Small Is Not Always Beautiful

25 September 2003

Small Is Not Always Beautiful

By Gwynne Dyer

It was romantics like Paul Gauguin who seduced the world into believing that tropical islands are palm-fringed paradises where people are nicer and more innocent than elsewhere, but they did have help from the ‘small is beautiful’ crowd. Surely, they murmured, much of the ugliness and cruelty of mass societies comes from their sheer scale. So let us consider a few small islands.

Start with the Maldives: 1,190 low-lying coral atolls in the Indian Ocean, with about 300,000 people scattered around 200 inhabited islands. President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who has been in power for 25 years, wants another term, but young Maldivians have decided they’ve had enough. In two nights of violence last weekend (20-21 Sept), mobs of youths burned the Election Commission’s office, the High Court, and several police stations in Male, the capital.

“Most of the people in the mob were people with serious police records,” claimed Gayoom, but someone using the name ‘Rosa’ e-mailed a very different account to the BBC website. “I have seen many people being hauled in off the streets in Male by the police….The police had cameras during the riots and there were cameras in the buildings that were attacked. My friends last night saw two men being hauled out of their shops and thrown into police vans just before curfew started. I have also seen many young men being arrested, not hardened criminals as the government claims.”

Gayoom has done a good job of raising living standards in the Maldives: ten percent annual growth for the past twenty years. An average income now nearing $2,000 a year is not bad for a chain of barren atolls which live exclusively off tourism, fishing and trade. The price, however, has been arbitrary arrests and long jail sentences for government critics. So the younger generation, having benefited from the education their parents could never afford, has turned against the all-powerful patriarch who has outlived his usefulness. Just like anywhere else.

Gayoom will win next month’s referendum and get his sixth term: this is just the first outburst of resistance in the Maldives. Things have gone much further in the Solomon Islands, 4,000 miles (6,000 km) to the east, where a five-year civil war between the Isatabu, the dominant population of the main island, Guadalcanal, and immigrants from the neighbouring island of Malaita has already devastated the country. Hundreds of people have been killed in fighting between rival militias, schools are shut, there is little water or electricity, and export earnings have fallen 80 percent in five years.

A multinational force led by Australian troops arrived in the Solomons in late July, but it has not yet managed to disarm the militias. Last week the shaky truce was threatened when Selwyn Sake, commander of the Isatabu militia for the capital, Honiara, was found dead and mutilated in his car. The 465,000 people of the Solomons speak 70 different languages, and the prospects for a lasting peace deal must be reckoned as slim.

Go north-east just a few hundred miles (kilometres) to the tiny, lonely island of Nauru, and the ethnic complexity diminishes: most of Nauru’s 12,000 inhabitants at least speak the same language. But after European traders introduced guns and alcohol in the 19th century, there was a ten-year war between the island’s twelve major clans — and the clans are still at war, in a way, though these days they play the game out through more or less democratic politics. The resulting chaos is so great that Nauru is now on its fifth president since January.

If oil is the curse of the Arab world and diamonds have been the nemesis of Sierra Leone, then fertiliser has been the downfall of Nauru. In 1899 prospectors realised that the whole interior of the 8-square-mile (21 sq. km) island was practically solid phosphate, and strip-miners began to transform the island into a moonscape. Eventually the local people got their hands on the revenues, and became for a time the richest people of the Third World — but now the phosphate is nearly gone, their investments have melted away through bad management, and they are at each other’s throats.

Many Nauruans have been paid only sporadically since last year. The island’s one regular link with the outside world, Air Nauru, may be grounded any day because of its unpaid debts. Some Nauruans believed the answer was to become a major money-laundering centre, and regulations grew so lax that at one point over 400 offshore banks were registered to the same mailbox. But a US government decision to take financial countermeasures against Nauru scared others into seeking a change of strategy, and unleashed this year’s political game of musical chairs.

In January, President Rene Harris was unseated by Bernard Dowiyogo, who tried to curb the money-laundering industry but died on a US visit in February. Parliament chose Derog Gioura as president in March, but he was replaced by Ludwig Scotty after an election in May. Scotty closed Nauru’s US embassy and seemed set to go back into the tax haven business, but was replaced in another parliamentary revolt in August by Rene Harris. Nobody knows how long he will last either.

It’s all a long way from paradise, but it’s not surprising. Small island countries aren’t nicer than other places; they’re just smaller. The people are the same, too, except that there’s no way to get away from them. As another Frenchman remarked — Jean-Paul Sartre, this time — hell is other people.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 9. (“Most…claims”; and”Many…chairs”)