As the Indian Ocean nation of nearly 1,200 islands embarks on a new journey under President Ibrahim Solih on November 17, it looks to shake off the past five years of what Maldivians seem to regard as Beijing’s stifling embrace. Former President of the Maldives Mohamed Nasheed played a key role in the Maldivian Democratic Party’s victory as a major player in the new coalition arrangement, and he will continue to shape his nation’s fortune as it moves closer to India. He spoke to Narayan Lakshman in Male about his vision for this strategically critical nation.
After two years of self-imposed exile from the Maldives it is good to see you return. How do you see the transition of power playing out in the days and weeks ahead?
Unlike many other unity governments, or similar experiences that we have seen with our neighbours as well, we have been an alliance for a longer period. This wasn’t an alliance just scrapped together for the elections. We’ve been fighting together for the last four years, in fact. So we have come to understand the difficulties that all of us would face if things don’t go right, especially [former Maldives] President [Maumoon Abdul] Gayoom, the Honourable [Jumhooree Party leader] Gasim, [Ibrahim], Adhaalath Party leader Sheikh Imran [Abdulla] and myself as well. We’ve seen a lot in the last 15 to 20 years, and I think we’ve all learnt many lessons.
There’s a genuine need to stick together for a period of time until we are able to set the ground rules of competitive politics. Peaceful political activity and competitive politics is new to the Maldives. We were the first party to win that kind of election. We’ve understood that if we don’t stick together and make it work together, this is going to have such an impact on the next generation of Maldivians. I believe that this is very promising, and I also believe that the President-Elect has the ability and the capacity to deliver it, to make sure that all parties stick together. That everyone is able to compromise. I feel that this is a new dawn and we will be able to make it a success.
You have obviously played a role in the coming-together of these leaders. How do you see your role evolving to realise this vision you outlined?
I think one of the most important things that should be doing is that I should give space and time to the President, and to make sure that we are the biggest party in this group. We have to be the most magnanimous of all the parties as well. We shouldn’t be displaying our strength. I think my role will be to display humility and to see that we can always step back. In a sense my whole political career and the success of it is a series of stepping back, not moving forward.
You spoke of this coming-together of leaders and the hope that that will continue. When that did not happen in the past, say in 2013, what was the thinking of the Maldivian people or parties that made them not come together this way, or see things differently, which led to so many years of difficulty?
After a very long period of single-party rule, we had our first multi-party election in 2008. President Gayoom didn’t lose by that much – he lost to me with 46% [vote share]. I believe they felt that the victory we had, the 56% that we had at that time, wasn’t really ours. But we took it to be ours. The realisation now, is to understand is that the 58% is not ours. We are still in our 40s and it’s about being able to measure our own size. We got such a huge, overwhelming vote, but it was not just MDP that got the vote. [We should] recognise that [all the other coalition partners did contribute]. Now we have come to that realisation. We have had seven elections with this new constitution. The people of the Maldives have not given a majority to a single party in any of these elections. No party has got over 50%. We know that the people of the Maldives are not interested in backing a singularity.
Even in backing a plurality do they see something as common between those whom they support, in this case?
In this case the people have supported democracy, freedom, and justice. [Outgoing] President [Abdulla] Yameen has done so much infrastructure work that it is understandable that he feels that he should go to court, that he has been done in. You have a look at the amount of concrete that he has poured. But the people were looking at something else. They didn’t see that as development.
I’ve seen this in many instances. In 2011, we built an airstrip in one of the islands. These islanders are very removed and remote. They were requesting for this airstrip for the past 30 years. Then we came to government and we built it. Two weeks later there was a local council election, and they didn’t vote for us. I don’t think South Asians vote for infrastructure mega projects. They like to talk about it and say that this is development, but they know that development is what happens to you. It is not something so foreign from you. It is something that happens to your family. It’s an extra little bit of income to have a decent life. If you don’t feel that impact to your family, you can be building castles in the air and they will remain that. It won’t change people’s minds. So, the idea of coming in with vast amounts of funds from donors with high interest rates and a debt-trap – we are not buying it. These donors must also understand that we are not buying it.
Over the past five years a vast amount of debt has been incurred and a commensurate level of construction has also occurred. Now many things are left hanging, others might be reviewed. There is also a question of the size of the debt. It was initially thought to be around $1.5 billion, now it looks closer to $3 billion or more. How will you engage with China, especially given the context of this ‘debt-trap diplomacy?’
We must measure, weigh and find out, how much actually came. First, we need to do an audit of the projects. We must pay back what we have received, but nothing more.
What if that amount is large?
The amount is not large. What we owe, we know. We have seen it. We know the price of a kilometre of road, the prices of concrete and steel. We can count how many nails went into a bridge. Most importantly we need to do a proper audit of what has come in,and anything more than that, we cannot pay back. If you have not created an asset, how do you generate an income?
But there is a critical question of the pricing. Even in the case of the airport-to-Male bridge
The sovereign guarantees dished out [are part of the problem]. It’s like a loan shark, [asking back manifold amounts of what was given]. How can I return that amount? I can’t, and you also know I can’t. But you also have my land deed. So, you lent me money because you wanted the land deed, not because you wanted [the money back].
But I think China will understand what we are talking about. I am hopeful that they will correct themselves. Once you come out with the facts and figures, then we must go to the appropriate international arena or the courts. Most of the complications would be on private sector projects where the Chinese Export Import Bank has funded it, and where the treasury has given a sovereign guarantee to guarantee those projects.
But in other cases, such as Feydhoo Finolhu island, which was leased to Beijing at a cut-rate price for 50 years, can you go back on those leases?
President Yameen has given away so many flats to people who were not deserving, without proper tendering and processes. The view of the new government is, if the process is wrong, you must review it. We’re looking at transparency in the process. Anything given out must be given through the proper process; if not, it has to be reviewed.
How does this change things with India, for example in terms of the visa issue?
They must come here! (Laughs) This is a silly thing to talk about! And we must be able to go there. Why can’t Indians come here? We watch the same films, eat the same food, read the same books. Our relationship with India is not based upon our fortunes. It is based upon principles, values, a shared history and culture. It’s not simply because we want it when we are down and out, and we look up to India – but when we win… No, that’s not how it should work. It already has changed from what it used to be – the visa issue for working professionals and for navy personnel.
I went to Addu [island] last week. There was a construction team working on the police academy there and they didn’t have people there to work. They have been requesting for work visas. Especially people running the military’s helicopter ambulance – they must be given their work permits.
On the helicopter issue, what is the current status?
We want it! Just check how many evacuations those helicopters have done. Everyone might be thinking that it might be for a military purpose. In fact, what it has been used for is civilian evacuations. It is very useful to the Maldives and it is still here. I think it is in Lammu and maybe Addu.
What do you make of the 2+1 model, where China and India come together to work with a third country – could that apply here?
No. Simply because India wants to have the benefits of the Chinese economy, that doesn’t mean they should foist someone else on us. We don’t want moonlighting and double-timing. That’s clear. We have a friend, we will be good, honest and loyal to our friend, and we want our friend to be honest and loyal to us.
Is there a concern over the possibility of Chinese retaliation if things change the way you have said they might?
We are so small. China must understand that this is wrong. They must change their ways. That’s not how you do business. They are not going to be happy about this. But in the long run, to have better relationships with countries, you don’t give rope to hang yourself. India has been our neighbour for many thousands of years, but it has never been a threat. In fact, I think we have been such a bother to them. We are the size of a village in India, and no village in India would create so much bother as we do.
The Maldives is important to India.
That is only because India is honourable. In 1947 the Maldives could have got independence. The Maldives rulers at that time went to Prime Minister Nehru and said they wanted to become independent. Nehru asked them not to push for that because if they did so at that time they would be lumped with India or Sri Lanka. It was Nehru’s India that we wait until 1967, when things are clear, and then we become an independent state. The Prime Minister understood that we should always have been independence all through our history. So, sanity will prevail in India as well. A few people might not understand what is going on, but most of your academics, institutions and historians, will understand that we must remain independent.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi is coming here tomorrow. What would you say to him?
First, thank you, because for the last five years the Prime Minister decided not to visit because everyone was in jail. I’m sure that the Maldives was strategically important to India and there would have been many, many people in India who said he must go. But I think there was a realisation in New Delhi that that is not how you deal with the Maldives. We like that, that India has institutions that understand us. To see that happen was very encouraging.
What would you say to him about the future of India-Maldives?
India probably would become unhappy when I say that we shouldn’t increase our carbon emission by more than 450 ppm. They probably would be very, very angry about it and say that we’re backing the Europeans. But that is vital to the Maldives. We cannot sign a suicide pact with India. They will get upset about it, but I hope they will understand that we have to say this. We are taking this position, not because of India, but because of Maldives. It is in our national interest. Indian safety and security is our concern, because our safety and security is linked to theirs. We will have difficulties, but I hope we understand each other, and I am sure we will.
We would like to be respected. I’ve been brought in front of many heads of state. You know when you’re bullied, and you know when you’re respected. As President I was paraded in many places, and you know when you see someone who is proper. I think we will disagree with India on climate change issues, but we will probably agree on everything else. Even on climate change we would probably not disagree with many Indians. Give me a mic in Delhi!
Finally, with this sort of coalition, you have to keep everyone happy. Can you give us a hint about what kind of allocation of ministries the President-Elect is contemplating?
My argument is that the Cabinet is the President’s prerogative, and he will decide on the Cabinet knowing full well that he was elected through a coalition. The President also must and does understand, and I believe he does, that there were conversations on what the composition of the Cabinet would be. If I and other party leaders propose names, where would the President then be? I think that is wrong. We’ve all agreed that we will sound out things to the President, but it would not be to the last letter. It must be a civil, decent, gentleman’s agreement. I don’t think agreements signed on paper are actually honoured.
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