Maldives President Nasheed Resigns—At Gunpoint?

Environmentalist head of state ousted in coup d’etat. Maldives' former president suspected.

Mohammed Nasheed, the first democratically elected president of the Maldives, resigns, February 7, 2011. (Photo: Stringer/Reuters)
A six-time grantee of the National Geographic Expeditions Council, Jon writes about all things ocean.

In a move surprising to those not living in the Maldives—where most of the recent press has focused on its green-thinking on climate change and carbon use—the island nation’s president, Mohammed Nasheed, has apparently been forced out in a  coup d’etat. Vice president Dr. Waheed Hassan has been sworn in as the new president.

Fingers are being pointed at allies of the previous president, Maumoon Gayoom, for orchestrating Nasheed’s resignation. It was the Gayoom administration, which spanned 30 years, that had locked up and tortured a younger Nasheed before he became the first democratically elected president in the country’s history.

While celebrated internationally for his environmental politics, Nasheed’s presidency has been at risk at home. Critics have claimed the “Island President” (the name of the documentary that has recently won awards and attention at festivals from Toronto to Sundance) was paying too much attention to global issues and not enough to his backyard; others complained his leadership was not “Islamic enough” for the all-Muslim nation.

In recent months the country has experienced its own brand of “Arab Spring,” but rather than oust a dictator, this movement was against the country’s first democratically elected president.

Three weeks ago President Nasheed ordered the arrest and jailing of a high court judge—an ally of the former president—on charges of corruption. Street protests against the president, said to have been coordinated by allies of the former president—including a half-brother and members of his security force—were successful enough for the military to be sent into the streets.

Nasheed’s resignation speech indicated he was stepping down to avoid further and more serious clashes between the military, the police and protestors. And today Nasheed confirmed yesterday’s report that he resigned after being threatened by policemen at gunpoint. “Yes, I was forced to resign at gunpoint,” [Nasheed] told reporters. “There were guns all around me and they told me they wouldn’t hesitate to use them if I didn’t resign.” In addition, there are unconfirmed reports that the former president is now being held under a kind of house arrest and that he may have been injured during continued street protests.

Coincidentally, when I flew into the Maldives four months ago, I landed at the southern island of Laamu, where a sizable crowd was gathered on the sidewalk outside the airport. The street was clogged with women in headscarves and men in pickup trucks. They seemed to be surrounding a man walking. I asked what all the hubbub was about and was told it was former president Gayoom, who was clearly still liked by many.

One of the ironies of Nasheed’s three-year-long democracy is that a number of political parties emerged during that time, including one devoted to his predecessor. When I met Nasheed later that week, he was clearly worried about his upcoming re-election, especially due to the loyalty of Gayoom’s Progressive Party and a handful of other, smaller pro-Islamic political parties. I don’t think then that he envisioned his presidency would last just another 100 days and that he would be forced to quit.

That same day I had dinner with then-Vice President Dr. Waheed Hassan, a seemingly kind man who had previously worked for UNICEF, and his wife, a teacher who schooled students in her home. When asked at dinner (by Richard Branson) if he wanted to be president, he politely deferred. I’m sure he did not imagine that night that 100 days later he would be sworn into office.

Reports show military men going in and out of Nasheed’s private residence, carrying out boxes, including so-called “illicits” like liquor bottles. Be sure and read the accounts in The Guardian by Nasheed’s environmental adviser, Mark Lynas, who reports: “Gayoom controls the judiciary, now the executive, the media, and in couple of weeks probably the parliament. One thing he cannot control is popular support for President Nasheed, so he needs to find a way to jail or discredit him ahead of the 2013 election,” the spokesperson said.

“Using violence and then taking over the TV station, as well as recruiting converts among the police, the anti-democratic opposition faced Nasheed with a choice—to either use force or resign,” writes Lynas. “Ever the human rights activist, he chose the latter option and stepped down to avoid bloodshed. Even as I write, his whereabouts are still unknown, and though he is supposedly in the ‘protection’ of the military I fear desperately for his personal safety and that of his family. I have heard that he is currently being held against his will under military house arrest, in which case he must be immediately released. All I can do is take comfort from the fact that the struggle can only continue for a man famous in the west for his outspokenness on climate change, but whose real lifelong cause has been his commitment to bringing democracy to his Indian Ocean island homeland.”

Several members of the Maldives Democratic Party (MDP) were seriously injured during the lead-up to Nasheed’s resignation and some are reportedly missing. Part of the president’s decision to quit was hoping to avoid a bloodbath on the streets of the capital city Male, where 100,000 citizens live, squeezed into 1.5 square miles.

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