New Delhi: Mohamed Nasheed, the Maldives’ first democratically elected president, is in India after three years and he believes that the timing of his invitation for a seminar sponsored by the Indian foreign ministry is a signal of New Delhi’s dissatisfaction towards the current regime in Malé.
Despite once being a frequent visitor to Delhi, Nasheed was last in the Indian capital in 2014 on a low-key private trip. A few months after his return home, he was arrested and convicted for 13 years in March 2015 on terrorism charges for ordering the arrest of a judge during his presidency. He was permitted to leave the Maldives for medical treatment in January 2016. Five months later, he was granted political refugee status by the United Kingdom.
His first visit to India since his self-exile is courtesy an invitation to participate in a seminar on South-South cooperation by the Research and Information System for Developing Countries (RIS), an autonomous think-tank of the Ministry of External Affairs. The invitation arrived just as the Maldives government, under President Abdulla Yameen, is besieged in the parliament by the opposition, which is trying to bring a no-confidence vote against Yameen’s key supporter, speaker Abdulla Maseeh Mohamed.
The opposition has been trying to force the vote in parliament, after being buoyed by defections from the ruling alliance. However, the vote has still not taken place, with the government postponing dates, litigating the validity of the defections of ruling parliamentarians in the Supreme Court and bringing in the military.
Nasheed, who had used massive street protests to force Maldivian dictator Abdulla Gayoom out of power, believes that may not be right strategy against Yameen. Rather than relying on demonstrations, Nasheed now wants to use the parliament and court the judiciary in a campaign to democratically prove that Yameen’s future is unviable in the Maldives. This “new direction,” he noted, was a result of his alliance with Gayoom – an unlikely partnership forged after the latter fell out with his half-brother, the president.
Nasheed indicated that the opposition may not prosecute Yameen if he left on his own. The Maldivian president has to “read” the disinterest of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) “in running towards the past” and find a “safe haven” outside, said Nasheed.
In South Block, there has been a rising sense of frustration that Yameen has not been able to reconcile with the opposition to ensure that key state institutions remain functional. The Maldives remains the only state in South Asia to have not been visited by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi since he took office in May 2014.
In his first interview on reaching India on Thursday (April 24), Nasheed spoke to The Wire about India’s quiet signals to the Maldives, why he doesn’t want to push Yameen out “forcefully” and the “new direction” of the opposition campaign.
Why did it take for you so long to return to India?
As you know, soon after I was allowed to go on medical leave – which was through a lot of assistance by the Indian government – I have primarily been in England and occasionally have come to Sri Lanka. So this is the first opportunity I got from the invitation of RIS. So, as soon as I got the invitation, I am here.
Did you try to come to India earlier? There was previously a delegation from the Maldives United Opposition, which was here last year.
No I had not. I was planning to come when I was invited to come.
So what is your agenda here? Will you be meeting Indian government officials?
The workshop and the seminar is sponsored and conducted by the government (of India). The foreign secretary is chairing a number of events. A number of government officials are included in these events. So I would come across them during my meetings and during the deliberations of the two days ahead of us.
Are you saying that the government of India is giving a sign to the government of the Maldives by inviting you?
I couldn’t tell you what the government of India is doing. I am very pleased that I am invited. I am very happy to be here. I hope to be some contribution to the workshop.
There is a lot of turmoil in the Maldives while you are here in India. The parliament speaker is conducting proceedings behind a ring of military guard. One of your alliance partner Gasim Ibrahim collapsed in court today (April 24).
What is happening in the Maldives is very worrying and I believe that it must be an issue of concern for all neighbours – India and Sri Lanka as well. As you are aware that after a number of (ruling) MPs crossed over to the opposition, the government has locked the normal process of parliament and they have removed a number of MPs from the parliament. These MPs have gone to the Supreme Court. Because the majority of the judges are also of the view that the government is wrong, the government is again obstructing the Supreme Court from their deliberations as well. So, on the one hand, the government has lost the confidence of the parliament, then it has also lost the confidence of the Supreme Court.
Today, they wanted to arrest and sentence Gasim, one of the very strong opposition leaders. Gasim is in his late 60s. He has a heart condition and he has to be very careful of his health. He collapsed during the deliberations in the court. Now I am told that the judges have held Gasim’s lawyers in the court and they may try to come out with a judgement with just the lawyer there. But this is highly irregular in criminal cases for the defendants not to be there. It is against our constitution and it is against all normal international practices. So it is very unfortunate that as we speak, that the lawyers are being held.
[At a closed hearing at midnight, Gasim was sentenced in absentia for 38 months]
Are you surprised any more with the extent that the government has gone to thwart the opposition by manipulating and change rules and regulations arbitrarily?
Well, the government keeps on changing regulations and rules. But we brought in the new constitution in 2008 with a lot of expectations of the people. The process of coming into the constitution was very long and very hard. Since we got the new constitution, we have tried to adhere to that constitution and what it prescribes.
Yameen has been trying to reverse the country back to when we didn’t have the rights and we didn’t have the constitution. So yes, it is worrying that Yameen is acting in a manner that is completely against the new constitution.
I also feel that it is going to be impossible for any government, for any ruler to go on like this. Yameen may be able to make little moves, here and there, now. But at the end of the day, when you lose the confidence of the parliament, and when you lose the confidence of the judges, it is very difficult to maintain the government.
The Maldives United Opposition agreement has a provision that calls for the immediate removal of the president through “all legal and lawful mechanisms”. If the government is able to manipulate the rules so easily, how can you hope to achieve you aim?
Because we think it is not in anyone’s interest to have coup after a coup and go on with these irregular changes of government. We feel that in the long term, it is not going to benefit the people of the Maldives to push the president (out) forcefully. Even though we can get the people out on the streets, we can ask for the assistance of security services, so on, we feel that it would not be in the best interests of the people of Maldives to push him out unlawfully. We agree that the president has done everything illegal. He has broken almost every single rule in the rulebook. But, we still feel that, even though it is difficult, we must stick to the rule of law. And we must follow democratic procedures in bringing the government accountable to the people.
When you say that you can get people on the street, are you claiming that the majority of the Maldivian people are with you?
Recently, we had our local council elections. We won a landslide victory. Also, every time we ask the people to come out on the street, they come out in very big numbers. It is possible to get the people out on the streets, but we don’t think that will be in the best interest of the people to change the government forcefully on the streets.
Were you surprised that you won the local council elections?
Yes, that is true. There has been so much irregularity and so much tampering with the process. They delayed the voting three times, and counting too. But finally, the odds were so much against the government, the government had to announce our victory. Yes, it was a pleasant surprise.
What was the reason that you won those elections? Do you see it as a vote against the government or for the MDP?
As soon as Yameen came, electricity prices have doubled. Food prices have increased. They have neglected a number of services that we started for the people, especially, the health insurance policies, the connectivity programs, the transport program. School education levels were coming down, school results are down. Fish prices have come down.
On top of that, Yameen had arrested every single opposition leader and they have intimidated the public to the hilt. They had 16 unaccounted murders. All combined together, it doesn’t give much confidence to the people to back the president. Suppression, intimidation, bribery doesn’t win you elections. Proper implementation of a good manifesto and being with the people, talking with the people, wins you hearts and minds. Yameen fails to visit the people. He has not visited the islands since he got elected. Therefore, all in all, he lost it. I don’t think, we don’t think, he can win it back again.
What is your main strategy now? Are your focusing on the parliament so that you have a successful passage of the impeachment vote?
We want to get the impeachment now that we are sure we have the numbers, not just the simple majority, that is required, for the speaker. But if we were to remove the president through an impeachment process, we would require two-thirds. And from yesterday’s numbers (April 23) that the government got – 28 [votes for approving the ambassador to Sri Lanka] – it is very obvious that we have two-thirds.
At the same time, we want to also get the judiciary to function better. We want to trust the judges. We want to make room for their deliberations and for them to come out with judgements. But it is now looking that Yameen is also interfering with the judgements with the Supreme Court, and that the Supreme Court is unable to come out with any judgement.
The judges have come out with in the past with a lot of judgements which were not acceptable to the vast majority of the people. That is true. But, we are new in implementing this constitution. We are new to separation of powers. We are new to an independent judiciary. I don’t now feel that removing judges or changing the personalities will necessarily reform or improve the system. we must keep on plying the system, keep it in operation, as much as we can. I feel that once they are given a free hand and if you don’t interfere with their judgements, they will come out with reasonable judgements.
It almost sounds like now that you regret removing the chief judge of the criminal court, when you were president?
It wasn’t the best of thing to do… I think we could have handled it in a far better way than what was done then. Again, I didn’t remove the judge. But, yes, as the commander-in-chief and the president at that time, of course, I couldn’t… that was not the best way forward at that time…even though the judicial services commission had asked the judge to leave, and the judge didn’t. The military felt that when the judicial services commission has passed their judgment – and this commission is constitutionally supposed to regulate the judges and when they did that – the judge didn’t adhere to that. So that’s where it went on…Yet, in answer to your question, I agree that that wasn’t the best thing to do.
Your party, the MDP, has been highly critical about the judiciary. When did you change your mind that the judiciary has to be an ally in restoring democracy?
Not just me, not just the MDP, we have gone through experiences that in other countries would have taken 50 years in very short period of time. In last 10-15 years, we have all learned a lot. The judiciary has learned, the MDP has learned, and I am sure President Gayoom and Gasim have learned a lot.
And, I think, it won’t be the way forward to take on these institutions, but instead try and see how we may be able to change these institutions from within. Taking on these institutions from outside would probably not work, in fact, backfired on us before, it is time that we used those lessons.
Is this change in strategy due to your alliance with Gayoom? It is said that he had a lot of influence and support among the judiciary and security forces.
Well, Gayoom’s own son is in jail. He is being illegal detained for the last 38 days. I don’t want to see anyone behind the bars in violation of the law and constitution. If Gayoom had that kind of clout within the judiciary, as we thought, or rather an overwhelming clout within the judiciary, I don’t think that these things would actually go on. Yes, Gayoom would be listened by a number of institutions, he is respected by the institutions. And, therefore, when we are in alliance with them, whatever experience that he can impart on us, we must agree to it or learn from it.
In one sense, an alliance with Gayoom is giving us a new direction on how we may be able to proceed and bring the country to a more democratic track. So, that new direction would be different from our previous strategies.
Can you expand a bit on what is this new direction?
In the past, we had always relied on direct action. We have always very much relied on demonstrations, so on. But in recent times, we very heavily relied upon in trying to use the institutions through legal means…not to force the institutions in any manner, but to impress upon these institutions, the gravity of issues.
The chief justice will now understand that the country is really pulling apart. The parliament is stuck. The Supreme Court is not functioning. So, the main two powers of the state, other than the executive, is now not functioning and that’s certainly not in the interest of anyone. Certainly not in the interest of people of the Maldives nor in the interest of the stability of the Indian ocean.
I think in the new strategies that we are taking on board – because of the experience that we have had – in the last 10-15 years, and also because of our new alliance partners, they are different from what we have done before.
Did you underestimate the staying power of Yameen? At several times, we heard that Maldives president’s days are numbered, either because his ‘muscle power’ or ‘money supply’ has been restricted. But he is still here.
Yameen is very weak. We can, if need be, force a change of government. But, I don’t think that’s what we want to do right now. It is unfortunate and sad that all these people are suffering. Innocent people are in jail, but we must have a thicker skin and see that the institutions work.
Why would Yameen step down peacefully? What does he gain by taking such a step?
He won’t step down peacefully. But once he has no room to manoeuvre – the (2018 presidential) elections are around the corner – he will realise that he doesn’t have much of a chance during those elections. It is not even clear that he will even seek those elections. Actually, it is also not clear that he will have those elections. So these are two extremes.
He might not have those elections. His deputies have been talking about not having those elections. But that would lead us to a very dangerous situation. But even in that instance, how we want to challenge Yameen would not be in the same fashion as we challenged Gayoom.
We can’t be predictable… We are speaking to the security forces, and police and military. A number of generals, a number of colonels, number of military officers are with us. It is getting more and more difficult for them to obey these unlawful orders and they understand that. So there will soon come a time when Yameen will not have the muscle.
Are you making him an offer, to make it easier for him to decide to stand aside?
Should we give an exit strategy for Yameen? I am sure, you know, that we have always been looking at the future, not at the past. That is one thing about the MDP. We have always looked at the future, and never ran at the past. I think Yameen must read into that. He must leave quickly. He must find a safe haven for himself. But it is not looking like the Maldives will be welcoming for Yameen.
India hardly ever makes any public statements on developments on the Maldives. Do you think that it has been an active player recently?
You have been observing your government for the last 70 years. You could have observed about India that they don’t react. They scale up things gradually. All through India’s foreign policy, since independence and Nehru, India has never reacted to things.
But sometimes, when you have asked India to respond, it has not done so.
We don’t ask India to react.
For example, on the first day of the scheduled impeachment vote for the speaker, you did ask the international community and India to observe to what is happening on the floor of parliament. India did not issue any public statements, unlike others.
One of the reaction was to invite your think-tanks to invite me to come here and have this conversation.
So your visit now is very much a signal?
It must be. There is no other you could read it. You have to be blind not to be able to read [the signal]. I would be meeting [here] the officials and lot of Indian friends that I have. And this is the kind of reaction that mature democracies would have on the situation.
Isn’t it true that, at this time, the Yameen government is not really listening to the international community, including India?
Yameen has a very short-sighted view on international relations. From what we hear from his close associations and what he is doing, he has a view, that closer he is to one or two countries – China and Saudi Arabia – it could give him stability and safety. But, I can’t see that. Especially, it would be very naive to think that India can be sidelined in the Indian Ocean.
You are privy to all what is happening behind the scenes. Is New Delhi interested in what is happening in the Maldives?
The fact that I am out of prison, the fact that I am here, you must be able to read (into it). It doesn’t take much to read.. I believe that India has a steady hand and it would move events. They are very careful, thoughtful, philosophical in their foreign policy, unlike many, many other countries who brag and shout about it.
I am a huge fan of India. Even if you look at other difficulties it faces, like in Bhutan, it does not react. Jerky reactions in international relations does not take you to safer places.
Has the opposition ever reach out to China and Saudi Arabia?
Have they reached out to you?
They do. But we never met them. We have a political party which was formed for democracy and liberal ideas. Why do they have all the political prisoners in jail.. How can we sit down and talk about democracy and rule of law to them. It doesn’t work like that. Today (April 24) your Supreme Court came out with a beautiful judgement – just leave people alone; don’t harass people.