- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 27, 2008




A Sunni Muslim dictatorship has yielded to democracy without a single U.S. soldier, or any foreign military intervention at all.

And where was this? The Maldives. The 1,200-island state, only 200 of which are inhabited, is one of the most low-lying countries in the world, threatened in time with becoming another Atlantis. For 30 years it was a dictatorship ruled by President Mamoun Gayoom.

As one former prominent political prisoner, Ahmed Naseem Mohamed, put it: “The Maldives was a paradise for tourists, but a hell for Maldivians.”

The well-heeled tourists - the annual inflow is double the local population of 300,000 - didn’t seem to care: They went to the beautiful archipelago to explore the seas and each other, not the country’s social conditions.

This former British territory was left with a legacy of constitutionalism, but gradually Mr. Gayoom, the longest-serving ruler in Asia, turned it into a police state. He argued that the West should back him because his state straddled crucial sea-lanes, allowing access not least to oil tankers. Also, he said, he was a bulwark against the jihadism that was infiltrating the islands. His harsh rule, however, encouraged growing Islamist dissidence, as well as democratic pro-Western opposition.

The State Department and organizations such as Amnesty International regularly criticized the human-rights abuses, lack of media and religious freedom, and imprisonment and torture of the democratic opposition.

The dictatorship was recently banished, however, largely because of the courage and determination of one man.

In the last month, Mohamed Nasheed won the first free and fair presidential elections against Mr. Gayoom, his longtime persecutor. The 41-year-old former political prisoner has been likened to Mahatma Gandhi, but he may have trouble keeping his head above water. In the short term he faces a looted treasury and in the long term his country may be sinking beneath the waves.

In exile, Mr. Nasheed, popularly known as “Anni,” inspired the first main opposition group, the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP). But Anni served a tough apprenticeship on the long walk to freedom: He was jailed 23 times and sometimes tortured on various prison islands.

In November 2006, he attempted to inspire an “Orange revolution” to unseat Mr. Gayoom, who was stalling on democratic reforms, largely inspired internally by the MDP and externally by Western pressure.

While making a TV documentary, I stood alongside Anni as he faced police baton charges. The presence of a Western film crew deterred police excesses, he said. During peaceful street demonstrations, and later in London, the young politician, who had been schooled in England, impressed with his straightforward decency. He was almost too honest to be a successful politician.

I recalled the old adage that people who start revolutions rarely finish them. I was wrong. The former Maldivian dictator assumed he would win the required 50 per cent in the first round of presidential elections. He didn’t. Mr. Nasheed instead won the second round of the elections in October and he was made president-elect.

His inauguration was on Nov. 11, two years after I filmed him standing alone on the streets of the Maldivian capital, Male, after the failure of his attempt to create a peaceful revolution.

Veteran foreign correspondents are accustomed to guerrilla leaders and exiled politicians promising that when they win power they will give the favored hack the first interview in the presidential palace.

On his busy first day in office, he found time to give me that interview. “Not many Islamic countries have had free and fair elections to form a multiparty democracy,” he said. Despite his brutal treatment, he preached forgiveness to the old regime, because it was an Islamic principle and practical politics. He said Mandela and the South African Truth and Reconciliation process were his model.

Mr. Nasheed has also been compared with Barack Obama. Did he face the same crisis of expectations as the U.S. president-elect? “No,” he said, “I have already delivered on my main promise: democracy.”

But the previous regime has emptied the treasury. “Our finances are in bad shape. We can’t consolidate democracy if we can’t pay wages. The economic fundamentals are good, the problem is the next few months.”

He said he was appealing to Great Britain, as well as China and India. I suggested that Britain was not in great shape to hand out any money, although Anni was asking for just $200 million in emergency loans.

I also asked the president to order his police chief - before sacking him - to take me next day to visit the prison where the young leader was tied to a large generator (which had temporarily deafened him), was fed glass in his food, and was kept in solitary confinement.

The next day a senior police officer took me to Dhoonidhoo prison island, where I filmed. I also took along two prominent political prisoners - a newspaper editor, Anthu Najeeb, and Ahmed Naseem Mohamed, who was made a minister the day he visited the cells where he had been shackled by his hands and feet, put in stocks, and kept for five years.

Anthu is a petite young woman who had been shackled, blindfolded, threatened with rape and then told she would be thrown into the sea.

Did she support the forgiveness policy of the new president? “I believe in forgiveness,” she replied, “but I also believe in justice.”

Mr. Nasheed has asked Britain to help this new democratic member of the commonwealth. He faces a huge task of rebuilding his country, despite jihadist infiltration and long-term challenges of global warming. On the eve of his presidency he talked of eventually - in 50 years or more - relocating his people to Sri Lanka, India or even Australia: “I don’t want my grandchildren living in a tent in a refugee camp.”

The new president insists that his revolution is a beacon to the Islamic world and beyond. He modeled his policies and campaign on Britain’s opposition Conservative Party. So maybe the crash-strapped governments in London, or even Washington, could help this kind of Islamic transformation. It would be a tiny and very cost-effective sum compared with the billions spent in Iraq and Afghanistan.

There is a lesson here for the long war on Islamic terror: Helping local opposition parties to do the job largely on their own may be a better means of winning democratic freedoms. In the 2008 Maldives elections, not a drop of blood was shed.

Paul Moorcraft is director of the Centre for Foreign Policy Analysis.



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