29 Jan-4 Feb 2016 #793

Losing paradise

The Maldives, and the world, need more leaders like Mohamed Nasheed
Someplace Else by Kunda Dixit

HAPPIER TIMES: President Mohamed Nasheed (right) at a climate change conference just before he was ousted in the 2012 coup and replaced by Mohammed Waheed Hassan (left). Nasheed restored democracy in the Maldives and lobbied internationally to save his archipelago nation from sea level rise.

Passing through Sri Lanka in 1993, I arranged to meet an exiled Maldivian pro-democracy activist at the KFC in Colombo. We talked about the torture he endured while being imprisoned by South Asia’s longest serving leader, President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. Over drumsticks and hot sauce, we planned coverage of his home country for the news agency I worked for then, Inter Press Service

His name was Mohamed Nasheed, Anni to friends. Twenty years later, author J J Robinson of the recent book Maldives: Islamic Republic, Tropical Autocracy, is also at KFC Colombo to meet the Maldivian Election Commissioner Fuad Thoufeeq for an interview. Thoufeeq is also in exile after defying a Supreme Court decision ordering him to reject an election that Nasheed had won fair and square in 2013.

This week, Nasheed was freed from prison for medical treatment in the UK after another year in jail. He has spoken out for targeted sanctions against Maldivian officials, and says he will return to serve out the rest of his 13 year jail term. 

Slim and athletic, brash and peripatetic, Nasheed had the air of a man in a hurry. Indeed, he was racing against time to institutionalise democracy in his country, while saving it from being wiped off the map by sea level rise. However, this conservative Muslim nation of 350,000 people living on an atoll archipelago was not quite ready for a man such as Nasheed, who was probably more admired abroad than in his own country.

At an international climate change conference near Malé in 2011 Nasheed delivered an impassioned keynote speech, and during the break lined up with other participants for coffee. What a refreshing sight for us from the South Asian mainland where we are used to rulers being fawned over by flunkies and ushered by kowtowing sycophants to the head of the line.

Back in Malé, he waved off his limousine and walked us to his house. He had converted the official residence into the Supreme Court, ironically the same body that cancelled his election win in 2013. He spoke fervently and knowledgeably about turning the Maldives carbon neutral so he had the moral authority to speak out on climate change at international fora. I remember thinking, "When are we ever going to have a leader in Nepal who can speak with such passion and conviction?"

The Maldives:

Islamic Republic, Tropical Autocracy

by J J Robinson

Hurst, 2015

336 pages

J J Robinson doesn’t hide his admiration for Nasheed, but being a journalist he takes a step back to give us a factual, blow-by-blow account of how an activist came to lead a pro-democracy movement, unseat a dictator, rise to national and global leadership, get overthrown in a coup, still manage to win an election only to be thrown back into prison. 

The reader is struck by how a country with the highest per capita GDP in South Asia squandered its future by rejecting a leader who promised a more open society. It wasn’t just the Maldivians who were cheated, the world lost a charismatic environmental campaigner. 

Every page in this book reminds us of a familiar malaise: elected demagogues rigging the system to put themselves in power, then dismantling the very institutions that got them there. The judiciary, legislature, anti-corruption watchdogs are just tools for intimidation and to pursue political vendettas. They stoke religious extremism to make themselves politically invincible.

Nepali readers of The Maldives get a chance to trace the trajectories of our two countries. They had Gayoom, we had Gyanendra. Nasheed held an underwater cabinet meeting to highlight global warming, we had one at Kala Pathar. India’s GMR Group bid to upgrade and manage Malé and Kathmandu airports, but were thwarted in both places. Mohammed Waheed Hassan who replaced Nasheed after the coup was stationed in Nepal with UNICEF in 2001.

We share the same Big Brother, and the Maldives coup predates the Nepal blockade as an example of New Delhi’s diplomatic bungling. But just as the Indian Air Force airlifted relief after our earthquake last year, it flew in water to Malé after its desalination plant broke down. Robinson reports on how Indian High Commissioner Dnynaneshwar Manohar Mulay was meeting Gayoom’s half-brother Abdulla Yameen (now president) even as the coup was unfolding on 7 February 2012. Robinson remembers Mulay being condescending and viceregal in a meeting with fellow Maldivian journalists. 

As in Nepal, Western powers have outsourced their foreign policy in the Maldives to India. Represented by Colombo-based western diplomats, they seem clueless and unable to decode the impenetrable politics in Malé, but share suspicions of radical Islam and the need to keep a wary eye on China. 

In 2012, Nasheed was putting into place a plan to make the Maldives energy self-reliant by harnessing wind, solar and wave. That plan was being launched on the morning of 7 February, but Nasheed was forced to resign after a mutiny by security forces. As a journalist with Minivan News in Malé, Robinson had a ringside seat to interesting times. Events continue to unfold as Maldivian youth join ISIS, journalists are hounded and an increasingly paranoid Yameen turns against his own allies.

Robinson gives us a vivid account of the recent history of a small country with a big leader who was changing the course of his country’s history, and helping avert a global climate calamity.

Nasheed had told me in 2010: “What we in the Maldives do is not going to save the planet. But it will save us. And we can tell the world -- Look it works.” Reading Robinson's book, I am even more convinced that the Maldives, and the world, need more leaders like Mohamed Nasheed.

Read also:

Little big country, Kunda Dixit