If a government falls in paradise, does anyone hear?
A month ago a radical coup in an island string nation in the Indian Ocean passed with the world barely noticing.
To most people the Republic of Maldives is nothing more than a glorious tourist resort. Nestled some four hundred kilometres off the Indian coastline it is home to over one thousand coral islands that collectively form the smallest Asian country in both population and land mass.
But on Tuesday 7th February just after noon, the country’s first elected President, Mohamed Nasheed, was ushered into his office and forced to resign at gunpoint according to his own account.
Nasheed’s resignation was the radical culmination of several weeks of protests against his decision to arrest the Chief Justice, Abdulla Mohamed, for allegedly blocking prosecution of allies of former President Gayoom. Admittedly, Nasheed and Gayoom have a long history together.
Under Gayoom’s rule, Nasheed was jailed over a dozen times including for two stints in solitary detention during which he was tortured – one lasting over 18 months while his daughter was born earning him the sobriquet “Mandela of the Maldives” during this period.
But in an act of remarkable forgiveness, after forming the Maldivian Democratic Party from exile in Sri Lanka and winning the 2008 elections, Nasheed effectively pardoned the former President who to this day continues to live in the capital Male.
But in Australia this recent radical turn of events passed with relatively little notice. Within days the United States had recognised and consequently inferred legitimacy on the new regime led by Nasheed’s Vice President, Mohammed Waheed Hassan, in an act that undermined vital diplomatic leverage.
The Commonwealth’s highest authority – the Ministerial Action Group consisting of nine countries including Australia – scrambled to hold a teleconference that resulted in the feeble decision to dispatch three of its members to the country to investigate further.
Kevin Rudd, who was on the call and who also spoke directly to Nasheed, tried desperately to raise public awareness of his plight back home, briefing over five journalists directly. But aside from a cheeky attempt in Question Time by his counterpart Julie Bishop to link the events in the Maldives to Rudd’s own experience, it barely rated a mention.
Even Fairfax’s Ben Doherty based in Delhi who only a month earlier had interviewed Nasheed for an impressive profile and subsequent editorial did not cover the events with his by-line. Major outlets like the ABC and The Australian also failed to provide any coverage of the events besides a handful of standard – often syndicated – news items.
Rudd and Nasheed, who had become good friends during the Copenhagen Climate Conference, strengthened their bond during the President’s bilateral visit to Australia just weeks before Rudd was axed as leader.
Many in the media would remember Nasheed banging his microphone in frustration during their joint press conference when journalists only wanted to ask about domestic politics. To many at the time it was just another example of Nasheed’s eccentricity.
In an interview last year with The Guardian, British Prime Minister David Cameron famously described Nasheed as his “new best friend” and one of five world leaders he would invite on a stag weekend along with Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Nicholas Sarkozy and somewhat surprisingly, John Key.
But at just 155 centimetres with square shoulders and a narrow waist, Nasheed is an unassuming presence and a humble one – he turned the Presidential Palace into the Supreme Court instead choosing to work from home. But his decision to host a cabinet meeting underwater in scuba gear in October 2009 catapulted him onto the world stage.
Behind all of this though is an incredible intellect with a fierce appetite for progress no doubt forged through his efforts to save his homeland – 14 of the two hundred inhabited islands of The Maldives have already been lost with around eighty percent of those remaining less than a metre above sea level.
The country has reportedly been eyeing off territory in Sri Lanka, India and Australia for possible future relocation. Nasheed’s efforts and those of his diplomatic A-team of international climate advisors including Mark Lynas were recently chronicled in the film festival hit documentary ‘The Island President’.
Nasheed also steered the country through the wake of the 2004 tsunami and the fallout from a lack of tourism revenue during the Global Financial Crisis. In more recent years, his efforts to curb a rise in Islamic fundamentalism across the archipelago fuelled by Wahhabist Islamic scholars has seen him painted as anti-Muslim in a country where everyone is constitutionally required to be.
With any return by Nasheed to elected office looking virtually impossible the real question now is what happens next? While the Commonwealth is urging its new rulers to hold democratic elections; conducting them too soon could be a recipe for more chaos and any further delay could risk having to suspend or even expel the Islamic republic entirely in a Zimbabwean style dust-up.
But for a Queen celebrating her Jubilee and reportedly a personal fan of Nasheed this would seem unlikely. So for the meantime at least the world has only itself to blame for the Hassan regime.
Thom Woodroofe is an associate fellow of The Asia Society. Follow on Twitter @thomwoodroofe
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