Maumoon Abdul Gayoom rules his atoll nation with a firm hand, but has been credited with bringing unprecedented prosperity to his 250,000 subjects. Today, the Maldives has the best standard of living among South Asian countries: the highest life expectancy, near-100 percent literacy and the lowest infant mortality rate. Mr Gayoom has also tried to give the Maldives a higher international profile, and he will once again be chairing SAARC after its Summit in Male in May. Gayoom spoke to Himal South Asia recently about various issues relating to his country, including governance.
On what President Gayoom set out to do when he first assumed office in 1978 and whether he is satisfied with what has been achieved.
When I first took office as President in 1978, my main objective was to lay a strong foundation for the economic, social and political development of the country. I wanted to provide better health care, promote education, stimulate economic development and try to bridge the gap between Male and the atolls. In general, I wished to see the people enjoy a higher standard of living and a greater participation in the political process.
Our achievements on the whole have been extremely satisfactory. I am particularly pleased that we have been able to maintain an economic growth of around 8-10 percent for the past fifteen years. Our GDP has increased six-fold from around USD 30.5 million in 1978 to USD 191.5 million at present. The GDP per capita has, in the same period, grown from USD 160 to USD 768. In the area of social development too, we have made a lot of progress. Life expectancy at birth has been raised from 46 to 70 years, while infant mortality has been reduced from 127 to 32 per thousand. We covered universal child immunisation by 1990. We have attained a functional literacy rate of 98 percent.
The political system has been liberalised. Authority has been decentralised, and ministers have been given more powers. Freedom of expression and freedom of the press have been ensured within the limits of the law. To allow for more political reforms, the Constitution is currently being revised.
On the yearning among many young and educated Maldivians exposed to Western values for a Westminster or Western-style democracy.
Though it had been a British protectorate for almost 80 years, the Maldives had never been under direct British political influence. Our political system has, through the years, evolved on national lines. There could be some people who would like the Maldives to adopt a Westminster-style democracy, but I doubt very much that the majority would want that. Indeed, during the recent debate on the revision of the relevant section of the Constitution, most members of the Citizens´ Special Majlis were not in favour of changing the present system.
Our electoral process does differ from that of Western-style democracy. Nevertheless, ours is certainly a democratic system. Free and fair elections for the presidency and for Parliament are held every five years. If the concern is because we have no political parties, I have to say that in a small, closely knit homogeneous society like ours, the pros and cons of having party politics must be weighed carefully before venturing into an hitherto unknown world. In fact, some foreign leaders who have visited the Maldives and compared the political stability and harmony here to the continued political unrest in many developing countries with multi-party systems, have expressed their view that we should preserve our unique political system that has served us so well. However, our laws do not prevent people from forming political parties if they want to.
About whether he is wary of the dangers of moving too fast too soon in strengthening the democratic system in the Maldives.
The Maldives enjoyed democratic traditions even before independence. Our first Constitution was adopted in 1932. As I have said, I want to establish a more liberal form of government. The Constitution is being redrafted in its entirety by the Citizens´ Special Majlis to ensure that. It is not an easy task. So, it is taking time. However, a number of chapters have already been redrafted and passed.
Does he intend to seek a new term of office when his fourth term as president expires in 1998?
I haven´t given much thought to that matter yet. After all, it is the people who will decide whom they want to lead them into the next century.
On the economic strategy followed by his government and plans for the future, and whether he is satisfied about the distribution of new wealth that has been created.
My government places great emphasis on the concept of sustainable development Currently, we are implementing the fourth national development plan in which the highest priority is given to enhancing economic growth and equitable distribution of the national product. During the past 17 years, our goals have been to promote economic diversification, increase the productivity promote economic development of the atolls and liberalise trade. We have been able to maintain economic growth at quite a high level. That has been made possible by the rapid expansion of the fisheries industry and the remarkable performance of the tourism sector. This has led to a notable increase in the standard of living throughout the country. However, my government is making further efforts to ensure better distribution of the wealth through its decentralisation policy for economic activities. Important ventures like fish-canning, frozen fish storage, garment manufacturing and boat-building are located in the atolls. Therefore, a lot of employment opportunities are made available to the people of the outlying islands, while also upgrading the health and educational facilities available to them.
On foreign policy and SAARC
Our foreign policy is based on promoting international cooperation. We work towards strengthening friendly relations with those states that respect our sovereignty and national integrity. In view of this policy, we now enjoy excellent bilateral relations with many countries, large and small.
SAARC is progressing well. It has established greater people-to-people contact in the region. The signing of SAPTA and the liberalising of trade among SAARC countries is a vital achievement.
The reaction of the international community to the security concerns of small states has been positive. The unanimous adoption by the UN General Assembly of the three resolutions submitted by the Maldives on the subject proves that. The unprecedented response of the UN to the invasion of Kuwait in 1990, I would say, is also an indication that the world is sensitised to the issue. The Commonwealth also has extended a lot of support to us since the very beginning of our initiative to strengthen the security of small states.