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Samuel Coates: The forgotten coup in the Maldives

Samuel Coates works internationally as a political and digital strategist. He was the first Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome and a speechwriter for David Cameron. Follow Samuel on Twitter.

Nasheed Tory conf

“I first addressed the Conservative conference three years ago. Since then, against the odds, my party has defeated the dictatorship that reigned over the people of my country for thirty long years. And it was in no small part thanks to the efforts of our friends in the Conservative Party. I have come here today to say thank you.” – Mohamed Nasheed, 2009 party conference

Six months ago today, the Maldives’ first ever democratically elected President was removed from power in a coup d’état. The full story of what really happened in this beautiful archipelago has hardly been told, and still less listened to. The vested interests that outweighed the democratic interests. The efforts to make the coup permanent (which is where this weekend’s revelations about Baroness Scotland come in, who I have reason to believe has been less than entirely open in her explanations). And the Conservative Party’s proud history, and hopefully future, in supporting democracy in the Maldives.

Let’s start with the background. Mohamed Nasheed, aka ‘Anni’, came into power in 2008 after a hard-fought election. Most of the Cabinet that came in with him literally had the scars to show from years of opposition to President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s long-standing dictatorship. Nasheed himself had been arrested, detained and tortured on numerous occasions during his fight for democracy. His eldest daughter was born while he was languishing in a dirty prison cell.

The formation of Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party and its successful campaign came about through the sheer idealism, persistence, and bravery of Nasheed and his allies. But, as he acknowledges in the quote above, it also came about through the combined efforts of the UK Conservatives — including several parliamentarians, the Party’s International Office led by Philippa Broom, the Party’s Human Rights Commission, and campaigners like James McGrath. The MDP is not so much our sister party as our daughter party.

A reforming Tory government in South Asia

Island President posterThe MDP’s first years in power brought real reform. All political prisoners were immediately released, the country’s first university was established, an old age pension and universal health insurance were established for the first time, and the country’s budget deficit was slashed. What really put Nasheed on the map internationally, though, was his awareness-raising about the global warming that he believed threatened his low-lying nation — most memorably by convening a Cabinet meeting underwater. This work later became the subject of a film called The Island President.

If his eco credentials aren’t to the tastes of all readers, I suspect his economic credentials are.  Educated in Salisbury and Liverpool University, Nasheed’s studies of the Thatcher Government’s economic policy were highly formative to his views. On entering office he put these views into action, introducing various free market policies such as the privatisation of the Maldives’ airports, utility companies and ferry transport services, as well as tough anti-corruption measures. “I was ousted for bringing a Western conservative vision to the Maldives,” he later concluded.

It all came to an end on Feb 7th when Nasheed was forced to resign, effectively at gunpoint. Only one side had the luxury of making advance preparations for handling the aftermath, so inevitably the true nature of his resignation was lost in the fog of war. For the critical first 48hrs, history was written by the victor — almost everyone fell for the initial spin that Nasheed had taken it upon himself to resign due to public pressure and a police revolt.

That anyone had an inkling of what was really going on at that time was in large part down to Nasheed’s British international press adviser, Paul Roberts — who managed to blow the whistle about the coup to a few journalists whilst hiding in a President’s Office toilet cubicle, before fleeing the country. William Hague was the first major figure to condemn the situation and an article for ConHome by MPs John Glen and Karen Lumley was one of the first to tell it how it was. But overall international reaction was muted and mixed — the US and India recognised the new government immediately.

Since then, the world has kept turning and few seem to remember or care what happened in what is a strategically insignificant nation. Shortly afterwards, President Waheed had the pleasure of joining other Commonwealth leaders for dinner with the Queen to mark her Diamond Jubilee. As they politely tucked into brie and avocado terrine, wild sea bass and apple crumble soufflé, one wonders if Her Majesty was aware that Waheed’s allies had been publicly trashing her days before.

A dictator, anti-market forces, and hardline Islamists unite

The challenge posed to our Coalition government by Labour’s appointocracy has always been underestimated. But it is child’s play compared to the challenge faced by the MDP when forming their country’s first democratic government. The whole establishment had a vested interest in frustrating their progress, and conniving for a return to the status quo ante. These interests consisted of a trio that would make any Conservative recoil: former dictator Gayoom and his cronies, anti-free market forces, and hardline Islamists.

First, whilst Waheed may be in office he is not entirely in power. The reality is that the Island President was replaced by the Puppet President, whose strings are pulled by the Former President. Gayoom’s spokesman, lawyer, daughter and son all have senior positions in the Waheed Government. Laughably, even the government investigation into what happened on the day Anni was forced to resign is being run by Gayoom’s former defence minister.

Second, rich resort owners who had done very well under the former regime resented the MDP’s efforts to establish a real market economy. Their plotting was confirmed to Nasheed by his intelligence officers and Private Eye recently featured a “Letter from Male” that explained how his attempts to get resort owners to pay a proper tax have been buried since the coup.

The third conspiratorial force was the hardline Islamists — a surprising ally to the alcohol-drinking, bikini-wearing resorts. Over the last generation Saudi money has inculcated a Wahhabist strain of Islam in Maldives, resulting in a marked cultural and religious shift. This growth in Wahhabist influence is widely considered to have been catalysed by the coup — its exponents now have three cabinet portfolios despite having no MPs.

Consolidating the coup d’etat

Now that Waheed and his backers are in power, they’re burning through Maldivian taxpayers’ money to make sure they stay there. They know more than anyone that those who wield the weapons wield the power — that’s why they’ve kept police and army officers sweet by bunging them £13m in “special allowances”.

As a small country dependent on tourism, they also know the power of international opinion. That’s why they hired US PR firm Ruder Finn to improve their reputation. In accepting their £93,000 monthly retainer, Ruder Finn were generous enough to acknowledge “diverse opinions” about a government that is “in place according to the country’s constitution”. Close observers of Maldivian politics suspect they’re already drawing down their involvement, however.

Shortly before his commanding performance at the Leveson Inquiry, Tony Blair paid a “courtesy call” to Waheed during his, hopefully unrelated, stay at the luxurious Four Seasons resort. Now we learn Baroness Scotland has been hired to advise them on dealing with the Commonwealth.  Defending her £7500 a day contract last weekend, she portrayed the deal in lofty, non-political terms:

“I have been approached by both the [Maldives] Government and the Opposition and have accepted the invitation made by the Government to chair a round table at which all parties are to be invited.”

This is extremely careful wording by Gordon Brown’s Attorney General. The only approach the MDP have made to her, well-placed sources have confirmed to me, was from Nasheed’s loyal former Foreign Minister, who instigated a meeting to urge her not to represent the new regime, given its widespread human rights abuses. The Commonwealth has been the only international organisation to show active concern about the coup.

Understandably, Maldivians are getting increasingly disenchanted with Waheed’s willingness to waste their money on whitewash PR. Several hundred have already signed an Avaaz petition aimed at Ed Miliband, calling on Baroness Scotland to pay the money back.

I’m grateful to Baroness Scotland for providing a reason for renewed UK interest in the Maldives, and it comes on the back of several bad PR stories in recent weeks. The challenge now is to maintain momentum, and ensure early elections are held this year.

Above all, we must stay true to our friends — inviting Nasheed back to party conference would be a good start. The Conservatives have a proud legacy in supporting democracy in the Maldives. Let’s not desert its Island President now.


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