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Maldives: Political dream ends with a coup

By Rita Payne, CJA International President and CJA-UK chair

The political story in the Maldives has come full circle.

There was jubilation inside and outside the country in 2008 when Mohamed Nasheed was elected president in the Maldives’ first multi-party elections ending the 30-year rule of authoritarian leader Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. Mr Nasheed was hailed by many as the new Obama and Maldivians looked forward to a bright new future.

Less than four years later, Mohamed Nasheed has been ousted in what is being described as a coup d’etat. A press statement from Mr Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party, issued on Tuesday (7 February) gave this account of what happened: “Last night, rogue elements from the Maldives Police Service in conjunction with the supporters of former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom overthrew the democratically elected government of President Nasheed. President Nasheed was taken to the President’s Office under the custody of the security forces and subsequently resigned.

“We also condemn the violent attacks carried out against our members by the Maldives Police Service including against Member of Parliament and our former chairperson Mariya Didi and other MPs from the party.

“We call upon the international community to assist us in establishing democracy in the Maldives and protect the officials of the government of President Nasheed. We fear for the safety of President Nasheed and senior members of his government.”

According to John-James Robinson, editor of MinivanNews.com, an independent English language online news outlet in the Maldives, local media is under the control of the opposition, who took over with police assistance on Tuesday and renamed the state broadcasting service TVM – its name under Mr Gayoom. He said: “The  MDP appeared to have disappeared yesterday; today Nasheed has stood up and declared Dr Waheed’s  government  illegitimate. Yesterday was the eye of the storm as people struggled to absorb the dramatic political events. Now it’s kicking off and could go any way.”

A loose coalition of Mr Gayoom’s supporters and religious groups has now formed a government with Mr Nasheed’s former ally and vice-president, Waheed Hassan, sworn in as president. There had been initial concerns about the whereabouts of Mr Nasheed, who has now appeared in public to appeal for calm. He said yesterday that he had resigned  “to prevent violence” after police and opposition-led protesters took control of the state broadcaster in the capital, Male.

 International Reaction

There have been swift calls from international bodies and civil rights organisations urging the new authorities to refrain from violence and not to persecute members of the ousted government.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement that he hoped Nasheed’s resignation would lead to a peaceful resolution of the political crisis. He called on all Maldivians to cement the nation’s democratic gains. A UN team headed by Assistant Secretary-General Oscar Fernandez-Taranco is scheduled to travel to the Maldives later this week to help the country to resolve its political tensions.

A team from the Commonwealth Secretariat has already arrived in the Maldives to explore how the Commonwealth can respond to the country’s priorities. It will be looking into ways to strengthen the judiciary and the separation of powers. The Secretariat team includes political, legal and human rights officers.  A statement from the Secretariat said: “We urge all to respect the rule of law and the constitution, and to refrain from acts of violence.”

A spokesperson for Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, called on the authorities to guarantee the physical safety and democratic rights of the people. She urged all parties in the Maldives to engage in inclusive dialogue.

In the UK Parliament, Mr David Amess, Chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group to the Maldives, has issued the following statement on behalf of the group:

“I was shocked and saddened to learn of the coup d’état in the Maldives resulting in the removal of President Nasheed. When he took office in November 2008, it was as the first democratically elected President of the Maldives ever. He faced enormous challenges in underpinning democratic rule in the Maldives. There can be little doubt that, during his time in office, he worked tirelessly to improve the living conditions and general welfare of the Maldivian people. It is tragic that, 20 months before the next Presidential elections were due, he has been forced from office under duress.

“During his time as President he had done all he possibly could to promote the Maldives throughout the international community and without any doubt ‘stole the show’ at the Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen (2009). There is now concern for his safety and that of his family. I very much hope that the British Government will do all in its power to ensure that he is not harmed in any way.”

Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Director, said: “The events of the last days follow weeks of political paralysis and a breakdown of accountability and the rule of law. The new government must ensure that it will protect the rights of all Maldivians equally, without regard to their political affiliation.”

Disillusionment and unrest

There is little doubt that disillusionment set in almost as soon as Mohamed Nasheed took power. As in the case of Barack Obama in the US, expectations of what he would deliver were unrealistically high. He led a new government at a time when the world economy was going into freefall. Naturally, Malidivians were disappointed when they did not notice any immediate economic benefits from the change of government.

Politically, some might say, M. Nasheed was a bit naive. Despite calls from his own party for Mr Gayoom and his supporters to be held to account for persecuting opponents while they were in power, Mr Nasheed held back from being seen as being vindictive. He hoped Mr Gayoom, left unmolested, would disappear quietly into the political woodwork to count the wealth accumulated during his thirty years of total domination of the country.

In reality, Mr Nasheed was hemmed in from all sides by Gayoom supporters who retained control of most political and private institutions. The tourist industry, the media and most importantly, the judiciary were still dominated by close relatives and rich and powerful supporters of Mr Gayoom.

In the months building up to Tuesday’s coup, Gayoom loyalists joined forces with disaffected police forces and hardline religious leaders to paint ex-President Nasheed as anti-Islamic and selling the country to Jews and Christians. At one stage, opposition forces called for a ban on spas which were considered to be anti-Islamic but this was quickly lifted when protesters, some of whom were engaged in the tourist industry, realised that their own profits were being affected.

The ‘coup’ was engineered after Mr Nasheed came into open conflict with the judiciary which was packed with judges appointed under Mr Gayoom’s rule. Protests began last month after Mr Nasheed ordered the military to arrest top criminal court judge Abdulla Mohamed on charges of corruption and political bias. Abdulla Mohamed is said to be close to former President Gayoom. The Nasheed government said the judiciary was unwilling to allow investigation of judicial misconduct against Abdulla Mohamed.

There are already signs that the new authorities may not be quite as lenient with Mr Nasheed as he was with his predecessor. Under Mr Gayoom’s rule, Mr Nasheed had been arrested and tortured. There has been now been a call from a Gayoom supporter for Mr Nasheed’s detention so that he can face charges of corruption and misuse of power. A police spokesman is quoted as saying that police were investigating the discovery of at least 100 bottles of alcohol inside a truck removing garbage from the presidential residence as Mr Nasheed prepared to relinquish power. The consumption of alcohol outside tourist resorts is a crime in the Maldives, a Muslim country. If charged and convicted of possession of alcohol, Nasheed could be sent to jail for three years, banished abroad, placed under house arrest or fined.

The new President, Waheed Hassan, given an assurance to the vital tourism industry that the country, renowned for its stunning beaches and luxurious resorts, will remain a peaceful place to visit.

Mr Nasheed may have made mistakes in his time as President, critics accused him of cronyism and other faults. They complained that he was handing over lucrative contracts to foreign countries at the expense of local companies. Mr Nasheed’s government argued that local companies did not have the required experience and expertise which is why it was turning to the best professionals who could produce high standards of infrastructure.

John-James Robinson from Minivan News, says the opposition coalition has sided with the more radical elements in the country. However, using Islam as a political card could have dangerous consequences.  Under Mr Nasheed’s government there had been a freer press and greater transparency which meant that misdeeds of government officials were exposed along with those of the opposition.

Mohammed Nasheed had placed the threat his country was facing from climate change at the forefront of international attention. The new President has promised  to protect Mr Nasheed saying he was not under any restriction and was free to leave the country. At the same time he said he would not interfere with any police or court action against Mohammed Nasheed. One can only hope that history will not repeat itself and Mr Nasheed, who fought long and hard to introduce multi-party democracy in the Maldives, will not find himself behind bars again.

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