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?