'Maldives is sitting on a time bomb'

Ex-President Nasheed urges India to stop appeasing dictators, seeks help to restore democracy.

Updated - September 20, 2016 05:49 pm IST

Published - March 04, 2016 12:14 am IST - London

India can play an important role in the restoration of democracy in the Maldives but the appeasement of dictators is not the way to do it, Mohamed Nasheed, the former President of the Indian Ocean nation, told The Hindu in an interview. Mr. Nasheed, the first democratically elected President of the Maldives, has been > sentenced to 13 years in prison on terrorism charges.

He’s now in London on a > prison leave for medical treatment . The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention had recently ruled that Mr. Nasheed’s trial was flawed, and called for his release, a call that President Abdulla Yameen has refused to accept.

In this extended interview to The Hindu conducted at the British Library in London, Mr. Nasheed speaks of his hopes and expectations from India in restoring democracy in the Maldives, the prospects for his island nation, and his own plans for the future.

Excerpts from the interview.

Mr. Nasheed, will you return to the Maldives and imprisonment once your treatment is over? You have asked the Maldives government for a two- month extension to stay in the UK. Have you received a reply?

The idea is to see how helpful I can also be in getting things on track in the Maldives. If I go back, it is straight to jail. No one is advising me to do that.

So I would like to work as much as I can to create a more conducive environment for not only me to return, but for others living in exile like our party Chair, the former Vice-President -- some of whom are in exile in the UK and some in Colombo. We would like to see that the government acts upon the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group recommendations, releases political prisoners, starts all-party discussions and has a time-line or framework on how judicial reform can take place, and how corruption investigation can also proceed.

So the short answer to the question is I will go, but before going I will have to see that the situation improves. President Yameen should at least release the high profile political prisoners, six or seven of us.

Only today he gave a speech on one of the islands, saying that India and Pakistan are willing to get him off the hook. If you have friends willing to do that, it is not likely that President Yameen would relent.

Do you believe that? After all India is a part of the CMAG.

Unless India corrects it we will have to assume what Mr. Yameen said is correct. We take governments at face value.

Do you attach political significance to the fact that Mr. Modi has not visited the Maldives yet, and that India sent its INS carrier Vikramaditya to Maldivian waters in the Indian Ocean?

It is difficult to see how India projects power or creates leverage. It is full of mixed signals and messages. And therefore, we have taken a very different view. Our actions and beliefs are not based on what the Indian government does. It is based on our principles. We are with India whatever they do. We might be in government or opposition, we might all be arrested, but we still have to hold on to our view.

Do you think that India should have come out in support of the restoration of democracy in the Maldives in a much stronger way? Are you disappointed with India’s response?

No, I am not disappointed, because we take the long view. I feel that India will in time understand what is best for India, the Maldives and the Indian Ocean. At present I am not convinced that it has understood this. But to assume that appeasement towards dictators would help bring stability -- it’s a tested hypothesis [that it does not]. How far do you appease? What do you achieve out of that?

We would expect all countries in the region to be decent and supportive of democratic processes, and India too. Irrespective of India’s policies, we would still argue for an India-first policy. This is not to do with India, it is to do with the Maldives, with us. I am under pressure from within my own party by those who tell me that we keep articulating the same thing, while President Yameen says he is going to be let off the hook by India and Pakistan.

Our view is this – whatever India does, our views and principles are not based on our fortunes. We would want to have good relations with India and always argue for an India-first foreign policy.

What do you mean by an India-first foreign policy?

What I mean is this: not to have defence exercises with other countries, not to conduct our domestic policy in a way that creates fear in India, not to give a base to the Chinese, or indeed anyone to create strategic infrastructure, like deep- water ports and airports.

President Yameen has said in a Washington Times op-ed recently that you are “trash-talking” the Maldives, and instead you should go home and face the courts. How would you respond?

Coming back and facing his own courts dictated and controlled by him ? That is a ludicrous argument. We know what happens. Judgments are dished out exactly as he wants it. The prosecutor general, who sentenced me is now arrested !

I am not saying my presidency was the best in the world -- it is there to be judged – but there is no reason for Yameen to do worse than that. No one was sentenced for 13 years by my government for terrorism. President Yameen was detained in the President’s retreat island when the police wanted to arrest Yameen. I said no, I don’t want to do that.

I will continue with the truth, no one can stop that. Because of these wrongs our people are suffering. When you launder money through national accounts, other banks stop dealing with the Maldives, which has a very strong impact on our economy and banking system. Already JP Morgan and HSBC have pulled out from giving corresponding banking services. I would very sincerely ask the President to differentiate between the truth and trash. Whatever we are saying is with backed documents, evidence that would stand in a free and fair court.

What sort of pressure would President Yameen yield to in your view?

From within [the Maldives] the military is extremely divided. President Yameen has about 30 officers under arrest. It is dangerous just about to blow up. We are sitting on a time bomb, with the Chief of the Armoury, a number of other officers and a fair amount of rank and file under arrest. When all the wrongdoings were done through them or they knew about it, and then when President Yameen arrests them and distances himself from everything, it is not going to be stable. It is just a question of time. He came into government with 25 per cent of the vote. Out of that he has removed his own defence minister, arrested Adhaalath leader Sheikh Imam. How he got parliamentary majority was by sharing seats with the smaller parties. Now these parties are not there and the ground rules changed.

What about international pressure and your demand for targeted-sanctions?

In my view that would work. But for that to happen you certainly need Indian consent, and as President Yameen says, India is not willing to concede that. We need Indian agreement and [they should] stand with the European Union, the United States and the Commonwealth. Maldives is very small for European countries and India to have a disagreement on.

For targeted sanctions we would be seeking assistance from the Europeans. But the Europeans are reluctant, I think, they don’t necessarily want to step on India’s toes as yet. But in my view, there will be a tipping point. Maybe this one-month CMAG deadline is where it tips.

Do you visualize the demand for targeted sanction going through the United Nations route?

I don’t think this needs to go through the UN route. I think it should be country-based. The actual leverage is with England and Europe. They [the ruling regime in Maldives] have their money here, their children here, their second homes here. But for the ordinary people of the Maldives, India is very important because for they depend on India for almost everything -- medical treatment, education, holidays, good food and films.

Will you be seeking political asylum in Britain as you did in 2005?

I asked for political asylum in 2005 and later relinquished it. I can’t just stay here, I will have to work to see the Maldives on a better footing. It is not my Presidency that I am interested. Over the last 15 years so many people have contributed to make me what I am. If I run away now without doing the maximum for the many others in jail and exile, I don’t think I will be forgiven. Therefore I must do my part.

I am working on a wider opposition coalition -- hopefully factions within the ruling party -- to join with us, but I would also like to travel. I would like to be able to go to Colombo and India. I will go when I am better. I have neglected my back.

What do you see as the immediate future, looking forward?

We believe India is working hard to see that the Maldives is back on track.

In what way?

“They are asking the Europeans to announce the sanctions, but they are telling the Maldivians -- we will do the talking but you do this. This is my wishful thinking. Mr. Modi has not gone to Maldives. He has the sophistication, the tools, the knowledge and the leverage to do it. And I think he will do it. Not because of any favours to any particular group in the Maldives -- I don’t take that view. They [the Indians] will talk to everybody. But they cannot agree to people being arrested on the basis of unfair trials.”

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