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Tropical paradise in peril: the amazing struggle for democracy, and existence, in the Maldives

Tropical paradise in peril: the amazing struggle for democracy, and existence, in the Maldives

Mohamed Nasheed (courtesy AP Photo/Sinan Hussain)

The Maldives is a tiny country in the Indian Ocean, off the coast of Sri Lanka. It is made up of about 1,200 islands, with a population of almost 400,000. As with many tropical island nations, there are two sides of the Maldives: one seen by tourists at luxurious seaside resorts which constitutes the islands’ largest source of income by far; the other lived by  locals just beyond the sight of foreigners, a hardscrabble existence of poverty, lack of resources, and desperate struggle to make ends meet.

Until a few weeks ago I had never heard of the Maldives, and its presence barely registered on the international political stage. But things have changed. The Maldives now merits international attention due to the ascension of two major crises, one relating to democracy, the other to global warming. At the center of both is Mohamed Nasheed, a charismatic crusader for change of political and climate-related natures. His story is worth telling.

I first learned of Nasheed in the documentary film “The Island President,” which is now showing at film festivals and in select U.S. locations (you should see it if you can, it’s quite intriguing; the following discussion is based on my interpretation of events presented in the film). As have many activists before him, Nasheed suffered in his fight to bring political freedom and democracy to his country. He was imprisoned, beaten, and tortured by the dictatorial regime of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. But in 2008, after 30 years in power, a historic change took place. Opposition to Gayoom’s rule built up and boiled over, forcing him to call open elections. Even more remarkable, an opposition party–the Maldivian Democratic Party–won. Its leader, former political prisoner Mohamed Nasheed, became the first democratically-elected president of the Maldives.

After this political triumph, Nasheed was forced to address another crisis. Rising sea levels were having increasingly pronounced effects on the Maldives. Beaches started getting smaller. Coastlines eroded. Ocean salt water infiltrated fresh water supplies. As scientists and politicians clashed over the cause(s) of global warming and who should fix it (and still do), its meaning for the Maldives became frighteningly clear. The low-lying island chain was disappearing off the face of the Earth, and if nothing was done to stop global warming and curtail rising sea levels, the Maldives would be swallowed up by the Indian Ocean.

For President Nasheed the evidence lay right before his eyes; it was incontrovertible. But the rest of the world needed to see it. So after fighting to bring democracy to his country, Nasheed took up the fight to address global warming and the rising sea levels it caused. He took any meeting he could get with any person or group with a connection to environmental science and policy to draw attention to his cause. He met with India–the largest, closest power to the Maldives–the U.S., the U.N., and China. He got creative, holding an entire cabinet meeting underwater off the coast of the capital Male (seriously, this really happened).

He led rallies and spoke with government officials at the 2009 Copenhagen climate change conference. He advocated and pleaded for real action to be taken. He tried to impress upon leaders of the largest countries in the world that the very existence of his country hung in the balance of their decisions. That his people lay on the verge of becoming this era’s first environmental refugees.

While no binding agreement on stopping global warming came from Copenhagen (and many consider the meeting a dismal failure), Nasheed tried to stay positive: at least he brought the Maldives’ plight to the world’s attention. Maybe his efforts would convince people that change was needed, even if they couldn’t agree on the particulars.

The future of the Maldives environmentally-speaking remains unclear, as does the future of its democracy. Virtually concurrent to when I saw the documentary, in Feburary of this year Nasheed was forced out of power by supporters of the former dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.

The circumstances surrounding the transition in leadership are fuzzy. Nasheed maintains he was ousted by a coup, while new President Mohammed Waheed Hassan–who was Gayoom’s VP–claims Nasheed voluntarily resigned. The impetus for Nasheed’s exit is believed to be his aggressive attempts to clean up Maldives’ judicial system, and root out  judges who remain loyal to Gayoom. In January 2012 Nasheed ordered the military to arrest Abdulla Mohamed, head of the national criminal court. Nasheed accused Abdulla Mohamed of illegally protecting officials tied to Gayoom from being investigated for corruption. Leaders from multiple political bases expressed outrage, saying Nasheed had gone too far and the arrest order was unconstitutional.

The biggest dispute now is over when new elections will be held. Hassan’s administration claims it is open to holding elections earlier than scheduled, but a constitutional amendment must be passed to do so. According to Hassan’s State Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dunya Maumoon–Gayoom’s daughter–all parties in parliament must support passage of an amendment, and the Maldivian Democratic Party has refused. Nasheed’s party considers the entire Hassan government illegitimate. The situation remains volatile.

Mohamed Nasheed continues to fight for his embattled country. At least for now he must do so from exile, for fear of being arrested–again–if he returns. In promoting “The Island President” on The Daily Show, he said he doesn’t care if he becomes president again, as long as democracy returns to the Maldives. Nasheed said, “The odds are again very much stacked against us. But I keep constantly saying that we have always worked against odds and we must again do it.” But it’s not only the odds that are against him, it’s also time. It now seems not a question of if the Maldives will fade into oblivion, but when.

In a sense Nasheed is valiantly trying to put his country on the map before global warming wipes it off. Here’s hoping he succeeds.



Scott Bleiweis

Scott Bleiweis writes on international relations topics for FPA. He has a M.A. in democracy studies and conflict resolution from the University of Denver, and a B.A. in Politics/International Studies from Brandeis University. Scott was formerly a Fulbright education scholar in Bulgaria (views in this blog are his own, and do not represent those of the Fulbright organization or U.S. government).

Scott supports Winston Churchill's characterization of the complex form of government known as democracy: “Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”