Tryst with destiny

Published : Oct 09, 2009 00:00 IST

in Male

EXPORT of democracy and freedoms has been the key foreign policy goal of most Western nations in general and the United States in particular. With the tumbling down of the twin towers in New York on September 11, 2001, the goal of establishing democratic regimes and institutions in the Muslim world has become an obsession with successive regimes in Washington. The engineered Iraq-style regime changes and countless coups supported by various U.S. Presidents are all anchored to the purported desire for the spread of democratic ideals and human freedom. If there is one nation the U.S. can count as a role model for bloodless and democratic regime change and smooth transition of power from a single to a multiparty system, it is the Maldives.

Multiparty, multi-candidate elections were held in the Maldives, for the first time in its 44-year-old independent history, on October 9, 2008, with five candidates running against incumbent President Abdul Gayoom. An October 28 run-off between Gayoom and Mohamed Nasheed, a former journalist and political prisoner, resulted in a 54 per cent majority for Nasheed and his vice-presidential candidate Dr Mohamed Waheed.

November marks the first anniversary of that silent revolution in the Maldives, a tropical country in the Indian Ocean, with about 1,200 little coral islands separated by 26 natural atolls (20 atolls for administrative purposes). Of the 1,200 islands, 200 are inhabited and nearly 100 have been made tourist resorts.

Nearly 400,000 people of the island nation did get some help from the Western world in their struggle for a democratic regime, but at best it could be termed marginal and accidental. The change was entirely driven by the people and the leaders they invested their faith and energy in. The man who led from the front was Nasheed.

Erudite and articulate and a man who dares to call a spade a spade, the 42-year-old Nasheed is fully conscious of the enormous challenges that lie ahead in his five-year tenure. First and foremost, he is determined to secure liberal democracy in the Maldives though he adds with a sense of irony that the new Constitution, which has put him in the presidential seat, has bestowed sweeping powers on the presidential institution.

Now I understand the meaning of the adage power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Sometimes, I am tempted to be a dictator, he said in the course of a nearly two-hour freewheeling interaction with a group of international journalists on a visit to Male from September 6 to 8.

He is convinced that the dissident struggle he helped wage in the Maldives, a predominantly orthodox Sunni nation, was a lightning rod for change in the Muslim world. While the baby steps towards the establishment of democracy have won kudos from across the globe, the tasks are daunting. Like all Maldivians, President Nasheed is proud of the smooth transfer of power.

If we go looking for countries and instances when societies have not been able to transfer power smoothly after so much entrenchment of dictatorship and single-party, autocratic rule, this is not an easy exercise. But we have been able to transfer power smoothly. Also, we have been able to have a free parliamentary election and, in my mind, an election that reflected the changing society that we are in, he said.

The man who ruled the Maldives for three decades with an iron fist, however, is not yet fully reconciled to the changed realities. The longest-serving leader in the Asian continent has become a recluse and is avoiding the media. The new President wants his predecessor to take the route of a graceful retirement, but Gayoom is not willing. Nasheed insists that it will be his endeavour not to lapse into the old practice of retribution and witch-hunting. However, he would like Gayoom to stand trial for the omissions and commissions during his regime. He promises a fair and transparent trial.

I have no problem with the demand of the Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party [DRP] led by Mr Gayoom to give immunity to their leader. The problem is it becomes a precedent for past Presidents and I want to stop it at any cost, said Nasheed, in response to questions on his equation with his predecessor and their endeavour for a rapprochement.

Gayoom might have lost an election but retains a strong support base in the country. After all, he patronised a set of people for three decades and they cannot be expected to ditch him in bad times, a member of Nasheeds Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), who works as a manager at a luxury resort, told Frontline. A supporter of Gayoom in the capital city Male, which accounts for a third of the population of the Maldives, vehemently defended the policies of Gayoom on the grounds that the pace of development and reforms that Gayoom oversaw suited the Maldives particular conditions.

Gayooms ascent to the presidency three decades ago saw the arrest of some 400 political opponents in the first year itself. Drawing a parallel between Gayooms autocratic rule and that of the state-domineering Baathism of Iraq under Saddam Hussein, Nasheed said that his tiny nations democracy struggle could teach the outside world a thing or two. We have a blueprint here in the Maldives, he said. You dont need to bomb a Muslim country for regime change.

The President outlined his vision for the Maldives at the keynote address he made on August 12 in a seminar on Socio-political transformation Future of culture in changing societies:

There is a picture that always has remained with me where [Jawaharlal] Nehru gives a speech, I think in 1947 there is a mike that says All India Radio and it is in black and white. Later on we started hearing what he was saying on that day. It was the famous speech of Tryst with Destiny, where 62 years ago in 1947, when India became independent.

In my mind, we stand at a very similar juncture. Long years ago we made a pact with destiny and that is for freedom, for most importantly, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, peaceful organised political activity and for the people of this country to be free from intimidation, torture, and inhumane and degrading infliction of pain. Long years ago we did make that pact with destiny. We wanted to save this country, save the society from all those ills and now we have to deliver.

And now, it falls very much within this season of Indian Independence that on 12th August 2004, people of this county very historically came out in protest. And I believe that was a defining moment in the history of this country. It registered very well that the people are looking for a change and that there really is no going back and we have to bring about these changes.

Nasheed urges lawmakers to jettison or relinquish the idea of all that reverence of government, pomp and ceremony of government, and the status, especially, of rulers and how they present themselves in front of the people. We can be very aloof; we can be very far away from people and still govern. But that kind of government or that kind of governance calls for another set of circumstances where you would have to intimidate the people, you cannot grant all the freedoms.

In his speech, Nasheed said the new Constitution needed to be implemented and its features consolidated as quickly as possible. He is, however, aware that it is not so easy to consolidate anything when society is changing rapidly and when everything is in a flux.

And therefore dividends from democracy or the pledges that Nehru was talking about, it is difficult for us to execute them or provide for them in the manner that we thought we would be able to do without the recession. But Im sure recessions come and go, and Im sure we should be able to have a good grip on things and make sure that we are able to consolidate democracy.

Nasheed believes that the building of independent institutions is of paramount importance for real transformation. According to him, one of the main features of this new form is the separation of the powers of the state the judiciary, the legislature and the executive. The new Constitution calls for a new judiciary, or three powers, in very new forms.

Unfortunately, we seem to have done nothing to have a new judiciary. So the difficulties that arise in consolidating democracy for that reason remain, he said.

If Gayoom was indeed an autocrat and a dictator, what made him craft a new Constitution that paved the way for multiparty democracy and his own downfall? The answer lies in peoples power and the unflinching faith of leaders such as Nasheed in the democratic zeal of the people. It was the violent protests for change in 2004 and 2005 that compelled President Gayoom to initiate a series of reforms to legalise political parties and improve the democratic process.

U.S. State Department reports rebuked Gayooms government for its brutal prison practices, particularly in September 2003 when Evan Naseem, a teenager in detention on petty, drug-related charges, was killed by guards. His death became a catalyst for change, which forced Gayoom to initiate the process of reforms and liberalisation that finally led to his defeat in the polls.

Nasheed fled the Maldives and, in November 2004, co-founded the countrys first opposition party, in exile in Sri Lanka. The same year he was granted refugee status and indefinite leave to remain in the United Kingdom by the British government. After spending 18 months in self-imposed exile, Nasheed returned to the Maldives on April 30, 2005, to establish the MDP in the country, defying a government edict banning political parties.

From 2005 to 2008, Nasheed initiated a campaign of non-violent civil disobedience in the Maldives in order to pressure the government to speed up democratic reforms. He was arrested in August 2005 during a non-violent protest and charged with terrorism, but the government later dropped the charges.

The challenges before the government of President Nasheed include restoring the islands and economy affected by the 2004 tsunami, addressing concerns about the effect of global warming on the future of the islands, unemployment, corruption in the government, and increasing drug use, especially, among youth.

On November 10, 2008, the newly elected President announced his intent to create a sovereign wealth fund with money earned from tourism, which could be used to purchase land elsewhere for the people of the Maldives to relocate should rising sea levels owing to climate change inundate the country. Some of the locations speculated upon included Sri Lanka and India, because of their cultural and climatic similarities, and faraway Australia.

On March 15, Nasheed unveiled a plan to make his country carbon-neutral within a decade. It came only days after scientists issued stark new warnings that rising seas as a result of climate change could swallow the Maldives and other low-lying nations in this century.

This followed also the world premiere of The Age of Stupid, a major film on climate change in which a man living alone in the devastated world of 2055 looks at an old footage, from 2008, and asks why people did not stop climate change when they had the chance.

The plan includes a new, renewable electricity generation and transmission infrastructure with 155 large wind turbines, half a square kilometre of rooftop solar panels and a biomass plant burning coconut husks.

Battery banks would provide back-up storage when neither wind nor solar energy is available. The clean electricity would power not only homes and businesses but also vehicles. Cars and boats with petrol and diesel engines would be gradually replaced by electric versions.

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