Five years after he was ousted from power by the military, and a year after he was allowed to leave the Maldives where he faces a life sentence, former President Mohamed Nasheed says he hopes to return to power. Vowing that he would reverse infrastructure contracts worth billions of dollars given to China by the Abdulla Yameen government, he also urges India not to ignore Beijing’s growing influence in the country. Mr. Nasheed, who divides his time between Colombo and London, was in India this week at the invitation of a Ministry of External Affairs-run think tank, which he interprets as a signal that New Delhi is engaging the Maldivian opposition and is concerned about the recent political turmoil in Male. Excerpts from the interview:
What is happening in the Maldives? The scenes of parliament in lockdown or opposition leaders being imprisoned indicate turmoil, but the Yameen government doesn’t appear to be worried about losing power.
President Yameen is still in government, but he has now lost the coalition with which he came to power after former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom joined the opposition. And they lost recent local elections too. So they’ve lost the public, the parliamentary majority, and they also seem to have lost the confidence of the Supreme Court, which has to deliberate on the validity of the MPs they have lost. President Yameen is trying to intimidate the judges. The Chief of Defence Forces was actually inside the Supreme Court [as they deliberated] at night. They’ve reduced the security of some of the judges, and they have received threat calls. It’s just a matter of time before Yameen reaches the limit to how far he can push the people, the judges, the institutions.
One indicator of how worried he is is that he was supposed to go to Saudi Arabia [this week] but cancelled it and sent his wife instead.
What are your own options? You still have a prison sentence pending, so will you return?
Of course, once steps are taken by the Supreme Court, and there is a restoration of the parliamentary mandate, the idea is for me to go back home. But if I go back right now, I would be in prison, and the amount of work I could do would be far less than what I am achieving outside. We have internal democracy in our party, and there is another tier of leadership in Male too. It is taking time, and it is frustrating that we aren’t attaining our objectives right now. But the fact that President Yameen has to keep interfering with parliament and the justice system shows that he is weak despite getting support from the outside.
Is the situation today comparable to the street protests against you in 2012, when the military made you resign?
I think it has come to that point. At that time they thought it was time to push me out forcefully. But we don’t want to do the same [to Yameen]. The 2012 coup didn’t take us to a stable government. We also see that street protests in the Maldives run the risk of being hijacked by radical Islamist groups. They have entrenched themselves in local institutions, and any mass demonstration by our supporters gives them the pretext to move in. They back Yameen now, but there might be a situation when they want to take over the country, and we don’t know what might follow. So we need to deal with this situation mindfully.
Given that the situation you describe is so dire, why has the international community, barring the United States, been so quiet?
The Maldives’s problems are considered too small to be heard, but I think that’s a grave mistake. You can’t cross the Indian Ocean without crossing the most navigable part where the Maldives is situated. If you destabilise the Maldives, you destabilise the Indian Ocean. Right now, three Chinese warships are in Male. We have never seen this before.
During your visit to India, did you get any indication that New Delhi is watching this situation?
The fact that I came to India on the invitation of a think tank run by the Ministry of External Affairs is message enough. President Yameen is very rattled by India’s invitation to me while all this chaos is brewing back there. So I see India is engaged. My observation is that India escalates things gradually, and doesn’t react to any one event but acts according to strategy. How would anyone react if India forcefully entered the political space of the Maldives? Our sovereignty is important.
Then how do you characterise the U.S.’s much more overt statement? The Ambassador to Sri Lanka and Maldives, Atul Keshap, has issued video messages criticising the Yameen government, and even said the Supreme Court wasn’t impartial.
The U.S. has a different foreign policy which is upfront, in the media. But I don’t know if that is the ideal policy for India to engage in in the Maldives.
So what would be effective for India to do? After all, PM Narendra Modi even cancelled his visit to the Maldives in 2015 in what seemed to be a stern message to the government over your imprisonment. But a year later, New Delhi welcomed President Yameen here.
India is not helpless. India is the biggest democracy, and Maldivians listen to India. The fact that I get so many votes despite being vocally pro-India shows that. We have taken India’s side for the last 2,000 years, and continue to do so against another competing power. But to ask India to physically intervene is counterproductive. It takes time for democracy to take root. Despite how difficult it is for me personally to continue to live in exile, I would not want anyone to intervene in my country.
Relations between your government and India were also not always good. Do you feel any bitterness about the fact that within 24 hours of your being forced to resign, India welcomed your successor?
I asked them to!
Are you saying you asked Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to call the new President, who was your Vice President, and congratulate him just after he had deposed you?
Yes. You see, I was in conversation with the [Manmohan Singh] government all throughout. My view was, I have been forced to resign, but we can’t have a vacuum at the top. So I wanted India to recognise him.
So you hold no bitterness over that?
Look, our relationship with India is in sickness and in health, it isn’t only in times of good fortune. It also doesn’t matter what India thinks of us. It is about what is good for the people of the Maldives.
You mentioned the Chinese warships being a cause for worry. Is there a bigger worry that the People’s Liberation Army may be considering a more permanent presence?
Strategic infrastructure often does facilitate military use. So it is very possible that President Yameen is offering more than just infrastructure projects.
There are so many such infrastructure projects now, including the iconic Hulhule China-Maldives friendship bridge. Were you to come to power, would you reverse these investments?
The Maldives is in a situation where 70% of our international debt is owed to a single country, China. These aren’t development loans, but outright commercial ones. By 2020 we would have to pay as interest more than what we spend on health and education combined. These contracts were born illegally, so we will have to go into arbitration and see whether we can go ahead with them.
You say that, but as we saw with Sri Lanka, the Maithripala Sirisena government came to power promising to cancel Chinese projects, but two years later they are even deeper in debt, and have also given over Hambantota port to Chinese ownership…
If we focus on the legal contracts rather than make it personal about which President gave the contracts, then arbitration procedures are available. We can’t give away bits of our country, or equity in ports and harbours.
Would you change the Maldives’s commitment to the Belt and Road Initiative as well?
I don’t see any benefits for us in [B&RI]. This idea of mega-development projects is in any case very outdated, very 1940s-1950s. We would prefer to focus on microeconomic issues, help build incomes and livelihoods of people. There is a tendency to equate concrete to development. In Sri Lanka their big roads don’t see even 20% capacity filled.
So is having another big power come and help you out the only option? When you were President, there were worries that you would sign an agreement giving certain maritime rights to the U.S. Is the Maldives condemned to being a sort of great game for big powers?
We have been independent for 2,000 years. Even Britain didn’t colonise us and I don’t think we need to be part of any master game plan, be it for China or U.S. or anyone. We are not a ‘small island state’ but a ‘big ocean state’, and we have enough resources as a middle-income country.
You mentioned worries about Islamic radicalism in the Maldives. How would you counter this?
First, we must amend the school curriculum. We must bring it back to what it was before this government changed it. None of the Islamist parties have won a seat in parliament and they don’t even figure in the local councils. We have to be mindful about where the money is coming from, who is building the mosques, and who are the imams who preach there. We did that in 2008-2012, but after that, the government has aligned itself with fringe or extremist groups. When you try to satisfy the fringe, it becomes the centre.
The Yameen government has denied all these charges, and suggested you are not serious about wanting to return to the Maldives because of your prison term. Do you still think you will return, and when?
I am not going to spend the rest of my life in exile. You know a number of our Sultans finally died in Lucknow (laughs)… I am not going to do that. Right now because the entire opposition is in jail, it is our people [Maldivian Democratic Party] who are asking me to stay out and continue my work. But it is my home, I will return, even if I have to spend the rest of my life in jail.