With most opposition leaders in jail or exile and Islamic extremism on the rise, the Maldives are quickly sliding back into authoritarian rule. Yet the country will star at this year’s annual tourism show in Berlin.
When the annual international tourism show ITB opens in Berlin with much ado later this week, countless stalls, press conferences and events will vie for the attention of the many visitors and investors wandering around the fair looking for inspiration and trade deals. But one country has been allocated a special place: the Maldives.
The Indian Ocean archipelago nation, made up of almost 1,200 coral islands with picture-postcard sandy beaches surrounded by turquoise water, is this year's partner country at the ITB: The Maldives' tourism minister will deliver some choice words of greetings, journalists will be invited to special press conferences and it's even rumored that the country's president, Yameen Abdul Gayoom, may make an appearance to advertise his country's luxurious seaside resorts, which account for the bulk of the archipelago's income.
But rather than just encouraging foreigner tourists to recline on the country's beaches, "we would like them to know a bit more about what's going on in my country," Ahmed Naseem told reporters in Berlin on Monday.
Naseem, an elderly man in an immaculate, elegant, grey suit, acted as the country's foreign minister in a short-lived pro-democracy government which ended in 2012.
Maldives: Sliding into repression
Ever since, the current regime led by Yameen Adbul Gayoom has been governing the country with an iron fist: Most opposition figures are either in jail or exile and, according to "Reporters Without Borders," independent journalists are being harassed and intimidated - one prominent journalist disappeared in 2014. Any political protest is quickly and often brutally quashed. The country's formerly vocal stance in the fight against climate change has also been quietly dropped.
Mohamed Nasheed, a pro-democracy activist who won the 2008 elections ending 30 years of autocratic rule by the current president's half-brother, has been sentenced to 13 years in prison, but is currently on temporary medical release to undergo surgery in Britain.
"Our democracy is being destroyed; the rule of law is almost non-existent," added Naseem, who lives in exile in Sri Lanka and lobbies on behalf of the now decimated opposition party MPD, the Maldivian Democratic Party.
Soon, he said, it would be “too late to bring back democracy.”
Another major problem the country faces is growing radicalization: According to Naseem, at least 250 Maldivians have traveled to Syria to join the self-proclaimed Islamic State, or ISIS as it is often referred to, with the government doing little to stop the worrying trend.
Omar Abdul Razzak, the country's former state minister, who accompanied Naseem to Berlin, told DW that his party had evidence of "militant training camps" in the jungle, where radical clerics taught guerilla tactics and spread their message, while the government turned a blind eye.
It's a claim DW is unable to verify.
But both Naseem and Razzak agreed that an international boycott of the Maldives would be counterproductive. That, Naseem said, "would only hurt the average man on the street."
"Having tourists in the Malvides is a good thing," he added.
Rather, they are calling for targeted sanctions, such as international travel bans, on members of the regime.
It's a course that Omid Nouripour, a German MP for the Greens party, supports. So far, he said, the German government had done a good job in condemning the democratic failings in the Maldives. "Now it's time for some pressure."
“I wouldn't have made the Maldives the ITB's partner country,” he said. But, he added, at least it was a good opportunity to “shed some light on the country.”
Razzak agrees: After the press conference, he handed out glossy brochures to the handful of journalists present. "Your holiday," it read, "is not the time to invest in corruption and human rights abuses."
In an interview with Agence Presse last week, the government's spokesman Hussain Shihab said democracy was still evolving in the country and that it welcomed support from the international community.