MODERN HISTORY OF THE MALDIVES
The Maldives became a republic in 1953 but after a short period became a sultanate once again. The country became a republic again in 1968. The Maldives regained full sovereignty and independence in 1965. The newly independent country changed from a Sultanate to Republic on November 11, 1968. After the Maldives became independent Sri Lanka began exerting an influence on it by helping it to set up a modern education system with instruction partly in English.
During the British era from 1887 to 1965, Maldives continued to be ruled under a succession of sultans. In the early 20th century, Sultan Mohammed Shamsudden was deposed . The sultans were hereditary until 1932 when an attempt was made to make the sultanate elective, thereby limiting the absolute powers of sultans. At that time, a constitution was introduced for the first time, although the sultanate was retained for an additional twenty-one years. [Source: Helen Chapin Metz, Library of Congress, 1994 *]
In the British period, the Sultan's powers were taken over by the Chief Minister, much to the chagrin of the British Governor-General who continued to deal with the ineffectual Sultan. Consequently, Britain encouraged the development of a constitutional monarchy. In 1931, the sultan and his advisors put together a constitution with the help of the British but based on laws and principals that were part of the Maldivian system for eccentricities. The first Constitution was proclaimed in 1932. However, the new arrangements favoured neither the aging Sultan nor the wily Chief Minister, but rather a young crop of British-educated reformists. As a result, angry mobs were instigated against the Constitution which was publicly torn up. [Source: Wikipedia]
Muhammad Amin Didi’s Brief But Tragic Presidency
The sultanate was dominated by the Didi family since 1759. In 1953 the sultanate was briefly suspended and the First Republic was declared under the short-lived presidency of Muhammad Amin Didi. After the death of Sultan Majeed Didi in 1952 and his son, the members of the parliament elected Muhammad Amin Didi as the next person in line to succeed the sultan. But Didi refused to take up the throne. So, a referendum was held and Maldives became a republic, with Amin Didi as first elected President, having abolished the 812-year-old sultanate. [Sources: Library of Congress, Wikipedia, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007]
Muhammad Amin Didi, the first elected president of the Maldives, introduced several reforms. While serving as prime minister during the 1940s, Didi had nationalized the fish export industry. As president he is remembered as a reformer of the education system and a promoter of women's rights. These reforms, especially the freedoms offered to women, did not sit well with conservative Muslims in Male that eventually ousted his government.
Muhammad Amin Didi was in Ceylon for medical treatment, a riot over food shortages took place Malé, headed by Amin Didi’s deputy Velaanaagey Ibraahim Didi. When Amin Did returned he was confined to Dhoonidhoo Island. He escaped to Malé and tried to take control of Bandeyrige, but was beaten by an angry mob and died soon after. Amin Didi’s cousins Muhammad Farid Didi and Ibrahim Ali Didi became co-presidents in September 1953,
After the fall of President Mohamed Amin Didi, a referendum was held and 98 percent of the people voted in favour of restoration of the monarchy, and thus the Maldives returned to being a sultanate. A new People's Majilis was elected, as the former had been dissolved after the end of the revolution. The members of the special majilis decided to take a secret vote to elect a sultan, and Prince Muhammad Farid Didi — Amin Didi’s cousin — was elected as the 84th Sultan in March 1954. His first Prime minister was Ehgamugey Ibrahim Ali Didi (another Amin Didi cousin, later Ibraahim Faamuladheyri Kilegefaan) and formed a new government. In December 1957, the prime minister was forced to resign and Velaanagey Ibrahim Nasir was elected as the new prime minister the following day.
Rebellion Over a British Base
Beginning in the 1950s, political history in Maldives was largely influenced by the British military presence in the islands. In 1954 the restoration of the sultanate perpetuated the rule of the past. In 1956, Britain obtained permission to reestablish its wartime airfield on Gan Island in the southernmost Addu Atoll. Maldives granted the British a 100-year lease on Gan that required them to pay £2,000 a year, as well as some forty-four hectares on Hitaddu for radio installations. The base was important to the British. It served as a staging post for British military flights to the Far East and Australia, replacing RAF Mauripur in Pakistan which had been relinquished in 1956. [Source: Helen Chapin Metz, Library of Congress, 1994; Wikipedia, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007]
The 1956 agreement to permit Britain to maintain an air base on Gan was meant widespread public scorn in Malé. The reaction was so strong that Prime Minister Ibrahim Ali Didi was forced to resign in December 1957. Ibrahim Nasir, who succeeded him, asserted that the British base would violate Maldivian neutrality. In 1957, th the new prime minister, Ibrahim Nasir, called for a review of the agreement in the interest of shortening the lease and increasing the annual payment. His government sent a representative to Gan to tell the islanders to stop working for the British, the islanders attacked him.
But Nasir, who was theoretically responsible to then sultan Muhammad Farid Didi, was challenged in 1959 by a local secessionist movement in the southern atolls that benefited economically from the British presence on Gan. This group cut ties with the Maldives government and formed an independent state with Abdulla Afif Didi as president. The short-lived state (1959-62), called the United Suvadivan Republic, had a combined population of 20,000 inhabitants scattered in the atolls then named Suvadiva — since renamed North Huvadu and South Huvadu — and Addu and Fua Mulaku. In 1962 Nasir sent gunboats from Male with government police on board to eliminate elements opposed to his rule. Abdulla Afif Didi fled to the then British colony of Seychelles, where he was granted political asylum.*
Meanwhile, in 1960 Maldives allowed Britain to continue to use both the Gan and the Hitaddu facilities for a thirty-year period, with the payment of £750,000 over the period of 1960 to 1965 for the purpose of Maldives' economic development. The base was closed in 1976 as part of the larger British withdrawal of permanently-stationed forces 'East of Suez'. [Source: *, Wikipedia]
Secessionist Movement in the Maldives
Early in 1959, the people of Addu Atoll, in which Gan Island is located, cut ties with the Maldives government and formed an independent state, the United Suvadive Republic with Abdullah Afif as president and Hithadhoo as capital. The short-lived state (1959–63) had a combined population of 20,000 inhabitants scattered over Huvadu, Addu and Fua Mulaku. Afeef pleaded for support and recognition from Britain in the May 25, 1959 edition of The Times of London. [Source: Wikipedia, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007]
The British refused to comply, but the Nasir government made public its suspicions that the coup had been engineered by the British. In the event, government forces crushed the rebels in two of the atolls but made no attempt to interfere on Gan or any of the other seven main islands in the Addu group. In February 1960, the Maldivian government made a free gift to the British government of the use of Gan Island and other facilities in Addu Atoll for 30 years, and a fresh agreement was drawn up between the governments. In return, the British agreed to assist in bringing about a reconciliation between the Maldivian government and the disaffected inhabitants of the southern islands.
By March 1960, the Suvadiva Republic was declared dissolved, and a committee ruling under the sovereign control of the sultan was set up, including among its members Abdallah Afif, leader of the rebellion. The initial British measure of lukewarm support for the small breakaway nation was withdrawn in 1961, when the British signed a treaty with the Maldive Islands without involving Afeef. Following that treaty the Suvadives had to endure an economic embargo. In 1962 Nasir sent gunboats from Malé with government police on board to eliminate elements opposed to his rule. One year later the Suvadive republic was scrapped and Abdullah Afif went into exile to the Seychelles, where he died in 1993.
Movement Towards Independence in the Maldives
By 1962, resentment had grown against the British owing to their lack of progress in implementing the agreement over the Gan base and the secessionist movement there. In late 1962 a Royal Navy frigate was sent to the capital island of Malé to protect British citizens. Abdallah Afif was evacuated by the British to the Seychelles. [Source: Wikipedia]
When the British became increasingly unable to continue their colonial hold on Asia and were losing their colonies to the indigenous populations who wanted freedom. On July 26, 1965 an agreement was signed on behalf of the Sultan by Ibrahim Nasir Rannabandeyri Kilegefan, Prime Minister, and on behalf of the British government by Sir Michael Walker, British Ambassador-designate to the Maldive Islands, which formally ended the British authority on the defence and external affairs of the Maldives. A big part of the deals was that the British wold continued to maintain their air base on the island of Gan in the southernmost atoll until 1976.
Maldives Gain Independence and Become a Republic
Maldives gained independence in on July 26, 1965 under an agreement signed with Britain. . The islands thus achieved independence, with the ceremony taking place at the British High Commissioner's Residence in Colombo. After this, the sultanate continued for another three years under Sir Muhammad Fareed Didi, who declared himself King upon independence. The British government retained the use of the Gan and Hitaddu facilities in return for the payment of $2,380,000, most to be spent over a period of years for economic development. [Source: Wikipedia, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007]
Following independence from Britain in 1965, the sultanate continued to operate for another three years. On November 11, 1968, it was abolished and replaced by a republic, and the country assumed its present name, thus ending the 853-year-old sultanate and monarchy. Ibrahim Nasir was named the republic’s first president.
In November 1967, a vote was taken in parliament to decide whether the Maldives should continue as a constitutional monarchy or become a republic. Of the 44 members of parliament, 40 voted in favor of a republic. In March 1968, a national referendum was held on the same issue and 93.34 percent of voters voted in favor of establishing a republic. The Second Republic was declared and the sultanate was abolished on November 11, 1968. As the sultan by that time had held little real power, the change was viewed as primarily cosmetic change and few alterations had to be made in the structures of government..
Maldives After Independence
A new republican constitution came into force on November 11, 1968, formally establishing the Republic of Maldives and creating the office of the president. Nasir — then prime minister — became president. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007]
According to the “Gale Encyclopedia of World History: Governments”: “Maldives has enjoyed relative calm since independence and the 1968 constitution, a calm some analysts attribute to the common Islamic beliefs shared among most of the population. Critics, however, blame the government for maintaining peace by restricting opposition activities.” Demands for representative government began increasing in the 2000s. [Source: “Gale Encyclopedia of World History: Governments”, Thomson Gale, 2008]
On March 29, 1976 the last British troops left the Maldives. Today this is celebrated as Maldives Independence Day. The British made the move after making an agreement with the democracy to share facilities on Diego Garcia, 650 kilometers (400 miles) east of Gan. Britain vacated the Gan air base in December 1975, and the UK-Maldivian accord was formally terminated the following year. The British departure in 1976 almost immediately triggered foreign speculation about the future of the air base; the Soviet Union requested use of the base, but Maldives refused. [Source: Helen Chapin Metz, Library of Congress, 1994]
According to “The Columbia Encyclopedia”: “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. [Source: The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed., The Columbia University Press]
Ibrahim Nasir: Independent Maldives’s First President
The Second Republic was proclaimed in November 1968 under the presidency of Ibrahim Nasir, who had increasingly dominated the political scene. Under the new constitution, Nasir was elected indirectly to a four-year presidential term by the Majlis (legislature). He appointed Ahmed Zaki as the new prime minister. [Source: Helen Chapin Metz, Library of Congress, 1994 *]
In 1973 Nasir was elected to a second term under the constitution as amended in 1972, which extended the presidential term to five years and which also provided for the election of the prime minister by the Majlis. In March 1975, newly elected prime minister Zaki was arrested in a bloodless coup and was banished to a remote atoll. Observers suggested that Zaki was becoming too popular and hence posed a threat to the Nasir faction. *
After the Maldives became independent it embarked on a rapid modernisation process. The existing fishing industry was upgraded, and the first airport was opened in Hulhulhe’ island on April 1966. Tourism began to be developed in the beginning of the 1970s. The first resort in the Maldives, Kurumba Maldives, welcomed its first guests in October 1972. The first accurate census in the Maldives, was held in December 1977, counted 142,832 people.
Ibrahim Nasir Flees the Maldives with Millions
Political infighting during the 1970s between Nasir's faction and other political figures led to the 1975 arrest and exile of elected prime minister Ahmed Zaki to a remote atoll. Economic decline followed the closure of the British airfield at Gan and the collapse of the market for dried fish, an important export. With support for his administration faltering, Nasir fled to Singapore in 1978.
During the 1970s, the economic situation in Maldives suffered a setback when the Sri Lankan market for Maldives' main export of dried fish collapsed. Adding to the problems was the British decision in 1975 to close its airfield on Gan in line with its new policy of abandoning defense commitments east of the Suez Canal. A steep commercial decline followed the evacuation of Gan in March 1976. As a result, the popularity of Nasir's government suffered. Maldives's twenty-year period of authoritarian rule under Nasir abruptly ended in 1978 when he fled to Singapore. A subsequent investigation revealed that he had absconded with millions of dollars from the state treasury. [Source: Helen Chapin Metz, Library of Congress, 1994 *]
By 1978 Nasir’s popularity had plummeted, even among the ruling elite. According to the “Gale Encyclopedia of World History: Governments”: “He was criticized for his autocratic political style, and poor economic policies had left a hungry population protesting over rising prices for food. Consequently, Nasir announced he would resign in 1978. The Majlis appointed diplomat Gayoom as the next president. [Source: “Gale Encyclopedia of World History: Governments”, Thomson Gale, 2008]
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Republic of Maldives Department of Information, the government site (maldivesinfo.gov.mv), Ministry of Tourism Maldives (tourism.gov.mv), Maldives Marketing and Public Relations Corporation (MMPRC, visitmaldives.com), The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.
Last updated February 2022