Trouble in paradise - but no impact on the tourists
By Can Merey Feb 8, 2012, 10:41 GMT
New Delhi - Paradise presents itself to holidaymakers as they jet into the Maldives: islands are scattered across a sea of blue, the beaches fringed with palms, and spectacular coral reefs can be discerned below the surface.
They are transported immediately on arrival at the main airport to their destination island by flying boat or launch. Few ever set foot on the island that is home to the capital of Male, with its ugly tower blocks. It is here that opposition activists have forced the resignation of President Mohamed Nasheed.
As the Indian Ocean island nation's first democratically elected president, Nasheed embodied the hopes of many when he took office in November 2008, succeeding Maumoon Abdul Gayoom at the head of the small Muslim country with a population of around 400,000.
On leaving office, Gayoom was Asia's longest-serving political leader, and under his 30-year rule Nasheed was arrested and tortured. Nasheed made clear he intended to leave a different legacy.
'I don't want to run the country with an iron fist. I am resigning,' Nasheed said in a televised address, adding he was doing so in the country's wider interest. Vice President Mohammed Waheed Hassan, who is backed by Gayoom's Progressive party of Maldives (PPM), immediately took up the reins.
The charismatic Nasheed, who ousted Gayoom in the 2008 elections and was seen by many as the embodiment of change, was himself the target of recent protests, rather than his government, observers believe.
As a sign of this, Waheed is not expected to introduce major changes and certainly not to embark on a programme of Islamization in the holiday paradise. The new head of state worked for the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) for years and is regarded as a Westernized progressive.
Opponents to Nasheed's presidency had long been mobilizing. While Islamist parties are not represented in parliament, the opposition began to make religious themes one of its main points of attack.
Their populist criticism of massages in the holiday resorts prompted Nasheed to ban certain so-called 'Wellness' packages offered by the tourist sector at the beginning of the year.
It was thought this could have a negative impact on the sector, which is the country's most important money spinner, and Nasheed's move was then seen by the opposition as a step too far. Many opposition leaders are hotel owners, and it was Gayoom's presidency that began promoting the islands as a tourist destination.
The Wellness ban, which generated international headlines, was rapidly reversed. But last month, opposition reached a peak at the arrest of a controversial judge who had ordered the release from prison of an opposition politician accused by the government of libel.
The protests intensified, and on Tuesday the police mutinied, many going over to the side of the protestors. The army responded with teargas, and in the ensuing chaos on the streets, Nasheed resigned, saying this was 'better for the country in the current situation'.
Tour operators began cancelling flights, and many governments advised against travel to the islands. However, the tourists in their hotels on the islands were reportedly unaffected by the political drama being played out in the capital.
Responding to a question, one of the hotels responded that there had been a few queries from holidaymakers planning a visit, but there was little concern among their guests, and the Ministry for Tourism issued a statement to the effect that 'these events will in no way affect or alter' holiday arrangements.