MALE - The destruction of several historical priceless Buddhist artifacts exhibited at the Maldives National Museum has alarmed Maldivians, provoking warnings of a possible rise of Islamic extremism and Taliban-style intolerance in the holiday paradise.
"They have effectively erased all evidence of our Buddhist past," a senior museum official, who asked for anonymity, told Agence France Presse (AFP) on Sunday, February 12, at the now shuttered building in the capital Male.
"We lost all our 12th century statues. They were made of coral stone and limestone. They are very brittle and there is no way we can restore them," he explained.
Last Tuesday, Maldives' first democratically-elected president Mohamed Nasheed resigned following three weeks of protests that were joined by a police mutiny.
During the coup that ousted President Nasheed, scenes of violence resulted in the wanton destruction of historical treasures.
The destruction occurred when a handful of men stormed the Chinese-built museum and destroyed its display of priceless artefacts from the nation's pre-Islamic era.
The incident echoed the 2001 destruction of the Bamiyan Buddha statues in Afghanistan by the Taliban, damaging the nation's image.
"I wept when I heard that the entire display had gone," the official said.
We are good Muslims and we treated these statues only as part of our heritage. It is not against Islam to display these exhibits.
The Maldives, a country of 1,192 Indian Ocean islands scattered across the equator, is famous for its upmarket holiday resorts and hotels that cater for honeymooning couples and high-end travelers.
According to CIA factbook, the Maldives has a population of 394,999 based on a July 2011 census.
Islam is the official religion of the country with almost 100 percent of its residents are practicing Muslims.
The country's Islamic group, the Adhaalath Party, condemned the attacks, but said they remained opposed to Nasheed's decision to accept three monuments from India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
"Our constitution does not allow idols and that is why we objected to the monuments," General Secretary Mohamed Muizzu said, referring to the gifts to mark a South Asian summit held in November in the Maldives.
Over the past few weeks, calls have been rising in the country demanding demolishing monuments gifted by Pakistan because they see them as idols.
The monuments, which included one of pillar featuring Buddhist motifs, and which had been on display in the southernmost island of Addu, have all since been vandalized.
The new Maldivian president Mohamed Waheed, supported by the Adhaalath party, also condemned the attack calling it "totally unacceptable."
Waheed denied there was religious violence in his country.
His opinion was challenged by former foreign minister Ahmed Naseem who said extremists were thriving in the Maldives.
"What we had was a military coup backed by religious extremists," he said.
"There is a strong influence of Islamic fundamentalists in the country and they will get stronger," Naseem told AFP.
"These groups are funded from abroad. This threat is not only to us, but the rest of the world as well."
Tourism industry forms a vital foreign exchange source for the Indian Ocean country.
The Indian Ocean country this year received more than 850,000 tourists, drawn to its secluded islands known for turquoise blue lagoons, as well as corals and reefs filled with multi-colored fish.
The Maldivian ethnic identity is a blend of the cultures reflecting the peoples who settled on the islands, probably from southern India and Sri Lanka.