The lesson of the Maldives: can a coup win, asks Time Magazine

In a part of the world not lacking in unstable, politically fractious countries, it’s easy to overlook the Maldives, writes Ishaan Tharoor for Time Magazine.

But the Indian Ocean archipelago state of under 400,000 people, known for its paradisiac atolls and honeymoon hotels, has gone through months of turmoil after democratically elected President Mohamed Nasheed was unseated by what some observers deemed a coup in February. Prominent figures in the three-decade-old dictatorship that preceded Nasheed’s government have insinuated themselves back into the frame. All the while, human-rights groups have documented systematic abuse by security forces allied to the current regime.

“The police seem to think they’ve impunity,” says Nasheed, who spoke to TIME over the phone from the Maldivian capital, Male. “They’ve gone on the rampage and beaten up so many activists and reporters.” An Amnesty International report published earlier this month charted “a campaign of violent repression” against Nasheed’s supporters and the country’s nascent civil society. Protesters have been met with egregious force and subject to arbitrary arrests. “The picture [these actions] paint,” reads the report, “is completely at odds with the tranquility of the waters and scenic islands of this elegant archipelago.”

Nasheed says the new government, led by his former deputy, Mohammed Waheed, knows that it would lose an election to Nasheed and his allies if it was held in the near future and is doing what it can to create conditions tilted in their favor.

“It’s perfectly mapped now, they’ve got all their people exactly in the places they want,” says Nasheed, who speculates that relatives of the septuagenarian Gayoom will challenge soon for the presidency.

Meanwhile, a worrying trend has developed in the once laissez-faire archipelago: a strain of Saudi-funded Wahabist Islam has taken root. Islamists were at the forefront of those calling for Nasheed’s removal from power; some even attempted to brand him a blasphemer, a loaded charge in a country that’s technically 100% Sunni Muslim. This past week, the country’s Islamic Ministry issued an order prohibiting mixed-gender dancing, while Maldivian protesters angered by the fringe American film Innocence of Muslims attempted to storm the U.N. headquarters in Male, wielding placards that read, among other slogans, “Maldives: Future Graveyard for Americans and Jews.”

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“My romantic ideas of how to deal with a dictator were wrong”: Nasheed

Allowing former dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom to live in peace following the 2008 election was a bad decision, former President Mohamed Nasheed has told Time Magazine.

The Maldives’ experience with the remnants of autocracy should serve as a lesson for other countries in the Arab Spring said Nasheed.

“The lesson is we didn’t deal with Gayoom. That’s the obvious lesson. And my romantic ideas of how to deal with a dictator were wrong. I will agree with that,” Nasheed told Time, in a striking reversal of his magnanimity in 2008.

Nasheed observed that “you can get rid of a dictator, but you can’t get rid of a dictatorship. You can get rid of a person very easily, but the networks, the intricacies, the establishments — you have to flush them. And to do that is not an easy thing. We have to be mindful with other countries going down the same line — for instance, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya. They’ll have good elections, they’ll probably come up with a better leader. But then the dictatorship will always try to come back. And it’s going to be impossible to hold them from coming back from within the system.”

Gayoom stepped down peacefully in 2008 after losing the country’s first multi-party elections election to Nasheed, a former political prisoner who was quickly dubbed ‘South Asia’s Nelson Mandela’ by international media outlets. The peaceful transition from autocracy to democracy was held up as a model for other countries by human rights and democracy organisations, including the Commonwealth and UN.

Nasheed, despite heavy resistance from key supporters, pledged to leave Gayoom in peace, acknowledging his contribution to the development of the tourism industry and encouraging him to assume a role as a respected elder statesman.

“Be magnanimous in times of victory, and courageous in times of defeat. The test of Maldivian democracy will be how we treat our former President,” said Nasheed at the time.

His sentiments were echoed during a state visit from the President of Timor-Leste, Jose Ramos-Horta.

“I prefer to be criticised for being soft on people who committed violence in the past than be criticised for being too harsh or insensitive in putting people in jail,” said Ramos-Horta, during a visit to the Maldives in February 2010.

“Our approach fits our reality, an approach the president of the Maldives and I share – the need for magnanimity. Immediately after our independence in 1999, I said: ‘in victory be magnanimous. Don’t rub the wounds of those who feel they lost. Make them feel they won, also.’”

Exactly two years later Ramos-Horta would become the only world leader to condemn “the obvious coup d’état”, and the “unsettling silence of big powers”.

After the 2008 election Gayoom continued to lead his Dhivehi Rayithunge Party (DRP), but in January 2010 announced his intention to bow out of politics ahead of the DRP congress, anointing Ahmed Thasmeen Ali as his successor and become the party’s ‘Supreme Leader’.

“The Maldives is a young country, and only will progress if youth become involved in politics and leadership,” the 72 year-old said during a live press conference on January 25, 2010.

“I am not young any more. I have spent many years in office, and I want to spend time with my family. I need to give the younger generation the opportunity [to lead the party] – they are capable,” Gayoom said.

A senior government source at the time observed that Gayoom’s announcement was not met with celebration by the country’s leadership.

“There is no jubilation here. It was very hard on some people when Gayoom publicly denied he ever harmed anyone,” the source said.

With Gayoom absent from the DRP, a power struggle quickly erupted between the vigorously uncompromising faction of Umar Naseer, a former policeman, and Thasmeen’s mellower, more conciliatory approach to opposition politics. The struggle came to a head with the expulsion of Naseer from the party in late 2010, a decision that sparked Gayoom’s return to active politics with a dramatic attack on Thasmeen’s leadership in a 12 page open letter.

Backed into a corner by the party’s Supreme Leader, Thasmeen did not respond, while the infighting – occasionally violent – culminated in Gayoom’s faction splitting from the party and forming the Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM), backed by the People’s Alliance (PA) of his half-brother, MP Abdulla Yameen.

The PPM actively led protests in the lead up to Nasheed’s downfall on February 7, opposing everything from the “idolatrous” SAARC country monuments in Addu to Nasheed’s detention of Criminal Court Judge Abdulla Mohamed, an ill-fated last-ditch attempt to reform the judiciary.

Speaking to Time Magazine this week, Nasheed said he had pushed against a “witch hunt” after coming to office: “We didn’t want to purge the military, we didn’t want to purge the police.”

“There were mistakes,” he confessed. “One thing the international community finds it difficult to understand was the arresting of the judge. He asked a child to re-enact a child-abuse case in the court. The whole country was disgusted by it. The very next week, he gives an order for a murderer to be released because the Ministry of Health didn’t have a death certificate. And then [the released man] goes out and murders again. It was like releasing a hit man so he could go out and make another hit. The whole picture was getting very, very clear with gangs, drug dealers and with Gayoom and his cronies,” Nasheed told Time.

The government had begged the international community for assistance after detaining the judge, Nasheed said.

“Unfortunately, I kept on asking everyone – the Commonwealth, the EU, the Indian government – to assist us in reforming the judiciary. But they were very late in coming. And we didn’t get the necessary help from them,” he said.

“Also we were bringing in reforms very rapidly. We were liberalising the outlook of the country very, very rapidly. Especially with Islamic radicalism. Our ideas of moderation, the moderate Islam — there were some small, entrenched sections that reacted strongly against me. I thought they were odd people here and there. But there was a core of radical Islamists who fueled the coup through media and harping on about how un-Islamic I am. I must confess, I’m not the most pious of the people. But I am a strong believer.”

Nasheed predicted that Gayoom would make a move for the presidency “when he thinks it’s in his hand, when he feels the field is skewed enough in his favor.”

“His designs are to have a stronger hold on power. He would avoid an election. I am sure he would avoid the scheduled election in 2013 as well. He’d try to push back the elections as much as they can. He would talk in words that the international community will like. We had elections in 2008, 2009, 2011 that were all free and fair. But suddenly the US government is saying, ‘Oh Gayoom says, there might be a problem with the election commission.’

“This is very strange. At the same time, [Gayoom] will start running things through the military. My fear is that we’re not going back to pre-2008 Maldives. We’re going back to pre-2008 other countries, to Pakistan, perhaps, where the military becomes so strong that they call the shots.”

Nasheed said he was “shocked” at the speed with which the US, India and other countries recognised the new government, especially after “we did so much to encourage internationalism, encourage liberalism, to bring Indian investment — to get rid of anti-India phobia. We tried to have good relations. But when push came to shove, we ended up in the wrong. Somehow we were not the right people to talk to. If you want to be a regional leader, you must be sensible. And consistent. And you should lead. They should protect democracy, and they should be on the side of democrats and human rights.”

Nasheed said they tried to encourage him to form a national unity government, “but my point is, why should we try to unify the dictatorship? The coup is not unifying the country – it’s bringing back the old dictatorship. We didn’t want to have a part in it. We beat them in the elections. It’s wrong to talk about governing with Gayoom because he was rejected by the people.”

The international community had slowly begun realigning itself after realising that the ousted government was refusing to be supressed, and had backed early elections – “they should have been the first to say it, not me,” Nasheed noted.

India in particular “has the means” to push for early elections, Nasheed observed.

When those are held, “I am very, very confident that the people will decide upon us. And the thing is not who wins an election – it’s the fact that you have to have one. It’s the fact that a government is formed through the people.”

Read the full interview in Time Magazine


Five lessons for the Arab Spring learned in the Maldives: Time

“Observers of the Arab Spring are wondering what will become of these revolutions once the euphoria subsides and the struggle over democracy grows apace,” writes Jyoti Thottam for Time Magazine.

“There is one corner of South Asia where these questions hit particularly close to home.

In October 2008, voters in this 100 percent Sunni Muslim nation decisively threw out Maumoon Gayoom, the man who had ruled the Maldives for 30 years, making him Asia’s longest-serving ruler. The 41-year-old Nasheed, a human rights activist and longtime critic of the regime, became president, riding a euphoric wave of idealism. As one of his allies told my colleague Ishaan Tharoor, ‘We are not interested in revenge. Now is the time to look to our future.’

So what’s happened to the Maldives since then? On a visit there earlier this year, I found a country that was roiled with protests over rising prices and joblessness, where many people were deeply uneasy about the new prominence enjoyed by Islamists and where the former dictator’s presence still loomed large.

“Despite those challenges, its new democracy is firmly in place. Every country will take its own path, but there are some useful lessons.

1. Don’t be afraid of the Islamists.

In the Maldives, the conservative Islamist Adhaalath Party was until recently a key political ally of Nasheed’s government. The partnership, while it lasted, wasn’t easy. To keep the Islamists happy, for example, Nasheed did little to change the country’s extremely punitive apostasy laws. In an interview with me in Malé, Ahmed Shaheed, a top foreign policy official in Nasheed’s government, explained the rationale for working with the Islamists — their grassroots appeal: ‘That’s where the mullahs excel. On a daily basis they talk to them, five daily prayers, other events, in constant touch with them and as Muslim people who want to know about Islam, about rituals and so on so there is a lot of contact between the mullahs and these lot.’

It turned out that their popular support in local elections wasn’t as strong as anticipated. But the Islamists aren’t just a political force; they’ve also been pushing for the establishment of religious schools, and for expanding the extensive links between madrassas in Pakistan and students from the Maldives.

For all those reasons, Nasheed wanted to keep the Islamists involved in the political process, rather than allowing them to develop into a separate, unaccountable power center. At least for now, the strategy seems to be working. I spoke to Ibrahim Fauzee, head of the extremely conservative Islamic Foundation of the Maldives and a former inmate of Guantanamo Bay (he was picked up in Pakistan in 2002 and repatriated without charges after three years). He does not, however, challenge the legitimacy of Nasheed’s government. He told me: ‘Now we have much more freedom, because we are opening our eyes to the world, following democracy. The nation is going to accept democracy. It’s encouraging us to promote religious activities. We can hold programs. Before, it’s not easy to arrange events in open areas.’

Those events and programs sometimes make liberal Maldivians shudder. The radical preacher Zakir Naik (said to have inspired the accused would-be American militant Najibullah Zazi) spoke to a crowd of thousands in Malé last year, at the invitation of the Islamic Foundation. The real test will come now, with the Adhaalath Party in the opposition.

2. Do worry about the economy.

During the first week of May, the capital city of Malé went through a week of nightly protests, in which young people filled the narrow streets to express their anger over the government’s decision to partially float the rufiyaa (the local currency), a move that led to a sudden drop in its value and a spike in prices. Many in the government suspected that the protests were organized by opposition parties; whether that’s true of not, it was a wake-up call for the government.

‘It was ironic because in the Middle East we saw people wanting to bring down dictators, and here it is the other way round,’ press secretary Mohamed Zuhair told me. ‘We have already brought down the dictator. Probably what happens here might play out in the Middle East.’

3. Be ready for ghosts.

After he was ousted from power, former president Gayoom wasn’t killed or exiled; he still lives in the capital, Malé, and is still a leader of the Progressive Party of the Maldives. He may never be elected president again, but he still wields an enormous amount of influence – most Maldivians have never known any other leader. Even officials in the government sometimes find it hard to hide their animosity toward the man whom they blame for decades of human rights abuses. When a dictator rules for 30 years, his support networks don’t dry up overnight.

4. Expect pragmatic foreign policy.

During Gayoom’s rule, foreign policy was largely put to the service of keeping him in power. In 1988, when faced with a coup d’etat, Gayoom invited the Indian military in to help him. India obligingly sent in paratroopers and put down the rebellion within a matter of hours, further strengthening the Gayoom regime’s ties with India. Of course, that didn’t stop him from also courting Pakistan — where thousands of Maldivians students have studied in madrassas. Since the new government came to office, those two relationships are still by far the most important. India is the acknowledged regional superpower, although its economic support is now much more important than its military support. And until the Maldives expands and improves its schools, devout Maldivian families will continue to send their children to Pakistani madrassas in the absence of any better option.

5. Create strong institutions, not just governments.

Perhaps the most important lesson — one that I heard over and over in my conversations with Maldivians — is that after dramatic political change, a country has to turn its attention to civil society. The nature of any authoritarian regime is that it extends itself into every institution — from schools to the media to the police and judiciary. The hard work of the post-revolution revolutionaries is taking those institutions back and making them truly independent.

One of the most inspiring people I met was Aminath Arif, founder of the Salaam School and a longtime campaigner for education and women’s rights. She was full of creative ideas to improve the skills and employability of young people in the Maldives so the all-important tourism industry wouldn’t need to bring in so many guest workers. She even supported the radical idea of relocating most of the country’s populations to the two largest islands, to make it more feasible for the government to build bigger, better primary schools. Sadly, she died in July after suffering burns in an accident. Her work, and that of the Maldives’ new democracy, continues.”

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