Located in the Indian Ocean 700 kilometers southwest of India, the Maldives have been a trading crossroads for centuries. The country's modern history has been marked by coups and unrest, to which an authoritarian government has most often seemed the only solution.
Though small, the islands are closely connected to world affairs. A Treaty of Free Association ties them to the Commonwealth of Australia and New Zealand and its network of mostly island-based allies. The Maldives host a major ANZAF base that serves as the strategic hub for ANZ operations in the Indian Ocean, southern Asia, and the Horn of Africa. It is also home to a regional headquarters of the World Wildlife Fund, attesting both to the country's global role and its rich natural beauty.
The Maldives has a long history. It was probably settled in several waves by people from India and Sri Lanka. It unified as a kingdom in the 12th century and converted to Islam shortly after. The Sultanate of the Maldives became a British protectorate in the nineteenth century but played only a marginal role in the British Empire before the independence of India and Sri Lanka. At that time, to maintain Britain's strategic presence in Asia, the World War II-era station RAF Gan was refurbished and expanded. The monarchy was briefly overthrown in the early 1950s but returned after just two years.
The Maldives achieved independence on 26 July 1965. The agreement was signed by the British ambassador and by Prime Minister Ibrahim Nasir on behalf of the Sultan. After independence, the sultanate lasted another three years under Muhammad Fareed Didi. On 11 November 1968, the monarchy was abolished again. The Maldives became a republic under Nasir, but this was a cosmetic change without any real change to the structures of government. Tourism began to develop around the beginning of the 1970s.
However, political infighting during the 1970s between President Nasir's faction and other leaders led to the 1975 arrest of Prime Minister Ahmed Zaki and his exile to a remote atoll. RAF Gan was closed in 1976 as part of a wider British withdrawal from the region "East of Suez". This and the collapse of the market for dried fish sparked a severe economic decline. With support for his administration faltering, Nasir fled to Singapore in 1978, apparently with millions of dollars from the treasury.
The populist Maumoon Abdul Gayoom was elected president in 1978. Nasir continued to plot his return, launching a coup attempt in 1980. These machinations encouraged Gayoom to shore up his power. His rule grew more authoritarian, and he began to crack down on dissent.
Doomsday and Aftermath
Maldives suffered no direct attacks in September 1983, but the war's effects were too much for the already unstable young nation. A food exporter with a recently modernized fishing fleet, the islands were never in danger of starvation; but the disruption to global trade devastated the economy and cut off access to essential supplies.
In 1984, the exiled President Nasir and a group of Maldivian businessmen took advantage of the chaos and launched a final coup attempt. A few boats of Sri Lankan mercenaries approached the capital early in the morning. They occupied the government buildings before local security forces could respond. Gayoom and his family fled, moving from house to house until they could get to a patrol boat and escape the country.
Nasir had no popular support whatsoever. While he enacted policies to crush dissent, his presence inspired an underground resistance movement. The opposition plagued Nasir's regime with constant sabotage and other actions to undermine the government's ability to rule. After just a few months, Nasir had no choice but to step down as head of state and assume a background role in the ruling junta. Abdullah Luthufi, a business leader who had helped Nasir finance and mastermind the coup, assumed the presidency.
The ousted president Gayoom maintained contact with the small groups that continued to resist Nasir and Luthufi. While he could not mount the mercenary force that they could, he had actual support within the Maldivian population, while they had none. This gave Gayoom an advantage in the long term. Throughout Luthufi's years in control, the resistance grew in strength and organization. The plan finally sprung after five years, in 1989 - any longer, and Gayoom feared that he might be forgotten. In a reverse of the outside-in attack of 1984, Gayoom's coup began within the local police force and coast guard. Foreign mercenaries were arrested at a prearranged moment by the men under their command. Nasir and Luthufi again managed to flee. Gayoom returned in triumph.
The restored regime did not make any concessions to liberal democracy, however. Gayoom relied on popular support, but he remained terrified of another coup attempt and tolerated no opposition. Political parties remained illegal. The People's Majlis, the national legislature, existed mostly to give perfunctory approval to the decisions of the president. However, Gayoom worked tirelessly to rebuild the Maldives' economy. A hungry world had great demand for the country's fish exports, and dried fish were again a lucrative product. Trade grew especially with the cities of India and Indonesia. The trading fleet of the Cocos Islands became an important partner.
In the late 90s, Australia and New Zealand became heavily involved with the Maldives. To understand how, it's necessary to step back and look at the Commonwealth's strategic interests in the Indian Ocean.
Australia-bound British ships had explored the Chagos Archipelago - the former British Indian Ocean Territory - in 1984, as they responded to the Gathering Order. They sailed past the wreckage of the Anglo-American base on Diego Garcia and found no survivors. In 1988 an Australian expedition went back looking for anything that could be salvaged; it found nothing. The island itself was mostly gone.
When Australia and New Zealand united to form a single Commonwealth in 1995, military leaders immediately began to look for ways to extend the strategic reach of the new regional power. Diego Garcia would have been a great asset partway across the Indian Ocean, but any new facility in the Chagos would have to be built from scratch. The Maldives, however, still had the old RAF station on Gan. It was well placed to serve as a base for any future operations in India and the Middle East.
Australia and New Zealand had been in diplomatic contact with the Maldives more or less continuously, and now talks began about restoring the base. President Gayoom held out to get as generous an offer as possible, but really he was delighted by the prospect. The RAF had brought lots of money to the country, both through direct lease payments, and through the people it employed and the money that the servicemen had spent. When the base had been about to close, residents of the southern atolls had attempted to secede from the country and somehow convince the British to stay. Even in the 90s, many Maldivians looked back on the British presence as a kind of golden age.
In 1998, the new agreement was complete. The ANZC began its annual lease payments and occupied the island of Gan. Crews began to refurbish the airfield and buildings. Work was complete by 2000, and military flights began from the Australian mainland.
News of the decision to restore Gan reached Mauritius, whose leaders had an interest in the fate of the British Indian Ocean bases. Mauritius had never dropped its claim to the Chagos Islands, and the British decision to keep them - and to violently deport their entire population, mostly to Mauritius - had remained a very sore spot. Mauritius had reasserted its claim in the 90s, establishing the Mauritius Indian Ocean Territory on paper, but before 1998 there had been fear that the Australians would try to build something in the Chagos. But now it was clear that the islands were indeed terra nullius, and Mauritius intended to resettle them before anyone else could. An expedition set out in 1998 to create the germs of settlements on three islands. When this was accomplished, Mauritian diplomats in Jervis Bay informed the ANZC. The Commonwealth government decided to acquiesce to the new facts on the ground; they renounced any claim over the Chagos in 2000, reserving the right to patrol them. The Chagos were no longer strategically useful, anyway - the center of the action was now in the Maldives.
Gan hosted several low- and mid-level talks in the run-up to the creation of the Union Interim Parliament in India. Australia-New Zealand was heavily involved in launching the new Parliament, and having a presence so close to India certainly helped it in these efforts.
The 2004 tsunami
On 26 December 2004, following the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake, the Maldives were devastated by a tsunami. Only nine islands were reported to have escaped any flooding, while 57 islands faced serious damage to critical infrastructure, 14 islands had to be totally evacuated, and six islands were decimated.
Free Association and the Sultanate
The devastation of the tsunami convinced President Gayoom to pursue an even closer relationship with Australia and New Zealand. He signed a Treaty of Free Association on July 19, 2005, one week before the celebration of the country's 40th anniversary of independence. This put the Maldives in the set of small nations that formally depended on the Commonwealth for protection and deferred to it in most cases for foreign affairs. The treaty came with substantially more aid to rebuild the country.
Under the circumstances, Free Association was popular. Far from surrendering the country's independence, the president was seen to have improved the country's material condition. Fond memories of the British presence, and a generally positive attitude toward the Australians and their role, certainly helped speed along the decision.
But Gayoom next went too far in his attempts to bring back the past. Hoping to cement his own rule as well as evoke prosperous former times, he decided to have himself named Sultan in 2007. The rubber-stamp Majlis approved the elevation. Opposition leaders, already forced to operate in secret, seethed.
The coup of 2009
Mohamed Nasheed finally ousted Gayoom in 2009. The monarchy was abolished for the third time. Nasheed was a moderate reformer who scaled back Gayoom's most repressive measures, but he also feared a counter-coup. Democracy was not restored.
India's wars of reunification
Union India launched a major southward offensive to occupy Gondwana and Telangana in 2009. Four years later, an even larger campaign, Operation Dissolution, crushed both Tamil Nadu and the breakaway states of eastern India. The brute force of these efforts was rather shocking in the Maldives. President Nasheed asked the ANZC to increase its military presence, worried that India might turn its eye toward the Maldives. Commonwealth officials were not at all worried about this, though they did send some additional units - to help Union India, should it face any counterattack.
Though Nasheed was wrong to fear any kind of spillover violence from Operation Dissolution, the events did sour relations between his government and that of Manmohan Singh. Union India's goal of subcontinental unity had ceased to be a project of peace and persuasion and became one of force. There was never a complete break between the two governments, as both remained firm ANZ allies, but Nasheed did begin to make diplomatic overtures to the surviving breakaway states of southern India, inviting them to visit Malé and authorizing trade between them.
The Cowry Revolution
The Nasheed government trudged along for eight years. While less oppressive than most Maldivian governments since independence, the regime was a far cry from participatory democracy. Only one election was held during its tenure, and Nasheed kept overtly hostile candidates off the ballot.
In 2017, an opposition gathered strength, calling for multiparty democracy and free elections. Public protests began in May and reached a climax in June. Nasheed was unwilling to crush the opposition, but they were now unwilling to let him stay. He resigned but did not flee the country, moving instead to an outlying atoll. The event was called the Cowry Revolution, after an ancient symbol of the Maldives. A provisional government stepped into power.
The provisional government held elections in January that brought a freely elected President and Majlis to power, really for the first time. The new prsident was Ahmed Moosa, affectionately also known as Sappé, one of the country's best known advocates for clean government and human rights. But the stability of the new democracy was very much an open question. The 2020 elections ushered in some Majlis members who were allies of Nasheed, along with some allied to Gayoom's family. The old factions had not gone away.
The Maldives' politics has been turbulent since its independence. As of 2020, it is undergoing its first experiment in multiparty politics, with both President and Majlis having been freely elected. The Human Rights Party of President Moosa embodies the movement for democratic reform that culminated in the Cowry Revolution of 2017, and it currently controls the presidency. However, its position is nothing if not precarious.
Almost every phase of recent Maldivian history still has its supporters in the Majlis, and they are competing for power. The revolution depended on cooperation from ex-president Gayoom, his family, and his patronage network, but that cooperation has not extended very far since the revolution. Ex-president Nasheed, a more moderate reformer, also leads a faction. Since 2020 a new monarchist party has even entered the Majlis, supporters of the Huraa dynasty that was deposed near the end of the British era. Its leader Prince Mohammed Waheed Deen has argued that the country's troubles since independence could have been averted had his family remained firmly in command.
The Maldives' earliest settlers were probably from southern India and Sri Lanka. They are linguistically and ethnically related to the Indo-Aryan people in the Indian subcontinent They are ethnically known as Mahls (locally as Dhivehis). The Maldivian or Dhivehi language was the southernmost of all Indo-European languages before the spread of the European colonies. It is written in a unique alphabetic script called Thaana, whose letters are derived from Arabic and Indic numbers.
Some social stratification exists on the islands. It is not rigid, since rank is based on varied factors, including occupation, wealth, Islamic virtue, and family ties. Traditionally, instead of a complex caste system, there was merely a distinction between noble (bēfulhu) and common people in the Maldives. Members of the social elite are concentrated in Malé.
A census has been recorded since 1905, which shows that the population of the country remained around 100,000 for the next sixty years. Following independence in 1965, the health status of the population improved so much that the population doubled to 200,000 by 1978, and the population growth rate peaked at 3.2% in 1982. The events of 1983 reduced population growth to essentially zero, but it rose to between 1% and 2% annually since the turn of the twenty-first century.
In ancient times the Maldives were renowned for cowry shells, coir rope, dried tuna fish (Maldive Fish), ambergris (Maavaharu) and coco de mer (Tavakkaashi). Local and foreign trading ships used to load these products in Sri Lanka and transport them to other harbors in the Indian Ocean. Cowry shells in particular were highly prized as currency in the Indian Ocean trade.
For centuries the Maldivian economy has depended on fishing and other marine products. Fishing remains the main occupation of the people and the government, with the assistance of the Fisheries Advisory Board, gives special priority to the development of the sector. The traditional fishing boat, called the dhoni, was mechanized in 1974, which did much to develop the country's economy. A fish canning plant was installed in the island of Felivaru in 1977, as a joint venture with a Japanese firm. The plant was nationalized after Doomsday and sold to a local firm in the 90s. Programs to develop the workforce began in the early 1980s: fisheries education was even incorporated into the school curriculum. Today, fisheries constitute a major portion of the country's GDP and work force. They are practically the only export and, besides the ANZC's lease payments, the only source of foreign currency.
Agriculture and manufacturing play a lesser role in the economy, constrained by the limited availability of land and labor. Most staple foods must be imported. Industry, which consists mainly of boat building and handicrafts, accounts for about 7% of GDP.
The rise of tourism in the 70s and early 80s showed the islands' promise as a destination. Tourists also gave a major boost to the country's traditional industries such as mat weaving, lacquer work, handicraft, and coir rope making. Tourism has not come back in any significant way, but the government has tried to promote it.
ANZAF Gan has become a major economic asset, as hoped for. The annual lease payments comprise a substantial portion of the government's revenue and thus pay for services across all the islands. In the southern end of the country, the base employs many locals directly, while local businesses draw income by selling to the base or to servicemen on leave.
Unlike many Associated States of Australia and New Zealand, the Maldives was fully independent for decades before it attained its present status, and was a nearly-independent monarchy for centuries before that. It therefore has a more fully developed military than most members of the ANZ community of nations. The Maldivian National Defense Force has its origins in Sultan Ibrahim's military reforms of the 1880s. A round of reforms under President Nasheed in the early 2010s sought to professionalize and depoliticize the force.
By far the strongest branch of the Defense Force is the Coast Guard. Other branches include the Marine Corps, Air Wing, and Service Corps. The Maldives Police Force was historically a branch of the armed forces, but was separated in Nasheed's reforms.
The ANZ presence in the country, and the commitments made in the Treaty of Free Association, have allowed the Maldives to rely on Australia and New Zealand for protection and therefore divert spending from the military to other areas of development.
The Maldives is an Associated State of Australia and New Zealand, making it part of one of the world's major power blocs. However, its internal politics churn on without any interference from the ANZC, as long as the base at Gan remains secure. The Maldives have been part of the close cooperation between ANZ and India's Union government; it has hosted a number of diplomatic meetings between them.
Over the objections of the ANZC, the Maldives has maintained trade with the breakaway kingdom of the Cocos Islands. Ships owned by the kingdom provided an essential link between the Maldives and the mainland in the difficult years after 1983, and it has never been expedient to end this relationship. The country also trades with Tamil Nadu, Rayalaseema, and Andhra Pradesh, the states of southern India claimed by the Union. These relationships are an attempt to assert the Maldives' independence amid their Free Association status.