Nasheed: 'India Has the Imagination and Tools to Get its Way With the Maldives Government'

In an interview to The Wire, former president Mohamed Nasheed talks about the current crisis in Maldives, his request for military backing from India, and more.

Former president of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed. Credit: Reuters/Stefan Wermuth

Colombo: Former Maldivian president Mohamed Nasheed is a frequent visitor to Sri Lanka from his exiled home of London. But this is the first time a security detail has been given to him here – a result of death threats received over the past few days.

The 50-year-old opposition leader has been in the spotlight again since February 1, the day the a full bench of the Maldives Supreme Court issued a dramatic judgment ordering the release of nine political prisoners, including Nasheed, overturned a previous ruling that disqualified 12 members of parliament after defection and ruled that a judicial oversight body could not sanction members of the Supreme Court. This led to President Abdulla Yameen announcing a state of emergency on February 5 for the next 15 days. He arrested the chief justice, another judge and former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.

Nasheed has publicly asked India to send a special envoy with “military backing” to the Maldives. In an interview to The Wire, the former president said that his request is not for Indian soldiers to be sent marching into the Indian Ocean nation. “I am not asking necessarily for Indian troops or Indian boots on Male,” he said, adding that New Delhi has the imagination and the tools to get its way. “…We don’t think that simply asking him (President Yameen) would do the trick.”

Nasheed will be visiting India towards the end of next week to take part in a literature festival by The Hindu in Bengaluru on February 17-18.

During this crisis, India has been unusually strident in its public statements – asking the government to implement the Supreme Court order and describing itself  as “disturbed” by the emergency imposed by the Maldivian president. However, India has yet to announce any incremental steps to put pressure on the government. there

The statement by the Indian foreign office spokesperson on Friday night is being construed by the Maldivian opposition as a sign of New Delhi’s pro-active hawkish stance. “We note that China has said that the Maldives government has the ability to protect the security of Chinese personnel and institutions in Maldives. We hope that all countries can play a constructive role in Maldives, instead of doing the opposite,” said the MEA spokesperson Raveesh Kumar. The ministry said that the spokesperson’s statement was a response to certain media articles that reported that Maldives has sought support from China to maintain security for Chinese investments.

This is being interpreted as India putting a ‘keep-out’ sign to Beijing.

Phrases in the Indian statement were also an echo of the Chinese foreign minister’s remarks to the special envoy from Maldives president. Wang Yi told the visiting Maldivian minister that the international community should play “a constructive role” on the “basis of respecting the Maldives’ wishes”. Wang also stated that China does not interfere in Maldives’ internal affair, citing the precepts of the United Nations Charter.

However, India has yet to publicly announce any concrete steps to put pressure on the Maldives government.

Nasheed wasn’t too enthusiastic about the idea of blanket sanctions against Maldives either, which he felt would “drag” the current crisis. If at all, he urged targeted sanctions including the blocking of the bank accounts of Maldivian government leaders.

Though ranged against Yameen today, New Delhi has remained a bit wary of Nasheed mainly, due to two issues – the opening of a Chinese embassy in Male in 2011, and his position at the 2010 Copenhagen climate change summit.

MDP sources have pointed out that Maldives had already opened an embassy in Beijing in 2006 and it was difficult to keep at bay the Chinese request due to the diplomatic protocol of reciprocity. The former Maldivian president had also indicated that New Delhi had not been very clear about its opposition to China in those years. “The clarity with which India has stood against China is very recent. At least for us,” he said candidly during a meeting in Colombo.

However, Nasheed believes that inspite of Chinese warnings that the current crisis is an ‘internal’ matter,a face-off between Beijing and New Delhi the over Maldives was unlikely. “I don’t see them having a confrontation at all”.

The MDP leader has been rather worried about the extent of Beijing’s presence in the Maldives and has been publicly speaking out about the “land grab” of 17 islands by China. If he does return to power in Maldives, he  will spearhead plans to implement an international convention to prevent “land grab” by foreign countries under the garb of investment, said Nasheed.

On differences with India over climate change, Nasheed argued that his stance that countries had to set a target to limit the increase in global temperature to below 2 degrees Celsius was a matter of survival. “I couldn’t sign my country’s death warrant,” he asserted.

There is, of course, another reason that Indian bureaucrats remain a bit circumspect of former journalist-turned-democracy activist. “I am not your usual head of state,” he admits.

The former president noted that despite the widespread sense of surprise over the February 1 order, there had been prior signs that the Maldives Supreme Court was having serious disputes with the Maldives government.

The main pressure point was that the Maldives government wanted the Supreme Court to give a clarifying judgment on the status of the 12 disqualified members of parliament. These lawmakers had defected from the ruling party and joined the opposition, giving the latter a majority in parliament. “President Yameen, I think, started pressing the Supreme Court to get a clear judgment before the parliament opened,” he told The Wire.

He pointed out that the two senior judges – Chief Justice Abdullah Saeed and Justice Ali Hameed – had been doing a “fair amount of travelling” recently, which may have led to their forthright judgment. However, he also asserted that the Maldives needs to complete the process of judicial reforms so that the judiciary is in line with the 2008 constitution.

In August last year, he told The Wire that the era of streets protests were over. But with daily arrests going on and suspension of fundamental rights due to the emergency, Nasheed has changed his strategy of resistance to the Maldives government. He said that the opposition will be trying to assert its strength, with a large demonstration being planned for February 16.

Here are edited excerpts from the interview:

We are meeting when there is a state of emergency in the Maldives. Emergencies have been declared there before. Why is the situation so dire right now?

During this Emergency, the president has stormed the Supreme Court building, arrested two Supreme Court judges and the judicial administrator. And the president has gone on to overrun the state in every single angle, every single way that he can possibly do it.

We also think that we are moving towards elections in August this year and if we are unable to have a free and fair election – we are afraid that this will lead to a very long period of autocracy and dictatorship. This, we think, will not be in the interest of the Maldives or anyone in the Indian ocean. This I think is very serious now. This is far more serious than what it was before – more specifically and seriously because we are moving towards an election.

Abdulla Yameen takes his oath as the President of Maldives during a swearing-in ceremony at the parliament in Male November 17, 2013. Credit: Reuters/Waheed Mohamed/File Photo

The Maldives Supreme Court’s February 1 ruling had been largely welcomed and noted by most countries including India. China had been an exception. Are you satisfied by the response from the international community?

We had been wanting more robust action and we want things to be sorted – and quickly sorted. I think if we drag the situation that there is likelihood… President Yameen has friends and there is a likelihood that they will consolidate and assist President Yameen and he can again consolidate himself and go on to rig the election. We have asked the international community to act more robustly and go beyond statements.

So far, there has been nothing beyond statements. Are you disappointed?

I think people are failing to understand the gravity of the issue. We are not just talking about democracy in the Maldives. We are talking about regional stability. Maldives is in a geo-political enclave and we all must understand what that means. We think that the international community must get a better grip on the situation and must robustly solve it.

You had specifically asked for India to send a special envoy with military backing. That India needs to make a “physical presence”. Why do you require a military presence from India at this time?

Well, you know, just an envoy coming to Maldives – given what President Yameen has done in the past – and how he has treated or behaved towards India. We don’t believe that a routine, normal visit is going to make President Yameen listen. I think it has to be backed by force. I am not asking necessarily for Indian troops or Indian boots on Male. But, we don’t think that simply asking him (President Yameen) would do the trick.

If you are not talking about Indian boots in Male – then what are you asking for? Are you perhaps talking of visits by Indian warships to make a show of strength?

How exactly this is configured or designed, I think experts would know. I couldn’t tell you on exactly how this would roll out. Basically, what we want is to see that things are fixed.

On Twitter, you had brought up Operation Cactus and how India had sent troops. But at that time, it was at the invitation of the president of the country. Won’t it be a violation of international law if India sent a military presence without invitation from the government?

In 1988, President Gayoom was unavailable for a very long period of time. Yes, of course, that was different. But that was in 1988. This is 2018. Many, many years have passed on and the world has moved on. How you assist your neighbour in the 21st century in my view would be rather different on how it was done in the 20th or 19th century. I am sure we can use our imagination and I am sure that people in Delhi would have a variety of tools to be able to use in achieving a given objective.

Opposition supporters protest against the government’s delay in releasing their jailed leaders, including former president Mohamed Nasheed, despite a Supreme Court order, in Male, Maldives, February 4, 2018. Credit: Reuters/Stringer

Would sanctions be a way to put pressure on the Maldives government?

Sanctions would drag it and I don’t think that’s a very intelligent thing to do. Whatever you have to do, (do it) surgically… To target sanctions would be good. To lock the bank account of regime leaders. I think that it is very important to target sanctions. But if you go into blanket sanction, that’s going to drag the situation and we do not necessarily know where it can lead to.

If I may go back to the February 1 judgment – were you surprised by the extent of the ruling that was given by the full bench of the Supreme court?

Well, not really. Because if you look into it, the international community every single government, every single NGO, people in the legal fraternity, the UN working group on arbitrary detention and other UN agencies – they have all said that the charge was politically motivated, the trial was wrong, the sentence was wrong and that it should all be over-turned. Everyone has been saying that.

…the people are baffled on why the supreme court did this. But, if you read into what the Supreme Court has done in the last three-four-five months, you will see that when the government removed the MPs, the Supreme court judgment wasn’t very clear if itt was acting legally or not. So, they have remained quiet.

President Yameen, I think, started pressing the Supreme Court to get a clear judgment before the parliament opened. President Yameen had wanted a judgment that clearly said that the MPs have lost their seats. But, the Supreme Court didn’t have that view.

They (had) brought two judgments on the seats issue. In the first judgment it was very clear that they didn’t have the view that the MPs have lost the seats. After government intimidation, they again came up with a ruling that was again vague. And President Yameen started intimidating the judges and the judges started feeling uneasy about it. I think they started reaching out to like-minded institutions and started getting their advices and started a discussion with them.

One of the things that I noticed was that justice Ali Hameed and Chief Justice Abdullah Saeed had recently gone to Netherlands. And they had also visited England… And Chief Justice has family in India. So, he is also very often in India. He was also recently in Colombo. So, he has done a fair amount of travelling. I believe that he would have had discussions with counterparts throughout these countries.

I think they wanted to refuse to make it clear to President Yameen that these 12 MPs have lost these seats. So, President Yameen wanted to get them to come out with the clear verdict. They finally knew that if they didn’t turn out the whole thing – President Yameen would get at them.

An aerial view of Maldives capital Male December 9, 2009. Credit: Reuters/Reinhard Krause/File photo

When you say that the judges have been doing a fair amount of travelling, what are you trying to say? Won’t that be used by the Maldives government to say that they have been influenced by foreign countries?

Again, my view of the 21st century intervention, sovereignty…these concepts are very different from what it is in the 18th-19th or even the 20th century. In our constitution, it doesn’t forbid a foreign judge sitting on the bench. It makes room for that. In fact, when we were drafting the constitution, we had deliberated on that. We had many discussions on that.

So, we do not have this kind of view about sovereignty. Also, the Maldives is a very small country and it cannot be so guarded and secluded. So, I think what would be best for the people of Maldives would be to get connected to this developing interrelated inter-connected world.

But then, doesn’t it mean that what the government’s allegation said that the judiciary was ‘influenced’, perhaps there is a kernel of truth in that?

Judiciary is being ‘influenced’ when it didn’t go to his liking. In any legal case, there is winner and losers. And losers sometimes become very bad losers. We have lost many times, but we haven’t attacked the Supreme Court. We didn’t storm the Supreme Court. We didn’t arrest judges and we didn’t threaten the judges.

But you had arrested one judge during your term as president.

That was wrong.

You have said that before, that you do regret that arrest.

Well. I hadn’t arrested the judge. It was done during my administration and I do think that it was wrong.

Still, you have had a fraught history with the Maldivian judiciary. The judiciary hasn’t had a very savoury reputation, as such.

There are two issues in that. One is that the Supreme Court is from the new constitution. Our issues were that the rest of the judiciary other than the Supreme Court and high court – criminal court and so on – they remained as they were before the constitution. So, in fact, the judge of the criminal court being removed is very different from the Supreme Court judges being arrested. That was a judiciary, rather a section of the judiciary, that had not been formed as per the 2008 constitution.

When I had last spoken to you (in August 2017), you had said that the time for street protests are over and that the opposition’s strategy was to use legal institutions. Do you feel the same way now?

No, I don’t feel the same way now. We are at a loss now. We brought in cases to the court. We wanted to have the parliament working and we wanted to start preparing for the coming elections. And we wanted to bring out a single opposition from the joint opposition. And we were deliberating on how to have a power sharing agreement where we can work together. But unfortunately, so much has happened in the last week, it is not now possible to sit down and do anything.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, right, shakes hands with Maldives’ President Yameen Abdul Gayoom before a delegation level meeting in New Delhi, India, Monday, April 11, 2016. Yameen Abdul Gayoom is on a two-day visit to India. Credit: File photo

Will you be starting protest rallies soon? We haven’t yet seen that many MDP supporters coming out on the streets.

Well, you know. It is very, very difficult to people to come out on the streets, when such excessive force is used. Not only excessive force, but also, all sorts of other in a sense surgical suppression, where you seek out families, where you seek out people where they are working, what jobs they have, schools they go to and then target people, target families – and President Yameen has been doing that. Therefore, it becomes not that easy to mobilise huge numbers instantly. But, we are certainly again working on a bigger demonstration…

We are hopeful that soon, people from other islands, would also come to Male. they are organising themselves and we think that there will be big protests on the streets soon.

Will you be announcing a schedule of protests soon?

We have. We want to see if we can have a bigger protest on February 16.

Mohamed Nasheed at work in Colombo. Credit: Special Arrangement

The government had said they want to reconvene the all-party talks. What’s your response to that?

What is there to talk about? I think President Yameen has to go. He has to step down. We have to bring in an interim arrangement and a unity government that leads us to 2018 elections… Have free and fair inclusive elections and stabilise the country.

You had led the democracy movement against President Gayoom. He is now your political ally. What are your reflections on this turn of events which has led President Gayoom to being in jail?

President Gayoom is a very senior statesman and he is a man of principles and he refused to let go of it. I admire his courage, his grace. I have always actually admired him. And I think he is doing a very good job to the people of the Maldives and I would be thankful for him.

But he was also one of the key persons who helped President Yameen win the elections.

Many of the coalition partners of President Yameen regret that now. And they are very publicly saying that now. President Yameen very ruthlessly wanted to consolidate power for himself. And he set about it and very rapidly achieved it. So, in a sense, both President Gayoom and honourable Gasim Ibrahim (Jumhooree party leader) were marginalised from the government.

China has said that developments in Maldives are its internal affair and have to be resolved with dialogue between the various parties. Isn’t there a danger that if India does intervene, it could risk escalating India-China rivalry in the Indian ocean?

China and India, their foreign relations and how they go about it….. we are all observers and I can’t see them having a confrontation. I don’t see them having a confrontation at all. My view that India should be more engaged. It is India’s neighbourhood. India is our first call. and India should be more engaged.

But after recent statements by China and then India, why would you say that a confrontation is not expected?

By confrontation, I mean that there is no fighting, no clashing at the trenches. There may be a diplomatic stand-off. It is better that everything is sorted out, once and for all, in this region.