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Maldives Overview: History

The Maldives were originally settled by peoples who came from S Asia. Islam was brought to the islands in the 12th cent. Starting in the 16th cent., with the coming of the Portuguese, the Maldives were intermittently under European influence. In 1887 they became a British protectorate and military base but retained internal self-government. The Maldives obtained complete independence as a sultanate in 1965, but in 1968 the ad-Din dynasty, which had ruled the islands since the 14th cent., was ended and a republic was declared.

Following the British withdrawal from their base on the southernmost island of Gan in 1976, first the Soviet Union, then India and Sri Lanka courted Maldivian favor. Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who was first elected president in 1978 and retained power for three decades, ruled in an authoritarian manner. Indian troops landed in the Maldives in 1988 to foil one of several coup attempts. In the late 1980s the Maldives joined with a number of coral atoll nations to raise international awareness of the consequences of global warming, and in 1989 hosted an international conference to discuss this issue.

Beginning in 2003 the country experienced occasional antigovernment demonstrations that called for political reforms. The Dec., 2004, Indian Ocean tsunami caused severe damage to many of the country's low-lying islands, and hurt the important fishing and tourist industries. In the Jan., 2005, nonpartisan elections for the Majlis, candidates supported by the banned opposition party won 18 of the elected seats. President Gayoom subsequently called for the establishment of a multiparty democracy by the end of the year, and the Majlis approved the changes in June, but opposition party leader Mohamed Nasheed was arrested at a prodemocracy rally later in the year and charged with treason and terrorism. Opposition activists continued to face repressive government measures in 2006.

Following a bombing in Sept., 2007, that was linked to Islamic militants, the president issued a wide-ranging decree designed to promote moderate Islam and suppress Islamic extremism. In Aug., 2008, a new constitution was adopted that allowed for direct election of the president, multiparty elections, and other democratic reforms; two months later, Mohamed Nasheed was elected president, defeating Gayoom after a runoff. The May, 2009, Majlis elections were won by the opposition, however, and in mid-2010 increasing tensions between the government and Majlis, especially the refusal of the Majlis to confirm supreme court appointments, led the cabinet to resign en masse in protest. In Aug., 2010, the court members were confirmed, but relations between the government and Majlis remained difficult.

During 2011 poor economic conditions led to protests against the government. After the military arrested the top criminal court judge in Jan., 2012, several weeks of demonstrations by Gayoom supporters and others culminated in a police mutiny and the forced resignation of Nasheed (February). He was succeeded as president by Vice President Mohammed Waheed Hassan. Nasheed was later (July) charged with illegally ordering the arrest of the judge. In Aug., 2012, a report by a Commonwealth-backed Maldives commission called the succession constitutional; the report led to protests in the Maldives.

Nasheed placed first in the Sept., 2013, presidential election, but he failed to win a majority, forcing a runoff with Adbulla Yameen, Gayoom's half-brother. The vote, however, was annulled by the supreme court after the third-place candidate, businessman Qasim Ibrahim, alleged vote fraud. A new election in November led to similar results, and Yameen subsequently won the runoff. In the Mar., 2014, legislative elections, the president's party won a plurality; Nasheed's party placed second. Prior to the vote, the supreme court had convicted the election commission of contempt of court and dismissed the chairman of the commission, who had criticized the court's interference in the 2013 presidential election.

In 2015 Nasheed convicted of terrorism in connection with the 2012 arrest of the top criminal court judge and imprisoned; he was allowed to travel to Britain in 2016. Also in 2015, the defense minister was separately dismissed and later convicted on smuggling and other charges. In Sept., 2015, Yameen survived a boat explosion of an unclear cause, but he used it to crack down on opponents. Subsequently the vice president, Ahmed Adeeb, was arrested, accused of involvement in the blast, removed from office, and secretly tried and convicted. In 2016 the country, faced with a possible suspension from the Commonwealth of Nations for failure to make democratic progress, withdrew from the organization and accused it of interefering in its domestic affairs.

Yameen, who had lost Gayoom's support, lost his legislative majority in July, 2017, but subsequently blocked attempted no-confidence votes and arrested a number of opposition politicians. In Feb., 2018, the supreme court voided Nasheed's conviction and ordered the release of the opposition politicians. Yameen declared a state of emergency and arrested two justices, Gayoom, and others, accusing them of attempting a coup (Gayoom and the justices were convicted of not cooperating with the police in June); the remaining justices reversed the court's decision.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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