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
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
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
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.