“When David Cameron referred to Mohamed Nasheed as his “new best friend” last November, I wonder if the then President of the Maldives, who was forced from office at gunpoint on Tuesday, believed that Britain’s prime minister meant what he said,” writes Sholto Brynes for the UK’s Independent newspaper.
Mr Nasheed would certainly have cause not to now. True, initially he announced that he was stepping down in order to avert bloodshed after weeks of protests and a police mutiny. But, on Wednesday, he revealed that he had been marched off by soldiers with guns.
“They told me they wouldn’t hesitate to use them if I didn’t resign,” he said.
On that same day Mr Nasheed and his supporters took to the streets of the capital, Male, in protest, only to be greeted by tear-gas grenades from riot police; Mr Nasheed himself and many others were beaten.
If it was an extraordinary reversal for the diminutive leader, who has won worldwide acclaim for environmental policies such as making his country carbon neutral by 2020, the response of the international community must have been a still more bitter pill to swallow. It seemed many had bought the line that Mr Nasheed had gone too far in ordering the arrest of the chief judge he accused of holding up corruption investigations and wrongly releasing an opposition politician. Also that the protests against his economic policies and supposed lack of commitment to Islam in this 100 per cent Muslim nation were proof that he was beginning to act in a high-handed manner and had dissipated his popular mandate.
On Wednesday, India’s Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, was extending his “warm felicitations” to Mr Nasheed’s successor, the former vice president, Mohammed Waheed Hassan. On Thursday, the US State Department declared that it recognised the new government. And although Mr Nasheed somewhat bizarrely thanked him for drawing attention to the coup, nevertheless William Hague tacitly followed suit by calling on the Maldives’ “new leadership to establish its legitimacy with its own people and with the international community”.
The facts are these. Mr Nasheed came to power in 2008 in the Maldives’ first democratic election. Blocked from carrying out many reforms because his Maldivian Democratic Party has never enjoyed a majority in parliament, Mr Nasheed has had to deal with a judiciary almost wholly appointed by the former regime, which, therefore, has never had any wish to delve into its violence and corruption.
Taking advantage of this, and other factors over which the president has had no control – such as the rising cost of the foodstuffs that have to be imported into a country that subsisted on a diet of nothing more than coconuts and tuna for centuries – elements of the old regime formed an alliance. They teamed up with the minority of hard-line Islamists and with corrupt businessmen, who knew that greater transparency would threaten their interests, to force Mr Nasheed out.
There was nothing remotely constitutional, legal or even popular about his removal. It was a coup backed by associates of his predecessor, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, a dictator under whose 30-year rule Mr Nasheed and countless others had been tortured. The current incumbent, Mohammed Waheed Hassan, pretends otherwise: but he has already appointed two of Mr Gayoom’s former ministers to his cabinet, in the key departments of Home and Defence, and rewarded other Gayoom loyalists with the positions of presidential spokesman and Inspector-General of Immigration. It is believed that he struck a deal at the end of January: he would get the presidency, and Mr Gayoom’s men would return to power.
Mr Hague further displayed no sense of irony in the House of Commons when he said: “We hope that the new leadership will demonstrate its respect for the rule of law,” blithely ignoring the fact that it owes its position to a willingness to dispense with such democratic niceties.
A patina of Islamism is likely to overlay the new regime, and there will be much hollow talk of the need to preserve democracy, but underneath it is a return to the autocratic kleptocracy that preceded Mr Nasheed’s election. A proper taxation system did not exist before he came to power, and Mr Nasheed pointed to that yesterday as another of the motivations for the coup, which he said was “financed by resort owners. They liked the old order of corruption. We were rocking the boat, taxing them.”
Such words should be shaming indeed to the British government. We should never rush to foreign intervention. Frequently it is unjustified and catastrophic, as in Iraq, or diplomatically and practically impossible, as in Syria and Burma. But in the Maldives the case is clear-cut. It is a nascent democracy whose elected leader, admirably, chose the difficult path of reconciliation over retribution. “I’m trying not to prosecute the previous regime,” he told me when I interviewed him at the opening of a new Hilton on Noonu Atoll in 2009. “I’ve never removed my own jailers, only the chief of police. The rest of the top brass are my own interrogators.” Sadly, he appears to have been a victim of his statesmanlike and magnanimous behaviour. For there can be no doubt that it was forces allied to Mr Gayoom, who has been openly advertising his desire to return to power for months, who brought him down.
The international community acted without consideration last week. “It was a clever coup,” Mr Nasheed’s adviser Paul Roberts tells me from the Maldives. “Forcing him to resign, then locking him away so the vice president took office. It appeared all very normal and the diplomats moved too fast. They didn’t get all the facts before speaking out and suggesting the new regime was legitimate.”
Several countries have since rowed back slightly from their premature recognition of the new government. The US Assistant Secretary of State, Robert Blake, arrived in Male yesterday to assess the situation, while India’s special envoy, M Ganapathi, has returned to New Delhi admitting that it was “complex”.