Dunya Maumoon, a former Foreign Minister (2013-2016) under outgoing Maldives President Abdulla Yameen and now in opposition to him, speaks to SNI’s Amitabh P Revi just after she met the President-elect Ibrahim Solih. Dunya Maumoon resigned as Health Minister in February 2018 after the President jailed her father ex-President Maumoon Gayoom. She talks about the election results, her father’s release, the new government’s need to balance foreign policy, how India did not have the financial capability to match China but the need to be wary of being enslaved under Beijing debt trap.
Q: You met the President-elect and congratulated him. This is just after the election commission has also endorsed the final results.
A: I had the pleasure of meeting the President-elect Honourable Ibrahim Solih to discuss various issues. First of all, let me also express my happiness that the coalition that stands for strengthening of democracy and human rights has been voted in by the people. The will of the people has been towards freedom and that’s what we can see from the results of this election. Secondly, many people have been unconstitutionally prosecuted, particularly my father who served this country for 30 years and developed this country and brought it in terms of modern development and brought it far ahead. I know it’s the work of all the people of Maldives and also many of our other Presidents and other leaders have some credit. But I believe the bulk of the work was really carried out under my father. It was very disturbing for Maldivians to see how my father was prosecuted and treated and put into jail and also my brother for standing up for rights and democracy and talking out loud against various things that were being carried out under President Yameen’s government.
Q: You raised many issues with the President-elect. One of his campaign promises was to release your father and other political prisoners on Day 1 of being in power. Did that issue come up at all?
A: That was the first point that I raised. Let me note that many people have already been released. They are people kept without charge or trial and there are some that have already received convictions unfairly and serving a number of years in prison. So there are various categories of political prisoners. We’re pleased to see through the prosecution and the court given redress to these people. But, how can you actually properly do justice to somebody who has spent years in prison unfairly convicted because of political persecution? So it’s a difficult job for all the institutions. I’m happy to see that the Maldivian institutions are working things out peacefully so far. It’s unfortunate that our country has come to this stage where the courts and others are so heavily influenced that people can just be picked up and locked up. It was an atmosphere of fear that was there in this country.
Q: As you say the courts have begun to release some of those who have been detained. What was President-elect Solih’s response to how he will move forward to get others released?
A: He said he was working with all the institutions and as I said before in some of my tweets we require to distinguish among them and I think however he carries authority where he is able to work with a range of people in resolving issues. We can already see that steps are being taken. My brother-in-law was released a few days back and I’m very happy that he’s back at home and also you may know some of the MPs and also Mr Ahmed Mahloof who stood up very strongly for rights and democracy and who had been prosecuted. He was also released by the courts recently. President-elect Solih said that a transitional working group will be set up to work towards the transition and obviously with the government. That committee will be set up soon and they will be starting their work and I think many things that have gone wrong will be looked at and we’re very hopeful that my father will be home in the next couple of days because in his case the medical board has already advised that he be at home due to his age obviously and also his health situation. But that has been blocked by the executive. So even after the results of the board came out there have been attempts made to make sure that he is kept in and as we know part of the reason is President Yameen tried to consolidate power on my father’s vote. My sister has already brought the matter to court that he’s using the courts against the law and unfairly because President Yameen already took away my father’s party from him and then locked him up as well. So we’re hoping that we see justice being done in the coming days and see my father and my brother come home also that the party comes back to its rightful owners because that’s who the party members elected as President of the party and various other people they elected in positions within the party itself.
Q: You’re talking about justice being done in the coming days and weeks, Ex-President Nasheed is also in exile because of President Yameen and other Maldivian institutions. Did President-elect Solih say anything because he’s an MDP leader and his own cousin?
A: Yes. They have a close relationship. I think he’s keen to move ahead obviously with the guidance of his mentor President Nasheed. President Nasheed, if I could add—though he didn’t discuss details—I feel the trial itself was unfair, the charges unfair and then he was sentenced to 13 long years. So in many of those cases, of former Defence Minister, of Nasheed and various others, their cases have to be reviewed at various levels whether the charges weren’t fully heard, whether there was any evidence. Most believe it was politically motivated and hence there’s a difficult task ahead in order for all these cases to be reviewed and also that nothing like this repeats in our country any more every time there’s a change in government there’s prosecution. The judiciary has to become truly independent so that people have the confidence in them that they would not be unfairly prosecuted that’s one thing very important in any democracy and in the Maldives that has not been the case and we need to ensure that in the future.
Q: EC has endorsed the final results. President Yameen conceded last Sunday. There were reports that his party could still try and put a spanner in the works through courts or through complaints. Is that completely ruled out in your mind?
A: For me, it’s completely ruled out. The fear remains because of what people have seen in the past and because they have lost confidence in the institutions themselves which is a very sad thing because when you lose confidence in your own EC, own HRC, the police and the military that they would actually uphold the constitution and protect the people. It’s their duty first, not just to protect their leaders. That’s why people are still suspicious, still wondering that they can they do something, will they come out and overturn these results. But I’m heartened that the initial results that were announced have remained. The EC took their time, have formalized it and the institutions are working to set right what went wrong. So I remain hopeful because we have to work with these institutions, we have to strengthen their credibility in front of the people so that all Maldivians are treated equally and in a fair manner and that justice is always done.
Q: Taking about institutions. After reports of overturning of the result or declaring it invalid the army and the police said they would ensure the will of the people was carried out. And the international community was watching closely. Do you believe the scrutiny ensured a free and fair result?
A: It was a crucial time. We were all worried about it, but once the military and the police said they would respect the will of the people then people were happier and content that things would proceed smoothly. I believe the fact that the whole world was watching and inside the country all the citizens were watching and holding them accountable. It contributed to the fact that all these institutions came in line so they knew there was no room to do anything that was wrong and I think that watching was also important and that watching will remain. The country, the world, the media will continue to watch what is going on in the Maldives and every single step and this is not just for President Yameen or others. It’s also for our President-elect, the new govt that comes in that accountability has to remain so that they do not go down the wrong path as has happened in the past and I think it’s important citizens have taken on a very big role in social media and other things to keep the watch on—what’s happening, who goes where and does what and I hope that remains so that people know that they can hold their leaders accountable.
Q: You have accused President Yameen of consolidating his hold on his party on your father’s name. President Yameen continues to lead the party after it voted him as chief on Friday. Your sister Yumna has gone to court against that. How will you move forward to get control of that party?
A: I believe my father continues to be the most respected politician and leader in the country. Ibrahim Solih is also very respectful of my father and will take his guidance in going ahead. I think once my father is out it will be only a matter of days before the people and the party will come back to support him. So whether it’s taking back the PPM or whether it’s a new party he will be a significant political force in the country.
Q: You said you spoke to the President-elect on the need for a balanced foreign policy. What do you mean by that?
A: I think I had commented earlier too as you know during President Yameen’s time when I was Foreign Minister during some of that time we had seen a strong shift from the balance we had earlier very much towards China. There were reasons, China was financing concessional loans for many of the bigger development projects that Maldives wants to undertake. India was obviously very unhappy and concerned. I remember myself personally telling India please if you’re interested please come in, bring in the finances and help us with these projects, help us with our development. But I think India just didn’t have the capacity to match up to China’s capacity. Saying that I know the Chinese practices of really kind of enslaving countries in a debt burden of their own is something we should be very wary of. My advice to the President-elect is really to be careful, consistent. Have a friendship at a certain level. We obviously work to our national interest but not to let any one particular country or organisation influence our internal politics in a way that is detrimental to our country. That has happened particularly in our relations with China, so I think we have to be careful going ahead. I also want to mention I’m very disappointed with the leaders particularly in the SAARC region. My father was one of the founding fathers of SAARC. He has the respect of the people of the SAARC countries. When I go to India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh or anywhere, they always mention my father, they are always very respectful of him. We did not see these leaders at least publically utter a single word to protect my father’s rights or others who had been politically prosecuted. I feel they have not done all that they could to help our country that was going through a very difficult period of time. Ok everybody said those are internal matters of your country but we live in an international system. We all have duties towards each other and it is important to be there to help in times of need and not look in the opposite direction and pretend you don’t see what’s going on. That’s my message particularly to the leaders in this region and our close friends, including Sri Lanka, India that I believe a lot more could have been done.
Q: You talk about your advice to President-elect Solih on balancing foreign policy. You mentioned China in particular. You said India may not have had the financial capacity to compete with China. The way that India was treated by the Yameen Government many in the incoming government have told SNI was disgraceful. How would you look back on it?
A: I believe that was not right. I think it’s important to be respectful and friendly, particularly with India that has been a very close friend of the Maldives from the past. Again, our geography, we are in the Indian Ocean. I believe all those relationships could have been handled differently and I have always advised that. I have never advised being rude and confrontational in any of our relationships which is, unfortunately, the way President Yameen chose to act. And that did not help. When we started the term in office we had much better relations with other countries. I am very sad that it was in my tenure that Maldives actually for the first time cut diplomat ties with another country. Also later on, after I left office, with Qatar as well. I advised many times against it. It is there, documented and in writing. Unfortunately, I had the solid instructions of my boss and he was adamant that we should cut those ties. That proceeded that way. Let me maybe hope to have another opportunity. So I do hope we can mend those relationships. We can regain back the friendships that we had. We left the Commonwealth. I think it’s important for us to become part of the Commonwealth again. Or our role in the UN. Our engagement with them. I think there’s a lot that can be strengthened. I really hope under the new government that happens. We have our friends, our long-term friends and that includes India.
Q: You talked about China and the debt trap. The IMF estimates that the Maldives debt is already 42.8% of the GDP. China’s loans are about 1.3 billion. What’s the way forward? Will the projects that China is involved in be relooked at in any manner?
A: I wouldn’t have the information to comment but there is concern about the level of debt that the current government would need to reveal and to the need to assess and to see how this debt could be squared. Some of the big projects have run into big risks but some are beneficial. I am not an economist to comment on the management of the projects. I know in our neighbour Sri Lanka, for example, even after the government changed and the work on some of those projects was stopped but again I think there is no choice but to proceed with many of them. The thing is how to manage that debt in a way that especially does not compromise our sovereignty and really put us under the grip of China. We have to work out how to manage that debt
Q: You mentioned when regimes change there should be revengeful actions. But would you be wanting to look back at the projects that President Yameen and the present government has been involved in? If there is any corruption would you be recommending or wanting some kind of action against the outgoing government or any of its members?
A: Personally, I have always been among those, even when my father was imprisoned I was trying to get different parties to speak so it wouldn’t go into a spiral of violence. I think the cycle of vengeance is there. Unfortunately, it’s a balance of actually holding people accountable for wrongs they have done and preventing political prosecution. People who have done wrong can hide behind saying they’re being politically prosecuted. That argument becomes strong enough to achieve when the judiciary is weak and has been significantly politicised. So it’s difficult to say what is genuine and what is not. Obviously, we want to see people who have committed crimes to be held accountable. How we do that is going to be a challenge. In our neighbour Sri Lanka when the government changed and President Rajapakse… Yes, I want to see justice done but the crucial thing is to ensure that the justice system is functioning well.