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The United Suvadive Islands Republic and British colonialism
Michael O'Shea
The Suvadive Republic, part 9 (final)

Maldives was a poor and tiny country in the mid-twentieth century, emerging from centuries of cultural isolation, poverty, slavery and feudalism. However limited the British imperial influence on the Maldives, the support of the governor of Ceylon was always an essential ingredient for a stable regime in Male'. Provided they co-operated with British political, military and financial interests in the Indian Ocean region, Male's leading families were permitted to maintain their control of the atolls. The British government always baulked at any suggestion of a full colonial takeover in Maldives because of the monetary cost involved, and the atoll nation's lack of any high-value exploitable resources.

Although the Gan base had enmeshed them in Maldivian domestic politics, the British usually just reacted to events; they were rarely initiators. Major Phillips, the experienced UK liaison officer on Gan during the period of the revolt, actively prevented a mob attack on the base several months before the successful revolt and during the violence of 1 January 1959 he organised the swift rescue of the important Maldivian government official Ahmed Zaki. Rather than dispersing Moosabe Kokko's mob with batons and rifles, the British allowed them to vent their anger on the Maldivian government office building on Gan, intervening only to prevent violence among Maldivians.

As the United Suvadive Islands Republic materialised in the following weeks, Major Phillips' close advisory relationship with Abdullah Afeef earned the displeasure of the Male' government and led to claims that the British, through Major Phillips, had secretly inspired the revolt. In fact, the revolt had been encouraged by Costain Ltd, the British company with the Gan construction contract. The company could not have given this support without at least the tacit permission of the British military. The written records from the period, and personal interviews with Adduans, leave no doubt the British on Addu were in genuine sympathy with the grievances of the Adduan population against their national government, but it is also clear that the British administration knew that their global strategic concerns demanded the return of Addu to Male' government control.

British efforts to improve the health and education services for the Adduan population and Maldivian visitors from other atolls, were extensive and commendable. These advances highlighted the lack of development in Male' and other Maldivian atolls under the control of Nasir's government. The British had hoped that they could confine their interest and expenditures to Addu, but maintaining the base at Gan became a matter of placating the increasing financial and political demands of the Male' government, as well as dealing with a surprisingly effective rebel movement on the base's atoll.

Men like Ibrahim Nasir, Moosabe Kokko, Abdullah Afeef, and Moosa Ali Didi were operating in a Maldivian political environment where the British were an important but marginal factor. The southern atolls' argument was with Male', and even the final efforts by RAF officers to isolate Afeef and terminate the USIR were only made after considerable pressure from the Maldivian government.

Male' and Abdullah Afeef
Addu's localised disturbances of 1944 and the attack on Moosa Ali Didi in 1964 were essentially trade disputes, but the United Suvadive Islands Republic of 1959-63 was a genuine attempt to usurp Male's power in Maldives and create a new era of education, health, and economic prosperity. Abdullah Afeef was physically forced to become the president of the rebel republic by Moosabe Kokko and his followers who were facing deadly punishment from Nasir's government after the sacking of the Maaran'ga building on Gan. Afeef demanded a letter of protection from the British because he believed, initially, that the USIR was doomed. In short, he was prepared to take responsibility for the revolt, provided he and his family and Addu atoll were shielded from Male's revenge.

Afeef's eloquent English criticism of Nasir's rule and claims that the Maldivian government had neglected its domestic responsibilities, amplified by the world press during 1959, were an unprecedented activity within the country. Backed by Addu's rapidly growing wealth, the real challenges from Abdullah Afeef's rebel administration were the example of higher standards of health, education, and administrative competence. Conservative opposition to change and modernisation on Male' island was muted in the Maldivian government's quest for ascendancy and national unity. For the first time in over a thousand years, Male's position as the leading island was under real threat.

Politically and militarily, the fatal blow to this historic challenge to Male' rule was the failure of the union between Addu, Huvadhu, and Fua Mulaku. President Afeef's attempt to form a loose confederation of southern atolls unravelled because he was not prepared to organise a southern army to repel Nasir's forces and quell pro-Male' dissent in Huvadhu. The level of violence used against Thinadhoo and its people in the second attack by the Maldivian government forces was horrific, and Afeef should have foreseen these consequences when he encouraged and supplied the 1961 revolt in Huvadhu.

On Addu, Abdullah Afeef's rule provided an example of a better, more responsible government based firmly in the traditional Maldivian autocratic and Islamic style. The People's Council was a democratic innovation, but Afeef's administration was respected more for its services in education and health, the prompt payment of salaries, and the fairly distributed wealth of its trading organisation. Male' had no choice other than to attempt to emulate Addu's methods and success.

As far as Ibrahim Nasir was concerned, Afeef's challenge was also a personal one. In common with other island countries, many Maldivians perceive politics not as a debate over policy issues, but as a battle between 'strongmen'. In S. de Smith's article,about the politics of the western Indian Ocean islands, this perception of politics is attributed to 'pre-occupation with the means of subsistence, partly to the lack of incentives to diversify their talents, partly to social and religious pressures towards conformity, partly to the irrelevance of ideologies and the importance of dominant individuals, and partly to the poverty of the informative media.'

Afeef was never comfortable in the big man role. His political persona was almost Gandhian, and although he gaoled public dissenters to USIR rule in Addu, and promoted revolt on Huvadhu, he usually disdained mob action and preferred to use negotiation to settle disputes.

Ibrahim Nasir, on the other hand, was quite comfortable with violence. Ibrahim Shihaab describes him as an 'young activist' in the downfall of Mohamed Ameen in 1953. His personal leadership of the assaults on Thinadhoo in Huvadhu atoll, and the propaganda that the USIR was Christian-inspired, recalled the tough and admired mythic tradition of the Maldivian hero Mohamed Thakurufaan and his sixteenth century liberation war against the Portuguese. After Nasir had crushed Thinadhoo, he was the undisputed ruler of Maldives and the disintegration of the USIR was assured.

The UK and United States agreement over Diego Garcia in the Chagos Archipelago 400 km south of Addu, soon made Gan redundant. In the same year that independence was granted to the Maldives, the British offered independence and three million pounds to Mauritius in exchange for the Chagos Archipelago.

A year later, Britain and the USA signed a deal stating that the island of Diego Garcia would 'become available for defence purposes for fifty years' and plans outlining the methods to be used in the uprooting, shipping, and dumping of 1800 Ilois (the native inhabitants) were presented in a file marked 'SECRET'.

'SECRET' was also the notice applied to the payments the US made to the British in exchange for the acquisition and depopulation of the islands: payments of $14 million in the form of written-off expenses incurred in the research and development of the Polaris submarine/missile system.

In Maldives, bitterness about the revolt still remains, and influences economic development. The booming tourist industry developed since the 1970s is concentrated entirely around Male'. Gan base was closed in 1976 and the airfield, one of the best ever built by the RAF outside Britain, was virtually inactive in 1997 with only one or two domestic passenger flights each day. The island had an official government guest house and police headquarters, a sleepy tourist resort, and several garment factories employing mainly Sri Lankans.

The divisions already existing between Male' and the south were exacerbated by the revolt, but since then, internal emigration to Male' for employment and education, and intermarriage between islands, have undermined the old social barriers. By 1997, interisland fighting was confined to gang rivalries and squabbles over young women.

In Male' in 1997, government censorship of books and media, a policy of discouraging internal rivalries, and reluctance to face uncomfortable realities, meant that the British were portrayed as the villains of the revolt. The story of the violence on Huvadhu and torture in Male' was revealed by Abdul Hakeem Hussein Manik in 'Iyye' (Yesterday), and though the book was censored for other revelations, the truth about the Suvadive republic and related twentieth century Maldivian history was not considered fit for public discussion under Gayyoom's regime. In Male', the old wounds were not allowed to heal.

On Addu, the days of the Afeef and the rebel republic are part of folklore. The modern Adduan is strongly nationalistic and though island parochialism lies only just below the surface, it is directed against other islands in the atoll while the dominance of Male' is accepted and grudgingly admired. The government of President Gayyoom has slowly improved services and infrastructure development throughout the atolls, and Addu benefited strongly with freezer ships for tuna catches, new schools, telephone services, modernised electricity supplies, and harbour construction. The dreams of the USIR were slowly realised, and there was no wish to return to the upheavals and uncertainties of the past.

Huvadhu also shared a little in the economic boom of the Gayyoom dictatorship after 1978, but it remained a relatively isolated and economically backward atoll. Many of its people left to work in Male' or at the resorts. Thinadhoo is once again heavily populated and received special government consideration in recognition of the traumas of the 1960s. The level of psychological insecurity in Thinadhoo was still palpable in 1997; the house walls, much higher than in other islands, created a garrison atmosphere in the streets.

Abdullah Afeef died in the early 1990s, and he was allowed a brief stay in Hithadhoo shortly before his death. It was an emotional visit; the ailing Afeef was often overcome with tears. Members of his family have done well in the Seychelles and hold high government positions there.

In 1997, Moosa Ali Didi was an elder patriarch of Hithadhoo, and his family continued to dominate trade and government positions on the island. Of all the interviewees he proved to be the least helpful, sometimes claiming to be senile, and contradicting himself. He and his family were impeccable hosts and genuinely charming.

In 1997, Moosabe Kokko lived in reasonable comfort in a house overlooking the lagoon off eastern Hithadhoo. Kokko was now a mudhim and spent a lot of time praying and meditating at his local mosque. We often found him chatting with old friends and smoking cigarettes at the shipyards. Almost 80 years old, he had married again and had three young children, none of whom attended school.

Ibrahim Nasir resigned as president due to ill-health in the late 1970s; the final years of his rule were remembered as times of paranoia and oppression. He was convicted in absentia of corruption and later officially pardoned. Although he lived in self-imposed exile in Singapore until his death in 2008, his family still runs extensive business operations in Maldives.

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