The following is a transcript of a press conference given by President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan to foreign media at 4:30pm on 16/2/2012. Also present besides the media was the President’s Political Advisor Dr Hassan Saeed and two unidentified men, one of whom identified himself as from Malaysia – “a friend passing through”.
Addendum: The individual was subsequently identified as Dr Ananda Kumarasiri, a 30 year career ambassador with the Malaysian Foreign Service.
SBS TV Australia (SBS): Can you comment on the decision of your brother, Naushad Waheed Hassan, to resign as Deputy of the UK High Commission?
Dr Mohamed Waheed (DMW): I didn’t appoint my brother to the high commission, he was appointed by the former president. I know where his loyalty is. He decided to quit and I respect his decision.
SBS: But he was very close to you?
DMW: This a very small country so you will find in any house there are people who belong to different political parties. It doesn’t surprise me.
SBS: But what he said must have been very painful – he wasn’t just resigning, he was saying you lacked character and you had been fooled into taking the role you are taking. It was very personal.
DMW: I have no comment.
Journalist: Is there a possibility of holding early elections or will you wait until 2013?
DMW: No. I really believe in elections. I have been through elections and I have fought for elections. I have been taken into custody for these reasons. I ran in a public election and was elected as a member of parliament for Male’ – the biggest constituency.
I ran the first modern political campaign in the country, ever. And then I ran with President Nasheed as his running mate. I really believe in free and fair elections. If I believe that was the time to hold elections then we would have free and fair elections – I would be the first. But I believe the conditions have to be right. We have to have a calm atmosphere, we have to address some of the deep rifts that we have in the political situation in the country, and then move towards free and fair election.
I know there are calls for an early election, and I am ready to engage in discussions with all the parties on this, but there has to be also commitments from everyone for a peaceful situation and engagement in peaceful dialogue.
SBS: I know of your reputation, you have a fine reputation – but I can’t understand why a man like you would be involved in a military takeover. I can’t understand that. What reasons do you have for that given your personal background?
DMW: I deny that it was a military takeover. I think the records have to be put straight. I have said I am open to an independent inquiry, and I am in the process of identifying people for such an inquiry position. I have sent some names already to MDP to see if they are acceptable to all the parties. As soon as we have a team acceptable to the parties we start an inquiry into this.
We have gone through the constitutional process. If a President resigns, if he is unable to serve, or has submitted his resignation, then the serving vice president has to step in. I was invited to do so by the speaker of the parliament.
SBS: [Nasheed’s resignation] was under duress. You are an educated man who has been deeply involved in the United Nations, you know that that when a General puts a gun to your head, even metaphorically, that is not a resignation. Do you not accept that?
DMW: I do not accept that.
Dr Ananda Kumarasiri: If I may inject, from the video tapes, I do not see how my colleague has got this impression that there was a coup. If there was a coup then [it would show] from the tapes… from the evidence.
DMW: I would not have associated myself with any coup. There was no irregular or unlawful takeover of power. This was not the case. I was watching what was going on on televsion like everybody else, and if you watch the tapes you wonder what really happened that day. I don’t really know what happened. There shall have to be an inquiry into it. As far as I know, what happened was the President resigned – we have videos of it, there was evidence of it, and his cabinet members were there – I was not asked to be there – he publicly announced his resignation in front of television. He could have said something, indicated that he was under duress – but he didn’t. And then I get a call from the Speaker telling me that he is expecting to receive resignation from the President. And as soon as he received that resignation he told me to come and I was sworn in by the Chief Justice.
As far as I’m concerned the whole process was legal, and I maintain the legitimacy of this government.
SBS: So you intend to continue the term? Don’t you think it would be appropriate for an interim government at the very least and move to an election? At the moment we’ve having tear gas and batons decide. We haven’t heard the people. Isn’t it your responsibility to ask the people what they want?
DMW: Absolutely. I know the constitution has provisions for an election in the next year and I can tell you that I will not be party to delaying that election in any way. I am committed to holding elections, as per the constitution, and if early elections have to be held, there are provisions for that too. You have to have a constitutional amendment.
SBS: Does it concern you that people in this country are terrified of you and the people around you? Does it concern you that dozens of people, whom you were colleagues with, were brutally beaten?
DMW: People are terrified because some people are propagating violence. We have seen so many police buildings burned down.
SBS: Those were buildings, not people.
DMW: The people have been affected by this. When people come out on the street and burn down buildings, and provoke violence, the police have to take action. Law and order has to be maintained. I do not condone violence. I have repeatedly told police they have to restrain themselves, and I will not tolerate police violence. I have been told MDP is planning violence activities [on February 18]. I can assue you police will maintain professional standards. I call on all our police forces to restrain themselves and abide by principles of human rights and the guidelines they have been given.
JJ Robinson: Is it true the MDP has been given a three day ultimatum to participate in a national unity government?
DMW: No ultimatum has been given to anyone. I can assure you. We will continue to remain open to discussion and dialogue, forever.
Journalist: You have informed that the MDP should join a national government by February 20.
DMW: No we haven’t, I deny that. I am not aware of it. If somebody has, then somebody else is doing this.
Journalist: On the President’s website there is a statement that says ‘inform us by Feb 20 if you want to join the national unity government’.
DMW: No, that is not true. I have certainly not signed anything to that effect, and until now I have not even heard about it.
Journalist: But it is on the website.
DMW: Anything can be on the website. I am categorically denying that there is an ultimatum to MDP. There is no ultimatum. I continue to remain wanting to engage with them, and I will continue to the last day.
JJ: Dr Waheed, how much control do you believe you have over the police and the military?
DMW: I have full control over them. I am not shy to take responsibility. Including for the law enforcement agencies.
Journalist: If the MDP continues not to join the government, what are the next steps?
DMW: We will continue to seek ways of working with them. I cannot force them – but there is no other choice. This country cannot afford a confrontational and violent approach.
Journalist: Nasheed, talking to the media, has said that India is losing its leverage [in the Maldives], and that China may get into the Maldives. He had not signed a defence agreement with China which the Maldives defence forces were to sign. What do you have to say about increasing Chinese influence in the Maldives?
DMW: Ultimately we have not signed any agreement since I became President. Whatever agreement we have is an agreement signed by the previous President and his ministers. So I categorically deny that. We have a very close relationship with India, and we will respect all the strategic and commercial agreements we have signed with India. This is not to be questioned.
Journalist: There are no defence deals with China?
DMW: We haven’t had any agreements with any country since I took over.
Journalist: What is the relationship between China and the Maldives and what will you do to promote the relationship between the two countries?
DMW: As you know while President Nasheed was in power, we established a Chinese mission in the Maldives. So we have a mission in the Maldives now, we have good relations with China, and like everyone else in the world we are trying to promote our trade with China. China emerging as one of the most powerful countries in the world and we will continue to work with China, for more trade and cultural relations.
JJ: One of the Maldives’ top diplomats – the Maldives Ambassador to the UN, Abdul Ghafoor Mohamed, stepped down live on Al Jazeera – not questioning the legitimacy of your presidency, but that he had ethical and moral concerns in particular the people with the people who had negotiated Nasheed’s surrender on February 7 then becoming police commissioner and defence minister in the new government – both of whom have strong links to the former government under Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. Do you share those concerns?
DMW: Mr Ghafoor is very far away from Male’. I respect his moral judgement and so on, but it is not for me to say whether it right or worng. He is entitled to his moral position, but he was very far away when things were happening. We were right here.
JJ: For the international community many of the faces in the cabinet are new to them. But for a lot of Maldivian people they see people who have been in the former government, people who served under Gayoom. To what extent does the current composition of the cabinet suggest an old government, rather than a new government?
DMW: OK. Anything other than President Mohamed Nasheed’s government is now being painted as the old government, as a return to the old regime. Which is a really misleading way of looking at it. In this country most of us grew up and got education during the last 33 years, and most of the well educated people in this country worked in government. The government was the biggest employer in the country and continues to be so.
Therefore don’t be surprised that some people served in President Gayoom’s government. That doesn’t mean that anyone seen in the last 33 years has allegiance to a particular person. This is a very narrow way of looking at it. If you look at cabinet you can see I have been very careful in my selections. Most of them are very young and dynamic and well educated.
I have tried not to put many political leaders in it – it is mostly a technocratic government because we need to move forward in the next two years to an election, and get as much done as possible – including many good things that have been started in the last couple of years. We will implement the programs and it is necessary to have well educated people.
Journalist: Talking of the cabinet, there is a fear of growing religious hardliners and at the same time – your Home Minister [Dr Mohamed Jameel, former Justice Minister under Gayoom] has in the past made statements against India and certain communities and companies. How do you respond?
DMW: This is a Muslim country and there will be some traditional Islamic values. In that case we will have a representative from the Adhaalath Party in the government – we had one even under President Nasheed. That doesn’t mean I am encouraging people in a certain direction.
As for the Home Minister, he one of the best qualified people in criminal justice. He is a graduate from England with a PhD, and his views in a political rally or any other context should not be transferred to what he asked to do now. I am confident that members of cabinet will toe the line that we step in terms of policy, and any previous remarks will not affect the future direction of this government.
SBS: Very simple question – why did Nasheed have to go?
DMW: I’m not the only person who should answer that question, but since you ask me, my understanding is that he has lost support of a large segment of the population, and also the armed forces and law enforcement agencies.
A series of unlawful and unconstitutional things have built up over the years and people are genuinely concerned that we are moving away from the democratic principles we started with in the first place.
SBS: He may have been, but certainly now you are not moving towards an election? You had a police and army mutiny in which you were involved.
DMW: I think Preisdent Nasheed is responsible for creating that situation. He was a very powerful President able to issue orders. He was the head of the armed forces.
SBS: He didn’t keep that close?
DMW: No he didn’t keep it close with me. Even when events transpired on the 7th, I was not part of that. He did not inform me once. When he called other people to tell them he was resigning, he didn’t call me once. If he had asked me to help I would have gone there.
So I think he should take some responsiblity for what happened to him. He had a very good chance to continue, but I think he made some mistakes. History will judge.
SBS: Is there division within the cabinet about calling an election? The rumour is that you are very keen to move to an election, but other members of cabinet aren’t keen to do that.
DMW: Everyone in the cabinet has one interest in mind. Peaceful resolution of this conflict, and moving towards a free and fair election. That is the main interest. People are not convinced at the moment that we could hold an election today. Partly because there are so many deep divisions.
SBS: You have worked in Afghanistan, India and the United Nations. Whatever its faults, you know that the best resolution of political division is an election.
DMW: The conditions are not right for an election just now. If all the parties told me tomorrow that we should have an election, and that they would cease violence, I would have no problem.
Journalist: You met the parties today, what was their response?
DMW: They are all ready to engage with MDP. To work on a roadmap and move forward, including discussions about elections.
Journalist: Are you able to complete your cabinet if the MDP continues on its current stand?
DMW: The sooner we can get the cabinet together the better. The government has to function properly. We want to move forward and we are ready to talk, but we have to have some buy-in. We have been extending my hands all along, but what have we gotten so far? I had discussions with the head of MDP and the next day they came out on the street and we had confrontations in front of the media.
There is no violence in the country – people are going about their normal lives. It is calm. But the political divisions have to be resolved. We can’t live under the threat of violence and conflict. We are ready to engage and move forward.
This country is too small for violence and confrontation.
SBS: All the violence on the streets of the capital has been by police and their supporters – now your allies. They were the violent ones.
DMW: That is a matter of opinion.
SBS: No it’s not. Would you dispute that?
DMW: You know there was one instance where you saw police violence on camera. But there have been demostrations in this country for one month.
SBS: From the opposition.
DMW: There was violence there also. This is not the first time people have been sprayed with pepper spray or charged with batons. It has happened before. If you talk to members of parliament – of all parties – they will tell you personal stories of violent attacks.
So you cannot generalise just from one instance and say it is this party or that party. There is an endemic problem of violence and political rhetoric. We cannot have irresponsible political leaders continuing to do that. There is no alternative to peaceful dialogue. Some give and take is needed to move forward. That is what give and take is about.
JJ – You have maintained that the events of the 7th were not planned. However on the early morning of January 31 you met opposition leaders in this house, who subsequently gave a press conference in which they pledged allegience to you, called on you to take over the government from Mohamed Nasheed, and called on the police and military to follow your orders. Based on that press conference, which was widely reported in local media at the time, do you still maintain that the events of the 7th were spontaneous?
DMW: I said it was a spontaneous change as nobody really expected that events would turn out that way. You’re right, I met them, and they asked me whether in the eventuality that there was a change, would I be ready. Because I have very much been in the background here – not involved in most of the policy making and so on. But it is my constitutional responsibility to step in. All I said was ‘this is purpose I was sworn in for’, and that as Vice President I was ready for such a situation. That was it – nobody expected things to turn out this way. Who expected police to come out and demonstrate? It was totally bizarre.
Journalist: That means certain political parties had anticipated a possible change that might come.
DMW: I don’t know that it was so much anticipation as their wish that there would be a change of government.
LeMonde: You say that since you took over your government has not signed any agreements with other governments. But to put it another way, do you intend to review agreements signed? Particularly the understanding Mr Nasheed had with India. Will you review that?
DMW: We will not. I spoke to the Prime Minister of India. Every dignitary from India that has come here I have assured we will continue to respect all the agreements we have signed with them. I can only be accountable for the time I am in government.
During my tim in government there will be no turning back and we will respect all the agreements, all the commercial agreements we have signed.
LeMonde: One agreement was that China not increase its influence in the Maldives. Will you respect these agreements?
DMW: We have a special relationship with India and special agreements on our security and defence. Those will continue to remain the same. I cannot comment on a particular country.
JJ: Umar Naseer, the Vice President of Gayoom’s political party the Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM), said at a rally several nights ago in front of at least a thousand people that he had personlly warned Nasheed that there would be bloodshed unless he stepped down. Given comments such as this coming from other former opposition parties do you still maintain that there was no intimidation in the resignation of Mohamed Nasheed?
DMW: Umar Naseer should explain himself. I cannot explain for him. He is not known to be someone who is particularly careful with what he says. You know him better. Whatever he said in the political rally – and I have heard people have said that he said these things – you should really ask him. He is around in Male’.
Journalist: The Maldives has had strong relations with Sri Lanka and currently Nasheed’s wife and children are in Sri Lanka. Will this affect the current government’s relationship with Sri Lanka?
DMW: No, Sri Lanka again is very close to us. We are like brothers and sisters. We share our language, history and culture. This question doesn’t have to be raised at all. President Nasheed’s family are free to be whereever they want to be. I can assure you we have the best relationship with Sri Lanka. I have spoken to President Rajapaksa more than once and I don’t think we have to worry about it. All nationals – from India, Sri Lanka – are free to stay here and we will do our best to protect them.
JJ: What is a the status of the Chief Judge of the Criminal Court Abdulla Mohamed, around whom many of these events have centred? Is he back on the bench? Has he been reinstated?
DMW: [Consults with Dr Hassan Saeed] Well, you see my advisor tells me that the guy has already taken leave.
Dr Hassan Saeed (DHS): He has taken one month’s leave for his personal issues.
DMW: It is for the judiciary to decide what to do with him, not for me. I don’t want to interfere in the judiciary. I want our constitution to be respected, and work with everybody to make our constitution work. This is a new constitution, and it is the first time we are trying it out. And so there are difficulties in it. We need to find ways of solving it. It is time for us to work together, and if there are problems with the judicary we need to work together to solve them – they are intelligent good people in the judiciary and the Judicial Services Commission (JSC). We welcome assistance from the Commonwealth and United Nations to develop programs and build the capacity of the judiciary.
This is true also for the executive and the legislature. We need to work togather to build our democracy and consolidate our democracy.
JJ: If I could address this to Dr Hassan Saeed: as I understand it you in 2005 as Attorney General under former President Gayoom were the first person to raise concerns about the conduct of Chief Judge Abdulla Mohamed, in a letter to Gayoom. Your concerns – among others – included that he has instructed underage victims of child sexual assault to reenact their attack in a courtroom in front of the perpetrator. Are you satisfied with the investigation against the judge, and if this something you believe still needs to be looked into?
DHS: As chief legal advisor to the government at that time, I had raised issues with the in-charge of the judiciary at that time. In that constitution the President was the head of the judiciary. So it was my legal and moral obligation to raised that issue with him, which I did.
I did not know if it was followed up. Obviously if there are issues it has to be resolved in accordance with the established laws and institutions.
Journalist: The tourism industry has been particularly affected by this. What measures have been taken to help the economy?
DMW: You are right. The tourism sector is the most important sector of our economy and we cannot afford violence on the streets of Male’. This is why it is so important for us to move forward in an agreed roadmap towards elections. The tourism sector so far has not been severely affected. There have been some cancellations. But lots of people are coming and having a good time in the Maldives, and going back. I hope the situation will stabilise further and tourism increase.
We have had a steady increase in tourism over the last couple of years now. It can [continue] only if we take violence out of the equation. I hope nobody is going to call for street violence or burning down public buildings and damaging private offices.
SBS: You know that when a vote is taken away from people that is a likely resault, and that governments which come to power under hails of tear gas and police, normally exit power under hails of tear gas. Are you waiting for that?
DMW: There is a constitutional mechanism for that. I did not take power by force – I was sworn into office according to the consitution.
SBS: Because your superior was forced out.
DMW: I was already elected, on the same ticket as President Nasheed. I got the same vote as President Nasheed, and we came in together. The reason why I am here is that in any country, if something happens to the President, the Vice President takes over. We have the same mandate.
It is not for you or me to decide if it is a coup. Why didn’t he say it in front of the television when everybody was there? He was not alone, his cabinet members were there, it was not like people were going to crack down on him.
SBS: He had mutinious police in the square, he had the army turning against him, he had former police and army chiefs entering the cabinet room giving orders…
DMW: All this was caused by himself.
SBS: I agree perhaps he was indelicate or lacked political skill, but he was still the elected representative of a country – the first elected representative of this country in 30 years.
DMW: If he was under duress, if he had had the guts to say in front of the camera, “Dear citizens, I am being asked to resign under duress”, we all would have been out on the street. I would have been out on the street. I have been out on the street with him before, and I would have been out on the street with him again. But it was a matter of undermining our constitution.
Let us have an inquiry, and come out with the facts.
Journalist: If there is an election, are you going to contest against Mr Nasheed?
DMW: I don’t know. At the moment my preoccuptation is to work with everybody, be a facilitator. I have said I won’t have any of my prty in the cabinet. I am fully committed to being a facilitator. If everybody agrees and says “Waheed, you shouldn’t stand”, I would accept it.
LeMonde: You say that MDP is planning a violent demonstration [Friday] night?
DWH: These are the reports I have received?.
LeMonde: You have reports convincing you that they plan to be violent?
DMW: This is the information I have received, but I hope it is not the case.
Journalist: In your opinion, how is this going to end?
DMW: I think with a little bit of time. The last time we had violence was on the 8th, and since then it has been calm. I hope people have the time to think a little bit, and reflect. I am optimistic. we will be able to work out a peaceful way of moving forward.
Journalist: There are allegations that police have accepted money and corruption is rampant within the police. Are investigations being conducted into this?
DMW: I am not aware of this, and no cases have come to me since I took over. If there was I’m sure the former President would have done something about it.
Journalist: If the street violence stops, will you have early elections?
DMW: As I said, let us talk. Violence is not the only factor. There is an economic factor here – our financial situation is not great and it hasn’t been for the last couple of years. We need to have guarantees that we are going to respect the rule of law, that we are going to uphold the consitution and our judiciary is going to be independent – that it is going to be in such a way that anyone who fears justice deserves justice. If you don’t have justice, how can you go ahead?
Journalist: Do you have any specific economic strategies?
We will continue the economic policies of the former government, and I have already announced the forming of an economic council. I will appointment distinguished economists in the country who will review the economy to put it on a good footing.
I have appointed an economic development minister who is young and competent, and a tourism minister, and I am looking for a finance minister at the moment.
I can assure you that you will have the best minds in the country working to take the economy forward. I don’t claim to be an expert, and I will not tell people how to run this country. My job – the job of any top executive – is to find the right people and help them do their work well. I have learned this in my many years of international experience.
LeMonde: Mr Nasheed introduced a new fiscal system, in particular income and corporate taxes. Will you change this system?
DMW: So far we have not decided to change anything, but we will ask the economic council. If there is something that does not work we will correct it. But there is no massive overhaul of policies. There is no deadline. It is not hard and fast deadline.
SBS: He was already president – why would Nasheed want to join your national unity government?
DMW: He should join a coalition, because he came to power in a coalition. And he decided to rescind. He couldn’t find somebody to work with him. We only had 25 percent of the vote – we had to go and ask other political parties to join, like Dr Hassan Saeed. and then we won. We had a coalition. We couldn’t work as a coalition – why not? This is a small country. You cannot rule by yourself. It is too small for one particular party to rule everybody.
SBS: So you would have him in your cabinet?
SBS: As Vice President?
DMW: I have currently named a Vice President. But there are other people I would work with in the same cabinet.
JJ: The MDP has floated the idea of elections in two months – you’ve said this is too short a time. The rumour flying around today was that Nasheed may have been negotiated up to six months. Is there any truth in that, following the meetings held today?
DMW: No, there is no such timeline. The timeline is to be worked out in open discussion with regard to elections.
Journalist: So you are willing to sit down with Nasheed and decide on a date to hold elections?
DMW: We are ready to discuss.