Last Updated: Friday, 28 August 2015, 14:50 GMT

World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Maldives : Overview

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 2007
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Maldives : Overview, 2007, available at: [accessed 29 August 2015]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


The Republic of Maldives comprises a chain of 1,190 small coral islands in the Indian Ocean, lying about 675 kilometres south-west of Sri Lanka. The islands are grouped into twenty-six natural atolls (ring-shaped coral reefs) but divided into nineteen atolls for administrative purposes.


Main languages: Dhivehi (national language)

Main religions: Islam (state religion)

The Maldivian people are of mixed Indo-Aryan, Dravidian and Arab descent. They pride themselves on belonging to a self-reliant society, closely knit and united by religion and a single language. Over 25 per cent of the national population is concentrated in the island of Male, the capital, which has an area of approximately two square kilometres.

The Maldivan people are predominantly followers of Sunni Islam, though there is a small community of Shi'a, descendants of Indian traders. While not given official recognition, Maldives also has small populations of Hindus and Buddhists. Religious freedoms are substantially curtailed, with Sunni Islam as the only officially recognised religion. Maldives applies the strict version of Sharia (Islamic law), known in Dhivehi as Sariatu.


The Maldives achieved full independence from British rule on 26 July 1965 and became a republic on 11 November 1968. Under the provisions of the 1968 constitution, the President is head of state and vested with full executive powers. He is elected every five years by a two-stage process in which the Majlis (Citizens' Council) has responsibility for choosing the nominee in a secret vote; this choice must then be endorsed through a nationwide referendum. President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom came to power in November 1978. Now in his sixth consecutive term of office, President Gayoom has ruled the country with an iron fist, refusing to democratize the political systems.


The Maldives Government cannot claim to be proud of its human rights record. In 1994 Amnesty International reported that at least fifteen possible prisoners of conscience were arrested because of their political views or religious practices. In July 1994, the Majlis passed legislation which carries a punishment of up to five years' imprisonment for anyone found guilty of involvement in 'giving religious advice that contravenes independence and government policy and the policy stated by the president'.

Dozens of people were arrested and unlawfully detained in the run-up to the parliamentary elections of December 1994; some detainees, it has been alleged, were ill-treated. Further, the entire political framework in the Maldives appears to negate the principle of democratic governance. The formation of political parties is banned, resulting in an absence of any concerted opposition. An unfortunate pattern of discrimination and persecution in Maldives, which does not provide constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion. According to the legislative provisions, the president and members of parliament must be Muslims. There is a continuing failure in providing places of worship to non-Muslims, with the government also prohibiting the import of religious statues and icons. There was serious political unrest in Maldives during August 2004, which forced to government to promise democratic reforms including greater recognition of freedom of religion and the freedom of expression. However, the government has failed to bring about the promised reformed nor has there been an improvement in the plight of political dissidents and those arguing for greater freedom of religion.

Current state of minorities and indigenous peoples

Notwithstanding the continuation of violation of fundamental human rights and the rights of minorities, the past years have seen a number of positive developments. The Malidivan Human Rights Commission (MHRC) that was established by President Gayoom in December 2003 remains operational. In 2005, the establishment of MHRC was legislatively approved by the Parliament. The MHRC has taken a leading role in monitoring the treatment of detains during August 2004 political unrest. During 2005-2006, MRHC has conducted a number of inquiries most notably in to the conditions of political detainees. The overall political situation nevertheless remains abysmal. During separate visits in 2005, the International Committee of the Red Cross and British lawyers found fundamental flaws in the legal system with defendants being fundamental human rights. On 30 March 2006, several thousand women took to the streets of Male to protest against the abuses and violations of women rights by the notorious National Security Services headed by President Gayoom's brother-in-law Ilyas Ibrahim. The introduction of democracy and rule of law within Maldives remains only a distant possibility. On 22 January 2005, elections were held for a unicameral Parliament and in July 2005, the Parliament approved the functioning of political parties – thereby opening a window of opportunity of formal opposition to President Gayoom government. President Gayoom, himself, introduced a roadmap to Reform Agenda in March 2006, which provided measures for the drafting and promulgation of a new State Constitution, and the modernisation of legal and political framework. However, since that time, little substantive contribution has been made. The roadmap sets out a deadline of 31 May 2007 for the Parliament to formulate a workable constitution and to pave the way for the first multi-party elections under the constitution by October 2008. In practice, there are no realistic prospects of promulgating a new constitution and conducting genuine multiparty elections in 2008. All forms of political opposition remains stifled with President Gayoom retaining a strong control over the whole of governmental machinery.

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