MALDIVES IS AN ISOLATED nation and is among the smallest and poorest countries in the world. In olden times, the islands provided the main source of cowrie shells, then used as currency throughout Asia and parts of the East African coast. Moreover, historically Maldives has had a strategic importance because of its location on the major marine routes of the Indian Ocean. Maldives' nearest neighbors are Sri Lanka and India, both of which have had cultural and economic ties with Maldives for centuries. Although under nominal Portuguese, Dutch, and British influences after the sixteenth century, Maldivians were left to govern themselves under a long line of sultans and occasionally sultanas.
Maldives gained independence in 1965. The British, who had been Maldives' last colonial power, continued to maintain an air base on the island of Gan in the southernmost atoll until 1976. The British departure in 1976 almost immediately triggered foreign speculation about the future of the air base; the Soviet Union requested use of the base, but Maldives refused.
The greatest challenge facing the republic in the early 1990s was the need for rapid economic development and modernization, given the country's limited resource base in fishing and tourism. Concern was also evident over a projected long-term rise in sea level, which would prove disastrous to the low-lying coral islands.
Maldivians consider the introduction of Islam in A.D. 1153 as the cornerstone of their country's history. Islam remains the state religion in the 1990s. Except for a brief period of Portuguese occupation from 1558-73, Maldives also has remained independent. Because the Muslim religion prohibits images portraying gods, local interest in ancient statues of the pre- Islamic period is not only slight but at times even hostile; villagers have been known to destroy such statues recently unearthed.
Western interest in the archaeological remains of early cultures on Maldives began with the work of H.C.P. Bell, a British commissioner of the Ceylon Civil Service. Bell was shipwrecked on the islands in 1879, and he returned several times to investigate ancient Buddhist ruins. Historians have established that by the fourth century A.D. Theravada Buddhism originating from Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka) became the dominant religion of the people of Maldives. Some scholars believe that the name "Maldives" derives from the Sanskrit maladvipa, meaning "garland of islands." In the mid-1980s, the Maldivian government allowed the noted explorer and expert on early marine navigation, Thor Heyerdahl, to excavate ancient sites. Heyerdahl studied the ancient mounds, called hawitta by the Maldivians, found on many of the atolls. Some of his archaeological discoveries of stone figures and carvings from pre-Islamic civilizations are today exhibited in a side room of the small National Museum on Male.
Heyerdahl's research indicates that as early as 2,000 B.C. Maldives lay on the maritime trading routes of early Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Indus Valley civilizations. Heyerdahl believes that early sun-worshipping seafarers, called the Redin, first settled on the islands. Even today, many mosques in Maldives face the sun and not Mecca, lending credence to this theory. Because building space and materials were scarce, successive cultures constructed their places of worship on the foundations of previous buildings. Heyerdahl thus surmises that these sun-facing mosques were built on the ancient foundations of the Redin culture temples.
The interest of Middle Eastern peoples in Maldives resulted from its strategic location and its abundant supply of cowrie shells, a form of currency that was widely used throughout Asia and parts of the East African coast since ancient times. Middle Eastern seafarers had just begun to take over the Indian Ocean trade routes in the tenth century A.D. and found Maldives to be an important link in those routes. The importance of the Arabs as traders in the Indian Ocean by the twelfth century A.D. may partly explain why the last Buddhist king of Maldives converted to Islam in the year 1153. The king thereupon adopted the Muslim title and name of Sultan Muhammad al Adil, initiating a series of six dynasties consisting of eighty-four sultans and sultanas that lasted until 1932 when the sultanate became elective. The person responsible for this conversion was a Sunni Muslim visitor named Abu al Barakat. His venerated tomb now stands on the grounds of Hukuru Mosque, or miski, in the capital of Male. Built in 1656, this is the oldest mosque in Maldives. Arab interest in Maldives also was reflected in the residence there in the 1340s of the well-known North African traveler Ibn Battutah.
In 1558 the Portuguese established themselves on Maldives, which they administered from Goa on India's west coast. Fifteen years later, a local guerrilla leader named Muhammad Thakurufaan organized a popular revolt and drove the Portuguese out of Maldives. This event is now commemorated as National Day, and a small museum and memorial center honor the hero on his home island of Utim on South Tiladummati Atoll.
In the mid-seventeenth century, the Dutch, who had replaced the Portuguese as the dominant power in Ceylon, established hegemony over Maldivian affairs without involving themselves directly in local matters, which were governed according to centuries-old Islamic customs. However, the British expelled the Dutch from Ceylon in 1796 and included Maldives as a British protected area. The status of Maldives as a British protectorate was officially recorded in an 1887 agreement in which the sultan accepted British influence over Maldivian external relations and defense. The British had no presence, however, on the leading island community of Male. They left the islanders alone, as had the Dutch, with regard to internal administration to continue to be regulated by Muslim traditional institutions.
During the British era from 1887 to 1965, Maldives continued to be ruled under a succession of sultans. The sultans were hereditary until 1932 when an attempt was made to make the sultanate elective, thereby limiting the absolute powers of sultans. At that time, a constitution was introduced for the first time, although the sultanate was retained for an additional twenty-one years. Maldives remained a British crown protectorate until 1953 when the sultanate was suspended and the First Republic was declared under the short-lived presidency of Muhammad Amin Didi. This first elected president of the country introduced several reforms. While serving as prime minister during the 1940s, Didi nationalized the fish export industry. As president he is remembered as a reformer of the education system and a promoter of women's rights. Muslim conservatives in Male eventually ousted his government, and during a riot over food shortages, Didi was beaten by a mob and died on a nearby island.
Beginning in the 1950s, political history in Maldives was largely influenced by the British military presence in the islands. In 1954 the restoration of the sultanate perpetuated the rule of the past. Two years later, Britain obtained permission to reestablish its wartime airfield on Gan in the southernmost Addu Atoll. Maldives granted the British a 100-year lease on Gan that required them to pay £2,000 a year, as well as some forty-four hectares on Hitaddu for radio installations. In 1957, however, the new prime minister, Ibrahim Nasir, called for a review of the agreement in the interest of shortening the lease and increasing the annual payment. But Nasir, who was theoretically responsible to then sultan Muhammad Farid Didi, was challenged in 1959 by a local secessionist movement in the southern atolls that benefited economically from the British presence on Gan. This group cut ties with the Maldives government and formed an independent state with Abdulla Afif Didi as president. The short-lived state (1959-62), called the United Suvadivan Republic, had a combined population of 20,000 inhabitants scattered in the atolls then named Suvadiva--since renamed North Huvadu and South Huvadu--and Addu and Fua Mulaku. In 1962 Nasir sent gunboats from Male with government police on board to eliminate elements opposed to his rule. Abdulla Afif Didi fled to the then British colony of Seychelles, where he was granted political asylum.
Meanwhile, in 1960 Maldives allowed Britain to continue to use both the Gan and the Hitaddu facilities for a thirty-year period, with the payment of £750,000 over the period of 1960 to 1965 for the purpose of Maldives' economic development.
On July 26, 1965, Maldives gained independence under an agreement signed with Britain. The British government retained the use of the Gan and Hitaddu facilities. In a national referendum in March 1968, Maldivians abolished the sultanate and established a republic. The Second Republic was proclaimed in November 1968 under the presidency of Ibrahim Nasir, who had increasingly dominated the political scene. Under the new constitution, Nasir was elected indirectly to a four-year presidential term by the Majlis (legislature). He appointed Ahmed Zaki as the new prime minister. In 1973 Nasir was elected to a second term under the constitution as amended in 1972, which extended the presidential term to five years and which also provided for the election of the prime minister by the Majlis. In March 1975, newly elected prime minister Zaki was arrested in a bloodless coup and was banished to a remote atoll. Observers suggested that Zaki was becoming too popular and hence posed a threat to the Nasir faction.
During the 1970s, the economic situation in Maldives suffered a setback when the Sri Lankan market for Maldives' main export of dried fish collapsed. Adding to the problems was the British decision in 1975 to close its airfield on Gan in line with its new policy of abandoning defense commitments east of the Suez Canal. A steep commercial decline followed the evacuation of Gan in March 1976. As a result, the popularity of Nasir's government suffered. Maldives's twenty-year period of authoritarian rule under Nasir abruptly ended in 1978 when he fled to Singapore. A subsequent investigation revealed that he had absconded with millions of dollars from the state treasury.
Elected to replace Nasir for a five-year presidential term in 1978 was Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, a former university lecturer and Maldivian ambassador to the United Nations (UN). The peaceful election was seen as ushering in a period of political stability and economic development in view of Gayoom's priority to develop the poorer islands. In 1978 Maldives joined the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. Tourism also gained in importance to the local economy, reaching more than 120,000 visitors in 1985. The local populace appeared to benefit from increased tourism and the corresponding increase in foreign contacts involving various development projects. Despite coup attempts in 1980, 1983, and 1988, Gayoom's popularity remained strong, allowing him to win three more presidential terms. In the 1983, 1988, and 1993 elections, Gayoom received more than 95 percent of the vote. Although the government did not allow any legal opposition, Gayoom was opposed in the early 1990s by Islamists (also seen as fundamentalists) who wanted to impose a more traditional way of life and by some powerful local business leaders.
Whereas the 1980 and 1983 coup attempts against Gayoom's presidency were not considered serious, the third coup attempt in November 1988 alarmed the international community. About eighty armed Tamil mercenaries landed on Male before dawn aboard speedboats from a freighter. Disguised as visitors, a similar number had already infiltrated Male earlier. Although the mercenaries quickly gained the nearby airport on Hulele, they failed to capture President Gayoom, who fled from house to house and asked for military intervention from India, the United States, and Britain. Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi immediately dispatched 1,600 troops by air to restore order in Male. Less than twelve hours later, Indian paratroopers arrived on Hulele, causing some of the mercenaries to flee toward Sri Lanka in their freighter. Those unable to reach the ship in time were quickly rounded up. Nineteen people reportedly died in the fighting, and several taken hostage also died. Three days later an Indian frigate captured the mercenaries on their freighter near the Sri Lankan coast. In July 1989, a number of the mercenaries were returned to Maldives to stand trial. Gayoom commuted the death sentences passed against them to life imprisonment.
The 1988 coup had been headed by a once prominent Maldivian businessperson named Abdullah Luthufi, who was operating a farm on Sri Lanka. Ex-president Nasir denied any involvement in the coup. In fact, in July 1990, President Gayoom officially pardoned Nasir in absentia in recognition of his role in obtaining Maldives' independence.
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