Are we really going to abandon the PM's new best friend?

The Maldives coup unseated David Cameron's new best friend last week. Now the islands are at the mercy of their resort owners again

Sholto Byrnes
Sunday 12 February 2012 01:00 GMT
Britons know the Maldives mostly for its beautiful beaches and resorts, but corruption and human rights abuses marked the 30-year rule of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, before Mohamed Nasheed won the islands’ first democratic election in 2008
Britons know the Maldives mostly for its beautiful beaches and resorts, but corruption and human rights abuses marked the 30-year rule of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, before Mohamed Nasheed won the islands’ first democratic election in 2008

When David Cameron referred to Mohamed Nasheed as his "new best friend" last November, I wonder if the then President of the Maldives, who was forced from office at gunpoint on Tuesday, believed that Britain's prime minister meant what he said. Mr Nasheed would certainly have cause not to now. True, initially he announced that he was stepping down in order to avert bloodshed after weeks of protests and a police mutiny. But, on Wednesday, he revealed that he had been marched off by soldiers with guns.

"They told me they wouldn't hesitate to use them if I didn't resign," he said.

On that same day Mr Nasheed and his supporters took to the streets of the capital, Male, in protest, only to be greeted by tear-gas grenades from riot police; Mr Nasheed himself and many others were beaten.

If it was an extraordinary reversal for the diminutive leader, who has won worldwide acclaim for environmental policies such as making his country carbon neutral by 2020, the response of the international community must have been a still more bitter pill to swallow. It seemed many had bought the line that Mr Nasheed had gone too far in ordering the arrest of the chief judge he accused of holding up corruption investigations and wrongly releasing an opposition politician. Also that the protests against his economic policies and supposed lack of commitment to Islam in this 100 per cent Muslim nation were proof that he was beginning to act in a high-handed manner and had dissipated his popular mandate.

On Wednesday, India's Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, was extending his "warm felicitations" to Mr Nasheed's successor, the former vice president, Mohammed Waheed Hassan. On Thursday, the US State Department declared that it recognised the new government. And although Mr Nasheed somewhat bizarrely thanked him for drawing attention to the coup, nevertheless William Hague tacitly followed suit by calling on the Maldives' "new leadership to establish its legitimacy with its own people and with the international community".

The facts are these. Mr Nasheed came to power in 2008 in the Maldives' first democratic election. Blocked from carrying out many reforms because his Maldivian Democratic Party has never enjoyed a majority in parliament, Mr Nasheed has had to deal with a judiciary almost wholly appointed by the former regime, which, therefore, has never had any wish to delve into its violence and corruption.

Taking advantage of this, and other factors over which the president has had no control – such as the rising cost of the foodstuffs that have to be imported into a country that subsisted on a diet of nothing more than coconuts and tuna for centuries – elements of the old regime formed an alliance. They teamed up with the minority of hard-line Islamists and with corrupt businessmen, who knew that greater transparency would threaten their interests, to force Mr Nasheed out.

There was nothing remotely constitutional, legal or even popular about his removal. It was a coup backed by associates of his predecessor, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, a dictator under whose 30-year rule Mr Nasheed and countless others had been tortured. The current incumbent, Mohammed Waheed Hassan, pretends otherwise: but he has already appointed two of Mr Gayoom's former ministers to his cabinet, in the key departments of Home and Defence, and rewarded other Gayoom loyalists with the positions of presidential spokesman and Inspector-General of Immigration. It is believed that he struck a deal at the end of January: he would get the presidency, and Mr Gayoom's men would return to power.

Mr Hague further displayed no sense of irony in the House of Commons when he said: "We hope that the new leadership will demonstrate its respect for the rule of law," blithely ignoring the fact that it owes its position to a willingness to dispense with such democratic niceties.

A patina of Islamism is likely to overlay the new regime, and there will be much hollow talk of the need to preserve democracy, but underneath it is a return to the autocratic kleptocracy that preceded Mr Nasheed's election. A proper taxation system did not exist before he came to power, and Mr Nasheed pointed to that yesterday as another of the motivations for the coup, which he said was "financed by resort owners. They liked the old order of corruption. We were rocking the boat, taxing them."

The President – as we should insist on continuing to refer to him – is entitled to feel particularly disappointed by the pusillanimous acceptance which has so far characterised the UK government's attitude towards his forced departure. The Maldives is a former British colony. Some of his closest advisers, including Paul Roberts on communications and Mark Lynas on climate change, are British. Mr Nasheed was educated here in the 1980s, at Dauntsey's School in Wiltshire and at Liverpool John Moores University. The connection continued. After a career as a journalist and MP, during which he was imprisoned, forced to eat ground glass and kept in a tiny metal box under the blazing tropical sun, he was recognised as a political refugee by the British government in 2004 and spent 18 months living in Salisbury. Amnesty International first declared him a prisoner of conscience in 1991, and British campaigners had always been most vocal about his plight.

"Several times during the past 15 years I have been in and out from the prisons of the Maldives," said Mr Nasheed before his election in 2008. "I have been tortured and ill-treated, degraded and reduced to nothing. I have been spat at, called names, abused and brutalised. I have had long periods of solitary confinements of total emptiness. Throughout all these one friend that has always stood with me has been the English PEN, Writers in Prison Committee. I am sure I will not be able to thank them enough."

Such words should be shaming indeed to the British government. We should never rush to foreign intervention. Frequently it is unjustified and catastrophic, as in Iraq, or diplomatically and practically impossible, as in Syria and Burma. But in the Maldives the case is clear-cut. It is a nascent democracy whose elected leader, admirably, chose the difficult path of reconciliation over retribution. "I'm trying not to prosecute the previous regime," he told me when I interviewed him at the opening of a new Hilton on Noonu Atoll in 2009. "I've never removed my own jailers, only the chief of police. The rest of the top brass are my own interrogators." Sadly, he appears to have been a victim of his statesmanlike and magnanimous behaviour. For there can be no doubt that it was forces allied to Mr Gayoom, who has been openly advertising his desire to return to power for months, who brought him down.

The international community acted without consideration last week. "It was a clever coup," Mr Nasheed's adviser Paul Roberts tells me from the Maldives. "Forcing him to resign, then locking him away so the vice president took office. It appeared all very normal and the diplomats moved too fast. They didn't get all the facts before speaking out and suggesting the new regime was legitimate."

Several countries have since rowed back slightly from their premature recognition of the new government. The US Assistant Secretary of State, Robert Blake, arrived in Male yesterday to assess the situation, while India's special envoy, M Ganapathi, has returned to New Delhi admitting that it was "complex".

Now that it has been clarified, however, we have a choice. We can come to the aid of a moderate, liberal Muslim leader of a country with which we have strong historic ties – as Mr Nasheed's ministers and party have entreated us to do. Or we and the rest of the world can stand by as a democracy not even four years old is crushed.

By David Cameron's own criteria – "where action is necessary, legal and right, to fail to act is to fail those who need our help", he said in his speech to the UN General Assembly last September – that would constitute a failure of the "nerve" he also urged us not to lose. If we take the latter course, Maldivians would be justified in assuming that our only interest is in the country's upmarket resorts and stunning, crystalline waters.

Their country is poor and not important geopolitically, and neither is it in the grip of Islamist fundamentalism, as some wilder commentators have suggested. We lived with a Western-friendly dictator there for 30 years until 2008, and it seems we can live with him and his proxies, now pretending to be a bit more Islamic than they were in the past, again. If we do nothing, the people of the Maldives, whose experience of freedom has been so brief, may conclude this: that our constantly trumpeted beliefs in the virtues of democracy and liberal values slip through our fingers like the fine sand that lines the island nation's shores, just so long as we can still take our luxury holidays there.

Sholto Byrnes is a contributing editor of 'The New Statesman' and is setting up a global trends and international affairs magazine for Arabian Gulf-based Switch Media

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