Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives, who was ousted as president in February this year, describes the events that led to the February 7 ‘coup’ and talks about why it’s important for Maldives to have early elections. This session was moderated by Special Correspondent Manu Pubby
Manu Pubby: Give us a background to the situation in Maldives before you were forced out of the presidency in February?
Mohamed Nasheed: In 2008, Maldives had its first multi-party election and I was fortunate to have won it. In the last three-and-a-half years, we tried to consolidate democracy in Maldives. When we came to power, less than 30 per cent of the population had safe drinking water and sewerage, now it’s almost 70 per cent. We have laid the foundation for a social protection programme that gives free medical benefits to single mothers and the disabled. We ran a good immunisation programme and a public health programme.
Unfortunately, now a dictatorship is back. They staged a coup in early February and forced me to resign. We need to bring the country back on track and restore democracy. Elections now are very important. More than 65 per cent of our population is below 35 and they gave me the edge to form a government. Today, they are out on the streets protesting. If we give more room and time to the dictatorship, to the military and the police to get a firm grip on the situation, if we allow them to become entrenched, I am afraid we won’t be having an election at all in the foreseeable future.
Radical Islam is creeping into Maldives—that has been happening for the last 20 years. We fought against the Islamic parties in the presidential elections and they did not win a single seat. They contested the local elections and they did not win a single seat. But after the coup, they got three portfolios in the cabinet. If we do not have early elections, they will further strengthen and consolidate their position.
We have the former dictator (Maumoon Abdul) Gayoom back in Maldives and calling the shots. We are the biggest parliamentary group at the moment. But they have already picked up one MP and have charges against other MPs; they have charges against me and I fear I will be in jail again. The people of Maldives must be able to decide who should govern them. We are trying to impress upon your government and people the need for this. I am encouraged by the recalibration of Indian policy in pressing for an early election. With more robust action from India, we will be able to have early elections.
Shubhajit Roy: Please take us through the events of February 7 and the circumstances that made you resign.
Mohamed Nasheed: On February 6, two police battalions of about 100 policemen left the police station and attacked supporters of Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP, Nasheed’s party). They ransacked our assembly home. Then they called for my resignation and that of the chief of police. This was around 11 p.m. The police chief told me to ask the military to arrest these two battalions. I asked the military to do it and found that there were only 200 of them there, the rest were away. At 5 a.m., I went to the military headquarters. At about 7 a.m., the police were at the gates of the army headquarters with teargas, rubber bullets, pepper spray, etc. Some of the 200 military personnel said they wanted to join the rioters. The generals told me that if I did not resign, they would have to use lethal weapons. I said it would look bad if I resigned at the military headquarters. So they agreed to take me to the President’s office. When I announced my resignation, they said they wanted to keep me incommunicado for three days at the presidential residence. I was taken there. At about 7.30 p.m. on February 7, with the help of some friendly military officers, I was able to slip out from the presidential residence and go home. I hadn’t slept for two nights and I collapsed. I woke up the next morning and spoke to my party and we described the events of the previous day. We clearly said it was not a voluntary resignation.
Shubhajit Roy: Isn’t it extraordinary for a president to walk into the army headquarters and to order them to act against the police?
Mohamed Nasheed: I don’t think this is extraordinary because constitutionally, that is what I am supposed to do: maintain law and order. In the past, any transfer of power in Maldives has always been very violent—previous presidents were mobbed, banished, lynched, murdered or sent away, their property was confiscated. When we were in power, we didn’t do any of these things, we did not go in for a witch-hunt. We wanted reform from within. Unfortunately, we were not able to do it. For the last three years, we had not called upon the riot police. These two battalions were specifically trained to break up MDP demonstrations between 2003 and 2007.
Shubhajit Roy: Some people in Delhi who interacted with you at that time felt your statement, calling the events a coup, came a day later and it was something of an afterthought.
Mohamed Nasheed: This was a televised coup, live on television. There was no confusion about what was happening. I was incommunicado until the next day.
Maneesh Chhibber: Do you think India could have acted more decisively to end the stalemate?
Mohamed Nasheed: I do understand India’s difficulties when they are dealing with neighbours. It is not always possible for a government to go into a country and meddle with things. I don’t know if it was possible at that time for India to have intervened, militarily, but I hadn’t asked for that. But many people were shocked to see India so rapidly recognising the status quo.
Maneesh Chhibber: What are your expectations from the Indian government now?
Mohamed Nasheed: They have a number of tools, none military, that they can employ to get the government in Maldives to announce elections. That is what we are seeking of them.
Muzamil Jaleel: Were the people behind the coup in touch with any of the neighbouring countries at that time? Secondly, can you explain the spread of ‘Islamic radicalism’ in Maldives?
Mohamed Nasheed: The perpetrators would have been briefing authorities in Delhi, Colombo and in Islamabad, telling them that there is an eminent transfer of power because they were plotting it. They would have been briefing the Indian High Commissioner and the authorities here.
Radical Islam, as a movement, has been taking root in Maldives for a long time, especially during dictatorships when the only room for dissent is through these groups. They are the ones who gather in mosques, they are good at working underground. So anyone who wants to challenge authority would join them.
Muzamil Jaleel: Seven Maldivian students had gone missing in Pakistan some time ago—they may have joined al Qaeda. Are you talking about Islamist political groups or about much more radical militant groups?
Mohamed Nasheed: Youngsters are recruited, their mothers are told they can send their children for schooling to Pakistan. These young people go to Pakistan. There’s a school on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border where these children are brutalised. And often from these madarsas, they join the Taliban.
Manu Pubby: The current government in Maldives is saying it will announce elections in July 2013. However, you are asking for a much earlier date. How do you think this will play out?
Mohamed Nasheed: I think it has created confusion because they used the word ‘early’ when they said elections in July. So people thought the government was agreeing to early elections, but these are scheduled elections. If we are unable to have early elections, they will have a better grip on power. The military and the police would have eliminated many opponents.
Bibekananda Biswas: You allowed pork and liquor to be served in Maldives. The Islamic elements in the country protested against serving them. Did this play a role in your ouster?
Mohamed Nasheed: We have a million European tourists coming to our country every year and so we have been selling pork and liquor. They wanted to stop us giving permission to serve pork and liquor. This coup was very well-managed and staged.
Coomi Kapoor: If the other side was briefing High Commissioners, how did you not get a whiff of what was happening?
Mohamed Nasheed: In a democracy, anyone can talk to anyone about anything. I wasn’t aware of the organisation of the coup until very late. As a civilian leader, I am the commander-in-chief but I don’t meddle with the daily operations of the defence forces—they have their protocols. This is the difficulty in getting democracy consolidated—can you do it within the framework of the law or do you need a benevolent dictator? We wanted to get things going through a process.
Kaushal Shroff: Is it possible to hold free and fair elections considering that the current government will be in control of the state and the entire bureaucratic machinery?
Mohamed Nasheed: The new Constitution has established an Election Commission appointed by Parliament and answerable to Parliament. I have full confidence in the Commission. But if we give them (the current government) time till 2013, they will meddle with it. The elections must be observed and monitored. I hope there will be Indian assistance in monitoring these elections.
Pranab Dhal Samanta: Yours was not exactly a problem-free presidency. You had problems with the Majlis, particularly since you did not have a majority in Parliament. You could not get your Bills passed. You agitated against former President Gayoom and through those agitations, Parliament became more powerful. People say you wanted to appropriate more powers. Do you think you missed a trick or two in statecraft?
Mohamed Nasheed: The new Constitution is a reaction to a very strong presidency. The whole idea of the new Constitution was that the President’s powers be diluted and Parliament be given a bigger role. We passed a lot of legislation through Parliament. I do not agree with you that I wanted more powers. I like to be naïve and will continue to be naïve. If we had an alliance with the Islamic parties, we could have easily won a large majority in Parliament. Everyone told me I was doing the wrong thing, that we should have an alliance with the Islamists. But I am glad that we got this Parliament without any radical Islamists in it. That has been at our own expense. But Parliament is functioning, it is the only institution that functions. When I was an MP in 1990, we had only six sittings of Parliament in a whole year. Now, Parliament sits every day.
Chinmay Brahme: You said two police battalions instrumental in the coup were specifically trained to break up MDP demonstrations. When you assumed office, did you think of disbanding them?
Mohamed Nasheed: The Civil Services Act says you cannot disband police. There has to be a proper procedure for it. So we started on judicial reforms. I have spent half of my adult life in jail and I have been tortured twice, so I know who they are. Unfortunately, they have regrouped. It is easy to get rid of a man, a dictator, but it is not so easy to flush away the remnants of the dictatorship, the culture of it. My presidency is not important but democracy is very important and that is what we are trying to work for.
Mahima (Salwan Public School, Gurgaon): The economy of Maldives survives largely on tourism. Considering the current political problems, will the economy and tourism be affected?
Mohamed Nasheed: Tourism arrivals have come down a little. There is political strife and instability; it would have had some impact on tourism. But tourists are rather funny—they couldn’t care less about the politics as long as the beaches and the cocktails are fine. So they keep coming.
Amitabh Sinha: In 2009, you hit global headlines with your famous underwater Cabinet meeting warning about climate change. We have already missed the deadline for a temperature cap at two degrees, which you campaigned for. Where do you see the climate thing going now?
Mohamed Nasheed: I will never give up. I hope that by 2015 there can be a legally binding agreement and I will try and see how I may be able to campaign for that. Anything over 1.5 degrees would mean more adaptation. But if it goes to 2 degrees, that would mean we have to spend more than 8 per cent of our GDP on adaptation. This is money that can go into education, health, etc.
Uma Vishnu: You sought to link the battle for democracy with the battle against climate change. Can you explain that?
Mohamed Nasheed: Without proper decision-making, without democratic structures, it is not possible to take proper decisions. When we spend so much money on adaptation, if we did not have democracy, we would be doing the wrong revetments on the wrong islands with the wrong materials because there would not be enough transparency in decisions. Democracy is the most important adaptation measure against climate change.
Muzamil Jaleel: Are you in touch with other leaders in the region—Pakistan, Sri Lanka?
Mohamed Nasheed: I have not been to Pakistan throughout this period or unfortunately, throughout the three-and-half years I was in government. I have been to Sri Lanka, I will go to Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, everywhere to convince them. I will go to hell and back to bring democracy back to Maldives.
Dilip Bobb: After the transfer of power, you were critical of the Indian Government’s stand. Now you are saying that the stand has been recalibrated. What does that mean?
Mohamed Nasheed: I was critical. Many people were shocked (at India’s reaction to the events in Maldives in February), because we had earlier been going from house to house, telling everyone that India is good, that you don’t have to go on with a huge India phobia, that India is not out there to get you. Then suddenly when this happened, everybody said to me, “President, what happened to your friend?” Now we see a recalibration. Initially, in some quarters, people thought there could be a combination of the former dictatorship and me. But that’s not a chemistry that can work. In a democracy, can a presidential system work as an alliance with cabinet ministers from different parties? I don’t think so. I have studied this. My latest book, banned in 2007, is a study of coups in Maldives. I know one when I see one.
Transcribed by Ananya BhardwajSource: The Indian Express