Soft power goes hard: China’s economic interest in the Pacific comes with strings attached



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Red star rising: China has clear strategic designs on the Pacific Islands region.
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John Garrick, Charles Darwin University

China’s economic expansion into the Pacific Islands region raises critical questions for both the islands and Australia. What happens if infrastructure loans by Chinese banks and authorised state enterprises to vulnerable Pacific Island nations cannot be repaid? What consequences of default can be anticipated? Are there military dimensions?

The Pentagon has warned of the “potential military advantages” flowing from Chinese investments in other countries. China rejects this assertion. But if it does ever want access to foreign ports to support naval deployments in distant waters, it is laying the ground work to get it.

Belt and Road moves on the Pacific Islands

China’s grand plan to more closely link countries across Eurasia and the Indian Ocean through trade deals and infrastructure projects is known as the Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st Century Maritime Silk Road (“Belt and Road”). The plan includes Pacific pathways.



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Read more:
The Belt and Road Initiative: China’s vision for globalisation, Beijing-style


Along with Australia and New Zealand, seven Pacific Islands nations officially recognise the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Another six recognise the Republic of China (Taiwan). China’s strategy is both to counter Taiwan’s influence and further its own interests. It wants Pacific nations to support it in international forums. Vanuatu, for example, was the first country to support China’s claims to island territory in the South China Sea disputed with the Philippines.



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The number of Chinese companies operating in the Pacific region has greatly increased since Xi Jinping came to power in 2012. Trade between China and Pacific Island nations has ballooned to more than A$10 billion.

While its influence is still not as great as that of the US or even Australia, China’s growing investments cover mines, hydro-electricity projects, fishing, timber, real estate and services. Over the past decade it has also lavished the region with $US1.8 billion ($A2.4 billion) in foreign aid, including $US175,000 worth of quad bikes for Cook Island parliamentarians.

The soft power of money

China argues Chinese investment is “tactful” – that it helps developing nations build needed infrastructure with “no-strings-attached”. It contrasts this to Western aid models that require governance measures and other performance indicators to be in place in relation to aid funding.

But the credit Chinese state banks are extending to impoverished developing nations also looks a lot like a form of “debt colonialism”. The fear is that China is using the loans as leverage to expand its military footprint.




Read more:
Why China’s ‘debt-book diplomacy’ in the Pacific shouldn’t ring alarm bells just yet


The Chinese loans typically offer a period of grace before an interest rate of 2-3% over 15-20 years is imposed. In Tonga, for example, China deferred loan repayments for a period after the International Monetary Fund warned it was at risk of debt distress. Repayments started again in 2018, reportedly at a higher rate than before.

Sri Lankan lessons

If Tonga and other Pacific Island nations default, China can enforce contractual conditions as a pretext to advancing wider strategic aims.

This is precisely what happened in Sri Lanka.

The Sri Lankan government had high hopes for the Hambantota Port Development Project, built by China Harbour Engineering Company, one of Beijing’s largest state-owned enterprises, and mostly funded by the state-owned Export–Import Bank of China. When the port failed to generate anticipated revenues, the government ended up owing China at least $US3 billion with no means to pay.

The Chinese then demanded a Chinese company take a dominant equity share in the port. The Sri Lankan government was also forced of hand over 15,000 acres of land around the port for 99 years.

Now China owns an Indian Ocean port strategically placed on one of the busiest shipping routes in the world.

Pacific interests

China has clear military interests in the Pacific. In 2014 Xi Jinping personally visited Fiji to sign memorandums of understanding including for greater military cooperation.

Australian intelligence sources allege China has been secretly negotiating to build a military base in Vanuatu. Both nations deny this. Such a base would give China a foothold for operations to coerce Australia and outflank the US and its base on Guam.

China’s “soft power” is being better resourced to influence foreign nations.
Its moves in the Pacific means the geopolitics of the region are hardening up.




Read more:
Fears about China’s influence are a rerun of attitudes to Japan 80 years ago


Globally, China’s rise has profound implications for international law and trade.

China naturally prefers bilateral relationships to leverage its power and advance its interests. It has steered away from multilateral dispute resolution, especially since the South China Sea arbitration, which ruled unanimously in favour of the Philippines. It has simply ignored the verdict and gone ahead turning the disputed rocky shoals into military outposts.

If China can ignore the legitimate claims of the Philippines, it can ignore the rights of the smaller and more fragile Pacific Island nations. Its actions flag its challenge to the international order Australia has long championed – one based on rule of law and political and economic liberalism.

Its influence is unlikely to promote democratic principles. Those holding those principles dear need to help the Pacific Island nations resist the lure of soft-power “incentives” promised with no strings attached.

There are definitely strings attached.The Conversation

John Garrick, Senior Lecturer, Business Law, Charles Darwin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Australian Politics: 21 July 2013


The new hardline regime concerning asylum seekers has been implemented with the first boat arriving since the announcement of the changes by Kevin Rudd and Labor. The Coalition is supporting some of the changes, which for Labor should be an alarm bell, meaning it has gone too far to the right.

For more visit:
http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/first-asylum-boat-arrives-under-rudds-hardline-png-solution/story-fn59niix-1226682406568



The link below is to an article that looks at some of the divergent interest parties contesting this year’s federal election.

For more visit:
http://www.easternriverinachronicle.com.au/story/1650949/something-for-everyone-how-niche-parties-are-taking-over-australias-political-landscape/

Myanmar/Burma: Has Real Change Arrived?


The world is watching with interest as the beginning of change appears to have arrived in Myanmar/Burma – but is it real and will it last?

For more visit:
http://www.mnnonline.org/article/16748

Plinky Prompt: What Non Profit Organizations Do You Support? Would You Ever Start Your Own?


cig-FRESP08_043

I don’t have any non profit organizations that I support on a regular basis. I do support various non profit organizations from time to time, but it tends to be a bit all over the shop.

I have supported such environmental organizations as Bush Heritage Australia and WWF, among others. I have also supported Compassion and other similar organizations from time to time, such as when the appeal went out for assistance during the tsunami crisis on Boxing Day a few years ago.

I do have an interest, should I have access to any money, to start a foundation-type organization for diabetes research and support. The reason for this interest is that a dear friend died a few years ago who suffered badly from diabetes.

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Nepal Church Bomber Faked Repentance


Imprisoned chief of Hindu militant group used Christianity to cover up extortion, terror.

KATHMANDU, Nepal, April 4 (CDN) — The chief of a militant Hindu extremist group sought to disguise his extortion and terror activities from behind bars by claiming he had repented of bombing a church in Nepal and showing interest in Christianity, according to investigators.

The revelation emerged when Nepal’s premier investigation agency foiled a plot to explode a series of bombs devised by Ram Prasad Mainali, former chief of the Hindu militant outfit Nepal Defence Army (NDA), in the capital city of Kathmandu. Police on March 4 arrested six cohorts of Mainali carrying powerful “socket bombs” – home-made, hand grenade-type weapons made from plumbing joints – and high-explosive powder, to be used as part of a plan to extort money from industrialists, The Himalayan Times reported.

In an interview last year, Mainali had told Compass that his interaction with Christians inside jail in Kathmandu’s Nakkhu area had led him to repent of his deeds and read the Bible (see “Bomber in Nepal Repents, Admits India Link,” Jan. 4, 2010). Mainali was arrested on Sept. 5, 2009 for exploding a bomb in a Catholic parish in Kathmandu, Our Lady of the Assumption, which killed a teenager and a newly married woman and injured more than a dozen others on May 23 of that year.

Prior to the Compass interview, Mainali had sent a handwritten letter from the prison to a monthly Christian newsmagazine in Nepal, Hamro Ashish (Our Blessing), saying he regretted having attacked Christians.

A local Christian worker who had known Mainali said the church bomber used Christianity to evade police surveillance.

“I was disheartened when I recently learned that Mainali had threatened some pastors with violent attacks, demanding protection money from them,” he told Compass on condition of anonymity.

The source said Mainali threatened him and pastors he knew by phone. He suspected that a fellow prisoner, Jeevan Rai Majhi, previously considered a convert to Christianity, had given the pastors’ phone numbers to Mainali. Majhi, formerly a notorious criminal, had allegedly accepted Christ inside the prison, and jail authorities made him the prison leader. He also led a Bible study group in the prison.

“Some prisoners who attend the Bible study in the Nakkhu Jail told me that Mainali shared the extortion money with Majhi, which aroused jealousy among other prisoners, who reported it to the jail authorities,” the source said.

Around 150 prisoners attend the Nakkhu Gospel Church inside the prison premises, though Majhi is no longer leading it. Both Mainali and Majhi were recently transferred, Mainali to the Dilli-Bazaar Jail and Majhi to the Mid-Nepal Central Jail.

Deputy Inspector General of Police and Central Investigation Bureau (CIB) Director Rajendra Singh Bhandari told The Kathmandu Post that the arrest of Mainali’s men was a “tremendous achievement” that averted “mass casualties” in the capital.

“It seems that Mainali had filled the arrestees’ minds with dreams of earning quick bucks through terror,” the daily quoted another investigation official as saying.

The Christian source said he still hoped for genuine repentance in Mainali and Majhi.

“Mainali and Majhi must have at least some knowledge of the Bible,” he said. “So I am still hopeful that they would reflect on who God is and truly repent of their ways as they spend their time in prison cells incommunicado [prohibited from speaking with any outsider].”

According to The Kathmandu Post, the CIB had been observing Mainali following complaints that he had demanded large sums of money from businessmen and others.

“He had been making phone calls and sending demand letters to them,” the daily reported on March 4.

Compass requested an interview with Mainali at the Dilli-Bazaar Jail, which officials refused.

“We have orders not to allow Mainali to meet anyone,” said one official.

Mainali had earlier told Compass that he formed the NDA with the support of Hindu nationalists in India in 2007 to re-establish the Hindu monarchy, which fell after a decade-long armed struggle by former Maoist guerrillas peaked in 2006, when all political parties joined protests against King Gyanendra.

The NDA is also believed to be responsible for bombing mosques and killing Muslims and Christians, including the Rev. John Prakash Moyalan, a Catholic priest who was principal of the Don Bosco educational institution in eastern Nepal, in June 2008. While Christians in Nepal faced persecution at the hands of the Hindu monarchy until 2006, non-state actors have been attacking them since the country began transitioning to a secular democracy.

“Several incidents of religiously incited violence directed at minority religions and their property have been recorded since the signing of the peace accord [between the interim government and the Maoists in 2006],” a local Non-Governmental Organization, Informal Sector Service Sector (INSEC), noted last year.

“Although moves have been made to promote religious tolerance and a climate of peace and cooperation, this area must continuously be monitored,” stated an INSEC report, “Commitment versus Reality,” which mentioned attacks on Christians by Mainali’s outfit.

Of the roughly 30 million people in Nepal, only .5 percent are Christian, and more than 80 percent are Hindu, according to the 2001 census. The actual number of Christians, however, is believed to be much higher.

Report from Compass Direct News
http://www.compassdirect.org

Muslim Extremists Murder Christian Family in Pakistan


Lawyer, wife, five children shot to death after he tried to defend Christian.

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, September 30 (CDN) — Islamic extremists killed a Christian lawyer, his wife and their five children in northwestern Pakistan this week for mounting a legal challenge against a Muslim who was charging a Christian exorbitant interest, local sources said.

Police found the bodies of attorney and evangelist Edwin Paul and his family on Tuesday morning (Sept. 28) at their home in Haripur, a small town near Abbotabad in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province (previously known as the North-West Frontier Province, or NWFP), according to Haripur Station House Officer (SHO) Maqbool Khan.

The victim and his wife Ruby Paul, along with their five children ages 6 to 17, had been shot to death.

“On Sept. 28 at around 8 a.m., we received a call from Sher Khan colony that people heard gunshots, and there was a group of people who ran from a house and drove away,” Khan said. “We went and found seven bodies in a house.”

Paul’s Muslim neighbor, Mushtaq Khan, told Compass that the previous day a group of armed men had threatened the lawyer.

“On Monday a group of armed men stopped Paul and took him by the collar and said, ‘Leave the town in 24 hours – we know how to throw out Christians, we will not allow even a single Christian to live here. We will hang them all in the streets, so that no Christian would ever dare to enter the Hazara land.”

The Hazara are settlers from northern Pakistan who are an ethnic mixture of Punjabi Jats and Pashtuns (also called Pathans). Drawing attention for demanding a separate province for themselves when the NWFP became Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the Hazara community financially supports area Islamic extremist groups and is known for charging up to 400 percent interest to Christians. Paul had moved with his family to the area in February.

He had taken up the case of Robin Mehboob, a Christian taxi driver in Haripur who had received a loan of 150,000 rupees (US$1,725) from Noor Khan, an influential Muslim whose lending network extends to some parts of Punjab Province, to buy a taxi. Originally Noor Khan agreed that Mehboob would pay back 224,000 rupees (US$2,580) after one year, Mehboob said.

“I gave my property papers as a guarantee,” Mehboob told Compass, “but then the amount of the interest was raised to 500 percent because I am a Christian – he was demanding back 1.12 million rupees [US$12,893]. They have forcefully taken over my property and have confiscated my taxi as well. I am a poor man, the taxi is the only source of income.”

Paul took Mehboob and the documents of the original loan agreement to the Haripur police station, Mehboob said.

“We talked to the SHO, who said, ‘You can file a complaint, but I can assure you that no one will testify against Noor Khan, as he is supported by extremist groups,’” Mehboob said. “We filed the complaint, and one of the police officers informed [Noor] Khan that we went to the police station.”

On their way back from the police station, three cars filled with Noor Khan’s associates stopped near his house, Mehboob said.

“They came out and said, ‘How dare you Christians go to the police, don’t you know we own the law here?’ They assaulted us, beating us with fists and clubs, and warned that if we try to seek any assistance, they will kill us.”

Mehboob left Haripur that night and went to his brother in Sialkot.

Paul wrote to the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government, Christian organizations and churches for help, explaining how Noor Khan and the extremist groups were driving Christians out of the area by taking over their property or threatening to kill them unless they sold their homes.

The Muslim extremist groups most active in the area are the banned Jamat ul Dawa, the Sunni Tahreek, and some groups linked with the Pakistani Taliban. The extremist groups were making fake documents to occupy properties owned by Christians, and Hazara investors were supporting the campaign, area Christians said.

The Muslim extremists have also threatened many Christians with death if they do not convert, they said.

Pastor Rehmat Naeem of St. Paul Church in Haripur told Compass that he had also received threats.

“Some extremists sent us threats through phone calls and letters, asking us to leave Haripur,” Pastor Naeem said. “Many Christians were forced to sell their property at very low rates and leave the area. Edwin Paul tried to help the Christians – he even talked to the higher authorities, but no one was ready to testify against the extremists.”

Pastor Naeem added that two months ago area extremists kidnapped eight missionaries; six have been released, and the two others are presumed dead.

A First Information Report has been filed in the murder of Paul and his family, and the District Coordination Officer and District Police Officer (DPO) have strongly condemned the crime and instructed the SHO to find those responsible, authorities said.

Chief Secretary of Hazara Division Ali Ahmed has released a statement ordering a police operation “under the Terrorist Act against the extremists and the Hazaras for forcefully driving away the Christians and killing seven innocent people. We will not allow anyone to threaten the religious minorities. It is the duty of the state to protect the life and property of its people. The DPO has been instructed to arrest the culprits in 72 hours and submit a report or he will be suspended.”

Report from Compass Direct News

Plinky Prompt: What would you Change your name to if you could?


Change of name – Thanh Tam

Well, this is a very strange one. If I could choose another for myself what would it be? To be completely honest I have no interest in doing so. So in reality I can’t answer this question. I have no reason to so I haven’t considered it.

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Vatican Library prepares to reopen after three years of restoration


The Vatican Apostolic Library will be reopened again this month after three years of reconstruction. As its director explained to Vatican Radio, it aims to be a cultural aid, to offer a glimpse of the "great truth of the world of God," reports Catholic News Agency.

Vatican Radio interviewed the library’s prefect, Msgr. Cesare Pasini about the grand reopening set to take place on Sept. 20.

Noting a series of initiatives scheduled to mark the reopening of the library this fall, the prefect also spoke of the value of the library to all people.

He said that by reopening the library, "we not only show scholars and the world what we have done … but we remodel ourselves on this fundamental spirit, on our mission, so that we don’t just make it a place to consult books."

The library, which allows scholars from all walks and creeds to study its volumes, has an aspect of universality and cultural preservation because it conserves materials "for today and tomorrow," he said.

Msrg. Pasini also promotes culture by allowing works to be "used, seriously studied and then probed to find any further fragment of truth.

"There are many truths," he said, "historic truths, truths that make investigations into the reality of things, and these little truths form part of the great truth of the world of God."

In an article he wrote for last Sunday’s edition of the L’Osservatore Romano, Msgr. Pasini described some of the 15,000 letters and e-mails his office has received hoping for the prompt conclusion to the restoration work and describing the library’s importance to studies. Responding to the interest, he said that in looking around the now "silent and shining" library, he has seen that "only the friendly presence of our scholars is lacking." He added, "may they know that they are warmly awaited."

Archivist of the Vatican Secret Archives, Cardinal Raffaele Farina, will present the renovated, restored and restructured library in an on-site press conference next Monday.

Report from the Christian Telegraph

ALP Retain Government in Australia


Minority Government to be Formed with Greens and Independent Support

As an ALP supporter I have to admit to being over the moon with the return of Labor Government, all be it with a minority government being supported by the Greens and Independents. I think the result has the potential to be good for Australia – which is what I thought when Kevin Rudd and Labor defeated the Liberal and National Coalition in the previous election. Hopefully this time round we won’t be disappointed with a Labor government and some real governing and leadership will be realised. I for one would love to see some one willing to lead in this country, governing with the national interest at heart, tempered with compassion and decency for all.

My thoughts this morning was that Bob Katter would back the Coalition and that Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott would back the ALP – not that I was 100% confident in that viewpoint. Never-the-less, that is how the Independents have lined up, giving the ALP 76 seats and the Coalition 74 seats. It would appear that the ALP Broadband policy won over the two Independents, which was what I thought would win it for Labor should the Independents support the ALP. I was never convinced that Bob Katter would go for it, though I still believed that if he should support the ALP it would have been the Broadband policy that won him. In short, it is a looking to the future and a modern Australia that has won out.

Prospects of Religious Freedom Appear Grim in Islamic Maldives


Two years after political reforms, freedom of faith nowhere in sight.

MALÉ, Maldives, August 10 (CDN) — Visitors to this Islamic island nation get a sense of religious restrictions even before they arrive. The arrival-departure cards given to arriving airline passengers carry a list of items prohibited under Maldivian laws – including “materials contrary to Islam.”

After Saudi Arabia, the Maldives is the only nation that claims a 100-percent Muslim population. The more than 300,000 people in the Maldives, an Indian Ocean archipelago featuring 1,192 islets 435 miles southwest of Sri Lanka, are all Sunnis.

This South Asian nation, however, has more than 70,000 expatriate workers representing several non-Islamic religions, including Christianity.

Also, around 60,000 tourists, mainly from Europe, visit each year to enjoy the blue ocean and white beaches and normally head straight to one of the holiday resorts built on around 45 islands exclusively meant for tourism. Tourists are rarely taken to the other 200 inhabited islands where locals live.

Nearly one-third of the population lives in the capital city of Malé, the only island where tourists and Maldivians meet.

While the Maldivians do not have a choice to convert out of Islam or to become openly atheist, foreigners in the country can practice their religion only privately.

In previous years several Christian expats have either been arrested for attending worship in private homes or denied visas for several months or years on suspicion of being connected with mission agencies.

According to “liberal estimates,” the number of Maldivian Christians or seekers “cannot be more than 15,” said one source.

“Even if you engage any Maldivian in a discussion on Christianity and the person reports it to authorities, you can be in trouble,” the source said. “A Maldivian youth studying in Sri Lanka became a Christian recently, but when his parents came to know about it, they took him away. We have not heard from him since then.”

The source added that such instances are not uncommon in the Maldives.

“I wish I could attend church, but I am too scared to look for one,” said a European expat worker. “I have not even brought my Bible here; I read it online. I don’t want to take any chances.”

The British reportedly translated the Bible into the local language, Dhivehi, and made it available in the 19th century, as the Maldives was a British protectorate from 1887 to 1965. Today no one knows how the Dhivehi Bible “disappeared.”

“A new translation has been underway for years, and it is in no way near completion,” said the source who requested anonymity.

 

Religion Excluded from Rights

The 2008 constitution, adopted five years after a popular movement for human rights began, states that a “non-Muslim may not become a citizen of the Maldives.”

Abdulla Yameen, brother of the former dictator of the Maldives and leader of the People’s Alliance party, an ally of the opposition Dhivehi Raiyyathunge Party (Maldivian People’s Party or DRP), told Compass that the issue of religious freedom was “insignificant” for the Maldives.

“There’s no demand for it from the public,” Yameen said. “If you take a public poll, 99 percent of the citizens will say ‘no’ to religious freedom.”

Maldivians are passionate about their religion, Yameen added, referring to a recent incident in which a 37-year-old Maldivian citizen, Mohamed Nazim, was attacked after he told a gathering that he was not a Muslim. On May 28, before a crowd of around 11,000 Maldivians, Nazim told a visiting Indian Muslim televangelist, Zakir Naik, that although he was born to a practicing Muslim family, he was “struggling to believe in religions.”

He also asked Naik about his “verdict on Islam.” The question enraged an angry crowd, with many calling for Nazim’s death while others beat him. He received several minor injuries before police took him away.

“See how the public went after his [Nazim’s] throat,” said Yameen, who studied at Claremont Graduate University in California. When asked if such passion was good for a society, he replied, “Yes. We are an Islamic nation, and our religion is an important part of our collective identity.”

Asked if individuals had no rights, his terse answer was “No.” Told it was shocking to hear his views, he said, “We are also shocked when a nation legalizes gay sex.”

Mohamed Zahid, vice president of the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives, told Compass that the country has its own definition of human rights.

“It is to protect people’s rights under the sharia [Islamic law] and other international conventions with the exception of religious freedom,” he said. “We are a sovereign nation, and we follow our own constitution.”

Zahid and several other local sources told Compass that the issue of religious rights was “irrelevant” for Maldivians. “Not more than 100 people in the country want religious freedom,” Zahid said.

 

Politics of Religion

Former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, a virtual dictator for 30 years until 2008, is generally held responsible for creating an atmosphere of religious restrictions in the Maldives, as he sought to homogenize religion in the country by introducing the state version of Sunni Islam. He also led a major crackdown on Christians.

The Protection of Religious Unity Act, enacted in 1994, was an endeavor to tighten the government’s control over mosques and all other Islamic institutions. The Gayoom administration even wrote Friday sermons to be delivered in mosques.

In 1998, Gayoom began a crackdown on alleged missionary activities.

“A radio station based out of India used to air Christian programs via the Seychelles, but the government came to know about it and ensured that they were discontinued with the help of the government in the Seychelles,” said a local Muslim source.

That year, Gayoom reportedly arrested around 50 Maldivians who were suspected to have converted to Christianity and deported 19 foreign workers accused of doing missionary work. A source said Gayoom apparently wanted to regain popularity at a time when his leadership was being questioned.

When the archipelago became a multi-party democracy in October 2008, new President Mohamed Nasheed, a former journalist and activist, was expected to pursue a liberal policy as part of the country’s reforms agenda.

Although Nasheed is the president, his party, the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), has only 28 members and the support of four independents in the 77-member People’s Majlis (Maldives’ unicameral Parliament). Gayoom, now in his 70s and the leader of the largest opposition party, the DRP, has a simple majority – which presents difficulties in governance. Nasheed pleads helplessness in implementing reforms, citing an intransigent opposition.

Today Gayoom’s party accuses President Nasheed of not being able to protect the country’s distinct identity and culture, which the opposition says are rooted in Islam. The Gayoom-led parliament recently sought to impeach the education minister for proposing to make Islam and Dhivehi lessons optional – rather than mandatory – in high school.

To pre-empt the impeachment move, the whole cabinet of Nasheed resigned on June 29, which caused a major political crisis that led to violent street protests. The Nasheed administration allegedly arrested some opposition members, including Gayoom’s brother, Yameen. Political tensions and uncertainties continued at press time.

Now that President Nasheed’s popularity is declining – due to perceptions that he has become as authoritarian as his predecessor – it is feared that, amid immense pressure by the opposition to follow conservative policies, he might begin to follow in Gayoom’s footsteps.

 

Growing Extremism

Both the ruling and opposition parties admit that Islamic extremism has grown in the country. In October 2007, a group of young Maldivians engaged government security forces in a fierce shootout on Himandhoo Island.

Nasheed’s party alleges that Gayoom’s policy of promoting the state version of Sunni Islam created an interest to discern “true Islam,” with extremists from Pakistan stepping in to introduce “jihadism” in the Maldives. The DRP, on the other hand, says that behind the growth of extremism is the current government’s liberal policy of allowing Muslims of different sects to visit the Maldives to preach and give lectures, including the conservative Sunni sect of “Wahhabis.”

Until the early 1990s, Maldivian women would hardly wear the black burqa (covering the entire body, except the eyes and hands), and no men would sport a long beard – outward marks of Wahhabi Muslims, said the Muslim source, adding that “today the practice has become common.”

Still, Islam as practiced in the Maldives is pragmatic and unlike that of Saudi Arabia, he said. “People here are liberal and open-minded.”

As extremism grows, though, it is feared that radical Islamists may go to any extent to extra-judicially punish anyone suspected of being a missionary or having converted away from Islam, and that they can pressure the government to remain indifferent to religious freedom.

How long will it take for the Maldives to allow religious freedom?

“Maybe after the Maldivian government legalizes gay sex,” the Muslim source joked.

Report from Compass Direct News