“Fragile democracy under threat”: Richard Branson, Ed Norton among signatories for fresh elections

Business tycoon Richard Branson and ‘Fight Club’ actor Ed Norton are among dozens of international celebrities and activists who have signed a letter calling for the Maldivian government to halt harassment of the opposition and “hold democratic elections at the earliest opportunity.”

The letter, published in the UK’s Guardian newspaper, expresses concern over former President Mohamed Nasheed’s “island arrest”.

“The ban was then followed by a series of orders to appear in court this week on spurious civil and criminal charges – a strategy of legal harassment pursued by the illegitimate regime of Mohamed Waheed. Its sole purpose is to sideline Nasheed from active politics and further stamp out any political opposition,” the letter stated.

President’s Office Spokesperson Masood Imad told Radio Australia on Tuesday that the government on assumption of office “made it clear we would in no way interfere with the process of the judiciary. The judge summoned Mr Nasheed but he absconded. I believe he will be summoned again and if he does not appear in court, he will issue an order for his arrest.”

The letter further stated that “the outlook for democracy in the Maldives is deteriorating. The circumstances surrounding Nasheed’s removal from power earlier this year remain a matter of dispute, but other matters are beyond doubt.”

Specifically, it noted that “no date has been set for free and fair elections by this unelected regime, which has links to former dictator Abdul Gayoom,” and that “nearly 2,000 peaceful demonstrators calling for elections have been detained by security forces, many beaten and hospitalised.”

“Sadly, much of this remains largely unreported by the world’s media. A young and fragile democracy is under threat once more and we therefore call upon [President] Mohamed Waheed to set a firm date for free and fair elections immediately, to end the culture of systematic police brutality and to release all political detainees including opposition leader Mohamed Nasheed.”

As well as Branson and Norton, signatories included Radiohead guitarist Thom Yorke, actress Darryl Hannah, 350.org founder Bill McKibben, the Eden Project’s Tim Smit, and philosopher and ethicist Peter Singer.

Norton, Branson and Hannah were fixtures at last year’s Slow Life Symposium held at the upmarket Soneva Fushi resort in the Maldives.

Branson first waded into Maldivian politics on his blog on February 24, calling on President Waheed to “do the right thing” and hold free and fair elections before the end of the year.

It was, Branson wrote to Dr Waheed, “completely astounding that you have been part of an overthrow of a democratically elected government that has effectively let the old regime back into power.”

“Knowing you, I would assume that you were given no choice and that it was through threats that you have ended up in this position,” Branson said. “I do very much hope that was the case rather than you doing it of your own free will.”

Days later, Branson wrote another entry, saying that he had spoken on the phone to Dr Waheed, who told him he had appointed “a respected person” to examine the truth of what caused President Nasheed to “resign”.

“He says that he didn’t know who issued an arrest warrant for President Nasheed after he left office but that it had been rescinded within 48 hours. He is determined to be an honest broker, to be seen to be one, and to get everyone’s confidence. He said that he offered to bring in people from President Nasheed’s party but they refused to join.”

A few days later, Branson wrote a third post, resuming his first call for early elections “as soon as feasibly possible”.

The Soneva Group meanwhile found itself embroiled in local politics in August, composing a statement in response to allegations published in the UK media that the company’s head, Sonu Shivdasani, had engaged a PR firm to “spruce up” the image of Dr Mohamed Waheed’s government.

The article in Private Eye magazine contended that post February 7, an “unlikely alliance” had emerged between certain resorts – desperate to stabilise the sudden political instability for the sake of their bottom lines – and the new government, a loose alliance of ambitious political elements who came to power on a platform of Islamic conservatism.

“The reality is that the Maldives – already favoured by footballers, Russian gangsters and off-duty Israeli arms dealers – are an even harder sell since the coup has given us an unlikely alliance between hoteliers promoting bikini-clad, cocktail-fuelled luxury and a government that includes two imams, wants to bring back the death penalty and has done nothing about the destruction by supporters of the coup of the national museum’s entire pre-Islamic collection,” the article stated.

In a counter statement from the group, obtained by Minivan News, the company sought to clarify the “facts” of the case.

“Sonu Shivdasani does not have a political relationship with President Mohamed Waheed, their interaction revolves specifically around environmental and ecological issues,” the Soneva statement read.

A source within the Soneva Group described the situation as “a bloody mess”.

Shivdasani “completely fell for Waheed’s line that Nasheed didn’t resign under duress” and had – unsuccessfully – asked a number of PR agencies to set up interviews for the new President, Minivan News was informed.

The source surmised that Shivdasani had “innocently, stupidly, somehow believed Waheed”, and “gone out of his way to help [the new President].”

Soneva’s statement meanwhile disputed the resort’s motivation to support the new government as being based on supposed plans to amend a corporate tax bill implemented by Nasheed, as, “to the best of my knowledge, there are no plans by the current President Mohamed Waheed to reduce or eliminate this tax.”


Climate experts and celebrities converge on Maldives for Slow Life Symposium

Luxury Maldivian resort Soneva Fushi is currently hosting a three day ‘Slow Life’ symposium bringing together big names in business, climate science, film and renewable energy to come up with ways to address climate change.

Attendees at the Symposium include famous UK entrepreneur Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Empire; actress Daryl Hannah, star of films including ‘Blade Runner’, ‘Kill Bill’ and ‘Splash’; Ed Norton, star of films including ‘Fight Club’ and ‘American History X’; Tim Smit, founder of the Eden Project; Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed; and an array of climate experts and scientists including Mark Lynas and Mike Mason.

Richard Branson

Branson described how six years ago former US Vice President and environmental advocate Al Gore arrived at his house “and made me realise I had to make changes to the way I was doing business in the own world.”

Among other initiatives, Branson described his creation of a “Carbon War Room” funding scientific work into both climate education and the development of a renewable alternative to jet fuel.

“Ethanol was not a good idea because it freezes at 15,000 feet,” Branson noted. “So we’re investigating alternatives such as algae, isobutanol and fuel created from eucalyptus trees,” he said, adding that Virgin would be making a significant announcement on the subject next week.

Big business had the ability and prerogative to break down market barriers to the development of low carbon technologies, he said. Inefficient shipping, for instance, wasted US$70 billion a year, and led him to create a website allocating ratings to the most efficient vessels and ports, that had attracted interest from large grocery chains.

Branson also outlined his US$25 million prize for the development of a commercial technology capable of removing carbon from the atmosphere, an idea he said was inspired by the 1714 prize offered for developing a means of measuring longitude on a ship, and had attracted thousands of innovative ideas.

President Mohamed Nasheed

Speaking at the symposium on Saturday, Nasheed said it was “very clear, that regardless of whether you are rich or poor, too much carbon will kill us.”

“For us, this is not just an environmental issue. We need to become carbon neutral even if there was no such thing as climate change, simply because it is more economically viable. We spend more than 14 percent of our GDP on fossil fuel energy, which is more than our education and health budget combined.”

The most important adaptation measure, Nasheed said, “is democracy. You have to have a responsive government to discuss this issue. When I do something people do not believe in, they shout at me. But they are not doing this on this issue.”

The government had reformed its economic system and introduced new taxes “so we can fend for ourselves. We cannot endlessly rely on the international community.”

Since last year’s symposium the government had launched its renewable energy investment plan, and contracted an international firm to process waste at Thilafushi, Nasheed said, as well as introduced a feed in tariff which would make generating solar “more profitable than a corner shop.”

“If you are buying electricity at 40 cents a kilowatt hour you can sell electricity to the state at 35 cents. Soneva Fushi is going to be able to produce electricity with solar at 15 cents. We will be able to finance households as a loan to pay back from savings they are making. If you do the sums in the Maldives it is really quite possible, and I’m confident that households will see the commercial viability.”

Ed Norton

Meanwhile Ed Norton, star of films including ‘Fight Club’ and ‘American History X’, linked sanitation and waste management to human development, noting that more people had cell phones than toilets. As a result, Norton said, 1.7 million people died yearly of preventable diarrheal diseases – 90 percent of them under the age of five.

“The World Health Organisation estimates that for every dollar spent on sanitation, $3-34 is returned to the economy,” he observed.

Ocean dumping of sewage was standard, he noted, while septic tanks could leak and contaminate groundwater. He proposed a greater focus on using waste water for fertiliser and water recycling, rather than thinking of it simply as a matter of waste disposal.

Jonathan Porritt

UK environmentalist Jonathan Porritt, founder of Forum for the Future, observed that just by attending the Symposium he had contributed four tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

He referred to a colleague who was “so overwhelmingly conscious” of his carbon footprint that he weighed his attendance at such events by “the gravity of the audience, the quality of his speech and the effectiveness in lobbying and networking.”

However, he noted that travel and tourism was, overall, a “force for good in an increasingly troubled world.”

“We live in a world where governments invest US$1.4 trillion a year in war. We live in a world where US$4 trillion is invested in the war against terror, a world were fundamentalism is rampant and aggressive nationalism is all over the place. Many countries taking a lead on the issue suffer from a deep sense of exhaustion. Against that backdrop, hands-on [tourism] is a way to bridge the divide,” Porritt said.

At the same time tourism was driven by the balance sheet, and that while there was a great deal of ecotourism initiatives much of it was “marketing, with no credibility.”

“There is a focus on green rather than sustainable tourism, and no real understanding of what it means,” he said. “There is a reluctance to engage on socio-economic issues.”

“Gaps in equity are widening – and the gap between the have and the have nots is widening. Even as tourism contributes economically, because of the gaps resentment about the impact of the industry is rising – especially in a country where access to land, water, beachfront, reef and biomass is being privileged to support growth of tourism industry rather than the interests of local people.”

Tourism, Porritt said, was a microcosm of the local economy, with high end tourism such as that in the Maldives attracting the wealthiest and most influential people.

“For the one percent of the population that control more than 30 percent of the net wealth in a country such as the United States, it is very easy to insulate one’s self from real world by traveling from high security offices to gated communities to privileged, luxury resorts. It is a bubble through which the real world rarely penetrates.”

A state of low carbon with high inequality was “not a judgement anyone should be comfortable with. We should be thinking not just about the need to mitigate carbon impact, but offsetting inequality. I think what we are doing should be from the perspective of social justice as much as low carbon.”

However, he noted, it was easier to educate a few billionaires than the entire population of a country such as the US, distracted from the issue by Xboxes and cable TV.

“Billionaires have a vested interest in keeping the [planet sustainable], because they have enough money enjoy the planet,” he suggested.

Tim Smit

Founder of the Eden Project in Cornwall, Tim Smit, spoke about the need to mobilise people by capturing their imagination – and the responsibility the Maldives has as a symbol of a united effort combating climate change.

“Author CS Lewis said that while science leads to truth, only imagination leads to meaning,” Smit said.

“We are used to talking to halls of middle aged men who want to be inspired. We read the books about affecting change and they have the same language, and it is really dull: paradigm shifts, centres of excellence, leading edge thinking, cutting edge thinking, and when they are very excited, bleeding edge thinking. We don’t write books about the impact of this thinking.”

Incredible things, Smit said, were “being done by the unreasonable.”

“The Maldives has captured the imagination, and the elected political elite are showing charisma and leadership on the issue [of climate change]. The danger is that we listen to too many middle aged white people, and miss the point. I see an incredible moment when the story of Maldives becomes the story of us all – but it needs to be delivered with a pirate grin that says f*** it, we’re going to do this thing. I hate idealists. I like unreasonable people who do things.”

There was, Smit said, a danger that the Maldives would lose sight of its goal, and “lose the moment when the Maldives could become the most important place in world. The goal is open but the moment will be gone, and suddenly the bright future is no longer there, just a job – and not a job in the spotlight.”

The Maldivian people needed to be given the independence to make their own decisions, such as installing solar, and given control so that they knew the impact of flipping the light switch.

“Trust in the people of the Maldives to get excited of a picture of the Maldives reborn,” Smit suggested.

The Slow Life Symposium continues on Sunday.