Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
The Republic of Maldives comprises a chain of 1,190 small coral islands in the Indian Ocean, lying about 675 kilometres south-west of Sri Lanka. The islands are grouped into twenty-six natural atolls (ring-shaped coral reefs) but divided into nineteen atolls for administrative purposes.
The Maldives achieved full independence from British rule on 26 July 1965 and became a republic on 11 November 1968. Under the provisions of the 1968 constitution, the President is head of state and vested with full executive powers. He is elected every five years by a two- stage process in which the Majlis (Citizens’ Council) has responsibility for choosing the nominee in a secret vote; this choice must then be endorsed through a nationwide referendum. President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom came to power in November 1978. Now in his sixth consecutive term of office, President Gayoom has ruled the country with an iron fist, refusing to democratize the political systems.
Main languages: Dhivehi (national language)
Main religions: Islam (state religion)
The Maldivian people are of mixed Indo-Aryan, Dravidian and Arab descent. They pride themselves on belonging to a self-reliant society, closely knit and united by religion and a single language. Over 25 per cent of the national population is concentrated in the island of Male, the capital, which has an area of approximately two square kilometres.
The Maldivan people are predominantly followers of Sunni Islam, though there is a small community of Shi’a, descendants of Indian traders. While not given official recognition, Maldives also has small populations of Hindus and Buddhists. Religious freedoms are substantially curtailed, with Sunni Islam as the only officially recognised religion. Maldives applies the strict version of Sharia (Islamic law), known in Dhivehi as Sariatu.
The Maldives Government cannot claim to be proud of its human rights record. In 1994 Amnesty International reported that at least fifteen possible prisoners of conscience were arrested because of their political views or religious practices. In July 1994, the Majlis passed legislation which carries a punishment of up to five years’ imprisonment for anyone found guilty of involvement in ‘giving religious advice that contravenes independence and government policy and the policy stated by the president’.
Dozens of people were arrested and unlawfully detained in the run-up to the parliamentary elections of December 1994; some detainees, it has been alleged, were ill-treated. Further, the entire political framework in the Maldives appears to negate the principle of democratic governance. The formation of political parties is banned, resulting in an absence of any concerted opposition. An unfortunate pattern of discrimination and persecution in Maldives, which does not provide constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion. According to the legislative provisions, the president and members of parliament must be Muslims. There is a continuing failure in providing places of worship to non-Muslims, with the government also prohibiting the import of religious statues and icons. There was serious political unrest in Maldives during August 2004, which forced to government to promise democratic reforms including greater recognition of freedom of religion and the freedom of expression. However, the government has failed to bring about the promised reformed nor has there been an improvement in the plight of political dissidents and those arguing for greater freedom of religion.
Minority based and advocacy organisations
Friends of Maldives
Tel: + 44 1722 504330
Sources and further reading
Amnesty International, Maldives, Annual Report 2006 (London) “retrieved 11 April 2007, http://web.amnesty.org/report2006/mdv-summary-eng”
Asian Centre for Human Rights, Maldives: The Dark Side of Life (New Delhi, India) 30 March, 2005 “retrieved 11 April 2007, http://www.achrweb.org/”
J. Rehman and N. Roy, ‘South Asia’ in Minority Rights Groups (eds.), World Directory of Minorities (London, MRG, 1997) 570.
U.S. Department of State, Maldives, International Religious Freedom Report 2005 (Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor) 8 November 2005 “retrieved 11 April 2007, http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2005/51619.htm “