“You cannot eat democracy – but taxes can buy food”: President Nasheed

Extracts from President Mohamed Nasheed’s speech at the book launching ceremony of “The Maldives’ Journey to Democracy” by Mohamed Abdulla Shafeeq.

“I would say the Maldives changed to democracy with high hopes of citizens. And we began down that path with high hopes of the people. The question we ask today is whether those hopes have become a reality. Are we satisfied that we’ve got what we wanted?

I definitely was very much certain that the government will change. I became certain of this in 1990. I remember I wrote in a letter to someone at the time that this is something that I will do; that we can do this. We can change the government of the Maldives through peaceful political activity. There would be no need of a revolution or a coup. [We believed that] we could take courage and strength from each other, overcome our fears, and change the country through peaceful political activity.

Even back then, we thought and worried about how that change could be consolidated. The country has changed many times before. [Going] from one ruler to another is a change. However I cannot find a single ruler who was left alone after the change and not banished, his wealth and property confiscated, his wife and children, his whole family, hounded to the point where they were erased from the country. Not a single ruler.

All the rulers of Maldives were quite good. They did many services to the people. They facilitated a number of things to the people. However, it is very difficult to find a former ruler who was treated with proper kindness, with generosity and compassion, and in fairness.

Escaping that stamp became our main goal and purpose. [We wanted to see] how we could govern without torturing the former ruler, punishing him, confiscating his property, without arresting his wife and children, without destroying the lives of his in-laws and other relatives and family members.

Now, a lot of people tell me, ‘your mind is too young.’ That is something I’ve always heard. About how young my mind is; how I do not understand and how I want to do things too quickly. […] A lot of people were saying when we approached the parliamentary elections that if we did not round up and arrest everyone in the former regime, MDP would not get a single vote.

That is true. If we arrested half of the people contesting for parliament, they would not have won their seats. [They say that] we generously forfeited the parliament majority. That is an accusation levelled against me quite a lot these days. [That is] because we did not fight for justice and quickly conducted trials, many people walked free. A lot of people who committed injustices and violated the rights of the public were able to go free.

And not only did they go free. They came back again into the legislature. They won the Majlis majority. At the time, there were just 25 members of parliament to support our infant democracy, the Maldivian Democracy Party (MDP) or the newly-formed government. Opposition parties needed just one additional vote to overthrow the government.

Our government came into being within this halted state, facing these obstacles. Nevertheless, we were always striving towards our goal, with our purpose; to stay as we had resolved. That is to not violate rights; and not arrest and harm people.

Even as I say this, there passes many, many times, many moments, when there is pressure to arrest or [circumstances] that forces arrests [to be made]. There were other times when certain people were arrested for short periods. That is regrettable. I believe that we are able to bring the changes we want, the changes that we are seeing now, because we strive with tactfulness and patience.

If we had tried be the most superior, the most powerful, on the first day, if we still try to be, I would say Mohamed [Shafeeq] would not have been able to write this book even today. He would have to write flowery and golden praises of the newly-formed government. A government does not become dictatorial because of a person; but because of many, many things that develop around it, when it becomes entwined in it.

We wanted the democratic principles or democratic system we have attained for a very important purpose: that is for freedom of expression. However, freedom of expression is not something you can eat. Human nature might not suggest that a lot of people would come out and fight very hard for freedom of expression. In sum human beings strive for food, shelter, clothing. And to produce another human being.

We did not try to act, in any case, thinking in this narrow sense. Our purpose was always for democracy, to use democracy as a means. In itself, nothing happens when you only attain ‘democracy.’ We can only do something when we use democracy as the means.

This country’s government has always been protected by a small number of people. At times it might be two or three families, six tycoons and three or four prominent people in the island – such architects. Such groups have been able to keep hold of the country’s rule for thirty, forty, fifty years.

And so no matter how sincerely a ruler wants to push reforms, it becomes very easier to show the ruler that the reform is unacceptable, it would not be accepted by the people, it is the wrong thing to do, and it should not be done under any circumstances. I will give an example: tax. […] We know today that [the public is not opposed to taxation] using democracy, because democracy is the means through which we are able to have discussions; because freedom of expression allows us to have debates.

We are able to talk about increasing revenue, about taxation and all such matters only because we have democracy. Even if democracy is not something you can eat, the proceeds of taxation can be used for food.”