Friday, August 20
Maldives Unrest Worries International Community
by Feizal Samath, IbterPressService, August 20, 2004
COLOMBO – Maldives President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, Asia's longest running autocratic leader, is under international pressure to stop the crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in the Indian Ocean archipelago.
Colombo-based diplomats, who declined to be named, said a high-powered European Union delegation from EU-member missions based in Colombo was expected to fly to the capital Male at the weekend to urge the Maldives government to stop its harassment of political opponents.
Gayoom's government, which does not allow opposition political parties in the country, justified the crackdown and the state of emergency saying it was in danger of being toppled.
"Gayoom has to step down. That's the only way," Mohamed Latheef, founder and spokesperson for the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), told IPS. The MDP is a political party in exile based in the Sri Lankan capital – which is just an hour's flight away from Male.
Latheef's call has been echoed by many young Maldivians, some of whom recently carried banners saying, "Gayoom Should Quit" – a rare sight in a nation of some 340,000 people living for 25 years under a one-party government headed by Gayoom.
But observers point to the fact that unless economic pressure is exerted on Maldives, it will be business-as-usual for Gayoom.
Gayoom has attributed the economic boom since he took office to his policy of encouraging wealthy Westerners to stay at the Maldives' upmarket island resorts.
Maldives' economy is dependent on tourism, which accounts for 20 percent of GDP and brings in 60 percent of foreign exchange revenue.
But last week's demonstrations have had little impact on tourist arrivals. Visitors who arrive at the country's only airport situated on another small island near Male, are whisked by boat or seaplanes to their destinations far away from the capital.
"Tourism has been unaffected by the incidents in Male," noted Gehan Perera, a spokesman for Sri Lanka's Aitken Spence group, which has a couple of top-class resorts in the Maldives.
"However if the situation escalates and if there is an international dimension, then there would be some problems," Perera told IPS.
Niranjan Deva Addithya, member of the European Parliament, urged tourists not to visit the Maldives saying that by doing so they would be supporting a "tyrannical regime".
"The 77,400 British, 106,451 Italian and 77,642 German tourists, who visited the Maldives in the past year alone, paying an average of $200 a night in plush hotels, are supporting a tyrannical regime while 329,000 people are scrounging out an existence on less than one dollar a day," the Sri Lankan-born MP who lives in Britain was quoted as saying.