Maldives' political and social turmoil boils beneath its tranquil crystalline waters

Beyond the luxurious resorts and pristine beaches of the Maldives, gang violence and corruption threatens to derail democratic elections as the troubled nation prepares to go to the polls for only the second time. in its history, writes Eric Randolph

Police arrested last year the former Maldives president Mohamed Nasheed, centre left, the country's first democratically-elected president, after he failed to turn up for the start of a trial for abuse of power. Ho / AFP

Ahmed fears for the life of the Maldives' first democratically elected president and well-known environmental campaigner, who is now fighting for re-election a year after a violent uprising forced him from power. And Ahmed should know - he says he was once offered the contract to carry out his assassination.

Picture the Maldives, and you're probably imagining crystalline waters and perfectly groomed white beaches. Yet outside the five-star resorts, real life is very different and the image of an idyllic paradise has been tarnished by the growing problems of gang violence, drug addiction, unemployment, political corruption and religious extremism.

Having been one of the most notorious members of one of the country's most feared gangs, Ahmed (not his real name) knows this side of the Maldives all too well. We meet in the cramped one-bedroom "apartment" he shares with his parents and two siblings. Apartment is a stretch - it's a small room down a dingy ground-floor corridor, walls painted a lurid green, with an extended bunk bed that somehow accommodates all five of them and takes up most of the space.

This is how many people live in Malé, the capital. It's home to a third of the population - more than 110,000 people - but isn't much bigger than some modern shopping malls. You can walk round the entire perimeter in less than an hour. Little wonder that Ahmed, like most young people here, chose to spend his adolescence out on the streets, looking for something to do. He found diversion in the form of heroin, cannabis and bottles of alcohol smuggled out of the tourist resorts that had mushroomed in the 1990s. That's when the first gangs started to form.

"It really started with a kabbadi [a wrestling sport played in South Asia] tournament in 1996," says Ahmed, now 32 and trying to go straight. "Until the tournament, people said they were in gangs, but it was just kids having fights. Sometimes we would slash at each other with knives but only to injure them. But the kabbadi competition got very heated, and one kid was stabbed and killed. That took it to a whole new level … Then the politicians got involved, and it turned from gang violence into organised crime."

In 2006, a leading politician allegedly offered Ahmed a contract to kill "or severely injure" Mohamed Nasheed, the man who was trying to bring down the 30-year authoritarian rule of Maumoon Gayoom. Local politicians and elites had been using the gangs to run their drug and alcohol operations on the streets for several years by this point. Street fights over territory and girls were leading to nine or 10 deaths a year.

Ahmed won't talk about the violence in his past, though at one stage he draws me a picture of the knives he used to carry at all times (guns, mercifully, have yet to make it to Maldives). "This is my favourite," he says, pointing at a serrated blade that looks like a Christmas tree in his sketch.

But the contract to kill Nasheed was a step too far, even for Ahmed. "If I have a problem with you I might hurt you or stab you," he tells me in his depressing home. "I didn't want to hurt a person that had done nothing to me. Anyway, Nasheed was very popular at that time. The whole youth was with him."

Nasheed survived and led a protest movement that ultimately forced the country's first ever democratic elections in 2008, which he won. The gangs survived, too, and the tumultuous years before and after the elections brought them plenty of business. The dictatorship had been replaced by a rash of political parties, whose battles were fought on the street as much as in parliament.

"The contracts would come from one political party one day, another one the next day. They would give a huge amount of money to us to throw things at the police, just make havoc," says Mohamed (not his real name), 28, another former gang member and recovering heroin addict. He says a gang could earn 20,000 rufiyaa (Dh7,300) for smashing up a target's car, with the leader getting half and the rest divided among lower members. "They often wanted us to set fires to distract the police while they held a rally. Sometimes, they gave us names of people they wanted beaten up."

Spokesmen for all the major political parties have previously denied accusations that they fund gang violence. Although the gang members I spoke to cited specific individuals, they cannot be named for legal reasons and all turned down my interview requests.

The former regime and its supporters were none too pleased with being ousted, and Nasheed made few friends among the wealthy resort owners when he introduced a new tourism tax. Until 2011, the tourism industry had been valued at about US$700 million (Dh2.57 billion); the new tax showed it to be worth nearer to $3bn. The excess had apparently been disappearing into offshore accounts.

But Nasheed had a huge following among ordinary citizens at home and an excellent reputation abroad, where he had led tireless campaigns against climate change. The Maldives is vulnerable to even a small rise in sea levels, since the highest point on any of its 1,192 islands is just 2.4 metres. In 2007, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that the expected rise in sea levels over the coming century would leave the Maldives virtually uninhabitable. Nasheed travelled the world to raise awareness about the threat to his country, and used stunts such as the world's first underwater cabinet meeting in 2009 to sign a document calling for cuts in global carbon emissions.

Unlike other parties, Nasheed's Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) had considered policies at home, too - housing for the poor, treatment programmes for drug addicts, and letting residents on inhabited islands open guest houses (previously banned) so they could earn a share of the tourism revenue.To combat his popularity, the old regime turned to the radical clerics and began to paint Nasheed as an enemy of Islam. Under the dictatorship, Gayoom had kept religious extremists on a tight leash. If they became too inflammatory, a favourite tactic of the police was to drag them to jail, shave off their beards and rub chilli oil on their faces. But once out of power, the clerics became a useful tool against Nasheed and his democracy movement.

Radical Islamists whipped the masses into a religious fury with claims that Nasheed was going to tear down mosques and replace them with Christian churches, and would let Israel use the Maldives' international airport as a staging post "to bomb Arab countries".

It worked - the protests grew increasingly violent, a section of the police mutinied, and on February 7, 2012 a mob surrounded the army headquarters where Nasheed was trying to rally the army. "I looked out of the window and I could see the crowd passing a rope through the crowd," Nasheed told me recently. "They were shouting, 'Hang him! Lynch him!'"

As a student, Nasheed had studied the lynching of the country's first republican president Amin Didi by a mob in 1953.

"I had spent a lot of time thinking about what was going through Amin's mind in those last moments. I learnt the lesson that it wasn't worth going through that." Instead, he agreed to resign.

Within hours, a new government had been installed under Mohammed Waheed, Nasheed's former vice-president. To no one's surprise, several members of the former government were given cabinet posts, including the son and daughter of the former dictator.

The old order were back in power, but they had unleashed powerful and terrible forces on the country. On the same day as the coup, a mob burst into the National Museum and trashed a priceless collection of ancient Buddhist artefacts. In the following months, a member of parliament who had campaigned against religious extremism was stabbed to death in broad daylight.

The extremists, buying into their own rhetoric about the airport, also forced the government to boot out the Indian company, GMR, that was operating and modernising it - a move that could end up crippling the Maldivian economy.

"The airport development could have made millions for the government, according to the assessment of its own auditor general," says JJ Robinson, a journalist with the local website Minivan News.

"Instead, they face a compensation claim from GMR of up to $1.4 billion, not including the $160 million in guarantees called in by GMR's lenders. As of June, the government had $300 million left in central bank reserves, and $35 million in unpaid electricity bills."

Under pressure from the international community, the government has agreed to fresh elections in September. This worries those currently in power, who see Nasheed's popularity and fear that they may face repercussions should he return to power. To stop him competing, his opponents have urged the police to jail Nasheed, using the pretext that he over-stepped his presidential remit when he ordered the arrest of a judge in his final weeks in power. Nasheed was duly arrested in October last year and again in March but is currently free while he waits for his trial to begin.

One of those who is most determined to see Nasheed barred from contesting the presidency is Abdulla Yameen, his main challenger in September's election.

Yameen represents the party set up by the former dictator, the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM); he is also Gayoom's half-brother. In the mid-2000s, Yameen was involved in one of the more unsavoury scandals to emerge in the country, when he allegedly oversaw the secret sale of oil to the military junta in Myanmar at a time when that country was under heavy international sanctions for the brutal repression of its citizens.

An investigation by Grant Thornton, a forensic accountancy firm, found that the State Trading Organisation (STO), which was headed by Yameen until 2005, bought fuel from Shell Eastern, the Singapore Petroleum Company and Petronas far in excess of the country's needs. Hundreds of ships destined for the Maldives never arrived.

According to Grant Thornton, much of the oil was sold at a black market premium to Myanmar's military junta through a Malaysian intermediary.

Grant Thornton, which based its report on information leaked from the Maldives' President's Office, says shipping manifests and accounts were manipulated to disguise a money-laundering operation worth an estimated $800 million between 2002 and 2008.

The report accused both Yameen and Gayoom of direct connivance with Myanmar officials to sell oil diverted from Singapore. Although Yameen stepped down as chairman of the STO in 2005, debit notes found by investigators in Singapore showed payments made from the STO to his account in 2007 and 2008. He denies the allegations.

Yameen turned down my repeated requests for an interview, but he has previously told Minivan News that such trading was not illegal as STO Singapore was an "entrepreneurial" trade organisation that was licensed to trade in goods as well as supply the needs of the STO: "Even now the STO buys from one country and sells to those in need," he said at the time of the report's release in 2011. There were repeated attempts to prosecute him on corruption charges during Nasheed's rule, but these were put on hold following the change of government.

Despite concerted attempts to put Nasheed on trial, international pressure appears to be getting in the way. In February, a UN special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, Gabriela Knaul, visited the Maldives and wrote a report on the judicial system, in which she sharply criticised Nasheed's trial. "It is indeed difficult to understand why one former president is being tried for an act he took outside of his prerogative, while another has not had to answer for any of the alleged human rights violations documented over the years," she wrote.

Knaul was particularly scornful of the way in which a special three-judge court was set up to hear Nasheed's case, with the judges appointed by a committee that includes some of Nasheed's political rivals, including a presidential candidate and wealthy resort tycoon, Gasim Ibrahim.

Fortunately for Nasheed, the way in which the court was established allowed his defence team to file a challenge, claiming the trial lacks legitimacy; in the meantime, he has been free to campaign.

The European Union has also provided support, with remarks in March that it would be "difficult" to consider the upcoming elections credible unless Nasheed is allowed to contest.

External political pressure appears to have worked. Questions have been raised within the country about the legality of the trial and it now looks certain to be delayed past tomorrow, when the candidates are officially announced for the elections and gain immunity from prosecution.

The current president, Waheed, is unlikely to provide much competition. Siding with the hardline Islamists brings few supporters. The local Anti-Corruption Commission released a report in June showing that 85 per cent of his party's members (political parties in the Maldives must have at least 10,000 members to qualify for elections) are either bogus or dead.

Yameen is more popular, but he lacks Nasheed's rock-star status and democratic credentials. Nasheed is far from perfect. It was, for example, his party's failure to get tough with the judiciary in the early years of his rule that allowed the corruption and inefficiency of the courts to spread. Many have accused his supporters of resorting to the same rough tactics as other parties. But his leading opponent comes from a party run by a former dictator - a man accused of illegally detaining and torturing those who called for democracy for three decades.

"Barring any major mistakes, [Nasheed is] going into the first round of the election with a large and evangelistic support base, while the other side fights between themselves," says Robinson, the reporter for Minivan News. The fear is that power-holders behind the scenes may decide that it is too risky to let Nasheed return to the presidency. Violence and street protests are a likely outcome of the elections, whichever way the results go. In any case, that means more business for the gangs.

"We get work all the time. Sometimes it's in cash, sometimes just a few bottles of vodka will do if we're in the mood," says Naseem, a member of the Massodi gang. We're sat on two battered leather armchairs in a gloomy back alley, a junkie paradise. "There's nothing else to do here. No jobs, no opportunities, no nightlife. The police throw us in jail for nothing. At least with the gangs, you get to belong to something and get some money."

Ahmed has brought me here. He still holds the kudos of his past tough-guy image and he's welcomed with open arms on every street corner. These days, though, he's kicked the drugs and violence and is trying to convince other young men to do the same. But he knows the temptations that are out there.

"Before the elections, this country is going to explode," he tells me. "The gangs are going to get a lot of work as the politicians fight it out on the streets. People are going to get rich."

Eric Randolph is a freelance journalist and security analyst covering Asia.