in an attempt to make sure I have no escape (except possibly from this mortal coil). Nobody wears helmets and most people drive with the sort of reckless abandon that could make one reflect kindly on Tracy Wemmet’s skills behind the wheel. I say ‘could’ advisedly. (If you’ve been keeping up with the blog you’ll remember Tracy as the afterlife-seeking PR representative for thin film solar panel manufactures Konarka in Boston).
Just as the contrast between the spacious resorts and the teeming metropolis of Malé is stark, so is that between the wealth of visitors and native Maldivians. As the man I’ve come see (newly elected president Mohammed Nasheed) says:
“We have a situation in the Maldives where you have a very poor 3rd world island which is next to a very rich European island.” One of his initiatives to address this disparity is to encourage resorts to link their economies with neighbouring islands by buying labour and supplies.
Nature’s most abundant greenhouse gas, water vapour, makes itself known in the Maldives. The air enjoyed by the Maldivian archipelago is humid, keeping the nights hot and muggy. By the time I’ve spent an hour getting lost in the city’s streets I’m covered in a thin film of perspiration.
By the docks I find hundreds of boats, many offloading strong smelling catches of huge yellow fin tuna. The tuna are dumped unceremoniously into pots with their heads down (and thus obscured) giving them the comic appearance of a strange cross between a cactus and a hat stand.
In a tiled hall I witness the fish being gutted and prepared for sale. Huge knives expertly gouge out lidless eyes, heads are ripped off, spines are removed in single, swift and well practiced movements by men smoking cigarettes and made indifferent to their butchery through repetition. I guess ripping the head of a tuna becomes as mundane as processing an invoice if you’ve done it enough times.
Most foreign visitors (whose number is almost double the population of the nation) either never see Malé (transferring directly to and from the resorts) or spend just a single night here in preparation for an early morning return flight. I’m happy to be here longer, getting to see the Maldivian people on their own terms, as well as meet their new president.
Mohamed ‘Anni’ Nasheed has had an extraordinary life, and he’s only 42. In 2008 Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party (born in exile in Sri Lanka, and Wiltshire) ended the 30 year dictatorship of Maumoon Adul Gayoom, a man who wasn’t shy of conducting human rights abuses, particularly against those who didn’t like his autocratic government. Detention without trial, torture and politically motivated assassinations were all part of the portfolio.
In a speech given a year before he became president to the UK Conservative Party (who’d helped Nasheed organise and gain international recognition for the MDP) Nasheed said:
“The minute we mention the Maldives it’s very hard for us to convince you that it really is hell for a lot of people, because it’s such a beautiful place. Its beauty doesn’t quite go with brutality, torture and all the atrocities that happen there.”
Two years later Nasheed returned to the Conservative party conference, as the first democratically elected president of the Maldives to say ‘thank you’ and lobby for increased action on combating climate change. He recalled:
“I speak as a man who has personally experienced the worse a regime can contrive in order to suppress its people. I was imprisoned on 16 different occasions and spent a total of 6 years in jail. Of these I spend 18 months in solitary confinement. The thing that saddens me most about these experiences is that I was not able to witness the birth of my two daughters.”
In the same speech he remarked, “Not surprisingly these obscenities were never mentioned internationally as an incentive to visit my country.” Human rights abuses don’t sit well with tourism and the international community was slowly waking up to the unsavoury political picture on the islands. On the home front too things were getting sticky for Gayoom. Despite his penchant for criminal repression, civil unrest was growing. A 2004 protest saw 3,000 democracy protesters take to the streets of the capital to demand reform. (On Malé that’s a huge demonstration). Gayoom sent in the riot police – hundreds were arrested and the day became know as ‘Black Friday’. Internationally, he went on the PR offensive, hiring the London PR firm Hill and Knowlton, who were reportedly paid £13,000 a month for their services. Not long after, the move rather back-fired for both Gayoom and his Soho-based advocates, by attracting a whole bunch of bad press for all concerned and drawing even more attention to his regime’s shortcomings.
Modernisers in his own government convinced Gayoom that if he wasn’t careful he’d have a full scale revolution on his hands and he reluctantly agreed to official recognition of other political parties, the MDP being the first. The Asian tsunami of Boxing Day 2004 also brought indirect pressure. It’s hard to ask for international aid when you’re known for imprisoning and murdering your own people. Elsewhere though he continued to stall on constitutional reform and in 2005 Gayoom reverted to old habits. At a demonstration marking the anniversary of Black Friday Gayoom sent police to arrest Nasheed – and subsequently charged him with terrorism (also telling him the loudspeaker he was using to address the crowd was ‘a weapon’). One wonders what Hill and Knowlton had been teaching Gayoom. Surely in the rule book of PR there’s something that says,
“Rule 46: when under the watchful eye of the international community and human rights organisations try not to arrest popular democracy reformers. In particular don’t send a pack of armed police into a large crowd where lots of people have cameras to drag away one unarmed man. It looks bad, trust us. Instead, we suggest a cocktail reception.”
The arrest, unsurprisingly, sparked further public dissent and international observers voiced concerns that Nasheed would not receive a fair trial. It took a nearly a year but in the end Nasheed walked free, in exchange for a promise not to foment revolution. But the revolution had already happened. Despite Gayoom now trying to paint himself as a political reformer (not and easy task when it’s your own rule that needs reforming) Nasheed won the first free presidential election last year.
In a speech earlier this year, Nasheed gave an example of how democracy is slowly taking root:
“One of the first people released after the election was a man who four years ago held a banner calling for the resignation of my predecessor. I urged him to exercise his new found freedoms to hold the government to account. I’m pleased that the fellow has already started his work and has called for my resignation! I am proud to report that there are no political prisoners in the Maldives.”
Other popular moves included destroying the buildings used for detention and torture, and choosing to turn the opulent multi-million dollar presidential palace built by his predecessor over to the judiciary to house a new supreme court. That palace I think is one of the biggest smoking guns when it comes to nailing Gayoom’s ‘evil bonkers dictator’ reputation. The absolute giveaway is the gold plated toilet (pictured below). I mean, come on. If a bullion-encrusted commode doesn’t cry out, “I really am a self serving bastard” what does?
Nasheed and Gayoom may not share an interest in gaudy bathroom furniture, but they do both understand the power of PR, although Nasheed’s a damn sight better at it than Hill and Knowlton. Nasheed is an ex-journalist (it was criticism of Gayoom in his magazine Sangu that first brought him into direct conflict with the previous regime) and has used his media savvy to bring the most pressing problem the Maldives faces to the international stage.
Not one of the 1190 islands that make up the nation is more than six feet above sea level. So as the planet warms and the seas expand the risk is that they’ll be less and less of the Maldives to see. “The challenges facing us are great,” says Nasheed. “I need not rehearse here the statistics relating to climate change. I will simply tell you that if the process continues unchecked my grandchildren will find their island home has disappeared completely under the seas.” In an impassioned speech to the UN assembly he was unequivocal. “It’s crystal clear to us…. If things go business as usual we will not live. We will die. Our country will not exist.”
He has described the Maldives as the equivalent of the ‘canary in the coal mine’ that miners used to help detect build ups of deadly methane and carbon dioxide. (Above certain concentrations of these gases canaries tend to die, hence the analogy of the ‘canary in the coal mine’ as a warning to others that prevails today). Nasheed argues that, “If we cannot save 350,000 Maldivians from rising seas today we cannot save the millions in New York, London or Mumbai tomorrow.” To the world he says, “we are all Maldivians now” and compares his country to Poland in the second world war, ‘a frontline state’ in the global battle against CO2 rise. But Nasheed isn’t a pessimist, instead using the climate challenge problem to position the Maldives as a nation-sized laboratory of change, an example to the world of how we might battle global warming.
“The Maldives is determined to break old habits,” he told the UN. “From now on we will no longer be content to shout about the perils of climate change. Instead we believe our acute vulnerability provides us with the clarity of vision to understand how the problem may be solved.”
Too much of the debate over climate change has been debilitating he argues. “The Kyoto protocol and the current narrative about global climatic change has been about not doing things, about not emitting gas, about not going on holiday, about not having an icecream,” Nasheed told Al Jazeera. “My feeling is this is the wrong way to go about it. We should be demanding we do things, do greener things, invest in renewable energy. Renewable energy is doable, it’s feasible and will give you a handsome return.”
He wants to provide a template, or ‘survival kit’ for other nations. One of his first big announcements upon coming to power was to commit his nation to becoming carbon neutral within 10 years, and I’ve been reliably informed that some concrete announcements will be made concerning this plan in the coming week or two. This might go some way to answering Nasheed’s critics who claim he’s all publicity but has little political substance.
Those same critics will no doubt see tomorrow’s attention grabbing event as another example of a president interested more with publicity than policy. Nasheed will lead the world’s first underwater cabinet meeting, three metres below the waves, complete with a table, national flags and a scuba support team.