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The Revolt of the Southern Atolls of Maldives 1959-63
Michael O'Shea 1998, edited 2009


This study examines a tumultuous Maldivian political crisis in the mid-twentieth century, when the southern atolls of this Indian Ocean nation temporarily revolted and became an independent state - the United Suvadive Islands Republic.

In 1957 the UK, anxious to relocate its military air supply routes away from the Middle East and barred from access to their newly independent former colonies India and Ceylon, began construction of a large military airport in the far south of Maldives, one of the British Empire's most neglected protectorates.

Maldives had been forced to become a British protectorate in 1887, though relationships between the British and Maldivian leaders had always been cordial and often friendly. However, the new military base at Gan on Addu atoll and its attendant financial rewards quickly became the focus of violent internal politics. Within two years, many Maldivians in the atolls around the base declared themselves independent of the Male' government and established the United Suvadive Islands Republic (USIR), incorporating Addu atoll and the British RAF base on Gan, one of Addu's islands, in a loose and intermittent alliance with rebel movements in the other two southern atolls, Huvadhu and Fua Mulak.

map of maldives, sri lanka and southern india
Maldives, Sri Lanka and southern India

Until recently, many modern Maldivians believed that the main indigenous support for the revolt came from southern traders who were resisting the government's attempts to direct all trade through Male'. The rebel movement was perceived as basically British inspired and controlled, and that Abdullah Afeef, who became president of the new republic, was a dupe of the British and a traitor who had already been convicted and punished for a revolt in Addu in 1944.

The first assertion concerning encouragement for the revolt from the wealthy southern traders is supported by this writer's research in Maldives. However, there are serious questions about the true nature of the United Suvadive Islands Republic and the role of Abdullah Afeef that this work seeks to address and resolve. The revolt is examined from a southern Maldivian perspective. These findings point to the critical contribution of the revolt to the administrative ethos and structure of future Maldivian governments, and its lasting impact upon the political and national psyche.

Was the United Suvadive Islands Republic yet another example of British colonialist manipulation — a side-show product of British imperial arrogance in defence of its perceived strategic interests - or the expression of a desire for better government among southern Maldivians, and another chapter in the troubled relationship between the Male' government and its often recalcitrant southern atolls? Or should the USIR be seen as the natural result of a measure of financial and military security appearing in an area estranged and remote from its national government? Were the rebels simply greedy traitors manipulated by their British friends?

Research suggests the USIR should be seen as a Maldivian, not a British, creation. The 1959-63 rebellion was the most serious outcome of three violent civil disturbances in the mid-twentieth century among the population of Addu atoll, particularly in Hithadhoo township 9 km north of the Gan base. Each of these incidents involved mob violence against Maldivian government officials, and retaliation by the administration. Although disputes caused by uncompromising enforcement of Male' regulations on trade between Maldivians and foreigners were an important cause of these insurrections, they may be better understood as an attempt to redefine Maldivian identity away from its narrow feudalistic focus on the dominant capital island, Male', and into a concept which included partial independence and progress in the south and other atolls distant from the centre of government.

Hidden History
Maldives has been governed as an Islamic state since 1153 AD, but did not receive a mention in Ira Lapidus' encyclopedic 'A History of Islamic Societies'. The role of this country in the trade and cultural development of Islam, South Asia and the Indian Ocean has been ignored.

Within Maldivian society, discussion of historical issues was stifled by low levels of education and ruthless government censorship. In an article entitled 'Hate Book' on Heroes Banned', about the banning of the history book Iyye (Yesterday) in 1997, a writer for Dhivehi language daily newspaper Haveeru claimed 'Although Maldives is an egalitarian society, Maldivians have not yet developed the cynicism and the contempt for ruling elites of the past or the present, nor an uncertainty about moral values that is characteristic of societies going through a post-modern breakdown of values. It is therefore necessary for writers not to lose sight of the interests of the community and the ethical bearings of the society.'

Despite the high level of censorship, which required that all manuscripts receive government certification before printing, detailed historical works are regularly published in Dhivehi. However, the historical record is often obscured by secrecy, propaganda and many writers' reluctance to upset powerful government figures or family members by challenging myths and comfortable historical fabrications.

This article uses research through personal interviews recorded mainly in the south with older Maldivians in 1996-97. These interviews describe tragic incidents of destruction and death in Huvadhu atoll after 1959, the details of which had been denied, suppressed or obscured in previous published records until the brief appearance of 'Iyye' in 1997.

New light is shed on motivations and role of Abdullah Afeef, the rebel leader in Addu. What emerges is a complex tale of intrigue and opportunism, with incidents of thuggery and murder. Yet out of this chaos emerges a re-invigorated Maldivian state, truly independent for the first time in over 300 years. But there was a heavy price to pay for this hollow national victory. The Male' dictatorships continued unabated for almost fifty years after the southern rebellion and mention of the bashings, death and destruction were suppressed from public discussion and remained hidden from younger Maldivians. The south was left undeveloped and impoverished for decades - punished for the arrogance of its revolt. A dark chapter in Maldivian history was almost erased from official records, but its traumatic memory lingered among the older Maldivians who controlled Male', and among their embittered counterparts in the south who had lost loved ones in the violence.

Previous research
Only five major books in English have been published on Maldivian history and culture in the last hundred years, and they are rarely available in libraries. The books are:

Francois Pyrard, (1570-1621), translated by Albert Grey, assisted by H.C.P. Bell, 'The Voyage of Francois Pyrard de Laval to the East Indies, the Maldives, the Moluccas, and Brazil'
H.C.P. Bell, 'The Maldive Islands: Monograph on the History, Archaeology and Epigraphy'
C. Maloney, 'People of the Maldive Islands'
U. Phadnis, and E. D. Luithui, 'Maldives — Winds of Change in an Atoll State'
Xavier Romero-Frias, 'The Maldive Islanders, A Study of the Popular Culture of an Ancient Ocean Kingdom'

Winds of Change in an Atoll State by Indian scholars Urmila Phadnis and Ela Dutt Luithui contains the only detailed published account of the USIR revolt in English, though Clarence Maloney also gathered interesting details during his anthropological research in the southern atolls in the mid 1970s which culminated in the publication of his comprehensive anthropological work 'People of the Maldive Islands'.

Phadnis and Luithui concentrate on negotiations between the Maldivian government and the British, and the expansion of the Presidency's power after independence in 1965. Informative and scholarly, their book identifies the importance of the underlying government structure to the development of the Maldivian national state. However, Phadnis and Luithui's coverage of the Addu revolt is limited by its sources — mainly British and American newspapers and English language editions from India, Sri Lanka, and Singapore. The USIR is scarcely mentioned in these sources because journalists and any other casual visitors were excluded from Addu and surrounding atolls, except for a single very brief British-sponsored tour of Gan and Feydhoo for selected journalists. The Maldivian government only spoke to the press through its representative in Colombo.

The Dhivehi historical record of the Addu revolt, Ibrahim Shihaab's 'The Reign of Sultan Mohamed Fareed: an historical perspective', was thoroughly edited by the Maldivian government before publication and its coverage is fragmented and lacks any real analytical cohesion. Shihaab admits as much in his preface:
'Writing history is a huge task. The research and investigations are arduous. So many events and explanations have to be collated, and you can only write with a single pen. I do not believe my work here deserves to be called history. It is only a personal description of the things I have seen and experienced. There are no hidden meanings.' Despite these limitations, Shihaab's book is important and occasionally quite revealing, because he was a senior minister in the Male' government at the time of the revolt.

Romero-Frias's work, published in 1999, stands in a class of its own. A skilled linguist and incisive thinker, Romero-Frias has written the best book about Maldivian culture ever published. His deep reading and understanding of Dhivehi written and oral literature is unsurpassed by any other foreigner. Xavier speaks Dhivehi like a native. References from his work were added to this study after its final preparation in 1998.

For too long, the political manoeuvring and violence within Maldives during the USIR period were shrouded in mystery, rumour and falsehood, and the very limited historical record in English and Dhivehi contained many inaccuracies, distortions and crucial gaps.

In the following account, the revolt is shown to be the most serious and bitter civil war in Maldivian history. It may be seen as the culmination of decades of political posturing and bad administration in Male' and chronic incompetence in the atolls. Rather than a tale of treachery, the formation and defeat of the United Suvadive Islands Republic was part of the slow transformation of Maldives from a Male' slave kingdom into a truly national state.

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