On March 22, President Abdulla Yameen lifted a state of emergency in the Maldives, a day after four of his political opponents were formally charged with terrorism. Yameen had declared the emergency on February 5, after the Maldives’ Supreme Court ordered the release of political prisoners. Rather than obliging, Yameen doubled down by having two of the Supreme Court judges arrested. Former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, Yameen’s half-brother turned political opponent, was also arrested; all three were among those charged with terrorism last week.
One of the most prominent voices speaking out against Yameen’s moves has been another former president, Mohamed Nasheed, currently living in exile in Sri Lanka. Nasheed, who was ousted in a coup in 2012, was himself a political prisoner, having been sentenced to over a decade in prison before being allowed to seek medical treatment in the U.K. Since then, he has lived abroad, most recently in Sri Lanka. This interview with Nasheed was conducted in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and has been edited for length and clarity.
What I find interesting is that when I talk to people surrounding you, they refer to you as “President Nasheed.” If I talk to the ruling party in the Maldives, they say you are a criminal. If I ask you, “Who are you?” what would you say? President? Or criminal?
Mohammad Nasheed: Soon after I finished university in Liverpool, I came back to the Maldives, and I started working for a small magazine. But the government de-registered that magazine and arrested the editorial board and therefore I was taken in and spent good half of my adult life in prison. I would be sometimes released and I would write again and they wouldn’t like it … then I would be arrested again and again released and I would write again. So this circle ran on and on.
About late 1999 I also got married and wanted to start a family and so I wanted to see if I got elected as an MP if that would give me some safety and security. I got elected as an MP for Malé in 1999, but they still kept on arresting me so I left the Maldives finally. We started a political party in exile in Sri Lanka, and then we were chased out from Sri Lanka as well by the hired gangs of exactly the same person who is in the government now in the Maldives.
There were long periods of arrests, sometimes 18 months of solitary confinement, and I also was tortured twice. Finally after getting arrested as an MP as well, we thought the best form of resistance would be to find to some form of organized politics, peaceful organized political activity, and so we thought that best would be to form a political party.
We attempted to form this party [the Maldivian Democratic Party, MDP] while in the Maldives as well, while I was in parliament but the government rejected it and we couldn’t. So we started the party in exile in Sri Lanka in 2004, but then we had to leave Sri Lanka and then we started working from a little town in England. We were able to galvanize people to political activism.
And so then we decided to go back home and start the party at home. It grew bigger and bigger and then finally we had elections and I was fortunate to have won those elections. That’s how I became a president. Of course there are people who do not like me and there are people who are working together and trying to see that we can bring the country on a more democratic track.
There seems to be a pattern that repeats in your life. You write against the government and are imprisoned; you come out and you write again. They put you in exile, and you tried to come back again. Each time it’s like doing the same thing.
You can’t give up, and you shouldn’t give up. The stakes are too high. I do not want to see a situation where my daughters are tortured. We have had ill treatment and human rights abuses and autocratic rule in the Maldives for so long and that has hampered our development, our livelihood, the way we want to live. So we must work. I come from a family background where my father has been in prison, my grandfather was in prison, my great-grandfather was in prison. It has to be stopped.
Would you say for the people living in the Maldvies, the Maldives is not good place to be in?
To a very vast majority of people, life is tough and fearful. They had a glimpse of freedom and democracy, when we were trying to entrench democracy in the Maldives. But right now we have receded but still we haven’t lost hope. We always try to win against the odds. I believe we can win again.
The Maldives is a holiday destination. Tourists go there and spend a wonderful time, but they rarely know about the political turmoil.
Tourists should be mindful about what’s happening in the Maldives; they really should be mindful. You should have your good life, you should enjoy your holiday, but it’s important also to be aware of where we are coming from while you are there, the difficulties we are going through. Every little thing helps. A picture you tweet from your holiday helps.
I can’t see why every single European holidaymaker can’t be an activist. I really fail to understand, why? It’s the idea of adventure taking them to Maldives. So my call is they all should be activists on their holiday. Every tourist can protest.
How can they protest?
A billboard, a T-shirt. And I would seriously encourage for goodness sake they must do it. They must be coming to the Maldives with T-shirts blaring and saying that President Yameen should go, that human rights must be protected, that judges should be released, that the parliament shouldn’t be occupied by the military, there shouldn’t be a state of emergency, for all political opposition shouldn’t be in jail.
What is the deadline for the current government in the Maldives?
It is past, well past. President Yameen has purged his own party; he started by arresting his defense minister, and then he went on to arrest every single opposition leader. He arrested his own vice president; he fell out with his brother – former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom – then finally he arrested his own brother. He has dismantled the Supreme Court and arrested the Supreme Court judges; he has got the parliament occupied by the military; he declared a state of emergency; he has over run the state. In fact, he declared himself to be the chief martial law administrator. He has declared martial law.
He has in effect completely declared himself to be an autocrat, an absolute autocrat. So the people of the Maldives have been protesting. President Yameen decides things by himself of outside the law, and then he tries to bring out a façade of legal language around what he has done.
He extended emergency rule without the necessary parliamentary quorum as prescribed in the constitution. The prosecutor general told the chief of police that the emergency is illegal, and the chief of police must release all the prisoners, all the detainees, but President Yameen is still holding on to the police, so I think it’s the matter of time before you see real splits, within the military and within the security forces.
The judiciary has fallen, the legislature has fallen; every other single institution even the prosecutor general. So I think it’s just a matter of time before we see a clear split with in security forces as well.
Why would they split from Yameen? Why not cling on to him, because they profit off him?
There is a deep state with in the state of the Maldives. What I have so far been describing, what President Yameen has done, is not the real crisis. There is another parallel crisis. One is ISIS deep state in the Maldives. For the last so many years, a very narrow version of Islam is being propagated in the Maldives and that has created a breeding ground for jihadi movements. ISIS has been able to recruit the highest number [of people] per capita from the Maldives of any country.
There is a strong network. ISIS has embedded themselves in strategic positions with in the state. The deep state has an understanding with Mr. Yameen to maintain him in power, so he has found that to be an absolutely possible way of remaining in power.
And in meanwhile there is a far devious development happening. Without firing a single shot, China has been able to grab more land than the East India Company. The method from many countries is now very clear, and it’s happening in the Maldives. First they changed the state type to an autocracy; the idea is to get unsolicited contracts, without tender and without transparency to make sure there is no democratic oversight. Then step two, you inflate the price of the project. The interest rate is very high, to make sure the project cannot be paid back and then you fall into a debt trap. The debt is then used as a disciplining regime. Then when we can’t pay back the debt, they ask for the equity, so in the process we relinquish sovereignty.
President Yameen is the biggest internal driver of the land grab, so when these two elements are combined that makes the crisis in the Maldives. This emergency, torture, Supreme Court judges in jail, Parliament is suppressed — this is the menu we have been dished out for the last so many years, but now there is something else happening.
You were talking about ISIS in Maldives. But you were in alliance with the Adaalath Party, which is a fundamentalist party.
When we were younger Wahhabism was extreme, and now Wahhabism is more mainstream and the Salafists are the extreme. It’s shifting, and we would like to see how far we can work with them. I think working with them and including them in the mainstream fold, and differentiating these other extreme views is useful.
I think we must understand we are not of the same ideology, there are areas where we depart, but I think for this period in time we must work together.
What’s your role now? You said you would be going back but at the moment you would face clearly jail.
I don’t know if I would be taken to prison but apparently I do have a prison sentence on me. The Supreme Court has annulled it and released it on February 1 , and then the government has turned it around, and it has taken so many twist and turns. But seriously I can’t see why President Yameen should arrest me if I go back home.
I would argue the other way: there is no way that he wouldn’t.
I am not going to have a fistfight with him. I do not want conflict, and I think we must amicably resolve issues. I think President Yameen must listen to us and he must abide by the Supreme Court judgment and sit down and talk to us. He must release the people. Look, you get tired of being the strong man.
President Gayoom was an autocratic leader who imprisoned you and other people. Now he is coming to your side. To me that’s very strange. How do you see that?
Again I have to say that our society is very much in transition from feudalism to pluralism. President Gayoom, myself, and every single opposition leader as well, every single businessman, and every single person in our society has learnt so much in the last 10-15 years, that other societies probably go through in a century. We have commonality, which is pluralistic democracy. It’s in President Gayoom’s interest to have strong political parties, and in our interest to have a strong political party in the Maldives. So we have enough common ground to work on.
You were saying before that history repeats. I do see some similarities between now and 2008. You were in exile then and you had to come back at certain moment, without knowing if you would wind up with imprisonment or the presidency. You face the same situation now again.
Yes, but with whole set of different variables. Now we have a solid political party, we have a parliamentary majority, and fortunately we very much focused on building our own political party. So we have the whole campaigning structure completely in place, and we had won the local council elections overwhelmingly in the last local council elections. We form a [majority in] almost every single atoll council, and in all the cities we have absolute majority.
You have a majority now in the parliament, you won local elections, and you think you wouldn’t be put in prison if you go back. So why you are not going?
I think my party is not completely allowing me to do that yet. They want to make sure that things are in place. And also I have my daughter’s O level exams in May, and I promised her that I’ll be around until she does her exams.
So we can say that until May you are not going?
I’ll do that for her. I’ll stick around; I must. Unless we have another agreement.
You are committed to go back?
I will go back. I can’t live my rest of life in exile. I refuse to do that. Whatever the odds I’ll go back.
While Mr. Yameen is still in power, or would you wait for his departure?
There are two views to this. One, President Yameen must go and then we should have an interim arrangement that takes us to the presidential elections. President Yameen is resisting that, probably because he is unclear on where he would land after he goes. Now my view is that he must be able to seek election, be part of the next elections. One lesson that we have learnt in the Maldives’ politics in the last 20 years is no one is irrelevant. Everyone is relevant.
So you would be positive about Mr. Yameen running in the next elections, if you were allowed to as well.
I would like to beat him badly.
You think you would?
Absolutely would beat him.
Is it for legitimacy purposes?
No, I think he must see the democratic process. How this kind of human right abuses, over running the constitution, etc affects your constituency. He must understand these things, that it’s not fashionable to be a populist.
Aaquib Khan is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai, India. Follow him on Twitter: @kaqibb