A military coup in paradise

Where is the international response to the coup in the Maldives?

 

Paradise lost: The Maldives © Sarah_Ackerman

 

Sit back and let your mind wander. Where would you like to be if you could choose any destination? Are you picturing sandy beaches? Crystal clear waters? Maybe a palm tree or two? You’re probably thinking of the Maldives.

Now picture violent street protests, baton wielding soldiers stalking the streets and a democratically elected president ousted from office under duress before being arrested. This is the Maldives that people ought to be made aware of this week. These events bear far more significance than their potential impact on holiday bookings, and warrant more attention than they appear to be receiving.

A tiny nation like the Maldives is easily forgotten about once the travel brochures go into the recycling; many would struggle to point to it on a map. Yet the country has become increasingly significant in recent years as being at the forefront of the climate change debate. Indeed climate change is something that will spring to many minds almost as readily as those pristine beaches – it is very likely that fondness of the latter sparks much of the interest in the former.

This heightened awareness is largely attributable to the campaigning of the now former President Mohamed Nasheed who, on Tuesday, was forced to resign when members of the National Defence Force defected alongside the police after weeks of anti-government protests. The following day Nasheed led supporters of his Maldivian Democratic Party in a peaceful protest after it emerged that his resignation had come at the barrel of a gun. Perhaps inevitably, the police reaction was extreme and the country descended into violence which has continued today.

In the chaos, Nasheed himself was arrested, then released, and will likely be arrested again.

President Nasheed is an inspiring figure; a fact emphasised in the recent award-winning documentary ‘The Island President’ which chronicles his tireless campaign on climate change issues. The efforts of Nasheed and his fellow activists, who suffered repeated imprisonment and torture along the way, were rewarded in 2008 when he beat the thirty year incumbent Maumoon Gayoom to the Presidency in the first free elections in the country’s history. Since this time he has become a globally recognised spokesman for climate change issues and has been described by David Cameron as his “new best friend”.

It is more important than ever that the travails of Mohamed Nasheed are not forgotten at this crucial juncture, and that Mr Cameron proves he is more than a fair-weather friend. Mainstream UK media coverage of the last few days’ events has been scant, which is understandable to a certain extent given the perilous situation in Syria. Nevertheless, when the BBC World Service devotes more time to Tweets in Brazil, and the London Metro gives equal prominence to tales of an escaped tortoise, questions must be asked as to how seriously Nasheed’s overthrow is being taken.

Syria remains at the forefront of the Arab Spring but, in a time when Muslim democracies are emerging across the globe, the fate of this particular democratic experiment is of vast importance and ought to be treated thusly.

Nasheed’s magnanimity towards his former gaolers has seen him labelled the ‘Mandela of the Maldives’. He refused to pursue members of the former government despite strong urging to investigate their purported crimes. Instead he allowed the former President Gayoom to retire from politics. In hindsight this approach appears to have been ill-judged. Nasheed has struggled to enact reforms as remnants of the old regime have thwarted his efforts, fomenting civil unrest, while Gayoom appears to have resumed his political career.

When it became apparent that President Nasheed would need to go after some of these figures, in particular the Chief Justice, these forces moved decisively against him.

The ability of a former strongman like Gayoom to unsettle, and now unseat, a democratically elected head of state highlights the fragility of fledgling democracies that are not given adequate support. Should the commendable efforts of Mohamed Nasheed to take his nation forward peacefully and positively be allowed to fail without a word of protest from the international community, a disturbing precedent will surely have been set for others. The message will be sent out that forgiveness and non-violence will go unrewarded; that the only way to consolidate democracy is with an iron fist – something Mohamed Nasheed honourably refused to do.

Of similar relevance to new Muslim democracies has been the cynical use of political Islam to discredit the government and to bring unrest to the streets.

Protests organised last year by the so called ‘December 23’ coalition claimed to be protecting Islam from the government and from Western influence. The rhetoric of this group has become increasingly extreme and anti-Semitic in recent months, culminating in an anti-government pamphlet produced by the opposition Dhivehi Qaumee Party that resulted in charge of hate speech against one MP. The levels of violence in the last few days may indicate that the opposition may have unleashed a force it will struggle to control: this week’s unrest saw the entire pre-Islamic collection in the national museum destroyed. Such tactics must not be allowed to succeed.

Just as Russia and China have done with Syria, both the Indian and the UK governments have deemed the Maldivian issue to be an internal matter.

Regardless of his ‘resignation’, Mohamed Nasheed’s claims of military interference must be taken seriously and should warrant greater international scrutiny. At best, Mr Cameron ought to support his friend by putting pressure on the new President to hold elections far sooner than those scheduled for next year. Such an announcement would surely assuage the anger of MDP supporters and would no doubt be welcomed by Nasheed himself, who retains his faith in democracy. A United Nations team is due to arrive later this week and should lead the diplomatic charge against this coup.

Comparisons between countries are notoriously difficult to draw, and in the case of Maldives, unique in a world of unique nations, assigning relevance to wider global issues is especially hard. But the problems affecting this island nation do have far-reaching implications. Just as climate change affects all nations, so does the fight for democracy and human rights. Mohamed Nasheed has captured the world’s imagination with his fight against climate change; his fight for a democratic homeland should receive equal attention.

His ideals are of relevance far beyond the shores of his tiny island nation and must not be allowed to be submerged beneath a tide of autocracy, political cronyism and international indifference.

 

Daniel Bosley is a postgraduate in International Relations, although he likes to contribute to the debate on a range of subjects. He is admittedly left-leaning, but not so much that he falls over.