Trouble in Paradise
The deposed president of the Maldives on the coup that tossed him from power.
Even after its democratic revolution in 2008, few saw the Maldives as a political trend-setter. Yet, in retrospect, the ousting of a 30-year dictatorship in a Muslim country was a precursor to the Arab Spring revolts that swept across the Middle East two years later. As in Libya, Egypt, Syria, and Tunisia, the Maldivians who took to the streets, confronting the regime’s riot police, and demanding change in 2008 were youthful, full of aspirations for a better economic future, and tired of the iron-fisted autocratic rule of a dictator — Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. I was elected president in the first-ever multi-party polls in the Maldives’ 2,500-year history, on a ticket of civil liberties, freedom of the press, and democratic change.
Fast-forward to this month, when the forces of autocracy in the Maldives staged a sudden and brutal coup d’etat. Rogue elements in the police and military joined together to seize the main television station, ransack the offices of the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party, and force my own resignation with threats of bloodshed. In the days that followed I, and many of my fellow democrats, were beaten and imprisoned, and the young democracy we have worked so hard to nurture has been left in mortal danger.
If the Maldives was a precursor to the Arab Spring, let us hope that it is not now a foretaste of a new Arab Winter. There is still time for democracy to recover in my country, but only if the wider world insists that a forceful coup against an elected government cannot be allowed to stand.
My predecessor, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, ruled the Maldives with an iron fist for 30 years. During his long reign (at one point, he was the longest-ruling head of government in Asia), political parties were banned, freedom of expression was severely curtailed, and hundreds of Maldivians were tortured — some murdered — in his jails. Amnesty International frequently condemned Gayoom’s brutal rule and Reporters Without Borders labeled him a "predator of press freedom." Political prisoners were dealt with particularly harshly: I spent six years in jail, including 18 months in solitary confinement.
After the killing of a young boy, Evan Naseem, in police custody in 2003, Maldivians rose up against Gayoom and demanded change. My party, the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), was then established and we led a non-violent campaign of civil disobedience, calling for democracy. Facing growing domestic and international pressure, Gayoom was forced to release his grip, and allowed the constitution to be changed for and free and fair elections to be held in 2008, in which he was swept from office.
For the past three years, despite setbacks and sustained opposition from remnants of the old regime in the judiciary and parliament, things had been getting gradually better. My government inherited what the World Bank described as "the worst economic conditions of any country undergoing democratic reform since the 1950s," yet with the help of the International Monetary Fund we managed to slash the budget deficit from 22 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2009 to 9 percent last year.
Moreover, we were on track to deliver on nearly all of our election pledges: a public transport ferry system connecting all of our disparate islands was set up; a pension system for the elderly along with universal health insurance was put in place; the country’s first university was established; import duties on staple goods were removed; and drug addicts, of which the Maldives regrettably has many, were no longer treated as criminals but as victims in need of care and rehabilitation.
To help pay for the creation of a basic social safety net, a modern taxation system was also created. A "goods and services tax" was established, as was a corporation tax to provide a secure basis for government finances. And this year, we were planning to introduce a small income tax for the first time in the country’s history.
We also tried to reform the judiciary. Many judges remained under the effective control of the former regime and were blocking corruption and embezzlement cases involving members of Gayoom’s administration. This January, in a move that proved controversial, I ordered the military to arrest a notorious Criminal Court judge, who had quashed his own police arrest warrant, after he was found guilty of misconduct by the Judicial Services Commission — the body responsible for monitoring judges’ behavior.
The government requested the Commonwealth and the United Nations to intervene and help reform the judiciary root and branch. Following the arrest warrant, some of Gayoom’s supporters staged nightly protests calling for the judge’s release but the numbers protesting on the streets were small, just 200-400. Little did my government know the enormity of what they were plotting.
In the early hours of Feb. 7, all this positive work was brought to a sudden halt. A few hundred police officers, led by rogue officers of the Special Operations unit — once called "Star Force" and used by Gayoom to crush dissent — mutinied and staged a protest outside the Army headquarters in the center of Malé, the Maldivian capital, along with several hundred Gayoom supporters.
At 6:30 am, I went to Republic Square to plead with the mutinying officers to stand down. However, they were in no mood to listen to voices of compromise. The mutinying officers, some in full riot gear, clashed violently with military police protecting the Army headquarters.
The police mutineers were egged on by private television stations allied with the former president, which broadcast inflammatory messages encouraging the police and military to overthrow the government. Unbeknownst to me, my vice president, Waheed Hassan, an former senior U.N. official and Stanford University graduate, gave a TV interview pledging his support to the mutiny.
Later that morning, rogue police units stormed the state television and radio station, placed its staff under armed guard, and replaced its broadcasts with those of the private stations encouraging the uprising. Moments later, police ransacked the main conference hall of the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP).
As the morning went on, I remained at the Army headquarters, ordering the military, dressed in riot gear, to put down the insurrection. But some military crossed over to the protestors and, by 11 a.m., while I was still in the Army headquarters, some lower-ranking military men, having switched allegiances, presented me with an ultimatum: either resign within an hour, or face bloodshed that would include my own and that of my colleagues and supporters. I chose the first option; but said that I would only resign in the relative safety of the president’s office, a few hundred yards down the street.
At 12.45 p.m. at the president’s office, accompanied by three former military and police men loyal to former President Gayoom, who I believe helped orchestrate the coup, I wrote my resignation letter and announced my decision on television. I was then marched to the presidential residence and placed under military house arrest. Soon afterwards, Vice President Waheed — who I believe had prior knowledge of the coup — took the oath of office. State and private television — now almost exclusively under the control of Gayoom’s allies — reported the events as a constitutional handover of power.
The next day, with chaos on the streets, a couple of my aides managed to flee the country and alert the press about what had really transpired. No longer under house arrest, I was also able to give a series of interviews to alert the foreign media that I had been forced from office under duress. My party, the MDP, convened an emergency meeting, in which we unanimously voted not to cooperate with an illegitimate regime that had assumed power through the barrel of a gun. After the meeting, I led a large crowd of supporters, thousands strong, through the streets of Malé in a peaceful march for democracy.
It was not long before the new regime flexed its authoritarian muscle. Riot police baton-charged the crowd of unarmed demonstrators, beating and pepper-spraying anyone, including women and the elderly, participating in the rally. Shortly before the police crackdown, military commanders ordered my armed bodyguards to stand down, and so I sought refuge in a small shop, with MDP interim chairperson Moosa Manik and Mariya Didi, a fellow member of parliament. Riot police entered and dragged the three of us out onto the street. A policeman grabbed me in the groin and punched me in the face. Mariya was dragged along the street by her hair. Moosa was beaten unconscious by half a dozen policeman armed with batons, who said they would kill him. One policeman attempted to drive a metal pole through Moosa’s head but a brave soldier dived on top of him and took the blow on his behalf.
The Maldives exploded into uproar. The police — now discredited in the eyes of many Maldivians — were chased off some islands. On others, security forces managed to execute brutal pre-emptive crackdowns on MDP supporters, including many democratically elected local councillors. In the southern city of Addu, a populous bastion of MDP support, some local people torched police stations, court houses, and other symbols of the state. The following day, Feb. 9, riot police rounded up hundreds of MDP sympathizers in Addu, and — according to Al Jazeera reports — beat and tortured many of them.
For his part, Waheed continues to deny that a coup took place, has claimed he had no prior knowledge of the events of the Feb. 7, and has glossed over the ensuing police brutality as minor "excesses." With almost no political base of his own — Waheed’s party has barely 4,000 members (the MDP has over 45,000), no members of parliament, and no local government counsellors — the new self-proclaimed "president" has stacked his administration with the former autocrat’s loyalists. Gayoom’s daughter has been appointed junior foreign minister; his lawyer has been made attorney-general; his former spokesman has been appointed a cabinet minister; and the three former military and police men at the forefront of the coup have been made police chief, defence minister and deputy home minister respectively.
Betraying his liberal values (as a former U.N. career diplomat, my vice president had always been the most open minded member of the cabinet), Waheed has rushed to appease and inflame Islamic radicals. In a speech on Jan. 24, he credited his ascent to the presidency to "the will of Allah" and described his supporters as Maldivian "mujaheddin," encouraging them to "fight to the last drop of our blood" against "the enemies of this country." Needless to say, these are not the words of a democrat who is committed to the rule of law.
The Maldives — strategically located in the Indian Ocean, just off the south-western tip of India — is increasingly contested territory for the great regional powers, India and China. During my time in office, the MDP Government emphasized the special relationship between the Maldives and India, particularly with regard to our shared commitment to democracy.
Throughout the last few weeks, India has played a significant and increasingly helpful role in trying to defuse the crisis in the Maldives and ensure democracy prevails in its own backyard. Crucially, during a recent visit by Indian Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai, Waheed promised to hold early elections, well before the scheduled date in late 2013.
The European Union has gone further, declining to recognize the new regime. The Commonwealth of Nations, formerly known as the British Commonwealth, of which the Maldives is a member, demanded early elections this year and an independent, internationally supervised investigation into the events surrounding the transfer of power — a demand I fully support. My good friends — including Nobel Peace Prize winner President Jose Ramos Horta of Timor-Leste and Sir Richard Branson — have publicly stated what lesser men will only privately admit: that this was a deplorable police and military-backed coup.
For his part, Waheed seems unable to understand the demands of the people who have remained insistent on their desire for elections this year, despite the cloud of illegitimacy overshadowing his rule. The new president continues to prevaricate over whether early elections will actually be held.
The Maldives appears set for more turbulence in the days ahead. Tens of thousands of Maldivians are protesting in the streets every day, bravely defying police intimidation, and calling for early elections that will restore democratic rule. The international community now has a stark choice: apply meaningful pressure on Waheed to relent and call elections, or watch his regime become increasingly authoritarian and extremist.
My country’s democracy hangs in the balance, but the stakes may be even higher than the Maldives. The country that was a precursor to the Arab Spring, and that held so much hope that democracy and liberty could flourish alongside Islam, is in peril. The principle is clear: democratically elected governments can only be removed by the people who elected them, not by force of arms. The world has a duty not to sit passively by as the flame of democracy — for which Maldivians have fought so long — is snuffed out in our islands once again.