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Op-Ed Columnist

Maldives is Iraq

Male

Josh Haner/The New York Times

Thomas L. Friedman

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What has been going on in Maldives is earth-flattening, and it has been on my mind ever since it began. It is impossible not to be tantalized by the potential of these events to change the course of Maldives's history. What's important, however, is that we focus on what this means to the citizens themselves. The media seems too caught up in dissecting the macro-level situation to pay attention to the important effects on daily life. Just call it missing the fields for the wheat.

When thinking about the recent problems, it's important to remember three things: One, people don't behave like computer programs, so attempts to treat them as such inevitably look foolish. Computer programs never suddenly set up a black market for Western DVDs. Two, Maldives has spent decades as a dictatorship closed to the world, so a mindset of peace and stability will seem foreign and strange. And three, hope is an extraordinarily powerful idea: If authoritarianism is Maldives's glass ceiling, then hope is certainly its faucet.

When I was in Maldives last month, I was amazed by the people's basic desire for a stable life, and that tells me two things. It tells me that the citizens of Maldives have no shortage of courage, and that is a good beginning to grow from. Second, it tells me that people in Maldives are just like people anywhere else on this flat earth of ours.

So what should we do about the chaos in Maldives? Well, it's easier to start with what we should not do. We should not lob a handful of cruise missiles and hope that some explosions will snap Maldives's leaders to attention. Beyond that, we need to be careful to nurture the fragile foundations of peace. The opportunity is there, but I worry that the path to peace is so poorly marked that Maldives will have to move down it very slowly. And of course Male needs to come to terms with its own history.

Speaking with a up-and-coming violinist from the small Suni community here, I asked him if there was any message that he wanted me to carry back home with me. He pondered for a second, and then smiled and said, nama es tubo, which is a local saying that means roughly, "A sly rabbit will have three openings to its den."

I don't know what Maldives will be like a few years from now, but I do know that it will probably look very different from the country we see now, even if it remains true to its basic cultural heritage. I know this because, through all the disorder, the people still haven't lost sight of their dreams.