WION speaks to former Maldivian president Mohamed Nasheed as part of the World Is One Global Leadership Series. Photograph: (WION)
WION spoke with the former President of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, in London. He spoke of the influence Saudi Arabia has had on the Maldives, the one China is trying to exert on it, and that it is imperative that the Maldives be a stable, democratic nation – for there has never been a stable Indian Ocean region without a stable Maldives.
Here is a full transcript of the interview.
Q: Thank you President Nasheed. Now you were the first democratically elected leader of the Maldives in 2008 supported by a coalition of opposition to President Gayoom. Why did you get into politics?
A: My joining politics was an accident of history. I started as a journalist. But every time I wrote, they arrested me. So I lost my twenties to jail. As an attempt to not be arrested, I became a member of Parliament. They arrested me. The arrests kept coming and finally we left the Maldives and formed a political party-in-exile in Sri Lanka and later in England. Through that, we were able to galvanise our people to political activism, amend the constitution and have our first multi-party election. So, because I was involved in all of this all throughout, right from '89 up to 2005-2006, I had been working very hard. I was only writing, but I worked hard to defend human rights and freedom of expression. And I was fortunate to win that election in 2008.
Q: But by 2012 you were forced to resign and then later you had to go into exile a lot of pro-democracy supporters felt abandoned, why did you have to leave?
A: I was arrested after the election. After the coup, we went into another election in 2013. That was rigged. They kept nullifying the election results and going for another round, for as many rounds till they won it. Then we decided to be a loyal opposition and remain one. But in 6-7 months, President Yameen decided to arrest me. And then as a former President, I was in prison for one year. But I was able to leave on medical grounds with help from the UK, the US, India and Sri Lanka. I came to England and sought refuge here. I will go back. I intend to go back to the Maldives, hopefully soon. Yes it’s sad I am not there. I miss the Maldives a lot. But unfortunately I have very little option.
Q: Now President Gayoom ruled the country for 30 years with an iron fist. He has been accused of being a despot and accused of torture but now you joining forces with him to try and oust the current president. Aren’t you going to lose a lot of support from your backers?
A: I think there is a far greater need to get democracy back on track than me being popular. The issue is that the country must get back on a more democratic track. For that, everyone must join hands and try to find common ground. I am very happy that we’ve managed to structure that coalition.
Q: Even though President Gayoom for many of your countrymen wouldn't represent democrarcy?
A: All of us, President Gayoom, myself, all other political leaders and the people of the Maldives, we’ve learned a lot over the last 15 years. We’ve experienced probably what other countries have gone through in 50 years. We went through the same in a period of 8-9 years. We’ve all learned a lot and we must see that country is back on a proper democratic course. To do that, we must bring everyone together and isolate the President. Again, I am happy to be able to do that.
Q: Now there are rumours that President Gayoom asked for 100 thousand dollars from you to show your honesty and integrity and commitment to this and you have paid half of that sum. what do you say to that?
A: Anyone who knows me would know that I wouldn’t have 50,000 dollars in my bank account. Right now, I have 6,000 pounds. And for me, 50,000 dollars is a lot of money. And I don’t think President Gayoom, or anyone in the Maldives actually, would believe that. These are rumours and we must understand that. There are no facts whatsoever to this rumour. It would be silly wouldn’t it? President Gayoom asking me for money! I don’t think that would every happen and no, it did not happen.
Q: So who is benefiting from spreading these rumours?
A: It is President Yameen who is benefitting from spreading these rumours.
Q: This is all coming from President Yameen?
A: He has a rumour-mongering mill that produces all these false allegations. Then he even brings them up in courts through trumped-up charges – kangaroo courts I would argue – and then sentences people with no facts on hand whatsoever. I am afraid that even today as we speak, one of the bigger businessmen in the Maldives has been charged for bribing MPs. When President Gayoom left the government, there were about 17 MPs who crossed sides. That’s all that happened. People who supported President Gayoom crossed over to the Opposition.
Q: You have previously said that the vice president is a victim rather than an accomplice to president Yameen. How so?
A: When I started getting to know former vice president Ahmed Adeeb, he was very young. He still is, about 32 I think. Then he came into politics, into a big job, and was given tasks by the President. You would know from the television documentary how President Yameen had tasked him to do all these things. I am not suggesting that he is innocent. But we must look into all the connections and the bigger picture of what was happening. So I think Adeeb was a victim.
Q: Well in the documentary there is certainly a lot of proof on his phone that he is connected.
A: Of course he is connected. I am not arguing that he isn’t. But we must go through a proper investigation, a proper trial to finally say that. What I am saying is that he came into this because of President Yameen. Yameen inducted him into these wrongdoings.
Q: So he is a victim of persuasion?
A: Yes, a victim of persuasion. Power is a rather odd thing. You can get all sorts of people to do anything. When you are the President. And I am telling you after having been one. And I am telling you that President Yameen is in the business of bringing in young people to task them with things that he wants done.
Q: So as a President do you think you have overstepped the mark with power then?
A: I would agree.
Q: How so?
A: After 30 years of single-party rule autocracy, it is possible to topple a dictator. But it is not so easy to uproot a dictatorship. We have never had multi-party governance or multi-party politics in the Maldives. We are still very feudal and therefore to move from feudalism to pluralism overnight is not possible. So there have been instances. I am sure if you go into my government and analyse it you would see instances of the President – me – doing doing or envisaging things that he shouldn’t have.
Q: Anything spring to mind?
A: One of the things was the schools and the health system. Especially the power houses. Our islands have local, small powerhouses. We have 196 islands and we wanted to, in our govt, consolidate all these powerhouses into a number of bigger companies. But these powerhouses were actually owned by islanders and we were too harsh in trying to get that back into a system. That was our intention. But what we actually did is to confiscate someone else’s property.
Q: It is very brave to admit your failings.
A: We have to move forward and learn from our mistakes. I worry about these things. I worry about how we governed and therefore I sit down and think and try to come out with it.
Q: Now you have been shuttling from Sri Lanka to London where you now live. has either of these countries provided you with any support for your cause?
A: England has given me safe refuge. I have not done anything wrong in Sri Lanka according to Lankan law. So Sri Lanka being a free country, I can always go there. I meet the President, PM – I’ve known them before they came to power and before I became President. I used to work in Sri Lanka as a journalist in the nineties. So I know the country and a number of people, their society. Sri Lankans are always helpful. I have always had the view that to stabilise the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka must play a more robust role. Sri Lanka has 20 million people, 500,000 soldiers and a booming economy – they are I think 3% of world trade. It’s a good country to take more control.
Q: Now you have received support from Western human rights groups and the celebrity lawyer, Amal Clooney. Now some in South Asia are weary of these groups believing they have a geo-political agenda. What do you say to those concerns?
A: Pain is not a geo-political agenda. Human rights is not. You feel pain, I feel pain. If you torture anyone, you will feel the pain. So I think it is very important we try to eradicate human rights abuses and see we get proper and correct governance. I don’t think or believe that South Asians would mistake me or our intentions. I have lived almost all my life in South Asia. I am a South Asian and I believe that South Asian people are aware of our predicament and what we are trying to do.
Q: Now the Maldives have always been a traditional but tolerant Islamic country but that seems to be changing. Do you believe that is the influence of Saudi Wahhabism?
A: The Saudis have propagated a very narrow version of Islam in the Maldives for the last 40 years. Therefore, a fair number of people of the Maldives have prescribed to that view of Islam. That has also created a breeding ground for more radical Islam – the ISIS and other jihadi groups. So I think yes that it is very unfortunate that this has happened and is going on. We must understand that any Islamic movement anywhere in the world is going to have an impact on the Maldives as well. But we must be mindful of what’s happening and we must protect, we must make sure we maintain our way of life. We were brought up as Muslims. We remain Muslims and we remain understanding Muslims not at odds with the rest of the world.
Q: The highest number of South Asian jihadist have come from the Maldives. Where is this radical Islam coming from?
A: From the propagation of this very narrow version of Islam by the Saudis for the last 40 years – they have their imams, they have their mosques, and they are now wanting to change the school curriculum. Apparently, train our judiciary. Apparently, train our military. Apparently, they also want to purchase an atoll. They of course do want to come to holiday and they are very welcome to do that. But all the other work they have done in the last so many years, we are just waking up to it.
Q: It could be philanthropic motives. They could just want to help the Maldives.
A: It could be but unfortunately the vested interest in it and the strategic agenda behind it, it is now becoming very obvious.
Q: Any you think that is radical Islam?
A: I think it is more than radical Islam. They know that the West is not going to continue buying their oil. And they know that their biggest market would lie in Asia, in China. But you cannot cross the Indian Ocean without crossing the Maldives. You can’t take your oil to China without crossing the Maldives. Therefore, the Maldives becomes strategically important. It is our strategic location that is our undoing and therefore they have strategic designs on the Maldives.
Q: Now China is making strides in the Indian Ocean, they have bought an atoll and that has New Delhi worried. What do you think the Chinese strategy is?
A: We have signed into the Chinese maritime silk route under President Yameen. Again, they want to safeguard and own shipping routes and trade routes. And again, our strategic location means that therefore they must have clout in the Maldives. They have, already, as you mentioned, bought a number of islands and are in the process of establishing strategic infrastructure on these islands. This is very, very unfortunate but it is happening at rapid speed and therefore we must be very, very mindful of what’s going on. If you do not have a stable Maldives, you will not have a stable Indian Ocean. Historically, this has always been true.
Q: Does China’s desire to dominate the Ocean worry you?
A: Yes, it does worry us tremendously. We have always been an independent country for the last 2,000-3,000 years and we have a language of our own, a written history that goes back 1,500 years and we like to have control over our affairs. We like to be asked.
Q: You think that China’s influence, buying the islands, means that China wants to control the Maldives?
A: It is difficult to see how the Chinese could do anything other than control the Maldives. Our biggest worry is human rights. And they are not concerned about democracy and governance. This is no reason not to like the Chinese – we do like the Chinese people, that’s not the issue here. The issue is that they have a single-party state and want to impress their ideas, their views, their ways on us and we don’t like that.
Q: Now many people will remember your high publicised underwater cabinet meeting on the ocean floor to highlight the rising sea levels. Was that a publicity stunt?
A: Our means are very modest we don’t have large funds for publicity. When we went to the 2009 Copenhagen summit, we were of the view that the international community must understand the gravity of the issue, especially about low-lying islands. We asked a publicity company but they quoted a huge figure which we couldn’t pay. So we thought let’s give it a shot ourselves. And came up with this idea. The objective was to impress upon the international community the gravity of the issue. And I hope that we achieved, and I believe we achieved, that objective.
Q: How serious is climate change for the Maldives? Is it the most pressing issue?
A: Climate change is the most pressing issue. We will not be there. Sea levels will rise. It’s a done deal now. So, we must go into more adaptation, we must find ways how we may be able to survive after climate change.
Q: There is no reversing?
A: There is no reversing this, with respect to the Maldives. The planet is going to get hotter by 2 degrees. Because we already have 400 parts per million of carbon in our atmosphere, the planet is heating. Our coral is bleaching, the seas are rising, the glaciers are melting – we can see all this already. It is very obvious. You can’t cut a deal with physics. You can’t negotiate with the laws of science and it is madness to think we could find other solutions. No, we can’t. Unfortunately, we are now faced with this predicament, this difficulty, and now the only option available to us would be heavy adaptation. And even in adaptation, the most important measures are democracy, governance and protection of human rights. Without that, you do the wrong things, build the wrong water breakers at the wrong places, you do everything wrong. So first is democracy and then, perhaps better adaptation methods. Again, I would seek more biological natural adaptation than concrete adaptation.
Q: Were you then dismayed when you heard the American President, Donald Trump, say that climate change isn’t happening?
A: The American people would understand and would know. I don’t think any politician can change these facts. We can say these things. There are people who still don’t believe that man landed on the moon. Even in the Maldives, I’ve met many such. But that doesn’t mean people didn’t go to the moon. Again, the science is sorted.
Q: But he is not any man. He is the President of the United States.Does that not worry you?
A: Well, we have to respect the decision of the people of the United States. They decided to elect a P:resident as they always do. And for all sorts of reasons we now have one whom some of the liberal left do not like. But we have seen so many Republican presidents. People had reservations about them but they came out looking like having done good work. I’ll point to President Reagan.
Q: So you have hope.
A: Because I am a centre-right politician!
Q: Have you met Prime Minister Modi?
A: I have met PM Modi before he became PM. But when the election happened, I was in jail so I didn’t have an opportunity to meet him as PM.
Q: What do you make of him as a leader?
A: I think he is an excellent leader. I quite like the way he is going about it. Indian development is so rapid and for the benefit of not only South Asia but the rest of the world as well.
Q: Now India has been providing financial aid to the Maldives - supporting a hospital and even the army - are you somewhat disappointed that democratic India is supporting the current government and not backing your cause?
A: No, I am not disappointed. I think India should always be engaged in the Maldives no matter who is in government. think it would be highly irresponsible if the Indian government did not do that.
WION's Amanda Clark spoke with the former President of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, in London. He talks about the influence Saudi Arabia has had on the Maldives, China's desire to dominate the Indian ocean, Indian PM Modi and more. (WION)