The Maldives’ strategic location in the Indian Ocean has elicited interest in its politics. While it is the smallest state in South Asia and a classic example of a microstate, with a population of less than 400,000, its strategic location in the Indian Ocean region (IOR) and large EEZ allow it to play an outsize role in the region. When it comes to civil‒military relations, the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) has traditionally accepted a subordinate role to the civilian leadership. However, there has been intermittent political turmoil and instability as civilian leaders—many of whom have been autocratic—resist democratic changes. There are three components that require attention in assessing the nature of the Maldives’ civil‒military relations. The first component is the great power rivalry between China and India operating in the region. While India has considered the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) to be within its sphere of influence, it has been challenged by recent Chinese activities in the IOR. The second component is the stability and turmoil in the domestic political structures in the Maldives as the country seeks to democratize. Finally, although it is the largest contributor to the Maldives’ GDP, a section of fundamentalist Muslims identify the tourism industry with a “decadent lifestyle” being promoted by the state solely for economic growth . Given that tourism is the primary economic sector in the Maldives, such opposition can pose both a security and an economic threat. Whether the growing radicalism has affected the military is unclear, but the possibility poses new threats to a country on the path of democratization.
Prashant Hosur Suhas and Vasabjit Banerjee
The Maldives form the central part of an underwater mountain range in the center of the Indian Ocean, creating a crossroads for seafaring, migration, trade, and warfare. Because of this remote yet strategic location, the Maldives became either a disastrous hurdle, a convenient stopover, or a promising stepping stone in the Indian Ocean—and a favorable residence for a small, self-contained, ocean-foraging and seafaring people. The Maldives are among the few central and western Indian Ocean islands that were already populated, long before the colonial period. The archipelago is presumed to have been settled some 2,500 years ago. Dravidian, Sinhalese Buddhist, and Arab Muslim influences formed the unique cultural identity of the preindustrial Dhivehin (Maldivians). Throughout the historic eras, the crossroads position of the Maldives becomes conspicuous at particular junctures. Three commodities exported by the Dhivehin were of particular significance in the global economy and positioned the islands at various historical crossroads: coco-de-mer, coir, and cowries. Ptolemy’s Geography provides the earliest western reference to the archipelago. Ibn Battuta, who served as the royal judge, is a renowned representative of the Arab trade and Muslim religious networks that had a lasting effect on the shape of the island kingdom. The most comprehensive accounts of the colonial era are provided by the shipwrecked François Pyrard, from the early 17th century, and by H. C. P Bell, between 1879 and 1922. The Maldives have ethnic and linguistic ties to Sri Lanka (Ceylon) and were politically and economically closely connected to this neighbor. In 1887 the archipelago officially became a British protectorate, gaining its independence in 1965. The eradication of major diseases paved the way for the advent of the tourism industry in the 1970s. Since the late 1990s, the molecular approach to population movements in the Indian Ocean has provided new insights into the cultural admixtures that contribute to the genetic mosaic of the Dhivehin.