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Exploding Chairs, High Treason, and Political Chaos Rock the Maldives

In just a few weeks, the country has slid from relative stability to political crisis.

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Recent political developments in the Maldives have played out like the plot of a scrapped House of Cards season.

On Wednesday, President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom, popularly known as Abdulla Yameen, declared an official state of emergency, granting his security forces a broad array of powers to make arrests and restrict protests and movement between islands. The moves, designed to head off impending anti-government protests, cap a bizarre chain of events that began more than a month ago with an exploding chair.

In just a few weeks, the country has slid from relative stability to political crisis.

On September 28, a bomb went off on Yameen’s speedboat, right under the chair where he customarily, but not that that moment, sat. He was just setting out from a dock in Malé, the capital, after returning from performing the hajj in Saudi Arabia. Three people were injured, including the president’s wife.

Footage filmed just after the blast showed the presidential entourage crowding around in stunned disbelief as the boat bobbed at its mooring. A mechanical problem was “the predominant theory that investigators are looking into,” Mohamed Hussain Shareef, a minister in the president’s office, said at the time.

That narrative soon changed. On October 24, in a move that stunned the small nation — an Indian Ocean archipelago southwest of Sri Lanka which has more than 1,000 islands and just under 350,000 residents — Yameen accused his vice president, Ahmed Adeeb, of planting the bomb as part of power grab that amounted to an act of high treason.

Adeeb was arrested upon returning from an official visit to China and promptly jailed on a prison island. Security forces raided his associates’ houses, where they reportedly found weapons.

On Monday, Yameen said he has survived another attempt on his life, again by bombing. Security forces reportedly found and deactivated an IED in a vehicle near his residence. Meanwhile, the U.S. FBI, called in by his administration to investigate the boat explosion, said it found no evidence of any bomb at all.

The Maldives, known internationally for its luxury tourism, is predominantly Sunni Muslim. Most of the country is located a scant meter above sea level, putting in on the front lines of climate change impact. Adeeb, the jailed veep, was a rising star in Maldivian politics, especially for his age: 33. Until July, he served as the archipelago’s minister for tourism — by some accounts the most powerful cabinet-level position, given that its economy is fueled by foreign visitors. After ascending to the vice presidency, he maintained control over tourism, according to a report by the Guardian.

Yameen, who has been president since 2013, comes from a family with a checkered past. His half brother, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, ruled as an autocrat from 1978 until the 2008, when the country tentatively transitioned to democracy.

Those who pose a political threat to Yameen often find themselves in prison. His direct predecessor, Mohamed Nasheed, the first freely-elected president of the country, is serving a 13-year bid on charges international watchdogs have called unfair. Adeep, with his outsized influence, certainly fit in the category of potential political threat: 40 percent of Maldivians are 34 or younger, and his youth appeal prompted a constitutional change that moved the minimum presidential age to 30. And Yameen has used the recent tensions and unrest as an opportunity to crack down on opposition and clean house. Top members of the jailed former president’s party, as well as the head of the top country’s Islamist party, have been arrested during protests. After the alleged boat bombing, Yameen sacked his defense minister, replaced his inteligence chief, and fired other high-ranking officials.

Maldivians have been left wandering what to make of these unexpected events, and what narratives to trust. Many see the charges against Adeep as part of a trumped-up, systematic attempt to quash democracy. Mohamed Jameel, the previous vice president, was fired because of a treason accusation. How many treasonous vice presidents can one small country accrue?

“Since he assumed the presidency, Yameen has cracked down on dissents and used terrorism charges to marginalize his rivals,” Sudha Ramachandran, a South Asian politics and security analyst based in Bangalore, wrote in Asia Times.

Meanwhile, Yameen’s administration is trying to keep the tourism cash flowing, even with the president’s point man on tourism imprisoned on an island and provisions akin to martial law in effect. “The security of our resorts and islands is not under threat and we have received no evidence to suggest otherwise,” Foreign Minister Dunya Maumoon said in a statement.

In a bit of at least temporary good news for Yameen, the United States, which sends scores of well-heeled tourists to the Maldives each year, has not issued a travel advisory. Which isn’t to say Washington likes what it’s seeing on the ground there.

“The United States calls on the Government of Maldives to restore immediately full constitutional freedoms to its citizens by terminating the state of emergency, and reiterates its call for an end to politically motivated prosecutions and detentions, including that of former President Nasheed,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said in a statement.

A quick call to Four Seasons Maldives at Kuda Huraa left little doubt that the island’s high-end tourism sector sees itself as a world apart, set to weather even the roughest storm. “Nothing is going to have an effect on the rest of this place,” the night shift desk attendant said by phone. “We are split into islands; the protests are separate.”

Image credit: Screengrab taken via YouTube/RaajjeTelevision

Benjamin Soloway is an associate editor at Foreign Policy@bsoloway

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