Mohamed Nasheed ‘Anni’ created history on 11 November, when he was sworn in to office as the first democratically elected president of the Maldives. He had just been swept into power in the country’s first-ever multiparty poll, ending the 30-year reign of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. Onetime journalist, human-rights activist turned politician, the 41-year-old former parliamentarian for Male is now keen to concentrate all of his energies on building the country’s economy and infrastructure, combating climate change and restoring – or building anew – his country’s democratic system.
Jailed and kept under house arrest at regular intervals for more than a decade, President Nasheed now offers the people what he calls an “extra serving of freedom and democracy” as the first steps to development. The “jackboots of yesteryear” had tried to break the resilience and will of the people, he has warned. Now, “they need to enjoy freedom to heal.” A founder member of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), President Nasheed says that the recent election was all about the peoples’ dignity and freedom. He also adds that he never aspired to the highest office in the islands. “I was thinking about how to become a free man, not president,” was his wry comment at a post-election interview. “Change came at a great cost … but the sense of relief we feel today cannot be measured or explained.”
Voted into power on promises of good governance, media freedom and economic growth, President Nasheed says the Maldives is a country in transition, and that there can be no development without a solid foundation of honest, forward-looking governance. “The people require sewerage, harbours, health and education,” he says. “But above all, they are looking for democracy, freedom and human rights.” Indeed, the new head of state and government faces a host of dramatic challenges. The Maldivian economy, once one of the most stable in Southasia, is today grappling with the impact of the global financial crisis, rising inflation and the growing disparity between the rich and poor. With education another top priority, President Nasheed says that he intends to transform the erstwhile Presidential Palace into the country’s first university.
Meanwhile, the challenge of rising oceans is also crying out for attention. Climate change, and the threat of complete submergence, stares each of the more than 300,000 citizens of the Maldives in the face. Such a massive issue inevitably requires unusual planning. President Nasheed says that his recent proposal to invest in real estate in India and Sri Lanka, and even Australia, where uninhabited land is in plenty, is about survival, not a matter of choice. “We love our country, but that does not mean we would want to risk our people,” he says. “We refuse to wait until our population ends up as ecological refugees.”
Even as he prioritises such an insurance policy from the ravages of climate change, President Nasheed is clear about the need to evolve a politics of consensus to deal with the challenges ahead. Quick to demonstrate that he is willing to carry along all shades of opinion, he claims that the MDP-led coalition is “big enough” to welcome public criticism. “Let them have their say in this government,” he adds. Pledging to put his country through a rigorous process of judicial reform, he promises “quick judicial evaluation and trial”. He continues, “Don’t forget, some of the inmates were fellow prisoners, and I know them well! There are some Sri Lankan and Indian fishermen, too. We will work with the respective countries, and, where necessary, shall use the presidential pardon to release them.”
Three decades of Gayoom’s autocratic rule drastically eroded the Maldives’ claims to democracy. The rampant abuse by security forces, limited media freedom, curtailment of civil rights, arbitrary and unlawful deprivation of life and liberty, enforced disappearances and torture – this is what the Maldives had to show the world. As he takes charge, President Nasheed feels that the country will soon be ready to take its place in the sun. Part of setting that new course includes not engaging in the kind of tactics favoured by the old regime – including against members of the old regime. “We have proven our resilience by ensuring a peaceful transition of power,” he says. “We have not gone on a witch hunt. We also know that, as a part of the global community, we will be watched for the treatment meted out to the former president. Islam teaches you that there is no future if we hate. The embittered and revengeful cannot become agents of change.”
Is his recent election a revolution? A revolutionary at heart, President Nasheed says that “the romantic notion of revolution is connected to change and evolution … When seeking that revolution, one must have the blessings of the people, as we did.” But the people’s blessings will now not be enough; the new president wants Maldivians to be comfortable in a real democracy, where their voice will be heard. “Today, the people have a government that they can condemn or criticise – a cardinal right of a citizen, long denied in the Maldives.” As one political commentator aptly described the change that is taking place in the Maldives, “Even the trees breathe freely now.”
~ Dilrukshi Handunnetti is investigations editor at The Sunday Leader in Colombo. She is a lawyer by training.