A small Indian Ocean island nation is in turmoil after its first democratically elected leader was forcibly overthrown. The president and his followers have been harshly attacked, and are fighting back, resulting in armed clashes in the capital and elsewhere. Meanwhile, a departed dictator waits in the wings, with Islamist hardliners on his side.
Why should we care? For a number of reasons.
Mohamed Nasheed, the president ousted last week in the Maldives, is an admirable figure, having led a peaceful agitation that spelled finis in 2008 to one of the longest-reigning dictators in the world.
Nasheed “earned a place in the history books as the person who brought an end to the thirty-year rule of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom—Asia’s longest-serving leader,” BBC reported. “To his supporters, Mr. Nasheed is a latter-day Nelson Mandela, overcoming the hardships of prison to secure an inspirational election win against the odds.”
Nasheed was an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience who suffered tremendous personal hardship to introduce democracy in his country.
“June 1990. After eighteen months in solitary confinement, [a political prisoner] was finally sentenced to a jail term of three and a half years. By the time the sentence was handed down, the damage caused by the regular torture he had endured had become overwhelming: his backbone was damaged, and he was suffering from internal bleeding,” stated an article in Himal Southasian magazine. “November 2008. There, standing before the chief justice of the Maldives, was that very writer and activist [ready to be sworn in].”
A truly remarkable saga, “no fairytale: this was the true story of a man’s fight for rights and justice on behalf of the people against a brutal autocracy,” wrote Simon Shareef. “There is little doubt that the triumph of Nasheed, or ‘Anni’ as he is widely known, will go down in Maldivian history as an enduring and inspirational tale.” But why only Maldives? This was inspirational for the whole world. (For those interested in more detail, my book on Islam and nonviolence has a section on the Maldivian democracy uprising.)
And Nasheed took the best lessons from his religion.
“Islam teaches you that there is no future if we hate,” he told an interviewer, when asked how his government would treat Gayoom. “The embittered and revengeful cannot become agents of change.”
Sadly, his opponents did not share his magnanimous approach, and he was booted out in what appears to be a putsch by segments of the security forces allied with Gayoom.
“Dictatorships don’t always die when the dictator leaves office,” Nasheed wrote in The New York Times after his ouster. “The wave of revolutions that toppled autocrats in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen last year was certainly cause for hope. But the people of those countries should be aware that, long after the revolutions, powerful networks of regime loyalists can remain behind and can attempt to strangle their nascent democracies.”
And this is a second reason we should be concerned: Maldives could have served as a role model for the very same countries that Nasheed mentions in its combination of Islam and democracy. All of that is now in tatters.
“If the Maldives couldn’t make it—Sunni moderates who rely on tourism—what might one expect for Egypt or Syria?” democracy activist Srdja Popevic tells Bryan Farrell of the Waging Nonviolence website.
A third reason to focus attention on the happenings in Maldives is the international renown that Nasheed has earned due to his battle against climate change. Since Maldives is likely to be among the first countries to be rendered unlivable by global warming, he became a fighter for binding greenhouse gas emission limits, earning him the respect of environmentalists such as Bill McKibben.
Now, Nasheed isn’t perfect. He’s a bit too much of a Thatcherite (Margaret Thatcher being one of his role models) in his economics for my taste. And he possibly overreached in firing a recalcitrant judge—precipitating the events that led to his ouster.
But given the choice between a pro-democracy, climate change activist and a long-ruling thug, I know what side to pick. Which makes the mealy-mouthed responses of the United States, the United Kingdom and India even more perplexing. Instead of strongly condemning the coup, all three supposed champions of democracy instead chose to go along with the flow.
People power is already making a difference. After initially endorsing the coup, the Obama Administration is now backtracking.
“This small victory is a sign that the people still have the power, as they did in 2008, when they brought democracy to the Maldives,” writes Farrell.
Let’s hope the Maldivian people are able to prevail in their broader struggle to preserve their hard-fought democratic gains.
If you liked this article by Amitabh Pal, the managing editor of the Progressive magazine, please check out his article entitled "Bombing Iran Is not the Answer."
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