Benedict Rogers: Democracy against dictatorship and Islamism in the Maldives - it cannot be in our interests to betray our friends and our values
It was six years ago that I first met Mohamed Nasheed in the Maldives. At the time, he was the opposition leader, under house arrest, in a country ruled by one of Asia’s longest serving dictators, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. I visited him in his home, which he was not permitted to leave. I also visited a journalist, Jennifer Latheef, also under house arrest.
Nasheed, or “Anni” as he is known, had spent years in prison, in solitary confinement, in exile, and subjected to torture and beatings. He was the Maldives’ Nelson Mandela or Aung San Suu Kyi, an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience defying a typical brutal, corrupt dictator.
I visited the Maldives on behalf of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, in 2006, and found that Gayoom had appointed some reform-minded ministers, perhaps with the intention of giving a veneer of change while hoping to retain a grip on power. I wrote a report following my visit. It was a simple, common-sense document, which made two key recommendations: if the reformers in Gayoom’s regime were serious, the first thing they should do is free Nasheed and Latheef; and if they were freed, Nasheed and his party, the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), should enter into a dialogue with Gayoom’s reformers, and chart a transition to democracy together.
They did, a transition began, the reformers proved more reformist than perhaps Gayoom intended, and in 2008 the Maldives’ first free and fair elections were held. Nasheed was elected President, and Gayoom, a dictator used to the trappings of power, went into opposition.
Following the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission’s initial work, the Conservative International Office and the Westminster Foundation for Democracy got involved, and a relationship between the MDP and the Conservative Party developed. Several senior Conservatives, including MPs, went out to advise the MDP, Nasheed and some of his colleagues came to Britain to see how campaigns work here, and in 2007 Nasheed spoke at a fringe meeting at party conference. Two years later, shortly after winning the election, President Nasheed addressed the Party Conference.
The ties between our two parties are close. Our values are very similar. Democracy, human rights, free enterprise, the rule of law, the dignity and freedom of the individual. Yet while I had the privilege of participating, in a small way, in the transition from dictatorship to democracy in the Maldives over the past six years, I have had the sadness of witnessing the death of democracy in the Maldives over the past six months, and the embarrassment of seeing my party, in government, standing by, doing little, in danger of betraying its friends and its values.
On 7 February this year, President Nasheed was overthrown in a coup d’etat. It has become apparent that the coup was planned by people close to the former dictator Gayoom, disgruntled elements of the corrupt police and judiciary whom Nasheed was trying to reform, and radical Islamists who hated the MDP’s liberal secularism. I won’t go into the details of the coup – I have written about it here, and here, and here. Some will dispute that it was a coup, but Anni was in the midst of it and is in no doubt that it was a coup. His own Vice-President Mohamed Waheed Hassan assumed the presidency, in what was designed to look like a constitutional transfer of power, but in reality he was in cahoots with the coup plotters and is simply a puppet of Gayoom and the Islamists. If it were simply a constitutional transfer of power, why were all MDP ministers sacked from the government and then harassed and, in some cases, beaten – a point Anni made to me two days ago.
Several reports have been published in recent months, notably Amnesty International’s The Other Side of Paradise: A Human Rights Crisis in the Maldives and the Paris-based International Federation for International Human Rights (FIDH)’s From Sunrise to Sunset: Maldives backtracking on democracy. After significant progress on improving protection of human rights in the Maldives, it appears to be back to the bad old days of Gayoom, or worse. These reports document horrific police brutality, including the savage beating of MDP MPs including Mariya Didi, whom I met on Monday with Anni. On several occasions police were ordered to “hit her in the head, kill her”, according to Amnesty. In the days following the coup, MDP activists who had been hospitalised after being beaten up by the security forces were then pursued even into the hospital. According to Amnesty, some were “attacked in their hospital beds”. Mariya Didi described to Amnesty how, even though she was handcuffed, she continued to be beaten with batons, and then police sprayed pepper spray directly into her eyes. One of them shouted: “Is she still not dead?” This is in reference to an elected MP. Anni, the former elected president, was himself beaten and pepper sprayed.
As a result of international pressure, the regime that now rules the Maldives, led by Gayoom’s puppet Waheed, established a Commission of Inquiry – chaired, incongruously, by Gayoom’s former Defence Minister. It was a whitewash – even with the involvement of some international jurists, it was an extraordinarily absurd document. As a legal analysis by three Sri Lankan lawyers, including a former Attorney-General and two Supreme Court advocates shows, the Commission of National Inquiry (CONI) is fundamentally flawed. Other legal analysis finds that what happened on 7 February under any definition was a coup.
As Anni told me earlier this week, we can argue until we are blue in the face about whether or not it was a coup. From everything I have heard, my feeling is if it looks and feels and quacks like a coup, call it a coup. But regardless, the pressing question now is what happens next.
Nasheed and other MDP leaders are in danger. They face trumped up charges, and could be jailed, or at least disqualified from the next elections, when and if they happen. From what Anni tells me, the British government is doing little to press Waheed’s illegitimate regime to drop the charges, to clear their names, and to enable MDP – including Anni – to participate in future elections.
Anni and his colleagues are concerned that the British government’s message is not clear enough – and they are clearly disappointed that the party they thought was their ally is in danger of showing signs of washing their hands, passing the buck and signing up to the new Waheed regime. If the United Kingdom does not speak up more, the new regime might very well lock him and his colleagues up again, at least until the next elections are over, and destroy the MDP, killing democracy in its infancy. I’d like to ask Ministers in the FCO: what are you waiting for?
First, how can we betray a people and a party, and a President, whom we befriended?
Second, and more importantly, this new regime is a remake of the old Gayoom regime, including his daughter as a Foreign Minister, and with Islamists moving from the fringes to centre stage. Do we seriously want to do business with a corrupt dictatorship linked to Islamists, instead of a pluralistic, liberal, democratic government that was pro-free trade, pro-human rights and beginning to tackle climate change? Is a regime that beats up and pepper-sprays elected MPs and a former elected President seriously one we wish to countenance?
Third, even if we take the view (not my own) that friends are dispensable and we have to move with the times, even if we are prepared to betray our friends, do we seriously wish to betray our principles? William Hague has made much of putting human rights at the centre of foreign policy: the Maldives, as small as it may be, is a test case.
So, what can Britain do?
First, speak out more. Condemn police brutality, appeal for politically motivated charges to be dropped, and work to ensure that free and fair elections can be held, which include all who wish to contest the ballot, including Mohamed Nasheed and the MDP, without hindrance or reservation. Free, fair, elections.
Second, ensure that the Maldives’ political crisis remains on the international agenda, especially the next meetings of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG). The Foreign Office may say that as the UK is not on CMAG, there is little we can do. But that is simply not true. Firstly, we can make our views known to CMAG members, and secondly, any member of the Commonwealth is entirely within its rights to bring an issue to the Secretary-General’s attention. The Commonwealth is clear in its various documents that the overthrow of a constitutional government is an unacceptable violation of Commonwealth values. CMAG is described as the “custodian” of the Commonwealth’s values, so we must press them to ensure that the Maldives remains on the agenda until free and fair elections are held and a legitimate government takes office. Furthermore, measures to address the unconstitutional overthrow of a democratically elected government are already in place in the Commonwealth’s Millbrook Action Programme. The Commonwealth Secretary-General must be more vocal on the Maldives’ crisis, and Britain should be at the forefront of efforts to engage all Commonwealth mechanisms to address the Maldives’ violation of Commonwealth principles.
Third, raise all these issues within every possible arena: the UN, the Commonwealth, the EU and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) – at every opportunity. The UN Secretary-General should be encouraged to take an interest. Perhaps Britain could work with others to bring forward a resolution on the Maldives at the General Assembly next month, or the Human Rights Council in March next year?
Finally, Britain and the international community may have to make a choice: to do business with an illegal, dirty dictatorship that has derailed nascent democracy and is backed by extremist Islamism, or to stay true to the values of democracy and human rights. If they choose the former, they will not only undo all the good work achieved in the Maldives over the past six years, they will undermine progress in other Muslim states which have jettisoned dictatorship and are moving towards democracy, however fragile. What message would Libyans, Egyptians and Syrians take from our perceived abandonment of the movement for democracy in the Maldives? If, as I hope, Britain and others choose the latter option, there are measures they can take against Waheed’s dud regime to increase the pressure – targeted financial sanctions, a freeze of assets, including property, owned by Waheed’s ministers, a visa ban, suspension from the Commonwealth. I hope these won’t be necessary, but if they are, the British government should be prepared to use them.
Just three years ago, the Maldives provided so much hope, not only in and of itself, but for other countries including across the Muslim world and in dictatorships such as Burma. I remember Anni calling me to discuss how he could help Burma’s struggle for freedom. Now the Maldives is back to square one. But all the more reason why the British government should develop some backbone and provide the Maldives’ democratic movement support. Otherwise, if we’re prepared to allow a democracy to die in its infancy, what message does that send to dictators and democrats in Burma, across the Arab world, and beyond?
Surely it’s not just a nice, idealistic idea? Surely we know by now that dictators are bad news? Surely we know that, as we try to encourage reform in Burma, it is in our interests to be able to point to other successful examples in Asia, even if with some bumps in the road? Surely we know that another Islamist foothold in South Asia cannot be good news? Surely we know that dictators, in leagues with Islamists, are a threat to regional and international security? For all these reasons, it is in our interests to defend our values and those of Maldivian democrats too. It cannot be in our interests to betray both our friends and our principles.