‘We need to put aside past hurts’

Interview with Mohammed Waheed Hassan, former President of the Maldives.

Published : Dec 05, 2018 12:30 IST

Mohammed Waheed Hassan.

Mohammed Waheed Hassan.

M ohammed Waheed Hassan assumed office as President of the Maldives in February 2012 after President Mohamed Nasheed was forced to resign. Although he was not a mass leader and was saddled with a parliament that did not support most of his policies and programmes, Waheed set the direction for the country by throwing out the Indian airport developer GMR and restricting the space for Indian corporates. While his tenure was short (February 2012 to November 2013), he took a leaf out of the Rajapaksa book in Sri Lanka and welcomed Chinese participation in the development of the Maldives. Now retired from politics, he teaches public policy in Singapore. Excerpts from an interview:

You attended the swearing-in ceremony of the new President though you are not entirely in agreement with what he or the coalition stands for. How do you see this coalition working?

Actually, it’s not entirely correct that I don’t agree with them. I have not contradicted any of their policies. I am staying out of politics at the moment and I would like to see a peaceful democratic Maldives. I believe that we have a fresh opportunity to put things right and to reset the democratic path. The Maldives embarked on the path of democracy only in 2008. During this short time, we have faced many challenges. These challenges are, to some extent, inherent in the constitutional structure that was given to us, particularly the powers of the President, which were very different before 2008.

There are checks and balances. There are independent institutions, which have been given strong powers. Until now, we have found that Presidents—Nasheed, myself and Yameen—have found it difficult to run the affairs of the state under the current Constitution because people expect the President to behave like the old Presidents with very strong powers. But under the current Constitution, the President doesn’t have all the powers. It is kind of hybrid— it is not a pure parliamentary system, neither is it a pure republican system. Parliament has lot of powers which other republican systems don’t have. Like, for example, the sacking of Ministers.

Confirming Ministers too. The parliament has the power, not the President.

Yes, confirming Ministers and sacking them, too. There are all kinds of things that republican systems do not have. Though the Constitution is far better than what we have had in the past, we have been slow in drawing up rules and regulations on its implementation. For example, President Yameen wanted more stability in the country. Therefore, he wanted to control the haphazard and chaotic activities [of institutions of the government]. That is why he tried to limit the freedom of assembly and expression and so on, because without the regulation, without setting boundaries, you couldn’t basically function.

He may have gone overboard and curtailed the opposition’s ability to function properly. Now, with the new government, we are throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I think the real solution to the constitutional problems we have faced since 2008 can only be found through much broader consultation.

An analysis of what has happened till now has to be done. I think President Nasheed will admit that it was very hard for him. It was difficult for me. It was for Yameen, too. With the right legal political structure and environment in place, any of us could have run the country well. I think what is needed now is a broader consultation to understand what went wrong and how to fix it. We are back to the 2008 situation with the new government, where the MDP [Maldivian Democratic Party] leads the new coalition. We can’t afford to repeat the same mistakes.

The trauma caused by the resignation of President Nasheed and me stepping in still lingers. I continue to be harassed until today by people who believe I was behind the coup, which is totally untrue. But somebody had to be the scapegoat.

You mean to say that separation of powers is the only issue in this set-up? Is that the main issue or the only issue?

That is a fundamental issue. The other is, as I said, we need greater awareness and understanding among the people about how democracies function. That evolves over time.

There has been a lot of development in Male and its surroundings, but does the charge of corruption that the coalition talks about hold water?

Only a proper investigation will reveal the truth. I think one of the mistakes that President Yameen made was not addressing these accusations adequately…. It appears there was a lot of corruption. So those things will be investigated.

Many PSUs had taken huge loans from Chinese entities. There are Maldivian private companies that took loans from Chinese firms, and the government gave sovereign guarantees. Can a government give a sovereign guarantee to a foreign country on a loan taken by a private entity?

This is a very interesting question. Sometimes you look at how the state and the market interact with one another, state meaning the legal framework. The Maldives Finance Bill is an interesting case in point. When I was President, the opposition changed the Finance law so that I could not borrow from anyone without the approval of the parliament. In fact, the whole GMR saga started with the Finance Bill. [The Indian corporate GMR, which was developing the Male airport, was thrown out following a dispute with the government.] At that time, the parliament wanted to approve the GMR contract. And Nasheed did not want to take it through the parliament. So he delayed the passing of the Finance Bill and took a shortcut. That was what caused all the problems for him, and for me later on.

When Yameen came to the parliament [as an MP], he tightened the Finance Bill because he knows exactly the kind of noose that needs to be created. So one of the first things he did after he came to power as President was to change the Finance Bill. It was no longer necessary for him to go to the parliament to take a large loan. The opposition is right in saying that the loans were not sufficiently transparent. Why do you need US $140 million or $130 million to build a 21-storey building? These are the kind of questions that were raised and the kind of questions that fuelled the claim that there was major corruption.

In the case of GMR, the problem, and the agitations, began because GMR levied a user development fee. Now, the Maldives has to repay the Chinese loans. You think people will accept, say, for instance, a toll road, or additional taxes?

I think there will be a lot of resistance to this kind of levies. I will give you an example: Now you have a bridge. The moment this government imposes a levy, all the opposition parties will say that they will remove the levy if the people elect them. Half the problem is that we all have been campaigning on a populist mandate. If you are a developing economy, you cannot afford all these populist policies.

The new government wants to do a lot. But where is the money? There has been some talk about an income tax.

Will this tax be applicable only for expats and international migrant workers or will it be for everyone?

It will be for everyone. That is the only way major income can be generated.

In the Maldives, where everyone knows everyone else, and people are related to one another one way or another, can the democratic form of government work? Political parties have almost the same agenda and programmes and there is little to choose between them.

I think it can. You are right. We have a deep hurt that needs to be addressed. We are not used to competitive politics. We are used to an oppressive system where the ruling elite oppresses everybody else. So, a large number of people come out and change a government. The problem is we don’t know what to do after that.

It will work if there is more dialogue and people are willing to be more mature. We need to be able to put aside past hurts. One of the things proposed, even in 2008, was to have some kind of a reconciliation process, like in South Africa. People need to come out and talk about what exactly happened instead of blaming each other forever.

I asked you in early 2013 at a press conference in Colombo if you were playing the China card, as Mahinda Rajapaksa was doing. You laughed the question off. Your tenure saw the beginning of reaching out to China. What advice do you have to give the new government?

Our relationship with India is a different type of relationship. It is a family type of relationship. It is a much more emotional relationship; one of identity, culture, even religion, and so on. Our relationship with China has been mainly to do with the economy. I think it is important for the Maldives to recognise the nature of its trustworthy relationship with India.

There are always rumours about China sending submarines to the Maldives, etc. I have never been in a conversation with China, or with anyone in the Maldives, discussing any military or security arrangement with China.

The first big loan from China was taken from the Exim Bank by President Nasheed to build social housing. Then there was a second round of loans, again for housing. During my time, too, this continued. In the meantime, we were discussing the possibility of a bridge. Though Yameen was building the bridge, the original idea was Nasheed’s.

We need good relations with China and, of course, Maldivians should decide how much [of loans] they can absorb and not fall into a debt trap. It is our decision, not anybody else’s. I believe that our democratic institutions can provide the checks and balances to avoid us falling into a debt trap. I believe the government can manage the current debt if it manages the economy well.

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