Columns - Political Column

Like the Arab Spring, Male Spring ousts Nasheed

  • Inside story of events that led to the revolt
  • Charges of corruption, abuse of power and nepotism against one-time democracy activist
  • Rajapaksa calls new President, voices concern over safety of ousted president
By Our Political Editor

The telephone operator at the switchboard of Janadipathi Mandiraya felt the sense of urgency when a female voice asked to speak to first lady, Shiranthi Rajapaksa last Thursday morning. The caller explained she was a friend and it related to on-going developments in the Maldives.

Within seconds, she found herself talking to President Mahinda Rajapaksa instead of the first lady. Mira Laila Ali wept when she said that the life of her husband, former President, Mohamed Nasheed, (45), was in danger. Rajapaksa asked an aide to connect him on the telephone to the new President, Mohamed Waheed Hassen. "I am concerned for the safety of Mr. Nasheed," the Sri Lankan President told his Maldivian counterpart. He was assured that the new government would ensure his protection.

He tried to reach Nasheed by telephone thereafter. There was no answer. Rajapaksa was to tell Colombo Mayor A.J.M. Muzzamil at a wedding reception later that day that even Mira Laila Ali was trying to call her husband but he was not taking the calls. He told his ministers during the weekly cabinet meeting on Wednesday night that they should refrain from making any comments on the developments in the Maldives. It is an internal matter, should be their only response, he said.

Maldives President Mohamed Waheed speaks to reporters at his office in Male on February 11. AFP PHOTO

After the phone call, the Presidential international media spokesperson Bandula Jayasekera told reporters that Rajapaksa had in fact spoken to President Waheed about the safety of Nasheed. He also confirmed that the former President's wife had telephoned Rajapaksa. Laila Ali arrived in Colombo with one of her two daughters, Zaya, on Wednesday. Not sure how to reach President Rajapaksa, she had wanted to speak to his wife Shiranthi. Laila counts her as a personal friend having met her on numerous occasions. The last was when the duo spent considerable time talking to each other in Perth, on the sidelines of the Commonwealth summit where their husbands took part. Laila and her daughter do not plan to leave for Male immediately and are living with friends in Colombo.

It seemed a strange quirk of fate that Nasheed ended his three-year presidency in a diabolic drama he directed. He founded the Maldvidian Democratic Party (MDP) whilst in 'exile' in Colombo with a few like-minded friends. On August 7, 2008, his arch-rival, then President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, had ratified a new Constitution. Nasheed contested Gayoom and three other opposition party leaders in the first round on October 10. No candidate won 50 per cent of the vote with Gayoom leading way ahead of Nasheed who came second. Hence a second round was held on October 29 only between Gayoom and Nasheed, the joint opposition candidate then. In that second round, Nasheed polled 54 per cent of the votes.

Before assuming the mantle of presidency, Nasheed was a champion of human rights, judicial independence and media freedom. In 1990, he wrote to the Maldivian political journal Sangu (Conch Shell) that the 1989 general elections were flawed. He was imprisoned and later won the Amnesty International Prisoner of Conscience Award in 1991. In 1992 he was imprisoned again, this time for allegedly withholding information about a bomb plot. Released the next year, he wrote an article to another magazine criticising the elections once more. He was imprisoned again. He carved for himself a niche among countries and non-governmental organisations for the role he played.

His image was to enhance in a different way when he took over the presidency. Nasheed presided over what was dubbed the world's only underwater cabinet meeting. In October 2009, Nasheed and his ministers wore scuba diving gear and stood underwater as waterproof television cameras rolled off the Girufushi Island. The idea was to highlight how all the low lying islands in the Maldives archipelago would go under water due to rising sea level. The gimmick which focused on climate change and its effect on Maldives generated publicity worldwide. His team of foreign media advisors took money but also did their job well. After being sworn in as President of the Maldives, he vowed in a speech to the nation that he would strengthen "democracy and media freedom". Nasheed also pledged that he would hold presidential elections during the middle of his term of office. However, continued bickering with the opposition parties over a variety of issues distracted him.

During his tenure, he developed a firm grip on the security apparatus and acted very tough on his detractors. As Commander-in-Chief, he appointed heads for the Maldives Police Force (MPS) and the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF). The Police, responsible for internal security, public safety, law and order, reported to the Home Ministry. The MNDF, responsible for "external security," came under the Ministry of Defence. They also assisted the Police during exigencies and helped in disaster relief operations. Until 2004, the MPS and the MNDF were one organisation functioning as National Security Service (NSS).

In 2008, the Majlis (or Parliament) enacted a new Armed Forces Act that established legal parameters for MNDF. Nasheed who assumed office in that year, also broadened the scope of the defence and security apparatus. Besides Male, three different commands were set up for the National Defence Force in the North, Central and South of the archipelago. As they grew in strength, serving Colonels were promoted to the rank of Major General. Regularly groups would arrive for training with the Sri Lanka Army. Some were trained as commandos by the red beret troops. Recruitment to the Police force increased. The equipment provided for them - anti-riot tools and protective gear worn to secure different parts of the body - were all new and matched those used by Police forces in the Asian region.

Nasheed also forged a close relationship with the Rajapaksa administration. So much so, he became the first ever foreign dignitary to be the chief guest at a passing out parade of the Military Academy in Diyatalawa on December 27 last year. On the occasion of the year-end commissioning parade of 187 cadet officers, he was the guest of honour. In a speech on that occasion, Nasheed said "…Peace has come to Sri Lanka, but this is not the time to stand down. Sri Lankan Army should always be in our minds, vigilant of what not only might happen in the Peninsula, in the islands but also of what may happen in the wider Indian Ocean. We live in an area, in a region that is so focused with international conflicts and issues situated right in the middle of the Indian Ocean. We are the people of the Ocean to defend and to maintain the peace of the Indian Ocean….."

The words were prophetic. Nasheed would not have visualised five weeks ago that he was in an Indian Ocean island, the Maldivian capital of Male, unable to enforce his directives without the backing of his own Police and National Defence Force. A political tsunami of heavy proportions has been brewing for weeks since the arrest of the Criminal Court's Chief Judge, Abdullah Mohamed. Protagonists of Nasheed said Abdullah Mohamed had 'exceeded his mandate' as a member of the judiciary. However, opposition parties argued in one voice that Nasheed had not been "comfortable" with Mohamed's judgments that embarrassed both the Maldivian President and his MDP government. Nasheed had ordered that Chief Judge Mohamed be detained at the National Defence Force headquarters, one of the most secure locations in Male. It overlooks the sea front where the President's Jetty is located. Police took charge last Tuesday and released him by afternoon.

The head of the UN political department Oscar Fernandez-Taranco walks outside the former Maldives president Mohamed Nasheed's home in Male on February 10, 2012. A UN special envoy arrived February 10 for talks with the new administration in the Maldives, as former president Mohamed Nasheed demanded fresh elections after being ousted in what he called a coup d'etat. AFP PHOTO

Mohamed's arrest led to opposition parties staging daily protests at the Artificial Beach grounds, a venue allotted to the business community to put up trading stalls. It has been so named because the area has been reclaimed from the sea somewhat thus changing the borders of Male. The Sunday Times pieced together the story behind Nasheed's exit after speaking with an assortment of people in Male. They included supporters of MDP, the opposition parties, civil society groups, senior Police and National Defence Force officials. Here is what happened.

Last Monday night, on one end of the grounds, supporters of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) gathered and were facing the opposition group at the other end. They were shouting slogans against opposition speakers. The opposition group included the Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM) led by Former President Gayoom and his former party Dhivehi Rayyathige Party (DRP), Gaumee Itthihaad Party, Adhaalath Party, Islamic Democratic Party, Maldives Democratic Party and the Dhivehy Quamee Party. Speaker after speaker began speeches that were highly critical of Nasheed and his government. Some were inflammatory.

Emotions among opposition supporters were reaching fever pitch. Equally, anger within the supporters of the government side was boiling over. A full frontal confrontation between infuriated factions was not possible for only one reason - Police contingents armed with anti-riot gear and rifles loaded with rubber bullets were in the middle. They were on the ready to come down hard on both sides. A senior police officer arrived at the scene and wanted the contingents to withdraw immediately. "If we leave, they will fight. There will be bloodshed. Who will take the rap," a police officer asked his senior in Dhivehi, the national language of Maldives. The reply came almost instantly. "You don't worry. The National Defence Force (NDF) is coming soon," he replied. The junior officer was defiant. "We will leave only after they arrive," he responded.

The NDF arrived moments later and the Police withdrew. They stayed at the venue for a few minutes and left the area. Police officers who were on the NDF radio net learnt of the withdrawal instantly. Angered by this development, Police disobeyed their senior officers and headed again towards the grounds. On the way there were minor brushes with the departing NDF personnel. At least four truckloads of policemen fired tear gas, dispersed the crowds and brought the situation under control. To vent their anger, they also set fire to the MDP office Haaruge. They damaged computers and other equipment there.

As if that was not enough, they later chose to have a sit-in protest in the promenade outside the Police and the National Defence Force headquarters. On the other end lay the sea and the night breeze was strong. Some 800 policemen were now demanding that their Commissioner, Ahmed Taseehu come to their location and extend an apology for issuing "illegal orders." Those speaking for their protesting colleagues said they have been taught during training "never to follow illegal orders" and declared they would call off the sit-in only when the apology is extended.

The time was now around 1 a.m. on Tuesday morning. Armed National Defence Force personnel formed a cordon around the policemen who were seated in the promenade. They now blocked other police officers from joining. Earlier, some had come in after producing their official identity cards. A senior police official spoke through a megaphone. He said that they all should be united and urged them to co-operate. He added that the NDF had wanted to interview the prominent protestors who were spokespersons for the group. This ignited a cacophony of voices. There were shouts in Dhivehi that all of them would go with the defence force and not just a few. Now more spokespersons were springing up to demand that the Commissioner Taseehu turns up to extend an apology.

Commissioner Taseehu was in his office monitoring the developments. A few police officers turned up there and he asked them to tell protest leaders to go to the NDF headquarters. One of them said that was a ruse to round up some of their junior leaders and place them in custody. It was 4 a.m. Teams of defence personnel armed with wicker shields, tear gas grenades and rifles loaded with rubber bullets arrived. They began to fire tear gas shells. The strong winds kept blowing them away but it did not deter them. A free for all followed. Protesting policemen, some of whom possessed weapons fired with rubber bullets drawing return fire from defence forces.

Some onlookers ran whilst others joined the policemen and threw stones at the defence forces. When two hours of confusion and the fog of tear gas cleared, it was past 6 a.m. on Tuesday. President Nasheed, who had taken up position at the NDF headquarters, arrived at the scene accompanied by heavily armed bodyguards. "You have done something wrong. You have to hand over matters to the defence forces now," he told the crowd of policemen. They shouted back at him accusing him of being responsible for the crackdown on them. There were also shouts of 'resign,' 'resign.' A shocked Nasheed went back to NDF headquarters and ordered another crackdown by the defence forces. "Crush them," he said. The forces personnel arrived at the promenade.

There were more exchanges of rubber bullets and firing of tear gas grenades. Now a major showdown between the police and the defence forces was looming. Police had asked civilians around the area to withdraw. Some senior officials of the defence forces had told their men of the futility of attacking the Police. They listened and there was a sudden lull.

It was 10 a.m. on Tuesday. Entering the scene was retired Colonel Ahmed Nizam. Once an officer in the NDF, he had been de-enlisted by Nasheed. This was allegedly on the grounds that the Colonel was a staunch supporter of the former President Gayoom and should not remain at the headquarters. He went to Courts and won his case. The Court held that the dismissal was unlawful. However, Nizam did not want to return to the defence forces. Nizam obtained the approval of General Mohamed Jaleel, Commander of the NDF to speak with Nasheed who was inside his headquarters. By this time, sections of the NDF had begun to voice their support for the opposition parties. With a division inside, Jaleel perhaps did not want to urge his men to continue to heed orders from the President and Commander-in-Chief. He felt it could be resolved through dialogue and thus avoid bloodshed.

Nizam had a lengthy meeting inside the NDF headquarters with President Nasheed. He had told him there was no option left for Nasheed with loyalties of the Police and the defence forces badly divided. Nasheed had lost their support. His continuance in office, he said, would lead to not only bloodshed but also have a debilitating effect on the country. He also said that people wanted him to resign. Nasheed said he wanted to go to his office and announce his resignation to the media from there.

A hurried news conference was summoned but participants were told expressly that no questions should be asked. Nasheed announced he would resign and read out a prepared statement. Nasheed said in a televised address, "I resign because I am not a person who wishes to rule with the use of power. I believe that if the government were to remain in power it would require the use of force which would harm many citizens. I resign because I believe that if the government continues to stay in power, it is very likely that we may face foreign influences."

Hordes of foreign media personnel descended on Male when news of the resignation spread worldwide. On Wednesday, Nasheed faced them to claim he was forced to resign at gunpoint -- a charge his successor Waheed Hassen strongly denied. Nasheed's remarks, in the backdrop of fading support from the police and defence forces were made worse by other developments.

The United Nations, India and Sri Lanka were among the countries that have quickly recognised President Waheed Hassan's government. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's spokesperson said, "The Secretary-General has learned of the resignation of President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives and the appointment of former Vice President Mohammed Waheed Hassan as the new President of the country.

"The Secretary-General expresses his strong hope that this handover of power, which has been announced as a constitutional step to avoid further violence and instability, will lead to the peaceful resolution of the political crisis that has polarized the country in recent months. He calls on all Maldivians to refrain from violence and engage constructively in addressing the challenges their country is facing and to protect and build upon the important gains the Maldives has made in recent years in establishing democracy and rule of law….."

Ban's Assistant Secretary-General, Oscar Fernando Taranco, who was earlier assigned to travel to the Maldives to resolve the deadlock between Nasheed's government and the opposition arrived there on Thursday. On Friday, he held talks with President Waheed Hassen.

On Wednesday, a day after he assumed office, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh received a telephone call from President Waheed Hassen. An official spokesperson said in New Delhi, "The President of Maldives Dr. Mohammed Waheed spoke to Prime Minister today after taking office. In a brief telephone call, he reaffirmed the special and close ties that the Maldives has with India and said that he was committed to upholding the Constitution of that country and the rule of law. The Prime Minister conveyed his best wishes to the President and said that India as always stood ready to provide any support or assistance that the people of the Maldives might require. The President said that he looked forward to an early opportunity of meeting the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister said that he looked forward to such a meeting which would give both sides an opportunity to discuss the further strengthening of bilateral co-operation. The Prime Minister conveyed his good wishes to the people of the Maldives for peace, prosperity and stability in the country."

On the same day, Singh also sent a congratulatory letter to the Maldivian President. Sri Lanka's Ministry of External Affairs said in a statement: "The Government of Sri Lanka has noted the resignation of the President of the Maldives Mr. Mohamed Nasheed and the swearing in of its Vice-President, Dr. Mohamed Waheed as the President of the Maldives. The Government of Sri Lanka is of the view that these developments are internal matters of the Maldives and hopes that all issues pertaining to this transition be resolved in a peaceful manner.

"As the closest neighbour, Sri Lanka enjoys a cordial relationship with the government and people of the Maldives, and wishes to assure its fullest support and co-operation to the Government of the Maldives in its efforts to bring peace and stability to the country and prosperity to the Maldivian people."

In a widely televised news conference, the new President Waheed Hassen assured his people that restoring normalcy and rule of law to the Maldives were his highest priorities. He said he had committed himself to establishing a National Unity Government, with representatives of all of the political parties, including the MDP, the party of former president Nasheed.

As Vice President, Dr. Waheed swore the same oath as the president to protect the constitution. He said he felt duty bound to speak up against the actions the President had taken to order the defence forces to take a senior judge into custody and to detain him without formal charge or access to legal counsel. For this reason, he said, all of the political parties in the country, representing about 80% of the electorate, gave their full support to him.

Nasheed now faces a huge dilemma. Trade circles in Male have accused him of unfair treatment to local citizens. They complain that stalls held by them at the Male International Airport have been given to a foreign company whilst they have been edged out of business. The Maldivian Courts recently rejected a move by Nasheed's government to impose a tax of US $ 35 on every passenger using the Male International Airport. The Courts held that the government should heed the Airport Regulations and only impose the stipulated $ 17 per passenger. The proposal drew angry protests from airlines that were touching down in Male.

Opposition parties also accused Nasheed of giving on lease over 80 islands in the archipelago of some 1180 to his friends and relatives for tourism development. They also charged that he was working out plans to move out civilians in some inhabited islands and hand them over to tourism operators of his choice. Those civilians were to be located in other inhabited islands. Another charge levelled by the opposition is that there were serious discrepancies in budgetary allocations to ministries.

Audits conducted so far have revealed large scale irregularities. They alleged these have happened because Nasheed had nominated his own cronies and relatives to boards that undertook large development projects. These and other charges are to become subjects for a Presidential Commission of Inquiry.

"As President, he (Nasheed) stifled the media. He sealed some media institutions. He put pressure on others if they either published/aired 'unfavourable' reports or threatened and intimidated them," Ahmed Zahir, President of the Maldivian Journalists Association (MJA) told the Sunday Times. The MJA is affiliated to the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ). He said that a five-member board to run the Maldivian National Broadcasting Corporation (MNBC), the national broadcaster, had to be named by Parliament. This was with the concurrence of the Media Council and the Broadcasting Commission. "He bypassed all of them and named his own cronies. The national TV station was his mouthpiece. Morning, noon and night, they carried out his propaganda," said Zahir. He added "this is how champions of human rights and democracy behaved when they come to power."

There are clear signs that the winds of Arab Spring, that originated in Tunisia and spread to many countries including Egypt Libya, and now Syria are spreading far out. It had even blown to the Indian Ocean. The rapid growth of social media and satellite television had brought both to the drawing rooms and living rooms of the citizens of the Maldives the "revolutions" live and delivered a strong message. The police action reflects a leaf from this message as do the public protests in Artificial Beach leading to the overthrow of Nasheed's repressive regime. Neither he nor did those close to him realise the end would come that soon and with such gusto. Even the security apparatus he built turned against him.

UNP spotlights positives and negatives in LLRC report

The number of deaths, those injured and requiring assistance in the government's war with Tiger guerrillas remains yet to be properly counted, the United National Party (UNP) said on Friday.
It has accused the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) of failing to "adequately inquire" into the reasons why the government failed to properly estimate the number of persons who would be confined to camps and trapped in no fire zones.

The country's main opposition was responding to the final report of the LLRC. Its leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe, tabled the copy of a ten page report in Parliament. He said a copy had been sent to President Mahinda Rajapaksa on Thursday. A covering letter has been sent with it. He charged that the LLRC had not made any reference to the report of the UN panel of experts who advised Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka. Noting that there is "common ground" between the LLRC report and the UNP's response, Wickremesinghe said, "if the government is sincere on finding a lasting solution to the issues, this is the time to start the process of implementing the recommendations of the report."

The UNP's response to the LLRC report notes that there is a "lack of specific and factual findings in crucial areas which were very much a part of the Commission. It said that the Commission's observation that the Ceasefire Agreement was conceptually flawed is untenable. It said that the UNP would be "failing in its duty," if it does not commend the LLRC for recognizing the problems threatening democratic institutions and the need to enhance the principles of democracy, good governance and human rights.

In a move that seemed to suggest that the UNP is in favour of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, its response on the subject of 'devolution of power' illustrated the point. It said, "The government must in the first instance take the initiative by placing a set of proposals for discussion based on the existing constitutional arrangements, negotiations which are already taking place and the recommendations in the LLRC report."

The UNP made clear that the onus was now on the government "to announce a detailed road map for implementing the recommendations (of the LLRC) together with a clearly stated time frame."Acknowledging that the Commission "has very rightly recognized that the conflict affected all three major communities," the UNP has said one of the more "pressing problems" relates to the resettlement of the displaced persons together with the attendant problems relating to land ownership.

It adds: "The displacement of thousands from their homes, the deaths of a large number of civilians, the destruction of private property and the wholesale disappearance of village communities, is a national trauma which will haunt us for a very long time and will be in our memories specially the Tamils, for many generations to come."

Noting the failure to consider the UN panel of experts report, the UNP has said that the publication of that report resulted in the government taking the stance that the Commission Report will deal with the issues relating to accountability and human rights. "The Commission report's failure leaves large areas of the UN report unanswered," the UNP adds.

On the controversial Channel 4 video, the UNP has agreed with the LLRC that "the government initiate an independent investigation into the matters to establish the truth or otherwise of the allegations arising from the video footage." The UNP has added that "there is a great urgency for this matter to be concluded in order that the government can move forward on the human rights record."

Among the other recommendations in the UNP responses are:

  • New legislative provisions on abductions, involuntary disappearances including the procedure for arresting/taking people into Police custody under Emergency Regulations and so on.

  • The need for an effective witness protection programme.

  • A Select Committee of Parliament to investigate into the attacks on journalists in the recent past and even today.

  • The speedy enactment of the Freedom of Information Bill accepted by Cabinet in 2003.

  • The appointment of an oversight committee whose members will be nominated by both the government and the opposition to report on the enforcement of law and order in the country as well as disarming all armed groups in the North and East.

  • The immediate establishment of a separate Ministry for the Police, as done by the UNP in 2001. The government should announce a specific and detailed programme for inducting Tamil speaking personnel into the Police and make the existing personnel trilingual.

  • The demilitarisation of the North and limiting the role in civil administration in the North to the public service.

  • A new role for the Army be spelt out keeping in mind their need to protect the sovereignty and the territorial integrity of the country. The Army's role in securing territorial integrity of the nation is recognized but merely rewarding the high ranking personnel does not suffice. A programme to meet the requirements of all ranks who are serving should be put in place.

  • The implementation of a reconciliation programme without resorting to the use of one-time combatants and armed political groups whose involvement in the government's political process is seen as a definite hindrance to achieving effective reconciliation.

The UNP has also noted that "no meaningful steps were taken to investigate the deaths and disappearances of the civilians which were reported to the relevant authorities together with credible information. Therefore, the government must further appoint the several Independent Committees recommended by the LLRC to conduct further investigations into such cases."

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