by John Foran and Summer Gray
From sky level to sea level, looking through the thickly paned and weathered openings of a rumbling fuselage, vivid colors zoom into focus around tiny islands loosely connected by a vibrant underworld of coral reef. An awe-inspiring sight. Yet lately, not even the mesmerizing beauty of this far-away island chain can mask the recent and unsightly chain of events that has left democracy stranded in the rising waters of political turmoil. Despite its small size, the Maldives is one of those places that have huge significance in terms of social justice (think Iceland, Cuba, Denmark, Bolivia). The 2012 coup there, now eighteen months long, gives us reason to reflect. Here’s what happened in the Maldives and why we think it needs attention.
- February 6-8, 2012: Democratically-elected President Mohamed Nasheed delivers a sudden and unexpected resignation on live television.
- August 30, 2012: The British Commonwealth-backed Commission of National Inquiry (CONI) investigation surprises the world by finding the transfer of power from Nasheed to his vice president Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik to have been legal.
- September 7, 2013: Presidential elections will take place, with both Nasheed of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) and Waheed, running as an independent, on the ballot.
Coups are among the ugliest of political phenomena, perhaps surpassed only by war, genocide, and famine. They closely parallel fraudulent elections in that both witness an assault on the rights of voters and well-being of a nation by the powerful few. The upcoming elections in the Maldives have global significance, not just because of their contrast with the bloody aftermath of the July 3 deposing of Egypt’s president Mohamed Morsi in another Muslim society, but because, until his ouster, Nasheed and his administration were inspirational leaders in the global fight against climate change, lionized by young climate activists at a 2009 rally in Copenhagen with a banner addressed to Nasheed himself reading “You Are Our Global President.”
History counts: The Road to Democracy or Authoritarian Reversal?
In order to understand the recent assault on democracy in the Maldives it helps to know a little history. The country’s nascent democracy emerged from 850 years of rule by a Muslim sultanate overlaid, from 1887 to 1965, by British Protectorate status and then an uneasy transition from a constitutional monarchy to an independent republic in 1968. Of the many political struggles that have rattled the Maldives, one in particular stands out in relation to recent events: the rise and fall of the country’s first president in the early 1950s.
The story of President Ameen Didi’s year-long rule is worth briefly recounting, not only because it ended in the first Maldivian coup, but because it highlights the contested nature of economic and cultural modernization in the country. In the years leading up to 1953, change was brewing in the small island country. As a school principal and heir to the sultanate, Ameen Didi established the Maldives’ first political party, the Peoples’ Progressive Party, declaring education for women one of his main goals. When he was offered the sultanate, he stood up in Parliament and said “for the sake of the people of Maldives I would not accept the crown and the throne”.
After a referendum declared Maldives a republic, the people elected him president on January 1, 1953. He then set out to transform the nation, enacting policies that radically altered the social and political landscape. Taken by the grand boulevards of Paris, Ameen had his engineers cut roads through the center of the inhabited islands, literally paving the way for development (and upsetting the inhabitants).
On August 21, 1953 (coincidentally, just two days after the CIA-engineered coup in Iran), then-vice president Velaanaagey Ibrahim Didi staged a coup against the president while he was abroad in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) for medical treatment. Ibrahim Didi took over with the help of Muslim conservatives in Malé, the capital city. When the unsuspecting Ameen Didi returned to the Maldives he was taken to Dhoonidhoo Prison Island. He escaped but failed to take back power in Malé, and was beaten so severely he nearly died. The coup makers banished him to internal exile in Kaafu Atoll, where his health quickly deteriorated. He died on January 19, 1954.
Fast-forward to the present day. The events leading to President Nasheed’s overthrow in 2012, while very different, unfold in the same political context of entrenched power and resistance to democratic modernization. Existing networks of powerbrokers put the legitimacy of his administration under scrutiny because he was viewed as progressive and posed a challenge to a social order shaped by centuries of sultanate rule and decades of dictatorship in the intervening years under Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who held power from 1978 to 2008. Gayoom styled himself president, head of the judiciary, and highest religious authority in the country, “winning” six elections in a row for the Maldivian People’s Party without an opposition candidate. As The Economist colorfully puts it: “For three decades until 2008 the country was run by Mr Gayoom, an autocratic moderniser who made the Maldives the wealthiest corner of South Asia by promoting high-end bikini-and-booze tourism (usually on atolls some distance away from the solidly Muslim local population). He also crushed dissent, let capricious and poorly educated judges make a mockery of the law, and allowed social problems to fester, notably widespread heroin addiction”.
After a series of imprisonments totaling six years (with eighteen months of solitary confinement and other tortures) for protesting the lack of democracy, journalist Mohamed Nasheed returned from exile to win the 2008 elections, the first fair and free direct elections in the history of the Maldives. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay noted the stakes: “Maldives will increasingly have a special role to play in the region and the Muslim world as it has pioneered a democratisation process that is both modern and Islamic…. This opportunity cannot be missed, for the benefit of Maldives and of the wider region”. Nasheed made good on the promise, delivering free healthcare, pensions for the elderly, social housing, improved transportation among the islands, and civil liberties such as freedom of expression and security of one’s person unheard of in the Maldivian context.
It is interesting to note that in Dhivehi, the native language of the Maldives, there is no word for democracy. It wasn’t until 2008, when Nasheed was running for president as candidate of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), that a Dhivehi equivalent for the term came into use. Nasheed ran with the slogan “Aneh Dhivehi Raaje” which translates into “The Other Maldives.” In the Maldivian language, the phrase is often used synonymously with of the English-language term “democracy.” If Nasheed reminds us of another political prisoner turned president, Nelson Mandela, the Maldivian equivalent to the scourge of apartheid would probably be the inexorably rising levels of the oceans. With 1,192 coral islands arrayed in a double chain of 26 atolls, the highest point in the Maldives is 2.4 meters above sea level; it is the lowest-lying country in the world, eighty percent of the land surface lying less than a meter above the ocean waves.
In October 2009, Nasheed grabbed the world’s attention by holding a cabinet meeting underwater, with ministers in scuba gear sitting at a table signing documents calling on all countries to cut their greenhouse gas emissions: “We must unite in a world war effort to halt further temperature rises. Climate change is happening and it threatens the rights and security of everyone on Earth. We have to have a better deal. We should be able to come out with an amicable understanding that everyone survives. If Maldives can’t be saved today, we do not feel that there is much of a chance for the rest of the world”. At the historic 2009 UN climate summit in Copenhagen, he declared Maldives’ goal of becoming the world’s first carbon-neutral country:
For us swearing off fossil fuels is not only the right thing to do, it is in our economic self-interest… Pioneering countries will free themselves from the unpredictable price of foreign oil; they will capitalize on the new green economy of the future, and they will enhance their moral standing giving them greater political influence on the world stage.
At the talks, he and minister of environment Mohamed Aslam carried the banner of the many frontline island nations most threatened by climate change, and their principled stand and frank exchanges stand at the center of Jon Shenk’s masterful 2012 film, The Island President.
The world’s climate justice and global justice communities woke on the morning of February 7, 2012 to the shocking news that Nasheed had “resigned” his presidency with the statement “I don’t want to rule the country with an iron fist…. Considering the situation in the country, I believe great damage might be caused to the people and the country if I remain President. I therefore submit my resignation as President of Maldives”. The next day, scenes of Nasheed and MDP supporters in the streets of Malé protesting what they called a coup, and being beaten and arrested by the police and military—now firmly in the hands of his vice president, Mohamed Waheed—gave the world notice that the coup leaders had no such compunction. Waheed proceeded to dismiss the entire cabinet, named a who’s who of Nasheed’s political opponents to his own cabinet, and sought to put Nasheed on trial.
Support for the struggle against Nasheed’s departure was quickly voiced by the global climate justice community. Mark Lynas, author of Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet, wrote in The Guardian: “The deposed president is famous for his efforts to fight climate change, but his lifelong struggle has been for democracy – and now I fear for his safety” (February 7, 2012). Filmmaker Jon Shenk told the New York Times: “On Tuesday, we were stunned to learn that Mr. Nasheed was forced to resign his presidency under duress. Mr. Gayoom’s supporters had taken violently to the streets and put Mr. Nasheed in an impossible position: attack your own countrymen or resign. He once again followed his conscience and stepped down” (February 8, 2012).
The CONI Report: Judging the Legality of a Coup
The pushback in the streets and global airwaves forced the new government to announce on February 22 the formation of a commission to investigate whether the transfer of power had been legal. When in April it named the three-person group in charge, chaired by Gayoom’s former Defence Minister, Ismail Shafeeu, the transparent hypocrisy of a government investigating itself prompted the British Commonwealth (Maldives joined in 1982) to pressure for the addition of more independent experts to the commission. This resulted in the addition of Ahmad Saeed to represent the MDP, and two international advisers, Professor John Packer from Canada for the United Nations, and Sir Bruce Robertson, a retired Court of Appeal judge from New Zealand, for the Commonwealth.
The climate justice world was shocked again on August 30, 2012, when the resulting CONI Report was finally issued, its conclusions stating:
- The change of president in the Republic of Maldives on 7 February 2012 was legal and constitutional.
- The events that occurred on 6 and 7 February 2012, were, in large measure, reactions to the actions of President Nasheed.
- The resignation of President Nasheed was voluntary and of his own free will. It was not caused by any illegal coercion or intimidation.
- There were acts of police brutality on 6, 7 and 8 February 2012 that must be investigated and pursued further by the relevant authorities.
Of these “findings,” we find the only true statement to be the last, and the called-for investigation has not taken place, despite repeated requests from the UN, Commonwealth, and Amnesty International.
The day before the Report was issued, MDP representative Ahmed Saeed resigned in protest, alleging that the Report was based primarily on evidence gathered only by the three original members, while other crucial evidence was not pursued nor key witnesses recalled, and that some of the information and testimony provided the Commission was not used in the inquiry. The Commonwealth Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma accepted the Report’s conclusions on the spot, stating “I urge all concerned to respect the findings of the Commission so that, moving forward, all actions and reactions reflect the sense of responsibility and restraint necessary in the best national interest”. The United States and Britain welcomed the Report, which received the tacit support of much of the international community, and recommended that Nasheed and the MDP turn the corner on the coup and look ahead to the 2013 elections (just days away as we write this).
International advisors to the CONI, John Packer and Sir Bruce Robertson, praised the commission’s work: “We have seen nothing but objective and independent professionalism in the institution. The Commission has sensibly and sensitively heard all who wanted to make a contribution. It has firmly and fairly held participants to telling what they had heard and seen for themselves and deflected them from conjecture and speculation without facts.” In a pointed reference to Saeed’s resignation from the Commission, they stated: “The nation has been well served by the Commissioners and any assertions of bias or lack of objectivity leveled against those remaining have no justification. They reflect badly on those making unfounded allegations”. One wonders what impact Waheed’s long career with the UN might have made on the perceptions of events by international outsiders.
The day after the Report came out, Nasheed held a press conference, and observed: “Now we have a very awkward situation and in many ways very comical, where toppling a government by brutal force is taken as a reasonable course of action … accepted as long as it comes with an ‘appropriate’ narrative. I still believe CONI has set a precedent away from the simplicity of using ballots to change a government…. Peaceful political activity will continue, the CONI report is not the end of the line” (a composite of two accounts of the speech on The Guardian and Maldives Culture).
We have had access to some of the above missing pieces, including MDP perspectives and several of the interviews conducted for the Report. In addition, former minister of environment Mohamed Aslam generously consented to an interview when one of us visited the Maldives in May. We want to make the world aware of the fatal flaws in the Report, and of the very real threats the Waheed government and other opponents of Nasheed pose to fair and creditable elections on September 7. Here are our findings.
We start with two independent legal evaluations of the CONI Report, both of which unequivocally find the Report deficient. The first of these, “A Legal Review of the Report of the Commission of National Inquiry (CONI) Maldives,” was issued on September 6, 2012 by Ms. Anita Perera and Mr. Senany Dayaratne, lawyers working with the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka, and Mr. Shibley Aziz, a former Attorney General of Sri Lanka. This document clearly rejects the CONI Report for its reliance on “evidence hastily gathered” while disregarding “[m]aterial and evidence of vital significance.” It concludes “there was in fact adequate evidence to suggest that duress (or even ‘coercion’ and/ or illegal coercion as used by CONI) is attributable to the resignation of President Nasheed, and as such, CONI could not have reasonably satisfied itself on objective criteria, that the specific pre-conditions necessary for a determination that President Nasheed resigned of his own free will, have been met”.
A second independent report considers the events in light of international law, and is based on facts independently gathered on a field trip to the Maldives. Issued on July 16, 2012, before the CONI Report, its title presages its main findings, “Arrested Democracy: The Legality under International Law of the 2012 transfer of power in the Maldives and alleged human rights violations perpetrated by Maldivian security forces.” Its authors, Dr. Anders Henriksen, Associate Professor of Public International Law at the University of Copenhagen, Legal Adviser and Deputy Head of Division at Danish Ministry of Justice Rasmus Kieffer-Kristensen, and Jonas Parello-Plesner, Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, conclude that:
President Nasheed resigned as President of the Maldives under duress, and that his resignation cannot be considered voluntary or otherwise ‘in accordance with law’.
The revolt of the Maldivian Police and the seemingly unwillingness or inability of the Maldivian Military to restore law and order left the President with no choice but to accept the demand for his resignation that was put before him in mid-morning on February 7th, 2012. To the extent that a ‘coup d’etat’ can be defined as the ‘illegitimate overthrow of a government’, we must therefore also consider the events as a coup d’etat….
We also conclude that the Maldivian security forces have committed a number of human rights violations in the months that have passed since the transfer of power…. The acts of the security forces have had a “chilling effect” on the enjoyment of fundamental freedoms in the Maldives
The CONI Report was fatally flawed from the start, state Professor Packer and Sir Bruce, with the appointment of a commission consisting of three Gayoom loyalists: Two of them, the chair, Ismail Shafeeu (Gayoom’s former Defence Minister), and Dr. Ibrahim Yasir, were allegedly involved in hiding parts of the investigation report of 2003 Maafusi Jail shootings, an extremely important event in Maldivian history. The additions to the committee spurred on by condemnation of its biased composition did not overcome this bias: Justice G.P. Selvam of Singapore, who became co-chair of the CONI Report with Shafeeu, rose through the ranks under the Lew Kwan Yew dictatorship, doing what the regime required against its political opponents and human rights campaigners. There are a number of Singapore-Maldives business partnerships involving Waheed’s current vice president, Mohamed Waheed Deen, and Maumoon’s former Foreign Minister, Fathuhulla Jameel with wealthy interests in Singapore. Also, it has been suggested millions of dollars that were stolen from the Maldives by the Gayoom brothers, Maumoon and Yaameen, and invested in Singapore.
Anatomy of a Coup, or, the Charging Bull at the Door
Coups don’t happen without a well-planned coterie of opponents of the government, a pretext and public perception that something has discredited the government, and the backing of the social forces that hold the means of violence. This scenario obtained in the cases of the tragic end of Chilean democracy on September 11, 1971, the July 2013 removal of President Morsi in Egypt, and the events of February 6-7, 2012 in the Maldives.
The political and economic allies of the long-running Gayoom dictatorship never accepted the results of the 2008 election, and through the whole of Nasheed’s tenure waged a dirty campaign to regain power. Imagine a United States in which the Green Party came to power through a well-executed grassroots campaign inspired by hope – real hope – that the ills of American society and politics could be frankly addressed. Then imagine what might happen in the following eighteen months: it would be money and violence against people power and openness. It would get nasty. This gives some idea of what Nasheed and the MDP were up against when they came to power in 2008.
To establish the full context of the events would require a detailed and lengthy analysis of the struggle for power between Nasheed and the political remnants of the Gayoom dictatorship, marked by a series of circumstances that include the consequences of the failure of the Judicial Service Commission, appointed after the 2008 elections, to set new standards for service as a judge, and the subsequent removal of pro-Gayoom Chief Justice of the Criminal Court, Judge Abdulla Mohamed, by Nasheed on January 16, 2012 (the judge had repeatedly failed to prosecute corruption cases against the elite, including Gayoom himself). The backlash to this from the pro-Gayoom parties and individuals took the form of a campaign to slander Nasheed as un- or even anti-Islamic. This touched off twenty-two consecutive nights of protest anti-Nasheed protests. A secret meeting of members of the opposition took place on January 31, 2012 at the residence of Nasheed’s Vice President Waheed at which they pledged their allegiance to him “and stated that President Nasheed was no longer considered ‘the legal ruler of Maldives’. In a quite extraordinary move one of the leading opposition figures even called on the police and the army to also pledge their allegiance to the Vice-President ‘and not to implement any order given by’ the President”. Events moved very quickly after this.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, then the competing artistic representations of the transfer of power could fill volumes. In August 2012, the government-backed Islamist Adhaalath Party organized an exhibition at the National Art Gallery, opened by President Waheed himself. Sixty pieces were displayed under the theme, “Fall of a regime: An Artist’s View,” all created by a single artist and painted over the course of just one month. Some of the paintings were direct copies of photographs with MDP colors and supporters omitted. This attempt to paint the “appropriate narrative,” as Nasheed had characterized the CONI report, literally mirrors the “timeline” of events released by original members of the CONI commission before the investigation actually took place.
In all likelihood, the Waheed-sponsored paintings were commissioned in response to an earlier announcement by MDP supporters who were independently planning an Exhibition of Public Inquiry (XOPI) at the grounds of the Malé City Council. The theme of this exhibit, “Truth Is Ours,” challenged the CONI narrative by giving space to a wide range of artists to reflect on the events leading up to and following the coup. One artist, Fazail Lutfi, explains: “I am participating because this is another venue to express my thoughts and feelings about the coup, freedom, liberty and justice. At a time when our freedoms to assemble and express are getting limited, this space suddenly becomes very important to me”. In contrast with the repetitive images of “peaceful” anti-Nasheed protests set against the whitewashed walls of the National Art Gallery, an ominous sculpture lingered at the XOPI grounds. The description reads: “Grasping to comprehend the reality of the situation and describe something so phantom and menacing in my head was the image of a charging bull at the door.”
The charging bull reared its ugly head again when Nasheed was accused of the unconstitutional arrest of Judge Abdulla Mohamed under Article 81 of the Penal Code, a crime that carries a maximum sentence of three years in jail. If found guilty, Nasheed would be banned from the upcoming elections that are now set for September 7, 2013, as well as any future elections in the Maldives.
Both MDP supporters and the international community deemed the allegations as politically motivated and an obvious attempt to prevent Nasheed from contesting the presidential elections. On March 28, 2013, Azim Zahir, from Transparency Maldives, a local NGO monitoring the elections, warned: “As was seen following the recent arrest of President Nasheed [on October 8, 2012], if he is prevented from running, violence will likely break out distorting the electoral environment if not making it inhospitable for democratic elections”. In a May 21, 2013 report, UN Special Rapporteur Gabriela Knaul expressed “deep concern” over the impartiality of the judiciary and the fairness of the proceedings against Nasheed.
On July 18, 2013, with mounting pressure from Transparency Maldives and the international community, the Elections Commission reluctantly accepted Nasheed’s candidacy. In a statement to the press, Nasheed said, “we have submitted the election forms and begin the task of restoring democracy to our country. It has been a slippery slope but we have come a long way. Despite all the barriers and hurdles that were put in our way, we never gave up.” As election day draws nearer, the streets of Malé city are paved with yellow confetti, the color of the MDP.
Maldives at the Crossroads
Maldives now stands at a crossroads where the people are being asked to choose between Nasheed, Waheed, and two other candidates with links to the Gayoom dictatorship and the Islamists: in effect a popular referendum on the CONI Report and the candidates’ competing visions for the future of the Maldives. Moreover, the whole process is unfolding in a “political context of crisis of legitimation, uncertainty of democratic transition, existing polarisations and other challenges that have been aggravated by the controversial transfer of power on 7 February 2012”.
Nasheed’s campaign has been a model of grassroots organizing, literally a “Door to Door” campaign with a thousand volunteers committed to visiting every family in the country. Nasheed himself has touched all the main island groups in well-prepared meetings with the people, a detailed campaign platform, openness to the media, and by generating a massive amount of genuine passion and enthusiasm on the ground. The campaign reports that it has received pledges of votes from 125,000 of the 240,000 eligible voters in its door to door canvas, while registering thousands of new voters: the median age in the Maldives is 26 and the MDP’s campaign is by far the most media-savvy. “Statistics and the smiles of the people” portend victory, Nasheed says. All of this bodes well.
While the MDP has campaigned hard to secure the votes necessary to win in the first round, there are several factors to consider that could mitigate this outpouring of public support.
- The MDP will have to win in the first round for Nasheed to be successful. The anti-Nasheed vote will be split among the three opposition candidates – Waheed, billionaire Gasim Ibrahim of the Jumhoree [Republic] Party, and Gayoom’s brother Abdulla Yameen for the Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM) — an advantage for the MDP. But if Nasheed fails to clear the 50 percent hurdle, it is probable that all three would ask their supporters to vote for the one still in the running on the second round, scheduled for September 28.
- There is a danger that “irregularities” could occur in the election process. Leaving aside Gasim’s promises of an iPad and laptop for every schoolchild and other material goods for every family if he is elected, and the PPM’s unsuccessful effort to delay the election by claiming, without a hint of irony, that it is not free and fair process, there remain the unreformed institutions staffed by loyalists in the old regime or the current administration who will police, conduct, and investigate allegations of impropriety. Due to what appears to be sufficient attention from the United Nations, United Kingdom, European Union, and other observers, and the local efforts by Transparency Maldives, however, these elections seem set to be the most transparent yet.
- The various dirty tricks of the opposition, which include attacking the MDP manifesto promise that the state will make a revenue of MVR 72 billion [US$4.6 billion] through the tax system as a set of empty promises (another irony in that the other three parties have failed altogether to put forth campaign platforms). The PPM has criticized Nasheed in the past for taking out international loans and competing political parties rally around the claim that Nasheed ran the Maldivian economy into the ground. There also remain the self-serving appeals to voters regarding Nasheed’s alleged lack of respect for Islam compared with the faith of his opponents (all of these issues are addressed by one of the most astute political analysts in the Maldives, Dr. Azra Naseem on this website.)
The stakes are high. This may be Maldivians’ last chance to set out on the path of democracy again. In Chile, the Pinochet dictatorship traumatized a whole generation after the coup that brought him to power. This must not happen in the Maldives. Not only is the future of its people at stake, but the possibilities for a future of global climate justice will be affected by the outcome of this election and the parliamentary elections of 2014.
If Nasheed and Aslam represent the Maldives once again at COP19 UN climate summit in Warsaw this November, the balance of forces now tilted so heavily toward the 1%, and thus to the climate catastrophe dictated by their business as usual attitude, will shift—at least to some degree—back in the direction dictated by science and championed by 99.99 percent. All eyes should be on the Maldives on September 7. Let us not be caught unaware of what’s happening at this epicenter of the struggle for a better world.
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It seems like we have lived five hundred years in the last five hundred days, all roads leading back to the past, further and further away from the world at present and what it looks set to become in the days to come…. It can all change in the next week. On 7 September 2013 we will decide whether to stay on this road to the past, or return to the present and back to the future…. The choice is ours to make.
– Azra Naseem, “Election 2013 – where to, people?”
About the authors: John Foran is Professor of Sociology and Environmental Studies at University of California (UC), and Co-director of the International Institute of Climate Action and Theory (IICAT). Summer Gray is a PhD candidate in Sociology at UC and Associate Editor at IICAT