Comment: The darkest hour is just before the dawn

Latheefa Ahmed Verall is former President Mohamed Nasheed’s maternal aunt

I was twenty-eight when Maumoon Abdul Gayoom became the president of the Maldives. President Nasir had been demonised and vilified, and a saviour, like a shining beacon of virtue from the deep, ancient bowels of Al- Azhar had appeared. He came in trailing clouds of glory that was Islamic scholarship. I was simply bowled over – to use a phrase that he and I probably share as lovers of cricket!

The year 1978 was an auspicious year for us both. I was expecting my first child; he was starting on his life’s work as the longest ruling dictator of Asia. Our paths never crossed of course because he was in the business of silencing public dissent in a frenzy of torture and authoritarian heavy handedness, while miles away in New Zealand, I was in the business of teaching my students and eventually my own children, the importance of asking the question ‘why’.

I want to talk to you, the readers of this website and also to others in our extremely divided nation, so that you may open your minds enough to listen to the reason why we must never, never give up striving for our rights. Get over the fact that I am [former President Mohamed] Nasheed’s aunt, get over the fact I live over eleven thousand kilometres away. I am 65 years old and smart enough to separate what I want for my nephew and what I want for my country. They are two different things. This is for my country.

For those people who question my right to voice these concerns, I have this to say. My generation in the Maldives had no voice. We did not have the know-how or the belief that we could stand up to what was unfair, corrupt or unjust. Most of us, particularly women, believed that life was about accepting the status quo, being obedient, humble and respectful towards authority and power. That was the world-view we held and we strived to live ’good’ lives within it. We forgot to ask the question why things were the way they were.

When I saw the pictures of Evan Naseem, his dead body beaten and bruised, his hair matted in his own blood, I realised this was an atrocity that had been years in the making. This lack of respect for human life and dignity had its roots years before 2003. My generation had allowed the regime to come to that point of inhumanity because of our impotency and lack of action. I wept as the words, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing,” resonated in me. I have never forgotten their significance.

Our impotency came in many guises: we thought bowing down to authority, however unfair, was part of our heritage, we thought it was what our religion demanded of us, we assumed that deference was owed to a ruler simply because he was the ruler and finally we feared that the regime was too powerful to be affected by our concerns.

Today, the imprisonment of Nasheed and the unleashing of the regime’s vendetta on any who disagreed with their Grand Design, are natural progressions for a group of people who had always dealt with problems in a predictable and unimaginative way. They have no answers other than sheer brutality. But now, we the people, no longer find this acceptable. We are no longer prepared to consider it the norm. Those early activists and opposition supporters have helped liberate us all. And all of us working together have finally brought the eyes of the world on the Yameen/Maumoon regime.

[President Abdulla] Yameen, with the same lack of imagination, is following in his brother’s footsteps, and the prisons are once again filling up with their opponents. The events of the last few months scream out the desperation of a group that has once again run out of options: an ex-president jailed by a regime-controlled judiciary who, because of their incompetence and the political pressure of their masters, turned Nasheed’s trial into a farce, a defence minister sentenced for terrorism because of insurmountable differences and divisions in their own dog eat dog cabinet, a predictable falling out with their rich coalition partner who facilitated the regime’s return to power and is currently kept impotent by the threat of financial ruin and finally the country spurned by all freedom loving citizens of the world. Their solution: to move towards a state of emergency because they cannot control the citizenry other than by force.

This mounting opposition to the regime makes it abundantly clear that this is not Nasheed’s fight alone. He is not the only one to suffer brutality and injustice. Under this regime, to various degrees, we have all been within prison walls and we have all suffered from huge injustices. And our fathers, mothers, brothers, uncles, aunts, nieces, nephews and friends have been affected by this cancer that has destroyed the very soul of the country which we hold dear to our hearts.

I am a student of history and I know that in any great struggle between the forces of tradition and modernity or the rights and wellbeing of all people and the greed of the few, the hardest time is when we feel that fortune has taken a dramatic turn for the worse. With Nasheed in prison, the regime in control of the judiciary so that they can dish out their malice willy-nilly, and the police high on testosterone, it may appear that our objectives are all but unattainable.

But life’s great lesson is that this is exactly the time for us to view our achievements and persevere in the face of adversity. The darkest time is always before the dawn. This is the time to have faith in our ability and not give up. This is the time to increase our resolve, increase our determination and increase our action.

Why?

Unlike my generation, today’s Maldivians are not incapacitated by years of tradition and social isolation. The question ‘why’ has been asked. People have dared. And more than that, we have several leaders in prison and this may well be a positive turning point, as for the first time, the eyes of the world are turned on the Maldives as never before. The time is ripe for our action, to actively insist that we do not want a future of brutality and suppression.

The regime believes that by imprisoning Nasheed and other leaders they can curb the move towards democracy and return to the good old days of untrammelled power. But these arrests give all of us the unheralded power to break this regime. We can prove them wrong. They can continue to imprison people, but they cannot suppress an idea. They cannot imprison or beat an ideal.

The time to unhinge this crumbling, ancient relic of a regime is now. This is our time to act.

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to [email protected]

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Comment: Decision on US base may have to wait

Notwithstanding the recent media leaks on a ‘US military base’ in Maldives, a decision on whatever that facility be, may have to wait until after the parliamentary polls of May 2014, not stopping with the presidential elections due in September this year.

In effect, this could mean that a national debate, and more importantly a parliamentary vote, will be required before any government in Male – this one or the next – takes a decision, though none is now in the air even a month after a section of the local web media went to town on the ‘leak’ and subsequent reports in the matter.

For starters, it may be too premature, if not outright improper, to dub the emerging relations as ending in a military base for the US in the Indian Ocean Archipelago.

The two governments have stuck to the position that the ‘Status of Forces Agreement’ (SOFA), with the US claiming it to be a general agreement for extending training facilities by the American armed forces. According to the US, similar agreements already exist with over 100 countries.

Maldives Defence Minister, Col Ahmed Nazim (retd), too has said that they were not contemplating any military facility for the US but only for the latter extending training to his nation’s personnel.

He has since gone to town, declaring that the leaked document was ‘not genuine’ and that they had shared the original one with the President’s Office, the Attorney-General’s office and the Maldivian customs – and would do so only with the Security Services Committee, not Parliament’s Government Oversights Committee, where the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) incidentally is in a majority.

Bringing parliament into the picture

For now, the lid has been placed on the issue after Attorney-General Aishath Bisham clarified that handing over any region in the Maldives for the setting up of a foreign military facility of whatever kind would require parliamentary clearance with a simple majority.

In doing so, the Attorney-General cited the advice given to the incumbent government of President Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik, by her predecessor Aishath Azima. According to her, Azima had advised the Defence Ministry as early as March 21 that parliamentary approval would be required for any agreement of the kind with the US. Bisham said she stood by her predecessor’s position in the matter. The media leaks appeared a month later.

As may be recalled, the law providing for prior parliamentary clearance for agreements of the nature came into being when Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) leader Mohamed Nasheed was President in 2010. That was when the Nasheed government was keen on signing a construction-cum-concession contract for the Male international airport with India-based infrastructure developer, GMR Group.

The deed was done, but not without high drama and controversy both inside and outside parliament.

Between the executive and the legislature in a democracy, both sides blamed each other for ‘colourable exercise’ of respective powers in the ‘GMR deal’ but none questioned the subsequent application of the new law to new agreements of the kind.

The US-SOFA deal cannot be exempted either, unless parliament were to do so. However, given the present political calculus and electoral calculations, no political party or leader may have the will to move forward in the matter, inside parliament or otherwise,.

As may also be recalled, after much drama and bilateral tensions, the succeeding government of President Waheed cancelled the GMR contract. The decision has since been upheld by the mutually agreed-upon arbitration court in Singapore, which is also looking into the compensation claims of GMR. The Maldivian government argues that the contract was ab initio void, and has cited the existence of the law requiring previous clearance for transferring possession of a ‘national asset’ to foreign parties, as among the reasons.

The law came about at a critical juncture at the birth of the GMR contract. A day after the Nasheed government announced the formal decision in the matter the opposition-majority parliament hurriedly passed the law, pending the unanticipated reconstitution of the board of the Male Airport Company Ltd (MACL), after the existing one was unwilling to sign on the dotted line.

President Nasheed returned the bill to parliament promptly, under the existing provision. Left with no option but to assent the bill after parliament had passed it a second time, with equal hurry and vehemence.

As is the wont in many other countries, the Constitution provides for any bill passed by parliament a second time becoming law automatically, if within a stipulated period the President does not give his assent. In the Maldives it is a 15-day window. However, the MDP government got the GMR contract through before the lapse of the 15-day period, and President Nasheed too gave his assent to the said bill within the stipulated time, if only to avoid arguments about the untenable nature of his continuance in office under controversial circumstances of the kind.

From ACSA to SOFA…

Apart from SOFA, the US has signed another 10-year agreement, titled the ‘Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement’ (ACSA), which it claimed had been done similarly with over 100 countries. The ACSA, signed ‘on a bilateral basis with allies or coalition partners that allow US forces to exchange most common types of support, including food, fuel, transportation, ammunition, and equipment.

The agreement does not, in any way, commit a country to any military action. Some would argue that SOFA is an extension of ACSA, but some others also point out that not all countries that have signed ACSA are targeted by the US for signing SOFA.

In the case of Maldives, in 2009, when MDP’s Nasheed was the Maldivian President, his Defence Minister of the day, Ameen Faisal was said to have discussed an ACSA with visiting US Ambassador Patricia A Butenis.

According to Wikileaks, sourced to US Embassy message of October 7, 2009, “He also reiterated the Maldives’ interest in establishing a USN (US Navy) facility in the southernmost atoll. He thanked the Ambassador for US security assistance…”

In the present case, Maldivian media reports, claiming access to unauthenticated draft of SOFA, said that the agreement outlined “conditions for the potential establishment of a US military base in the country”. The draft, obtained by Maldivian current affairs blog DhivehiSitee, “incorporates the principal provisions and necessary authorisations for the temporary presence and activities of the US forces in the Republic of Maldives and, in the specific situations indicated herein, the presence and activities of the US contractors in the Republic of Maldives”, the Minivan News web-journal said in the last week of April.

Under the proposed 10-year agreement outlined in the leaked draft, Maldives would “furnish, without charge” to the US unspecified “Agreed Facilities and Areas”, and “such other facilities and areas in the territory and territorial seas? and authorize the US forces to exercise all rights that are necessary for their use, operation, defence or control, including the right to undertake new construction works and make alterations and improvements”.

The draft also says that the US would be authorised to “control entry” to areas provided for its “exclusive use”, and would be permitted to operate its own telecommunications system and use the radio spectrum “free of cost”.

Furthermore, the US would also be granted access to and use of “aerial ports, sea ports and agreed facilities for transit, support and related activities, bunkering of ships, refuelling of aircraft, maintenance of vessels, aircraft, vehicles and equipment, accommodation of personnel, communications, ship visits, training, exercises, humanitarian activities”.

The contents of the leaked draft has remained uncontested – maybe because it is an American template that has been leaked – and provides for US personnel to wear uniforms while performing official duties “and to carry arms while on duty if authorised to do so by their orders”. US personnel (and civilian staff) would furthermore “be accorded the privileges, exemptions and immunities equivalent to those accorded to the administrative and technical staff of a diplomatic mission under the Vienna Convention”, and be subject to the criminal jurisdiction of the US – and not the Maldivian laws, with a preponderance of Islamic Sharia practices.

The draft exempts US vessels from entry fee in ports and airports, and personnel from payment of duties even for their personnel effects brought into Maldives.

The draft also stipulates that neither party could approach “any national or international court, tribunal or similar body, or to a third party for settlement, unless otherwise mutually agreed” over matters of bilateral dispute flowing from the agreement. This would obviously cover “damage to, loss of, or destruction of its property or injury or death to personnel of either party’s armed forces or their civilian personnel arising out the performance of their official duties in connection with activities under this agreement”.

Sri Lankan precedent on ACSA

In recent years, ACSA became news in neighbouring Sri Lanka at the height of ‘Eelam War IV’, when the government of President Mahinda Rajapaklsa signed one with the US in seeming hurry. President Rajapaksa was away in China when his brother and Defence Secretary Gothabaya Rajapaksa signed the ACSA at Colombo in March 2007, with Robert Blake, who was the US Ambassador to Sri Lanka and Maldives at the time.

It is believed that the US intelligence-sharing, helping Sri Lanka to vanquish the dreaded LTTE terror-group, particularly the ‘Sea Tigers’ wing, followed the ACSA.

At present, questions are being asked within Sri Lanka if the current US ‘over-drive’ over ‘war crimes and accountability issues’ relating to Colombo at UNHRC may have anything to do with Washington’s possible desire to sign up for SOFA or such other agreements.

However, there is nothing whatsoever to suggest that such may have even be the case. It is however to be presumed that the US may not be exactly happy over Sri Lanka getting increasingly involved in China’s sphere of influence, what with President Rajapaksa visiting Beijing almost every other year, and signing bilateral agreements in a wide-range of sectors, as he has done less than a fortnight back.

A section of the Sri Lankan media in the immediate neighbourhood has since claimed that MDP’s Nasheed would take up the issue with Colombo and New Delhi. Otherwise, President Rajapaksa’s ruling front partner, Minister Wimal Weerawansa, head of the National Freedom Front (NFF), a shriller breakaway faction of the one-time Left militant, now ‘Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist’ Janatha Vimukthi Peramana (JVP), is alone in his condemnation of the US move in Maldives. The Sri Lankan Government and polity otherwise have refrained from any reaction – so have their counterparts in India.

Politics of silence?

If partners in the Maldivian government and also the opposition MDP seem to be maintaining relative but calculated indifference to the leaked document, it may not be without reason. The Wikileaks’ indication of the predecessor Nasheed government’s willingness to sign ACSA with the US and then Minister Faisal’s interest in the ‘US setting up a military facility in the southernmost atoll’ may have silenced the party to some extent.

The Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), which in its earlier, undivided avatar as the Dhivehi Progressive Party (DRP), put Maldivian sovereignty and national security as among the major causes for its opposition to the Male airport contract with the GMR.

Post-leak, media reports have quoted second-line MDP leaders in the matter. The party’s international spokesperson, Hamid Abdul Ghafoor, said that the MDP had heard of the proposal – supposedly concerning Laamu Atoll and the site of the former British airbase on Seenu Gan in the south of the country.

“We are wondering what our other international partners – India, Australia, etc – think of this idea,” Ghafoor said.

Other party leaders too have reacted cautiously, linking their undeclared future decision in the matter to the views of the Indian neighbour and regional power, whose security interests too are involved.

It is not only the opposition in the Maldives that has maintained silence over the proposed agreement with the US.

Ruling front partners who prop up the Waheed government inside the Cabinet and more so in Parliament have also avoided direct reference to the US proposal, at least in public. The president is not known to have commented on the subject, as yet. When the SOFA leak appeared in April, President’s Office Spokesperson Masood Imad said that he had texted President Waheed, who had no knowledge of any agreement.

The Defence Ministry also had no information on the matter, he said. At the time, Imad would not comment on whether the government would be open to such a proposal.

Subsequently, Defence Minister Nazim clarified that no decision had been taken in the matter. There thus seemed to be an attempt to show up the SOFA initiative, if there was any on the Maldivian side, as that of the Defence Ministry.

It is not a new process in the Maldivian context, as in most other nations, specific initiatives of such kinds are often moved only through the departments or ministries concerned, and the rest of the government is involved, at times in stages.

The Nasheed government’s certain initiatives in similar matters too had followed this route, in relations to China, it is said. In this background, Defence Minister Nazim’s delayed clarification that the Government had shared the official document with the relevant authorities and that the “leaked agreement was altered and shared on the social media” should set some of the concerns on this score to rest – at least for the present.

However, as the SOFA leak says, “The proposed agreement would supersede an earlier agreement between the US and Maldives regarding “Military and Department of Defense Civilian Personnel”, effected on December 31, 2004.

PPM’s founder, who had also founded the DRP, was Maldivian President in 2004. Hence possibly the reluctance of the PPM to keep the ‘US issue alive’, over which the Gayoom leadership had taken on the Nasheed government, on the ‘Guantanamo prisoner’ issue, for instance.

The issue involved the transfer of a Chinese prisoner of the US from the infamous Guantanamo Bay facility in Cuba, to Maldives, but domestic opposition flowing from the nation’s Islamic identity (however moderate) stalled the process.

After Diego Garcia…

A SOFA agreement for the US with Maldives acquires greater significance in the current context of the nation having to possibly the vacate the better-known yet even more controversial Diego Garcia military base in the Chagos Archipelago, less than 750 km from southern Maldives’ Addu Atoll with the Gan air-base.

The 50-year lease agreement for Diego Garcia, which the British partner of the US in the NATO purchased from Mauritius in 1965 for three-million pound-sterling a year earlier, ends in 2016.

The controversy over the forcible eviction of the local population to facilitate the lease has not died down in the UK, and there are strong doubts about the likelihood of its extension, owing to a British High Court verdict, which restored residency rights to the original Chagos inhabitants as far back as 2000.

Though a subsequent 2008 House of Lords ruling has over-turned the court verdict, the Chagos have appealed to the European Court of Human Rights, where embarrassment might await both the UK and the US. Whether or not the Chagos can return to their home, a 2010 British decision to declare the Archipelago as the world’s largest marine reserve and protected area could well mean that no military activity could occur thereabouts.

The controversies have not rested there, and continue to rage in court-room battles, and could become a cause for the civil society in the UK and rest of Europe. It is in this context, any SOFA agreement would trigger an interest and/or concerns in neighbouring Sri Lanka and India – not necessarily in that order – as also other international users of the abutting Indian Ocean sea-lines, which Diego Garcia and Maldives, not to leave out Sri Lanka’s southern Hambantota port, built in turn by China.

Neighbourhood concerns

Thus, US Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake’s assertion after the SOFA draft leaked to the Maldivian media that Washington did “not have any plans to have a military presence in Maldives” has not convinced many.

“We have exercise programs very frequently (with Maldives) and we anticipate that those would continue. But we do not anticipate any permanent military presence. Absolutely no bases of any kind,” Blake said.

However, considering the content of the leaked SOFA draft, and/or the motive behind the leak and its timing, there are apprehensions that before long the US might demand – and possibly obtain – Maldivian real estate for its military purposes, one way or the other, and will also have protection from local court interference.

In this, the interest and concerns of Sri Lanka and India are real. Ever since the US took a keener interest in the ‘war crimes’ and ‘accountability’ issues haunting the Sri Lankan state, political establishment and the armed forces almost as a whole, Colombo has been askance about the ‘real motives’ behind Washington’s drive at the UNHRC, Geneva, for two years in a row.

The European allies of the US too are reported to have been perplexed by the American move, which they seem to feel should stop with the attainment of political rights for the minority Tamils in Sri Lanka, and not chase a mirage, which could have unwelcome and unpredictable consequences, all-round.

For India, after the Chinese ‘commercial and developmental presence’ at Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port and Mattale airport, any extra-territorial power’s military presence in the neighbourhood should make it uncomfortable. It would have to be so even it was the US, with which New Delhi signed a defence cooperation agreement in 2005.

Before Washington now, Beijing was said to have eyed real estate in Maldives, and was believed to have submitted grandeur plans to develop a whole atoll into a large-scale resort facility for an anticipated tens of thousands of Chinese tourists.

Around the time, China reportedly submitted its plans, news reports had suggested that Chinese tourists, who had propped up the Maldivian economy at the height of the global economic meltdown of 2008, felt unwelcome in the existing resorts, where they would like to cook their own packed meal brought from home – cutting into the hoteliers’ profit-margin in a big way.

While China now accounts for the highest number of tourists arriving in Maldives, it does not translate into the highest-spending by tourists from any country or region. This owes to the spending styles of the Chinese and other South Asians, including Indians, compared to their European and American counterparts.

India as ‘net provider of security’

Media reports have also quoted US officials that they would take Indian into confidence before proceeding in the matter. If they have done so already, it does not seem to have been in ways and at levels requiring an Indian reaction in public.

Alternatively, the US may not have as yet found the levels of negotiations/agreement with Maldives that may require it to take the Indian partner into such confidence. This could imply that the US is still on a ‘fishing expedition’ on the Maldivian SOFA. It is another matter that at no stage in its recent engagements with India’s South Asian neighbours, Washington seemed to have taken New Delhi into confidence at the comforting levels that the latter had been used to with the erstwhile Soviet Union during the ‘Cold War’ era.

Whatever the truth and level of such ‘confidence’ on the American side, an existing bilateral agreement provides for Maldives tasking India into confidence over ay third-nation security and defence cooperation agreements that it may enter into.

As may be recalled, India rushed its military forces to Maldives in double-quick time under ‘Operation Cactus’ in 1988, after Sri Lankan Tamil mercenaries targeted the country, and then President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom sought New Delhi’s military intervention.

Bilateral security relations have been strengthened since, with the Coast Guards of the two countries exercising every two years together, with Sri Lanka being included in ‘Dhosti 11’ for the first time in March 2012.

However, considering the purported American vehemence on the Sri Lanka front, and Washington making successive forays into India’s immediate neighbouring nations, one after the other, questions are beginning to be asked in New Delhi’s strategic circles if they had seen it all, or was there more to follow. As is now beginning to be acknowledged, in countries such as Bangladesh, Myanmar and Nepal, where the Indian concerns had neutralised Chinese presence to some extent, the US is being seen as a new player on its own.

In the bygone ‘Cold War’ era, the erstwhile Soviet Union was not known to have made forays – political or otherwise -into South Asia without expressly discussing it with India, and deciding on it together.

Afghanistan might have been an exception. The country at the time was not seen as a part of South Asia, yet the embarrassment for India was palpable. But Maldives and the rest in the present-day context of purported American military interest seeks to side-step, if not belittle India.

Otherwise, if the choice for India is between the US and China, for an extra-territorial power in the immediate neighbourhood, it would be a clear one. But if that choice were to lead to an ‘arms race’ between extra-territorial powers that India and the rest of the region cannot match for a long time to come, it would be a different case altogether.

It could also lead to greater estrangement of India and some of its neighbours, who would find relative comfort in China, compared to the US, whatever the reason. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s recent assertion that India was in a position to be a ‘net provider of security’ in the South Asian region needs to be contextualised thus.

In this context, Maldivian Attorney-General Bisham’s assertion that any agreement of the SOFA kind with the US would have to clear Parliament assumes significance.

However, considering the general American tactic that involves economic carrot and politico-diplomatic stick at the same time, it is not unlikely that the current phase on the SOFA front may have been only a testing of the Maldivian political waters, when the nation is otherwise caught in the run-up to the presidential polls, to be followed by parliamentary elections. By then, it is likely the issues would have also sunk in on the domestic front in Maldives, for the US to take up the issue with a future government in Male.

All this will make sense in the interim if, and only if, the US is keen on proceeding with the Maldivian SOFA.

To the extent that Defence Minister Nazim has said that Maldives was only considering what possibly may be a unilateral US proposal, he may be saying the truth – and his government may not have moved forward on this score.

With most political parties in the country, then in the opposition, flagged ‘sovereignty’ and ‘national pride’ while challenging the GMR contract, inside parliament and outside, it is likely that any precipitate initiative at the time of twin-elections now could trigger the kind of ‘religion-centric reaction’ that cost President Nasheed his office in February 2012.

For now, Islamic Minister Sheikh Shaheem Ali Saeed, representing the religion-centric Adhaalath Party, which spearheaded the anti-Nasheed protests leading to the latter’s exit, has served notice. The party will not allow the Government to sign SOFA with the US, he has said.

Considering that President Waheed has bent heavily on the Adhaalath Party for support and campaign cadres in his election-bid of September this year, it is likely that SOFA discussions with the US may not proceed for now – just as it may not form part of the electoral discourse, either for the presidency this year, or for Parliament next year.

The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to [email protected]

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Comment: Open Letter to the President

Open letter for his Excellency Mohamed Nasheed, The President of The Republic of Maldives.

Excellency, Honourable Mr. President: May I start this open letter by wishing you and your family to be blessed by God alike your Government and all Honourable Maldivians, people that I have in great esteem and very close to my heart.

The first time I was in your lovely country was long ago and naturally like most, I have
repeatedly come back. I did it as a tourist and as well as a business man with interests as I am (or… was until GMR destroyed my business) a small business man with economical activities in your country. At a certain moment I even created projects like the Sea University, that should develop studies and produce medicines using the elements exiting in the sea, as the sea is one of the greatest Maldivian assets. IT is not to be forgotten Excellency, that the day tourists will be gone, the sea will still be there.

The duty free island, a place where tourists could by all sorts of goods duty free, different from the airport, was another project that never saw the light but was design by me with all the love I have for Maldives.

The first time I landed in the Maldives, I was coming from Sri Lanka, and the contrast was so high that I really felt I was on paradise. The country was clean, peaceful, the water blue, the people nice. It was sunny and very organised. I was thrilled.

True that at that time, freedom of expression did not exist, and talking too much or too loud could mean something terrible. I understand that today under your presidency, the situation changed and Maldives is now part of a big international club where freedom and respect for life is a core subject. Being myself an European, I admire you Sir and I admire your government as the path to development and growth always goes via the respect and creativity of people, that naturally cannot exist without freedom.

Sir, I am not an important person. I’m a humble European, that dedicates his life to coach Presidents of corporations in management, as well other institutions like the Catalan High management of the police or the High management of the European Patent or Brand office. I am not a guru, certainly do not pretend to be, but I’m proud of being a humble person, hard worker and a thorough professional that enjoys working in life. I am not into politics and would never pretend to talk about something I don’t know.

I am writing you this open letter Excellency, because I really love your country and feel sad when I see that people taking advantage of it.

A country, Your Excellency, needs above all her people and needs to invest in developing her citizens. If there is not a critical mass of national brain power being the driving force of the economy and culture, the country will fall very easily into the hands of abusers, the same ones that in the international scene move the economy with the only goal of making money without values or respect for the people regardless where their operations take place. For them, the geography is not important. Once the cows are milked, they are ready to move to another pasture with no guilty feelings of what is left behind.

You and your government are making huge efforts to develop the economy and growth. That is perceived from the outside. You work hard under a climate of respect and social peace, thus increasing the well being of Maldivian citizens, and sometimes that takes time to be seen. Results don’t come quick, we know. In this sense it is clear that Maldives needed a bigger up-to-date airport, a modern gate to the country and to get it you had to do work with international corporations with expertise in the field. It is therefore normal that in return those corporations request to have for them the business cake represented by the flow of currency expressed in millions coming from the tourists, a cake that is very attractive. So far, so good, but what about Maldivians?

At this point I apologise as I don’t want to step into the internal affairs of your country, but Excellency I live in a country that has 17 autonomous regions, with 17 governments and with 17 Presidents with their cabinets and a central government, so I think I know something about nationalism and protecting the citizens when it comes to putting the economy into international hands. These days the world is as as small as a handkerchief, so international cooperation is inevitable, but what about the protection
and development of the local business people? Shouldn’t the airport structure consider this? Shouldn’t Maldivian citizens’ business be allowed to profit from their country’s development? Shouldn’t the airport have a place for all, Dhivehi people and international business people? Airports for a country like Maldives are a strategic subject.

Once more I apologise as I am no one to give lessons on the subject but being involved with the Maldives for so long, my love for the country cannot keep me silent. A country is made by it’s people and its people make the country. If that is not to be considered why should people vote for any government? The airport could and can have a place for everybody. The airport belongs to the Maldives, is it so difficult for international corporations to understand it?

With my greatest respect and admiration for you and your government, that is getting more and more respect in the international scene, I remain yours faithfully.

God bless the Dhivehi people.

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to [email protected]

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From “Anni” to “H.E.P”

“You know, they said this day would never come. They said our sights were set too high. They said that this country was too divided; too disillusioned to ever come together around a common purpose.”

So spoke Barack Obama on the night that he won the Iowa caucuses. It was the night that he proved he could win the presidency by claiming victory in a largely white state.

These are words that could have easily been spoken by Mohamed Nasheed (Anni) when he won last year’s presidential election.

People try to put us down

When Anni and other reformists first launched the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) many did not believe that it had a chance of succeeding. After all, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s government was all-powerful and exercised a huge degree of control over society.

Anni himself was seen as a figure who did not “look” like a president and thus would be unable to mobilize support in a country which was still deemed too conservative. This partly explains why MDP opted to go for a dual leadership structure, with a party president and a chairman. Ibrahim Ismail and Mohamed Munavvar both served as party president but did not manage to make much headway.

Anni and MDP were seen as too divisive. This led to all opposition forces trying to unite behind one candidate, with both Hassan Saeed and Gasim Ibrahim vying for that spot. Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, speaking on behalf of Saeed tried to convince Anni to stand aside by asking whether Maldivians were more likely to vote for “foreigners” like the two of them, or for a “mullah” like Saeed.

Despite all this, against the odds, Anni managed to cobble together a victory in the presidential election. Many people familiar with the political spectrum would not have believed that it was possible. The election was, in many ways, a fairy tale. Or, as GQ magazine described it, a “momentous victory of belief against chaos.”

Talking ‘bout my generation

Since assuming power President Nasheed has further confounded critics by fitting into the role in a refreshing way. He has scaled back on the pomp and ceremony that Gayoom enjoyed. He fits in comfortably with the new, younger generation.

People now accept that the presidency is defined more by the strength of the occupant’s character than by gaudy displays of wealth and power. Nasheed walks to work everyday and is in the habit of making appearances at places like Al Fresco and the local market. “It’s better for the environment and I can stop and chat to people on the way,” explained Nasheed.

By all accounts, Nasheed takes a very business-like approach to government and gets deeply involved in policy issues. This has come as a bit of a surprise to opponents who subscribed to the school of thought that activism and intelligence could not coexist in one person.

The president’s hands-on approach was evident this Friday on DhiFM’s “One to One” show. It was the first time that a sitting president took questions from the public in a live radio show. Nasheed displayed a firm grasp of the issues as he engaged in a lively discussion with the programme’s host and those that phoned in.

Nasheed has managed to balance competing interests, keep the government in one piece, deliver on a few manifesto pledges; and all this while averting an economic collapse despite the empty treasury he inherited.

“It is one of life’s ironies that it falls upon this government led by a party, as has been criticized, accused of being activists with little experience of governing, to put the house back in order,” the president declared to a meeting of donors.

With twenty percent of his term up, the accusation that Nasheed is somehow not “qualified” no longer holds up. That his bachelor’s degree in maritime studies is the least mentioned line in his biography is unsurprising. After all, it seems to have had the least effect on his political career. Solitary confinement, exile, journalism, the study of Maldivian history, and the experience of starting a movement and managing a political party are what really inform his decisions.

Domestic bliss

And what has been achieved in one year? Better governance: corruption has been curbed and there is greater transparency. The influence of gangs, which are believed to have been in an unholy alliance with the former regime, has diminished.

An independent Anti-Corruption Commission and empowered customs and police services have seen the rule of law strengthened. The fact that more drugs have been seized during the last year than in the preceding five is testament to the work of these institutions.

The country is also closer to seeing real social justice. The old welfare system which was controlled by the presidential palace and saw much of the benefits go to family and cronies has been abolished. A new social protection programme provides a pension of Rf2,000 to all those over 65 years of age.

In what is a significant step for the government’s affordable healthcare pledge, about half the adult population of the country has been signed up for the Madhana insurance scheme. While utility tariffs are being raised in order to help plug the deficit, targeted subsidies are ensuring that the poor do not slip through the net.

Steps have also been taken to foster a climate for economic development. A responsible economic framework has been established with the assistance of the IMF. This involved tough political decisions which the former regime avoided taking. Rather than financing development projects through the budget, they are to be implemented through public-private partnerships (PPPs).

An early success story can already be seen. Transport networks, one of the MDP’s key pledges, have been established in two provinces and have brought markets and services closer to the local communities.

International affairs

President Nasheed’s star has really shone on the international stage. Seeing their foe being elevated to the role of global statesman has been a particular source of ire for his critics.

Since taking office, Nasheed has forged close links with democratic India, spent a night at Windsor Castle with Queen Elizabeth II, gave an impassioned plea for action against climate change at the United Nations General Assembly, addressed the Annual Conference of the British Conservative Party, grabbed the world’s headlines with an underwater cabinet meeting, scooped up the Anna Lindh Memorial Prize for Human Rights and Climate Change, been named Time magazine’s leading Hero of the Environment, and negotiated a $92 million dollar fiscal adjustment programme from the IMF.

Yet, all this pales in comparison to the Maldives’ role at the COP15 summit held in Copenhagen. With the talks on the brink of collapse, Nasheed and the Maldives delegation acted as a bridge between the developing and developed countries as they sought to come up with a compromise that would allow the process to carry on at the next COP summit to be held in Cancun, Mexico.

The leaders of the industrialized nations recognized that the support of the Maldives was essential if such an agreement was to be brokered and decided to invite Nasheed to the small group of 28 countries known as the “circle of commitment”.

What transpired in that room has since been leaked in The Guardian; that it was China and it’s proxies in the G77- led by its chief negotiator Lumumba Stanislaus-Kaw Di-Aping of Sudan (incidentally, one of the most brutal countries on earth) that wrecked the chances for a stronger agreement is now well known.

So what benefits have the president’s performance at COP15 brought to the Maldives? For a start, cash for adaptation measures: $30 billion in short term aid from the developed countries spread out over the next three years. It gets better in the long term with a commitment to raise the figure to $100 billion by 2020. The Maldives will get a large share as it is a vulnerable, small island state.

However, the diplomatic achievement is much more valuable. Nasheed has now guaranteed his place as one of the key global figures on climate change with access to all the world leaders that matter. His voice will be an important one in the fight against climate change in the months and years to come.

Great Expectations

This assessment began with a parallel to the 44th American president, and it ends on a similar note. In many ways, the situation this country’s 4th president finds himself in is not much different: universally adored abroad, met with a sceptical and divided country at home.

Both face bitter political enemies who question their legitimacy and are bent on disrupting their agendas. They face demanding coalition partners with whom they are forced to compromise with. And to top it off, the weight of expectation from the people who voted for them has been immense.

This balancing act is not a situation either of them would have wished for; but their actions show that it is a reality that they are comfortable with.

Playing with the hand you are dealt whilst not losing sight of the long-term objective is what this is all about. And it is in this sense that Anni and His Excellency the President have proved to be not so different after all.

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