It’s the destinations most people avoid that I’ve found to be the most rewarding: countries like Papua New Guinea, East Timor and Burma before the tourism boom. So when I finally succumbed to my girlfriend’s pleas for a holiday in the Maldives – the Indian Ocean archipelago home to some of the world’s most exquisite tropical resorts – I made it my business to fly in a day earlier to get to know the capital Malé.
Utterly remarkable when seen from the air, Malé is a floating city of that rises Atlantis-like from a turquoise ocean. Home to 115,000 people, the 1.77 square kilometer blip of land is one of the most densely populated places on earth, yet visited by next to none of the million-something tourists who flock to the Maldives every year. Add a bustling fish market, centuries-old mosques, a national museum, and spicy Afro-Indian street food, and Malé had the makings of a superb travel destination.
To make the most of my time, I got in touch with a tourist guide in Malé asked him to show me the sights. Joe, as I’ll call him, said he’d be delighted and offered to meet me at Malé International Airport on nearby Hulhule Island on the morning of my arrival.
Meet Joe Black
Despite its paradisiacal setting, the Maldives is plagued by political infighting. In 2012, the country’s first democratically elected president Mohamed Nasheed resigned in dubious circumstances amid violent anti-government protests in Malé. In March 2015, Rasheed hit the headlines again when he was sentenced to 13 years imprisonment on trumped-up terrorism charges that have been criticized by the UN.
In September, Nasheed’s successor Yameen Abdul Gayoom was nearly killed when an explosion, said to be a bomb, rocked his speedboat. A month later, the vice-president Ahmed Adeeb was arrested over the incident – despite an FBI investigation that concluded the explosion wasn’t caused by a bomb.
The Maldivian Government rejected the FBI’s findings and declared a 30-day state of emergency on the back of yet another uncorroborated attempt on the president’s life: the discovery of a car bomb near the presidential residence. But six days later – and only one day before my arrival – the state of emergency was inexplicably lifted.
When I meet Joe at the airport, he tells me the state of emergency was lifted because it was damaging the country’s all-important tourism trade. Yet when I ask him for more details he says that’s all he knows, steering me from the arrival terminal to a jetty where we board a ferry for a 10-minute ride to the capital.
Malé is much as I expected: a heaving tropical concrete jungle writhing with color and life and goateed men in robes cut straight out of a Kipling novel. The rubbish-strewn streets are suffocatingly narrow, choked with scooters and lined with dilapidated candy-colored buildings. The Muslim call to prayer echoes out from minarets while women in burqas and headscarves scuttle around carrying shopping bags and babies on their backs.
After turning into a narrow alleyway, we enter a doorway and climb six flights of steps to a one-bedroom apartment where Joe lives with his wife and four children. After closing the door, he turns to me and says: “Did you tell them at the airport you were a journalist?”
“No.” I answer. “Why?”
“Because when we met at the airport… I saw a man… I think a government person watching us.”
Over the course of the next hour Joe describes the Maldives as a soft version of Nineteen Eighty Four – a tin-pot dictatorship where entrepreneurship is discouraged to keep people poor and docile and where alcohol is banned in accordance with Sharia law but heroin is sold with impunity by violent street gangs. The regime, Joe says, use these gangs as a de facto security force to threaten, beat and even kill dissenters like Ahmed Rilwan, a controversial journalist who disappeared in August 2014, and Afrasheem Ali, an MP who was brutally murdered outside of his home in October 2012. But worst of all, Joe says, is the omnipresent government surveillance and spy network that short circuits dissent before it can take root. “This is the worst feeling in the world,” he says, “knowing that I can’t speak freely. Come look outside and I will show you.”
Joe leads me to the window and points out three state-of-the-art CCTV cameras I had not previously noticed that scope every inch of the lane. My eyes then wander to a man in sunglasses standing at the junction where the laneway meets the road, who looks up at me momentarily before wandering off. Was it just a sidewards glance, or something more nefarious?
“Why are you telling me all this?” I ask.
“Because I feel that if I don’t do anything, my children and my grandchildren will also grow up living in fear,” he says. “And because I hope you will tell the world about what is happening here.”
Democracy Behind Bars
After lunch Joe takes me for a walk through the city. What only a few hours ago had been a pleasant stroll in a new and exotic part of the world has now assumed the aura of a psychological tightrope. Paranoia grips every inch of my being as I find myself questioning the intentions of every person I make eye contact with, fearing that at any moment a police car will pull over and whisk us away. We pass the offices of the Maldivian Democratic party (MDP), a glass shopfront wallpapered with posters of the jailed former president. Thick white cracks sprawl like a spiderweb across one side of the frontage where someone hurled a brick or rock at the window. I also notice stencils and posters of Nasheed plastered all over town underscored by the social media handle #freepresidentnasheed.
We walk counterclockwise around the island, along a seawall littered with the burned out shells of cars, broken furniture and garbage. We continue to Republic Square where a large and violent protest by plain-clothed individuals, police and soldiers culminated in Nasheed’s “resignation” in February of 2012. But according to Rasheed’s lawyer, Amal Clooney, the wife of actor George Clooney, Nasheed was forced to resign at gunpoint.
“I was at this very place that day. I saw what happened,” Joe whispers into my ear. “I saw opposition MPs being beaten by police and army people right in front of my eyes. It was very clear this was a coup. I never understood why world powers refused to recognize it as coup.”
Our walk comes to an end at the fish market. It’s late in the afternoon and hawkers are in full force, yelling out prices for buckets of still-squirming reef fish and yellowfin tuna up to two meters long. After snapping a few photos, we take a seat at cafe upstairs where Joe asks me if I’ve considered his proposition. Specifically, he wants me to interview Nasheed’s cousin, MP Eva Abdulla, a vocal and daring critic of the regime.
I recall a promise I made to my partner to keep my nose out of politics in the Maldives. But I can’t deny the sense of respect and awe I feel for Joe, an ordinary man who’s willing to risk his job, the limited freedoms he has, and even the wellbeing of his family. And with that my plan to write another self-serving travel story is buried under the weight of its irrelevance and replaced with a plot to rendezvous with this “rebel” MP. But Joe and I concur it’s too risky for him to contact her directly. So instead he agrees to send a runner to ask her if she will agree to meet me at my hotel at night.
We then shake hands and go our separate ways.
What follows is the one of the longest nights of my life. Not so much because of the atrocious condition of my lodgings – a claustrophobic shoebox replete with a dirty mattress, cracked toilet bowl, and squealing ceiling fan – but because of the impending knock on the door. Will it be Abdulla who comes to my room? A group of burly policeman who’ll take me to an island prison and throw away the key? Or, even worse, a group of government thugs who’ll put me on a boat and feed me to the sharks?
But the knock never comes and when I awake drenched in sweat shortly after dawn, I make a beeline for the airport and get the hell out of Dodge.
The Long Hot Fortnight
Over the next two weeks I find myself drifting in and out of morally confused decadence while holidaying in the Maldives. The blinding beauty of the country’s beaches, the freshness of the seafood, and the grandeur of its resorts make wallowing difficult. Yet my thoughts never stray too far from Joe and his predicament, or from Abdulla, whom I track down via Twitter and attempt – but fail – to interview on the phone.
The night before I’m set to depart from the Maldives coincides with a thousands-strong pro-democracy protest in Malé where the opposition demand the release of Nasheed and 1,700 other political prisoners.
The regime outright rejects protestors’ demands and gives them an ultimatum: Move on by midnight or police will take action. Wary of how the situation could easily escalate into violence, I send a text message to Abdulla half an hour before midnight to see if everything is OK. Her reply sends me into a spin.
“Already attacked. Entire leadership pepper sprayed. Dispersed.”
I text her back immediately, requesting elaboration. Her reply, a disjointed series of text messages, reads as such:
“Barged into our party rally centre.”
“They would need a court order to enter our centre.”
“But barged in without one.”
“Party deputy chair and party VP, former housing minister in hospital. Parliamentary group leader heavily pepper sprayed.”
“Chilli spray I think.”
After that she goes silent, and there is no doubt in my mind about what I have to do. I jump onto my laptop, knock out a breaking news story and forward it to an editor I know at Al Jazeera – stressing that the story cannot be published under my name.
When I awake the next morning, I jump onto Al Jazeera’s homepage and read the headline: “Maldives Police in Violent Crackdown Against Opposition” written by a “correspondent reporting for Al Jazeera from the Maldives”.
I can’t help but feel a little bit clever for getting the story out without endangering myself. But my inflated sense of self pops like a Ponzi scheme later that day when, while boarding a seaplane for the international airport, I receive a message from Abdulla warning me to careful because her phone is bugged.
I share the development with my girlfriend, who, as you can imagine, is less than pleased. Not only have I broken my promise to her, I’ve put myself in the firing line and dragged her along for the ride. My arguments about fighting the system fall on death ears and we don’t exchange another word until we alight at the seaplane terminal on Hulhule Island.
The next two hours are even more nerve-racking than my first night in Malé. Every time I see a person in uniform I literally jump out of my skin and I’m almost certain I will be pulled aside while attempting to clear immigration.
Yet it ends up being a case of much ado about nothing and we board our flight back to Singapore without a snag. But as the islands of the Maldives, luminescent pearls in the ocean, depart my field of vision, I can only compare the country’s incredible beauty to the ugliness of an unelected government driven by the banality of power and greed.
“Under the current government the police are becoming more brutal and unbending than ever,” Abdulla tells me when I finally speak to her on the phone. “They are now saying we are no longer allowed to protest and that they’ll never release Nasheed.”
“But it’s an eventual process,” she says. “We’ll keep on protesting and demanding the release of Nasheed. As long as he’s in prison, no one in the Maldives will be free.”
Ian Neubauer is a freelance journalist in Australia.