June, 1990. Following the publication of an article in the Sri Lanka daily The Island about the parliamentary elections of the Maldives that had taken place the previous year, the Maldivian writer of the article was placed under house arrest. Sangu, the magazine that he worked for, was also shut down. The article in question accused then-Defence Minister Ilyas Ibrahim of rigging the previous year’s vote, when he had been running for one of the two parliamentary seats in Male. Minister Ibrahim was also the brother-in-law of then-President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.
Five months later, in November 1990, the reporter was taken to the Dhoonidhoo island prison, without trial, where he was held in solitary confinement in a tiny metal cage, six foot by four foot, pending an investigation. When he refused to sign a prefabricated confession, the real torture sessions began. For a week he was allowed no more than 10 to 15 minutes of sleep every night. At times his food was laced with bits of broken glass, at other times with laxatives. Once, for 12 days straight, he was chained to a chair and left out in the monsoon rain. For another 14 days, he was chained to a running electrical generator. He would later recount that it was not the food, nor the sleep deprivation, nor the days chained to various objects that really broke his spirit. Rather, it was the mere half-litre of water that he was given every day – all that was provided for drinking, washing and ablution.
After 18 months in solitary confinement, he was finally sentenced to a jail term of three and a half years. By the time the sentence was handed down, the damage caused by the regular torture he had endured had become overwhelming: his backbone was damaged, and he was suffering from internal bleeding. Three years later, in 1993, he was suddenly released, partly due to mounting international pressure from human-rights groups such as Amnesty International. That freedom was not to last, however, and he was taken back to custody. Over a long and painful 15-year period, he was thrown into solitary confinement and also placed under house arrest several times. The various charges levelled against him by the regime of President Gayoom were generally of sedition and misconduct – or, just as often, unknown or fabricated charges, merely for the purpose of getting him out of proximity to the public.
November, 2008. There, standing before the chief justice of the Maldives, was that very writer and activist. Now wearing a suit and tie, and smiling as the world watched in anticipation, the person who had suffered torture in jail and named a ‘prisoner of conscience’ was ready. Yes, on 11 November 2008, Mohamed Nasheed – writer, reporter, husband, father, activist and hero of the people – took the formal oath to become the fourth elected president of the Republic of the Maldives and the commander-in-chief of the armed forces.
This was a truly unprecedented moment, inspiring for the democratic ideals and resilience in the name of freedom that it represented. And, thus, was no fairytale: this was the true story of a man’s fight for rights and justice on behalf of the people against a brutal autocracy. There is little doubt that the triumph of Nasheed, or ‘Anni’ as he is widely known, will go down in Maldivian history as an enduring and inspirational tale.
Nasheed’s efforts to bring about change revved up to full speed on 20 September 2003, with the death of an inmate of the Maafushi jail, Evan Naseem. The victim died in hospital in Male as a result of extensive torture in prison. As news of his death reached his fellow inmates, a riot ensued, resulting in three more deaths, as prison guards opened fire on unarmed prisoners. During Naseem’s burial service, his bloodied body, bearing innumerable torture marks, became an undeniable icon of the horrors of the ruthless Gayoom regime. Rioting erupted, and several government buildings were torched. In the aftermath of that incident, however, Maldivian history was also created, as the tragic death of Evan Naseem spurred the birth of the first – and most potent – opposition political party in the country. The Maldivian Democratic Party, or MDP, was established in exile in Colombo on 10 November 2003.
Thereafter, facing mounting disenchantment within and diplomatic pressure internationally, President Gayoom was forced to begin a lengthy reforms process that saw the drafting of a new constitution, and the adoption of several new parliamentary bills. The most crucial of the latter, unanimously voted upon by members of the Majlis, or Parliament, allowed for the establishment of political parties – for the first time in Maldivian history. The MDP – chaired by Nasheed, who had returned from exile in Sri Lanka – was the first party to be registered, on 26 June 2005. In June 2007, in a national referendum that would decide on the country’s future system of governance, the public voted for a presidential system. Following this, Nasheed contested in the MDP primaries and won, thus becoming the party’s presidential candidate.
Suddenly, there was a plethora of parties in the fray, all of which presented a contender in the first round of presidential elections, on 8 October 2008. In hindsight, nothing could have been more perfect for generating the kind of public sentiment required to topple President Gayoom’s regime at the ballot. In total, five candidates were listed during the first round of voting: Gasim Ibrahim (of the Republican Party), Gayoom himself (of the ruling Dhivehi Raiyithunge Party), Hassan Saeed (a former attorney-general under President Gayoom and an independent candidate), Ibrahim Ismail (of the Social Liberal Party) and Umar Naseer (of the Islamic Democratic Party). Although there were no official opinion polls, public attitude seemed to suggest that many wanted change, but that such a change might not necessarily end up being Mohamed Nasheed. The existence of the remaining candidates, especially popular figures such as Gasim and Saeed, made a democratic choice actually possible – and added to the credibility of the election and the winning candidate.
On 7 October, the day before the first round of voting, the auditor-general released a report on the presidential office. The report was extremely critical of Gayoom’s tenure, and highlighted glaring facts that painted a picture of a culture of misappropriation of government funds. Copies of the report spread like wildfire throughout the country, threatening such an impact on Gayoom’s campaign machinery that he was forced to go on state television to complain of the report being a “time bomb”. And indeed it was, an explosion designed to inflict maximum damage.
Supporters of Gayoom remained loyal, however. Amidst general public ignorance of independent bodies such as the Auditor General’s Office and the powers vested in them, many of his supporters dismissed the report as a fabrication. If any damage was done by the accusations of wrong-doing, many believed that it would be contained solely in the capital. A petition by Gayoom’s ruling party, submitted to the Majlis, questioned the veracity of the auditor-general’s findings, but this was promptly dismissed by the speaker.
The tide was soon found to have turned, though the immediate ramifications were not entirely clear. When the initial election results came in, many found to their surprise that a majority of the electorate, about 60 percent, had voted for candidates other than Gayoom, though they spread their votes among the other four candidates. During what turned out to be the first round, Gayoom collected a little over 40 percent of the votes, while Nasheed came in second place with 25 percent. Since there was no clear winner – ie, one receiving more than 50 percent – the required runoff election was scheduled for 28 October, with Gayoom and Nasheed alone in the fray.
It was clear from the way that Gayoom and his camp celebrated the first-round results that they were confident of winning the election. In a televised interview just two days after the runoff election, Gayoom denied that 60 percent of the voting public did not want him in power. Instead, he stressed that the 40 percent that he had received, as by far the largest percentage among the candidates, was a sign that the majority still wanted to see him in the top job for the next five years. During the remaining days of canvassing, though this view was roundly ridiculed in the media, there was nervousness among the Maldivian democrats. And indeed, the voter turnout did present a rather unique situation. Gayoom, with his 40 percent of guaranteed votes, would need to win just another 10 percent of the electorate. Nasheed, meanwhile, with just 25 percent votes guaranteed, would need more than an additional quarter of voters to decide that he was their choice.
With little time left for the runoff elections, the situation set in motion a feverish chain of campaign events. With the runoff election slated for 28 October, the rest of the candidates and their parties united with the MDP in a coalition. This group, now consisting of seven opposition parties, campaigned together and presented their supporters with a unique prospect for the future of the country.
In order to understand part of what transpired, it must be understood that the people of the Maldives, although not strictly conservative, are very sensitive to religious issues – especially religious dissent. There is also something of an ingrained fear of religions other than Islam. Gayoom’s Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) subsequently focused on creating a sense of suspicion towards the MDP; although this had also been attempted earlier, it was now being done on an unprecedented scale. Even before the first round of elections, the DRP media team had sought to associate the MDP with Christianity and Buddhism. In one particularly absurd press briefing, the DRP campaign suggested that two symbols of Nasheed’s campaign – the colour yellow and the ‘temple’-flower logo – were associated with Buddhism. After it was finally pointed out that the country’s own currency, the hundred-rufiyaa note, bore images of the same flowers, the farce was quickly abandoned.
Perhaps a more significant impression was made by the DRP’s attempts to paint the MDP’s associations with various foreign NGOs, especially those based in the UK, as being part of a sinister plan to bring Christianity to the Maldives, and to establish the atolls’ first church. The DRP spokesperson even went on state television purporting to have evidence of such a plot in the form of a leaked e-mail between the MPD and a church in Salisbury, in the UK. The alleged conspiracy this time: planning to blow up the largest mosque in Male so that a church could be built in its place. The election saboteurs of the DRP apparently believed that such outrageous accusations would be lapped up by the public. Instead, the opposite happened.
This was the first election in which the Maldivian diaspora was allowed to vote, with ballot boxes being offered in Singapore, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, India and the UK. It was these results – arriving from Singapore and Malaysia long before counting had begun on the ballot boxes even in Male – that gave the first taste of what was to come. And what the count revealed was truly shocking: Nasheed and the coalition were garnering more than 60 percent of the votes. As the night wore on, the public, glued to their television sets, witnessed what had been presumed to be impossible: Gayoom was trailing significantly.
As the sun rose on 29 October, thousands of men, women and children gathered at the eastern beach of the capital, to welcome the new day. Emotional scenes followed as more and more people appeared, many of them openly weeping. Among the crowd were victims of torture and mistreatment. Before long, Gayoom conceded his electoral defeat in a radio address. The prisoner of conscience had championed the cause of democracy, and turned on its head the political landscape of the atolls.
Maldivian history has its fair share of national icons, with tall tales of heroic acts being taught in schools throughout the country. Prominent among these is Mohamed Thakurufaanu, who hailed from the island of Utheemu in the 1500s and is said to have saved the islands from the barbarism of Portuguese conquerors and the impending forced conversion of the islands to Christianity. Many others appear in the pages of Maldives history. As a result, most Maldivians hold heroism in high regard, and idolisation has taken strong root in the culture. But a new type of hero was born here. Supporters of the president-elect were eager to get on with the celebrations when, during his first post-election press conference, Nasheed called on Maldivians to “be humble in victory and courageous in defeat”. These words marked a significant change in mood, and radio stations across the Maldives soon began talking about the benevolence and peaceful style of President-elect Nasheed. Some religious speakers even equated his words to the traditions of the prophet Mohammad.
The victory for the people, Nasheed said, should not be a time to dwell and reflect on the past. Instead, he continued, it is a time to think ahead and to move forward. He reminded the public that the path forward would be rough, and that a country on the brink of financial collapse need not waste time and resources on celebrations. That is what the new president says, but one is allowed to celebrate the fact that true democracy had finally arrived to a small corner of the world and to the southwest of Southasia, in grand fashion. And, the Maldives’ own hero had been born again.
Profile: Free man as President by Dilrukshi Handunnetti
Romila Thapar addresses invitees at the
Southasian relaunch of Himal Southasian,
IIC, New Delhi, January 2013.
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