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Behind Maldives’ glamor, a struggling Democracy

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MALE, Maldives » For much of the world, the Maldives means idyllic and exclusive beach resorts, a kind of G-rated version of Thailand, but for many of the people who live here it has been no paradise.

For most of the past three decades, the country’s autocratic ruler pursued policies that kept many Maldivians poor while extending a warm welcome to well-heeled foreign tourists, including the likes of Tom Cruise and Madonna. Those visitors helped bankroll the government and have made the Maldives, a sprawl of more than 1,200 islands dotted across the Indian Ocean, the most prosperous country in South Asia.

That arrangement started to give way in 2008, when the country held its first democratic elections, installing a charismatic activist, Mohamed Nasheed, as president.

But after Nasheed left office last week in what he says was a coup, the government issued a warrant for his arrest on unspecified criminal charges and invited members of the business elite and representatives of the former dictatorship to join the Cabinet, raising fears among many people here that the country’s progress toward democracy may be slipping away.

"There were so many people my age who wanted to bring this change," said Hassan Hameez, 39, who runs a diving and tour business. Now, he said, he fears the future "will be the same as the time of the ’80s and ’90s."

Though the Maldives is a tiny country of only about 400,000 people, the turmoil here has attracted the attention of the United States, Britain, India and other countries because of its location near busy, pirate-infested shipping lanes, and as a result of concerns that Islamists, who have grown bolder in recent years, could gain a bigger foothold here.

On Saturday, a U.S. envoy met with both sides here to encourage the formation of a unity government, in an apparent bid for stability, while avoiding talking about whether Nasheed had been displaced in a coup.

On Sunday, the new president, Mohammed Waheed Hassan, moved forward with what he called a unity government, which lacked the backing of Nasheed. Hassan swore in new members of his Cabinet, including leaders from the party of the former autocrat, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who ruled the Maldives for 30 years, and politicians who have argued that the country’s laws should adhere to a stricter interpretation of Islamic teachings.

The appointments signaled that Hassan was moving to consolidate power and isolate Nasheed, who had said his party would not join the new government.

Later Sunday night, several hundred Nasheed supporters protested in front of the Majlis, the Maldivian legislature, demanding the release of one of the party’s representatives from police custody. They were dispersed by riot police officers, but returned a few hours later before being chased away again.

The recent turmoil in Maldives, a Muslim country that had its Arab Spring-like moment several years before the events in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, suggests that the path from autocracy to democracy will likely be slow and rocky. Institutions like the judiciary and the police seem to be lagging behind, so far not proving strong, professional and fair enough for their new roles.

"I don’t see any reason to assume that a transition to a democracy setup would work like clicking a switch," said Teresita C. Schaffer, who was U.S. ambassador to the Maldives and nearby Sri Lanka during the early 1990s. "Having difficulty working out their differences is something you have to expect from a country transitioning to a democracy."

A half-dozen Maldivians interviewed Sunday on a small working-class island, Villingili, a 10-minute ferry ride west of the capital, expressed frustration with the recent turmoil and the stalled progress toward democracy.

Faithimath, a law student who asked she be referred to by only one name because she feared retaliation, said she feared that the country was succumbing to another bout of brutality. "When I was really young, I have seen people taken away in handcuffs for expressing their political opinion," she said. "That shouldn’t happen."

Others, like Sofwan Waheed, who sells and markets technology equipment, said leaders on both sides were politicizing religion even as the country was losing its identify to Westernization. He said high school students had easy access to alcohol and drugs like heroin and marijuana, which bothered him. It was fine for foreigners to drink alcohol on resorts, he said, "But we have a different culture. We need to maintain that."

Another boat ride, 10 minutes north on a speedboat to the swanky Kurumba resort where rooms rent from $200 to $2,000 a night, offered a different scene.

Tourists from Russia, China, India, Pakistan and Turkey lay on beach chairs, swam in the clear blue waters and played with their children. Nearby workers put white cloth and ribbons on a table set for three on a little concrete pier jutting out into the water. The resort’s general manger, Jason Kruse, said that there had been only a few cancellations because of the political turmoil and that the resort was at 98 percent occupancy.

Selcuk Abul, a Turkish bank manager, was in the Maldives for the first time on a trip with 16 colleagues, a company-paid bonus for a job well done. He said he loved the country and would come again with his wife and their two sons, ages 11 and 7.

"It’s really fantastic," he said. "It’s heaven."

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