By Thalif Deen*
Just after a band of mercenaries tried to oust the government of the Maldives, I asked a Maldivian diplomat about the strength of his country’s standing army. “Standing army?”, the diplomat asked with mock surprise, “We don’t even have a sitting army.”
With a population of about 250,000, back in March 1999, the Maldives was perhaps one of the world’s few countries with no fighter planes, combat helicopters, warships, missiles or battle tanks. As a result, the island’s fragile defenses attracted a rash of free-lance mercenaries and bounty hunters who tried to take over the country twice—once in 1979, and a second time in 1988.
Although both attempts failed, the Maldives refused to drop its defenses. It not only initiated a proposal seeking a UN security umbrella to protect the world’s militarily vulnerable mini-states but also backed an international convention to outlaw mercenaries.
Categorized by the UN as a small island developing state (SIDS), and with a current population of over 540,000, the Maldives has for long been threatened with rising sea levels and in danger of being wiped off the face of the earth.
A growing number of SIDS, including Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Tonga, Nauru, and Kiribati, have made a strong case for a stand-alone goal for the protection of oceans in the post-2015 development agenda known as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
On June 7, the Maldives reached its moment of political glory when Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid was elected President of the 76th Session of the General Assembly, the highest policy-making body at the United Nations.
Shahid defeated former Afghan Foreign Minister, Dr Zalmani Rassoul, by a wide margin—143 to 48 votes—with no abstentions, in a secret ballot, with 191 member states present and voting.
Back in April 2010, the World Bank described the Maldives as a low-lying archipelago with a more territorial sea than land while being exposed to the risks of intensifying weather events. Sea level rise represents an existential threat to the country.
With future sea levels projected to increase in the range of 10 to 100 centimeters by the year 2100, the entire country could be submerged.
Besides tourism, one of the biggest foreign exchange earners for the Maldives was canned tuna fish comprising about 65.9% of total exports.
Fathulla Jameel, the wise-cracking Permanent Representative of the Maldives to the UN and later the country’s Foreign Minister, was gifted with a sense of humor. Asked about the threat of sea level rise, he told me: “Our country is like our can of tuna fish. It comes with an expiry date.”
Fluent in Arabic, he strengthened his relationship with Middle Eastern countries and was frequently seen in the company of Arab diplomats in the UN delegate’s lounge regaling his friends with anecdotes he had picked up during his visits to Arab capitals.
Perhaps one of his most enduring jokes related to the eccentric Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi who made several unsuccessful attempts to form a single Federation of Arab Republics (FAR) seeking to merge Libya with Egypt and Syria in order to create a unified Arab republic, with the possibility of North African countries like Morocco and Algeria joining the federation later. But the plans never got off the ground.
So, when Qaddafi visited China in 1982, he met with Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping and offered a proposal to merge Libya with China in a sprawling Asian-Arab Federation. The Chinese leader, who was presiding over a country with over 1.0 billion people, apparently pondered for a while, so the joke goes, and asked Qaddafi how big his country’s population was.
Told it was a paltry 3.4 million, Deng told Qaddafi: “Why don’t you bring them along when you next visit China?”
During the 1970s, I had a close working relationship with Maldivian diplomats and occasionally occupied one of their seats at the General Assembly Hall (and those were the days when anyone with a UN pass could walk into the hall without the scrutiny of security officers). And some of my Sri Lankan friends at the UN thought I was moonlighting as a Maldivian diplomat.
In the 1970s, the Maldivian Ambassador was Ahmed Zaki, a former Prime Minister who spent time as a political prisoner in one of the uninhabited islands (at the last count, the Maldives comprised over 1,200 islands scattered across the Indian Ocean).
When the government changed in the capital of Male, he made a political comeback: emerging from a lonely prisoner living in isolation in a deserted island—to a resident of New York City in the company of more than 8.0 million inhabitants (the population at that time).
I once accompanied Zaki to an electronics store for the purchase of a TV. When he produced his tax-free card (which all diplomats are privileged to carry entitling them to both duty free and tax-free purchases), the store clerk looked at it and said: “Where the hell is the Mald-i-ves?” and jokingly added: “I think you guys create these countries just to make tax free purchases in New York.”.
Meanwhile, when a delegation from the capital, mostly young diplomats, arrived in New York for the General Assembly sessions in the late 1970s, Zaki apparently told the delegates, perhaps half-seriously: “When you are here for the UN sessions, there are only two things you should know: Where the UN is located—and who Mr Deen is?”
When I gleefully mentioned this to Foreign Minister Fathulla Jameel, he provided the punchline: “And the Ambassador added: Because I want to you avoid him”.
* Thalif Deen is the author of a newly-released book on the United Nations titled “No Comment – and Don’t Quote Me on That” from which this article is adapted. Published by Amazon, the book is mostly a satire peppered with scores of anecdotes–from the serious to the hilarious.