An Interview With the Island President
He’s been called “the Mandela of the Maldives.” And like the anti-apartheid icon, Mohammed Nasheed began public life as a democracy activist who was jailed for years by a regime he eventually helped overthrow. Also like Mandela, Nasheed went on to win the first free and fair elections ever held in his country, a scattering of 2,000 low-lying islands off the tip of India that boast some of the most beautiful beaches and high-end resorts on earth.
To the outside world, however, Nasheed is best known as a crusader against climate change, a reputation he solidified at the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009, where he did what no other head of government would do: endorse the goal of reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million.
This February 7, president Nasheed was deposed in a military coup led by officials loyal to former dictator Maumoon Gayoom. The Obama administration recognized the new Maldives government hours later.
Nasheed visited the United States last week to meet with officials at the State Department, appear on The Daily Show, promote a new documentary about his climate and democracy work, The Island President and urge Americans to make climate change an issue in the 2012 election. He was interviewed in New York on March 31 by Mark Hertsgaard, The Nation’s environment correspondent.
The events of February 7 were confusing to many outsiders at first, partly because you appeared to resign voluntarily on live television. Why didn’t you hint during your resignation speech that you were being coerced?
I’ve been in this [kind of] situation before. I’ve been tortured twice, on the brink of death twice, and I have always stood for decorum. I didn’t think it would be proper to the people of the Maldives that I start crying or something.
What if your speech had revealed what was really going on?
They would have killed me. But first they would have stopped the transmission of my speech. They were looking for where the cables were leading, so they could cut it off if I said anything else. They had already taken over the state TV station at 11 o’clock that morning.
Why do you think the US government responded to the coup by essentially accepting it?
The US has outsourced its foreign policy, just like you’ve outsourced your jobs. In the Indian Ocean, you’ve outsourced foreign policy to the regional superpower, India, [which] recognized the new Maldives government instantly—on the same day as the coup—and the US followed soon after.
I can’t speculate about why India did what they did. I’ve had many conversations with them since then, and they now understand that we [the Maldives Democratic Party] are the biggest political party in the Maldives and that if elections were held, we would win. I heard the State Department say the same thing yesterday.
You told Australian TV journalist Mark Davis that wealthy resort owners in the Maldives were behind the coup, perhaps because your government was the first to require them to pay taxes. Do you have evidence for this accusation?
One very visible evidence is that boats belonging to [businessman] Ibrahim Gassim were used to ferry troops to Male [the capital of the Maldives, where the coup took place]. Gaysim himself was inside military police headquarters during the coup. He owns fourteen resorts in the Maldives, imports all the fuel, cement and gas to the country, owns the one private TV station. On the morning of the coup, they took over the state TV station, stopped it from broadcasting and instead inserted a live feed from Gassim’s station.
The funny thing is, this was a live coup. They were showing everything that was going on—the confusion and shouting in front of the military headquarters and of course my resignation speech. The images were real. But the commentary was saying, ‘Thank god the government is falling, Allah akbar [Praise be to Allah].’”
What do you want the outside world to do now?
We are asking India, the US and others to call for snap elections. And also for an independent investigation of the coup and the human rights abuses that were committed that day and since—so many people have been beaten up. We can’t have a mutinous police and army, and they are still there. We want these things done immediately. If we don’t, there can’t be stability in the Maldives.
Update: On April 5, six days after Nasheed’s meetings at the State Department, Valerie Fowler, the Charge d’Affairs of the US embassy in The Maldives, endorsed “early elections” in The Republic of Maldives and offered $500,000 in technical assistance and other aid to help insure “a free and fair presidential election.”
Why should the average American care about stability in the Maldives?
Without stability in the Maldives, you can’t have stability in the Indian Ocean, which you need for your trade. More than one-third of the world’s trade crosses the Maldives.
With all the turmoil and urgency at home now, why did you decide to come to the United States?
There is a film being released, The Island President, that addresses climate change in the Maldives, and I feel it’s important to do whatever I can to promote the issue. For the Maldives to vigorously press for climate progress, we need democracy at home. I see the two issues going hand in hand, not separately.
The most important form of adaptation [to climate change] is democracy. The Maldives will not survive without a fair amount of very heavy adaptation, including breakwaters, coastal protection and similar infrastructure. We need a pluralistic democracy so we may come up with the best policies in these areas.
As president, you pledged to make the Maldives carbon neutral by 2020. Where does that effort stand now?
We did a carbon audit and investment plan, we’ve done projects for the plan. We calculated that we would have to complete 170 projects for the Maldives to become carbon neutral. We’ve got eight or nine projects underway, and sixty more in the pipeline. We were on schedule to be carbon neutral by 2020. After the coup, I’m not so sure. Those in power now won’t be interested.
The Island President portrays the Copenhagen Accord as an important step in the fight against climate change, a view many observers find overly optimistic. In hindsight, do you still see the accord as genuine progress?
This was first time US, China and India and other big emitters agreed even in principle to reduce their emissions. They didn’t agree on how it should be done. But I think it is a turning point. [Making it real] can only happen through legislation, and countries will have legislation when the people tell their leaders to legislate. I’m afraid the people of the US are not saying that right now. When they say it, I’m sure leaders will do it. They pulled out from Vietnam when you said it.
Are there any final points you’d like to make?
You need to make climate change an election issue this year [in the US]. Bring a million people together to make the politicians realize they have to take action. Get musicians to come, make it a festival, and show the passion people have for taking action. I’m sure if you get a million people together in one place, any politician would come and address you. We politicians are addicted to people, you know.