To coin a phrase by Britain’s pre Second World Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, “It is a faraway country of which we know little”. Chamberlain was of course referring to Czechoslovakia, and at a time when Hitler’s Germany was preparing to grab the Sudetenland under the pretext that this part of Czechoslovakia was mainly occupied by indigenous Germans. That speech has gone down in the annals of history as one of “appeasement”. It also helped reassure Hitler that the British had no stomach to halt his expansionist plans – that was until Winston Churchill replaced Chamberlain.
The Maldives are also a “faraway place of which we know little”. Apart from the fact perhaps that for many years it has been a favourite holiday destination for wealthy Westerners, the best resorts barely a skip and a jump from the crowded warrens of the capital Male. Few could have known that these islands in the Indian Ocean were for decades presided over by an authoritarian dictator, President Maumoon Gayoom, whose own luxurious lifestyle marked such a contrast with those of his citizens. But there were some who should have known better; Western politicians and businessmen who knew full well what Gayoom and his henchmen were up to. I used to remind some of them in the British Labour Party that the islands they were set to holiday in were run by not only by a corrupt elite, the elite were Ba’athists to boot. I particularly reminded them of this when some of these same politicians were supporting the war against Ba’athist Iraq.
So in common with many around the World, I was delighted when my old friend, Mohammed Nasheed, finally beat Gayoom in the Maldives first free Presidential elections in 2008. We briefly attended the same school together in the English West country, and we met again many years later when I was editing Tribune, shortly after ‘Anni’ as he is affectionately known in his home country was first imprisoned for writing an article in a magazine in which he alleged Gayoom had rigged the 1989 elections. This was not to be the last time Gayoom had Anni imprisoned. In fact he was arrested and incarcerated on a further three occasions, on one of these he was held in solitary confinement and tortured. Anni was made an Amnesty International Prisoner of Conscience in 1991.
His Presidency has been marked by brave attempts to tackle the perennial poverty of his fellow citizens. Anni has eschewed the Presidential Palace and the trappings of power, and instead has put the Maldives firmly on the global radar, famously holding a Cabinet meeting under water in the Indian Ocean, in order to bring the Maldives plight as one of the country’s most at risk to global warming to international attention. He has opened up the media, strengthened the Maldives young democracy and in a poor country has extended educational opportunities. Anni was this year awarded the UN’s “Earth Award”, the most prestigious environmental prize that the organisation can give.
Sadly the dark forces that surrounded the former President did not rise to the occasion, but instead set about plotting the downfall of this fledgling democracy. The crisis came to a head at the end of last month when thirteen of Anni’s Cabinet Minister resigned protesting at the antics of some Opposition MPs, and in particular citing allegations of corruption against former Finance Minister and half brother of the defeated President, Abdulla Yameen, and Gasim Ibrahim, leader of the Peoples Association Party. Supporters of Anni claim that efforts have been made to bribe MPs to contrive to block Government legislation and that two prominent Maldivian businessman are involved in the machinations.
The crisis in the Maldives has not abated, and over the next few days there may be more attempts to destabilise that country’s young democracy.
Having failed the Maldives at their time of need during the 1980s and 1990s, the international community cannot afford to turn away now