Mohamed Nasheed, former President of the Maldives, speaks to SNI’s Associate Editor Amitabh P Revi about the new government’s plans for the island nation.
APR: (Former) President Nasheed, it’s a pleasure to speak to you again, though it’s been a while now. Congratulations on the electoral verdict
MN: Thank you very much. It’s a pleasure to speak to the people of India and thank you so much for having me.
APR: You’ve already got down to business now. Just taking you back a little bit, were you surprised? Because while the spokespersons at the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) were saying it is going to be our victory, many were thinking it would go the other way because of President Yameen and his control over various institutions.
MN: We always knew we had the support of the people. You would remember prior to the presidential elections, we had the local council elections and that showed a very good indication of how the presidential elections could go. Then it was only a question of how to protect the vote. The MDP has a very good campaign team and a campaign machine. As a result, we’ve been able to build a very strong party which was very difficult for anyone to take away from us. We had every single gap plugged. And therefore we were able to come out with these results. Once the people had cast their vote and once the results were announced, we always knew once that was done it would be very difficult for any rogue element to come and snatch it away from us. We were very confident that we would come out with this result.
APR: It’s paid off. There have been celebrations. Sunday was an absolutely brilliant day when we saw everybody enjoying themselves. But it’s now down to business. President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih has laid down his 100-day plan which is a very specific agenda. How is that progressing in terms of getting down to business?
MN: President Solih has announced his cabinet and formed his Government. Today is the first working day for the new Cabinet and the new Government. The President had identified a 100-day plan and we also have our manifesto and the pledges we have made to the people. We have a strategic action plan on how to deliver on those pledges and also the necessary legislative agenda-down to procurement orders, down to tender documents. We have all those arranged, planned and prepared and we believe therefore that we will be able to deliver on these pledges. The difficulty would be on debt issues. We’re still not very clear on the debt figures. If the debt is as we now estimate to be over $3 billion, it would be impossible for us to pay that.
APR: Prime Minister Modi was the highest ranking dignitary to be invited and he came. He never came during President Yameen’s tenure and neither did External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj. There were clear signals there. This time, the Maldivian government has already asked India, Saudi Arabia to help out.
MN: We have asked India and India has always been a very good friend to the Maldives. I remember when I came into Government in 2008, on the night of my swearing in, India came in and plugged all the holes. I believe in times of need, India will always be with the people of the Maldives and they will assist us. This time there is also a need to audit all the projects or rather the sovereign guarantees given to the Chinese EXIM Bank and other Chinese banks, the amount of it, why it was given, for what project it was given. So, we need to do a proper audit for the assets created.
APR: You’re using the word audit, but in the weeks gone by you were using much stronger language. Has that changed?
MN: No it hasn’t changed. Nothing has changed. What we’ve been always saying is that we will have to pay back what is owed. But, we cannot pay for any money that has come in and, if there is no asset created, no one should expect us to be able to pay back because there won’t be revenue that we can make from that debt. So we must see the kind of assets that were created through the debt. If there are no assets created through the debt then we cannot pay it back.
APR: When you’re talking about the closeness to China that President Yameen has taken the Maldives towards that was one of the reasons why there was friction, iciness between New Delhi and Male. Do you think that has changed now?
MN: I’m pleased to say that our new Defence Minister Mariya Didi has announced that the two new helicopters will remain and the visa and work permit issues will be resolved and then we have a bright, beautiful future in front of us.
APR: Before she became the Defence Minister, Mariya Didi was also the spokesperson for then president-elect Solih. She mentioned just after the elections the helicopters will remain and you don’t have to give back a gift. Is there any further equipment you need from India, that you’re working towards whether it is coastal radars, dorniers that have been given to the Seychelles.
MN: Well you know, I should not be in the business of running Cabinet. I should not be running any ministry either. The ministers are very competent. They know why we got elected. They know our foreign policy goals. They know our development aims and they have the proper guidelines as provided by the party, strategic action plans and so on, 100-day plan and then going forward for the next five years. I think it will all be done in its proper time as planned and as agreed upon.
APR: In your view, is this equipment needed because it such a vast area that the Maldives covers in terms of the sea.
MN: Well we have 25,000 Maldivians going out into the ocean every morning. That is for fishing. On top of that, there is transport and people travelling from one island to the other. So we have almost a quarter of our population out on the seas all the time. So we’re able to mobilise more people to the Indian Ocean probably more than any other country or any other group. I believe that any monitoring, any surveillance, will be conducted with the Maldivians with the fishermen included in these projects. In the previous governments, we have had discussions on these issues and I’m quite sure the new government will proceed, continue with those policies.
APR: Are the fears about China at some point of time having a port facility and military ships, unfounded?
MN: It will not happen. Even if there was work to that effect and to that direction, this Government I believe will never do that.
APR: Indian ships have been passing through joint exercises with the coast guard. Will this continue or will it now be ramped up?
MN: Well, along with the Indian military, the Indian navy wants it. And as much as we can jointly do, I don’t see that there will be a hindrance at all.
APR: You have constantly been saying how competent this cabinet is. You’re leaving it all up to them. What is your role?
MN: Most importantly my role is to make sure that President Solih’s government finishes its term. I think I can play a role in giving space and room to the President to function. I think I should be able to look after the party, make sure the rank and file stay behind our policies, make sure also that they understand what the Government is doing, and the actions being carried out.
APR: Talking about the coalition, you know these people. Many have worked with you, many have worked against you. This election has brought everybody together here. But many have also pulled out from your Government, How does that work in terms of keeping this coalition together with disparate elements?
MN: During the last 20 odd years, most of us, all of us, especially the leaders – former President Abdulla Yameen, the Speaker Honourable Gasim Ibrahim, the Home Minister and leader of the Adhaalath Party Sheikh Imran Abdulla, myself, President Ibrahim Solih – we’ve gone through a lot of experiences and I think we do understand the need to maintain a unity government. Democracy is very new to the Maldives. We therefore have to understand the ground rules before we go into stronger and more competitive politics. These few years we would like to see that we are able to establish the ground rules by strengthening independent institutions. We have to make sure freedom of expression is guaranteed and basic human rights are valued. The only way to move towards development is the empowerment of our own people that is what we call development. If the people are empowered, they will go out and seek their rights and their riches, get what is due for them and then they will certainly prosper. So it falls on us to make sure that these conditions are laid out in the Maldives.
APR: You don’t see the various pulls and pressures from the four parties in the coalition to further their agenda coming in the way of the whole government working together?
MN: We have a council that sits with the leaders of all the parties. If there is a disagreement, a misunderstanding, we can always sort it out.
APR: Will you be playing a part in it?
MN: I will. Myself, the Honourable Gasim Ibrahim, former president Abdulla Yameen, Sheikh Imran Abdulla, with the President and the Vice President, we sit in an advisory council and in this council we should be able to iron out any differences, any difficulties that we have. I think, I believe, we will be able to sort out things and deliver to the people.
APR: You talked about an audit, a review of all the programmes that have been announced that are in progress with the previous government. Does that mean that people in the Government, including those at the top – former president Yameen will be held accountable for any wrongdoing, any laws they have broken, any corruption they have been involved in without it becoming a witch hunt.
MN: Whatever we do, we must seek the rule of law. It must go through proper procedures. It must be completely free and fair. We will not tolerate anything else. But (former president ) Yameen must be brought to book and held accountable. President Solih has announced a Commission to investigate the disappearances and deaths. These are very grave issues that our people have been very worried about for a very long period of time…Ahmed Rilwan and so many others, they’ve been many, many cases and we’ve don’t want the country sliding in that direction where vested interests and groups can go ahead and eliminate people. This should not happen. So we will want to investigate that. We would want to find out what had happened. And make a judgement on that. Everyone will be made accountable.
APR: The other Commission that President Solih has set up is in line with what we were talking about – corruption.
MN: Not simply just corruption, money laundering. Because there was such rampant money laundering through our national accounts, our financial system has lost credibility. Therefore, Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) is becoming increasingly difficult. Now, the state of the judiciary and because we used our national accounts to launder money-ill-gotten wealth, our financial system has taken a big hit. We must clean it up. We must create confidence. I’m sure the Maldives will be a good place for everyone in India to invest and they will have good returns.
APR: Even with the GMR group? They provided the largest FDI to the Maldives, 511 million dollars. (The contract with GMR had been cancelled and awarded to a Chinese company Beijing Urban Construction Group Company Limited)
MN: I met GMR officials during the inauguration. They are quite aware of what has happened in the past. They also do understand that we have every reason to make sure that doesn’t happen again. Now, again for these reasons, we need the coalition.
APR: What’s your message to India in terms of what’s happened in the last few years? How has India reacted to events in the Maldives and how has it been treated? And how do you react to some perception that in the beginning of your tenure, you were also moving towards China?
MN: Our relationship with India is not based on our fortunes. In sickness and in health we remain. Of course we have nothing against the people of China. If China wants to have an embassy or a representation in the Maldives, they must be able to do that. That doesn’t mean, that’s no indication, that we want to change our state type or that we want to relinquish our relationships with our neighbours. With India, we share the same heritage, read the same books, eat the same food, watch the same films, and we are the same people. For generations, India has been right next to us, been assisting us. Maldives has never felt a threat from India. 1988 is very recent. (India helped stave off a coup in Maldives in 1988) Even if we go through history, India is never a threat. The threat always came from elsewhere. In the 16th-17th century from Portugal, the Dutch, and later on from the Britishers. We fear an external incursion in to the Indian Ocean would be a problem. India is not external. India is very internal and the Maldives safety and security is linked to India’s safety and security. We pursue an ‘India First’ policy because that’s in the interest of the Maldives. Not because it is in the interest of India alone but because we also must be able to plug into Indian development and I’m sure it’s a rapid path for our betterment. We don’t want to see India as a threat at all. I am quite sure a vast majority of Maldivians would feel the same even when some people try and create a wedge it hits back on them. This election is a very good example of that.
APR: You’ve spent so much time in Sri Lanka when you were not allowed to be here, when you were in exile. Does it seem to have gone full circle? What was happening in Sri Lanka now was happening in the Maldives then. When Maldives was going through tumult, Sri Lanka was the model.
MN: It’s heart-breaking to see our cousins in Sri Lanka going through these difficulties. We have a lot of confidence in the Lankan people and the institutions especially its military and its judiciary. I believe they will deliver. I believe they will rise to the occasion. I do not see them interfering in politics or in political matters. Here, for instance, the military went into the Parliament, the military went into the Supreme Court. I do not believe these things will happen in Sri Lanka. So it’s for the politicians to sort it out. I know most of them
APR: Exactly. When the war crimes issue was coming up, you know all the sides. Do you think help in what’s happening since the Maldives is a bit stable now?
MN: If there is anything that we can do. But I keep saying their political institutions are much stronger than the Maldives. The UNP. UNFLP, their political parties. UNP is one of the oldest parties in South Asia so they would have the capacity and the strength to deal with it. If they need any mediation, any assistance that we can provide, we are certainly willing to do that.
APR: You have talked about what your role now is. How you will work for the party, the coalition government. In the past you have often talked about how the Maldives needs a parliamentary system. Are you going to work towards that?
MN: Most South Asian countries have a parliamentary system. I have always believed in a parliamentary system and I always believe that Maldives’ political stability will hinge upon a parliamentary system. But for that to happen, we would have to have wider consultations. Again and again I must stress, I will not do anything without consulting the President and without his consent. The President is our man. We grew up together. He’s my best friend. There is no way that I’m going to do anything that will disturb his presidency. His presidency is mine, it’s ours.
APR: You know what I’m referring to. The people who talk about in the next five years if a parliamentary system and power shifts to a PM; you will be that PM.
MN: Yeah. Well I do. You know people keep wanting me to be in government and engaged in building the country and I do like that. I have not said I will give up local politics at all. The President has asked me to go to COP 24 in Poland. Now that’s a very big issue to the Maldives. We would like to tell the world that the Maldives is back again and climate change is important.
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