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new internationalist
issue 199 - September 1989



Map of the Maldive Islands The traditional Maldivian heat smacks you a warm greeting as you step from the plane, welcoming you to the islands in the Indian Ocean that make up the Maldives.

The Portuguese ruled here briefly in the seventeenth century, and the islands were a British protectorate for about 70 years before regaining sovereignty in 1965. Racially, the people are mixed, reflecting the migrations of Arabs, north and south Indians and Africans.

Tourism is a growing industry with most visitors coming from Europe, seeking sun and water sports.

In his quest for economic emancipation, President Gayoom - the gentle strong-man of the Maldives - has made education a priority and is boosting the country's commercial potential. The new airport gives swifter access for tourists and Gan island's former airbase has been converted into an industrial and commercial complex. Aid has come from the Japanese and Saudis among others and this has helped improve communications, water supply and sanitation and boost the fishing industry which employs about half the workforce.

But the Maldives has had its share of knocks, both climatic and man-made. A gradual rise in the sea level threatens to engulf the archipelago within the next 30 years, and drinking water is in danger of drying up. Freak tidal waves hit the airport in 1987 and left a trail of destruction on several islands.

Photo: Dexter Tiranti And then, late in 1988, a force of Tamil-speaking mercenaries landed by boat, stormed the Presidential palace and tried to seize control of Male, the capital. Maldive-watchers saw the hand of former President Ibrahim Nasir behind the coup. In response to President Gayoom's call for help, India despatched paratroopers and ships, which finally overwhelmed the ill-equipped Tamils and crushed the coup.

Today the Maldives seem politically stable, with good economic growth and a programme of social improvement including a literacy drive. Internationally, Gayoom has been making the country's presence felt by taking an active role in the Non-Aligned movement, the Commonwealth and the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC).

The image of the Maldives as a coral necklace of islands basking in the sun belies its iron commitment to peace, refusing foreign military facilities and backing the declaration of the Indian Ocean as a peace zone. Putting principles into action, in the late 1970s the country turned down Moscow's attractive offer to lease Gan island for a million US dollars a year - not an easy decision for a country so dependent on foreign exchange for imports.

Nalin Wijesekera

Leader: President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom

Economy: GNP per capita figure not available.
Monetary unit: Rufiyaa
Tourism, shipping garments and fishing are main activities.
Main exports clothing fresh skipjack tuna and dry salt fish, and tuna, mostly bound for Japan, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Singapore.
Main imports: consumer goods, capital equipment and petroleum products supplied by Sri Lanka, Japan, Europe and Thailand.

Agriculture is based on fishing; the shallow and alkaline soil does not retain water. Crops grown for local needs are coconuts, breadfruit, finger millet, sweet potatoes, cassava, taro, maize, sorghum, chillies, onions, cucumbers, beans, cabbages, pumpkins, bananas, melons, papayas, lemons and star apples.

People: 180,000

Health: No figures available, but good diet offset by poor water and sanitation.

Culture: The Maldives is a former Arab sultanate and the Islamic influence is strong with offices closed on Fridays and prohibitions on the import of pork and alcohol, although alcohol can be consumed by foreigners.

Language: Dhivehi, a branch of the Indo-European family of languages.

Religion: Islam.

Sources: Asia and Pacific Review 1988 and author information.


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Good between middle class but poverty for the rest.

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High dependency on imports of consumer goods and durables, better on food.

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More liberal than most Islamic states; veil not obligatory; women work alongside men.

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Sways to right wing. Strong popular Presidential government favouring Arab path to modernity

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Figure not available, literacy drive part of current government plans.

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Anti-Islamic and pro-communist sentiments are censored.

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61 years
(US 76 years)

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New Internationalist issue 199 magazine cover This article is from the September 1989 issue of New Internationalist.
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