Many believe the “Arab Spring” first blossomed with Tunisia’s 2011 elections; however, a Muslim country protested its way to democracy three years before. In the Republic of the Maldives in October of 2008, the people of a beautiful island nation toppled an authoritarian regime by holding their first multi-party election. From it, a leader who had been tortured and imprisoned under the rule of the previous dictator emerged: Mohamed Nasheed.
After his election, President Nasheed, known as Anni by his people, chose to move forward rather than seek revenge on the former leader, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. Many of us would not have been so willing to give up old grudges. Along with long terms of solitary confinement, Nasheed missed the birth of his two daughters because of his imprisonment under Gayoom’s government. While Nasheed hoped to leave the past behind him, followers of the defeated incumbent were not of the same mind.
On February 7th, Nasheed’s life and the lives of others were threatened unless the president resigned, and so he did, stating, “I believe that if the government were to remain in power it would require the use of force, which would harm many citizens.” He later explained, “There were guns all around me, and they told me they wouldn't hesitate to use them if I didn't resign."
As a result of the new shift in power, the United States’ assistant secretary of state Robert O. Blake visited Male, the capital of the Maldives. After meeting with former Vice President Mohammed Waheed Hassan, Blake encouraged Nasheed to take part in the new coalition government. The ousted president refused. Despite his explanation that he was forcibly removed from office, the U.S. has agreed to “work with the government of the Maldives, but believe that the circumstances surrounding the transfer of power need to be clarified.”
Will the U.S. get the clarification they need? Evidence is mounting in support of the former president’s allegations that he was ousted in a coup. In a video taken on January 30th Nasheed's opposition calls on the military and police to turn against the first democratically elected president. Umar Naseer, a Gayoom loyalist, admitted to the coup on February 11. There are also reports of others such as Gayoom’s half-brother, Abdulla Yameen, offering compensation to police who oppose Nasheed. On February 15, President Waheed's brother resigned from his post as the Deputy High Commissioner of the Maldives to the UK saying, "I cannot serve a regime that has brought down the democratically elected government in a coup d’état."
What is equally suspicious is that on the same day of Nasheed’s overthrow, the Maldives National Broadcasting Commission (a national television station) was violently overrun. Adam Shareef, the MNBC Managing Director shared his experience saying, “I was hiding inside the light room until the security forces assured me I would be given protection. When I came out Dr. Waheed’s brother Ali Waheed was there. He shook my hands and said that he was there to take over MNBC on behalf of Vice President Dr. Waheed. This was before Nasheed resigned.”
With more information regarding the transfer of power coming out every day, it seems that the U.S. will discover that President Nasheed was forced to leave office. The question remains: how will our government react to the truth of this coup d’état?
In response to other Arab Springs, America has been supportive. While Mubarak was still in power, President Obama said, "the people of Egypt have the right to determine their own destiny. These are human rights, and the United States will stand up for them everywhere." Concerning Syria, Obama expressed recently that he hoped to "create the kind of international pressure and environment that encourages the current Syrian regime to step aside so that a more democratic process of transition can take place." Obama celebrated Libya's revolution saying, "Libya is a lesson in what the international community can achieve when we stand together as one."
Since his deposition, Mohamed Nasheed has requested that the new president step down and the country be allowed to hold early elections. In response, Robert Blake has said that the Maldivians are not ready for a free and fair election process.
If the U.S. is faced with evidence that the president of the Republic of the Maldives was unlawfully removed, they should recognize the human rights of those who live on the islands of the Indian Ocean, and their desire for democracy should not go without support.
____________________ Updates ______________________
Correction (edited on 2/15): Former Vice President Waheed does not appear in the video of Gayoom loyalists encouraging mutiny against Nasheed.
For more information: An excellent piece on the role of the Maldives internationally and the possible impact of democracy loss to the region by Vishal Arora in World Politics Review.
(2/16) A glimmer of hope for Maldives democracy. Early elections may yet be held!
Find an updated version of this essay on The Huffington Post.
View photos from the latest protests for democracy in the Maldives.