Struggle in paradise: The case against former Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed

As the Maldives celebrates 50 years since its independence from Britain, it’s worth remembering that our small island nation was for centuries the plaything of colonial powers — fought over by the Portuguese, Dutch and finally the British, from whom we gained full control in 1965.

Soon after the country became a global magnet for tourism as international air travel connected our remote archipelago with the world. It did not take long for our country to become synonymous with paradise on Earth. 

Maldivians are proud of the stunning atolls and islands that we call home.

We are equally thankful for the visitors that provide the backbone to our small but burgeoning economy.

Maldivians share the same desire to prosper as other peoples. But what has been lost amongst the images of idyllic beaches and azure waters is that this is a developing nation like any other — with its own economic challenges, social fissures and political sparring.

Challenges

Our transformation into multi-party democracy has not been without its challenges.

Only this week, former President Mohamed Nasheed, who was defeated in the most recent 2013 election, attended a hearing in the Maldives High Court on the progress of an appeal — brought by the Prosecutor General himself — against charges that Nasheed unlawfully arrested a senior judge during his tenure.

Nasheed is now serving a jail term for what many, even within his own political coalition, saw as a dangerous assault on the independence of the judiciary.

Even before this incident, President Nasheed had padlocked the Supreme Court and attempted to impose a new bench of judges without parliamentary approval — something against the fundamental democratic principles of any nation.

President Nasheed certainly gained notoriety for his underwater cabinet meeting to highlight climate change, as well as attracting several high profile friends in the United States.

His current lawyer, Amal Clooney, is an example of his celebrity status amongst many.

Yet this current case must look beyond carefully crafted public relations. It will be a test of the strength of Maldives institutions — of the judiciary and of parliament especially.

That the Maldivian High Court, known for its fierce independence, is proceeding with the appeal process against the government’s decision is a positive step.

The government, for one, will look forward to participating in a legal process that we are determined will be free of interference on all sides — foreign or domestic.

Islamic State threat

Yet the challenges facing the Maldives go far beyond the dispute over the conduct of a former President. And these matter to the world, not just to our small nation.

This week, another Maldivian family was returned to us from Turkey as they attempted to cross the border into Syria to join Islamic State.

It is estimated that 100 Maldivians are currently fighting for the extremist group, while five have already been killed fighting in Syria and Iraq.

As many western nations have themselves discovered, the answer to homegrown extremism is complex.

In the Maldives we know that the lure of a life as a foreign fighter finds a fertile recruiting ground amongst the unemployed and dispossessed.

Those that feel they have no part to play in a system that has pushed them to the periphery.

We are proud of the economic advances that have been made so far — the Maldives is the highest ranking in South Asia in the Global Development Index, as well as ranked by the UN as an MDG+ country — but much hard work remains.

The global response to extremism must be unified and coordinated, and we are ready to play our part in that conversation.

Opening up

History presents a litany of young states that have taken decades to build the democratic institutions to accommodate the often diverse and opposing views that emerged from the vacuum left by the withdrawal of the colonial powers.

From Asia, to Africa, to South America, a period of one-party rule was not uncommon in the aftermath of independence. In the Maldives it was no different.

Yet in this jubilee year, we can look back on the emergence of a true multiparty democracy over the last decade, with several successful and peaceful elections and a vibrant opposition party that has also recently served in government. Our political landscape continues to flourish, with party coalitions forming and shifting, and power-changing hands without blood being spilled on the streets.

In recent years our media has grown bolder in its criticism of government policy. On social media, young activists have found a channel to hold politicians to account. While all of this often leads to uncomfortable reading for ministers and lawmakers, we all understand that a free press is a vital pillar to genuine democratic reform.

For decades, our nation was rarely seen outside holiday brochures and picture postcards. Now in our 50th year Maldivians are becoming accustomed to their country appearing on international news channels.

How we respond to the growing pains of a young democracy, as well as a dangerous and untested new security threat in the form of Islamic militancy, is of crucial importance. This struggle in paradise is new territory in a region of ever-shifting dynamics and dangers. How we meet those challenges will set the course for the next 50 years.

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