Defending democracy from exile

Rita Payne reports on a recent SOAS event at which the Maldives’ deposed and exiled president spoke of how peaceful resistance defeated despotism

If Mohamed Nasheed, former president of the Maldives, was a cat he would have used up his nine lives by now. His campaign of non-violent civil disobedience against the island nation’s longstanding authoritarian regime led to periods of arrest, imprisonment, torture and exile.

Speaking at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, Nasheed said he had almost lost count of the number of times he has been in prison, though he thought it was about 14.

‘Much of my life seems to have been a revolving door between political office, jail, exile in the UK and return,’ he recalled. ‘We exposed abuses at home and got accountants to uncover Yameen’s abuses and corruption.’

In January, President YameenGayoom’s troops stormed the Supreme Court and abducted the Chief Justice, dragging him along the floor by his tie. Street gangs were unleashed on opposition activists and supporters. These excesses led the opposition to unite behind Nasheed, leader of the Maldivian Democratic Party. As a result, inthe September 23 election, Yameen, who had thought he would have an easy win, lost by a landslide.

Nasheed’scurrent spell of exile has come to an end with this unexpected defeat of Gayoom’s government, which had dissolved parliament and the Supreme Court using military force, and imprisoned all political opposition leaders. So he is free once again to return home and play a role in the new government.

This is a familiar pattern for Nasheed. He became the first democratically elected president of the Maldives in 2008 after a long struggle against the authoritarian rule of Maumoon Gayoom, half-brother of Yameen. As Nasheed and his supporters describe it, this budding of democracy was quashed in 2012 by a coup d’état involving anti-democratic elements, loyal to the previous dictatorship, within the military and police. Nasheed was subsequently sentenced to a 13-year prison sentence, which was denounced around the world as a transparent manoeuvre to prevent him from challenging the Beijing-backed regime of Yameen Gayoom in upcoming polls.

Living in exile between Colombo, Sri Lanka and London, Nasheed led opposition efforts that included building a multi-party coalition, coordinating nationwide grassroots activism, global media engagement and international diplomatic measures such as the development of EU and US Magnitsky sanctions reports. He recalls that in the 30 years Gayoom was in power there was no hope of building up an opposition party in the Maldives. Every attempt invariably led to jail and torture. The only way he was able to build an opposition campaign was by slipping out of the country and marshalling support from abroad.

As the opposition gained momentum, the Gayoom regime was forced to introduce multi-party democracy and in 2008 Nasheed was able to return home and take his place as the country’s first democratically elected president.

It is characteristic of the tangled nature of politics in the Maldives that Nasheed has now joined forces with his former oppressor, Maumoon Gayoom, who was imprisoned by his half-brother Yameen. Not easy to follow if you are not familiar with the country.

Having spent so much of his life in exile, Nasheed has learned that in a country like the Maldives you can bring about change with peaceful activity from abroad. ‘If you put us in prison you just give us more time to think.’While it is often said that Asians prioritise a strong leader, this is not the case in the Maldives, he argued, or even a country like Malaysia. Everyone wants a roof, shelter, education for their children, food and democratic rights. ‘Don’t take your democracy for granted,’ he urged,‘and help us to bring about change at home.’

The Maldives’ budding of democracy was quashed in 2012 by a coup d’état

Nasheed is often asked what it is like to live in exile. ‘You yearn for your home and are reminded about it all the time,’ he said. ‘For me home is always in you and you carry it around.’ He thanked the UK for its support but said the sun was shining in his country again and it was time for him to return.

Given the history of the Maldives, he acknowledged that nothing could be taken for granted; there are challenges and threats ahead. The new government’s domestic policy priorities would be judicial reform and environmental protection, while foreign policy would be shaped by the Maldives’ national interest and the country will strive to balance links with China and India. Referring to concerns that China’s intention was to use the Maldives as a base in the Indian Ocean, Nasheed commented that this was a wider problem, not just restricted to the Maldives.

There have been ongoing anxieties about radical Islam gaining a foothold in the Maldives under the Yameen government. Some 200 fighters travelled from the Maldives to fight in Syria, which led to fears that religious extremists will tighten their grip when these fighters return. Nasheed gave assurances that the new president did not plan to allow the spread of radical Islam in the country.

He also made encouraging statements about removing restrictions on human rights, freedom of speech and other repressive measures introduced by the Yameen government, and said the Maldives would like to rejoin the Commonwealth. Although he had been disappointed in the past by what he saw as the organisation’s lack of support when he was forced to step down in 2012, he expressed hope that this time it will implement its commitments.

Having been democratically elected as president, deposed and exiled, then returned as president, Nasheedsees himself as living proof that it is possible to keep the spirit of democracy alive from exile. He sees the Maldives as a case study of the challenges in surmounting the old guard residing within young democracies, and maintaining national sovereignty amid the escalating geopolitical competition in the Indian Ocean region. Hopefully, when Nasheed returns this time, he will be there to stay.

Rita Payne is President Emeritus of the Commonwealth Journalists Association, and former Asia Editor, BBC World News (TV)

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