Paradise Lost

President Nasheed makes his way to an underwater meeting of the Maldivian cabinet (Photo: Mohammed Seeneen)

President Nasheed makes his way to an underwater meeting of the Maldivian cabinet (Photo: Mohammed Seeneen)

Tuesday 7th February, 12.58pm

Flanked by two unknown bodyguards, Mohamed Nasheed, president of the Maldives, is marched into a meeting room in his office. He stands before a camera and makes a short broadcast on national TV. “I’ve come to the realisation that staying in office could subject the nation and its people to a lot of harm,” he says, “and have thus decided to resign as president with immediate effect.” Mohamed Nasheed says a quick goodbye to his staff before being hustled out of the building and into the street, where he is met by a baying mob.

Nasheed later claimed that his resignation was made at gunpoint. The coup came after weeks of demonstrations against his rule, during which groups of dissident police and soldiers joined with protesters and took to the streets. Earlier that day, the situation had come to a head, with scenes of chaos in the capital. Senior security staff had made frantic calls to the Indian government requesting military assistance. But it was too late to stop the fall of the first democratically elected president of the Maldives.

Before the coup

The Maldivian capital of Malé is an Alcatraz of bland office blocks and cramped residential quarters that’s home to more than 100,000 people, and although tiny is the most densely populated city in the world. This concrete square mile is not your typical Maldivian island: it’s bruising, beach-less and glamour-free, a pressure cooker of a place charged with political tension and religious intolerance. It’s a world away from the pleasure palaces on the paradise atolls nearby, where it is hard to imagine the Maldives as anything but a benign playground for the world’s super rich, with a population too small to be significant and too laidback to be threatening, and a hospitality industry too economically important to ever be questioned.

In this country, past presidents have either been mobbed, murdered or banished. New governments spend a good two or three years in perpetual revolution”

It was in Malé that I spoke to Mohamed Nasheed, shortly before he was deposed. Nasheed bounded into the interview without any sign of the limp he apparently sports, allegedly the result of injuries sustained during beatings suffered under the previous regime. He had the bright-eyed, caffeinated look that comes from living in a city that has a blanket ban on buying liquor of any kind, and spoke rapidly, with a whir of frenetic gesticulation. His words now seem eerily prescient.

“In this country, past presidents have either been mobbed, murdered or banished,” he told me. “New governments spend a good two or three years in perpetual revolution.” What made Nasheed’s presidency unique from the start was that he was not out for revenge – even though he had every right to be. He had been imprisoned, beaten, tortured and suffered 18 months of solitary confinement during his decade-long struggle in opposition, all under the reign of former president Maumoon Gayoom. When Nasheed finally rode into office, he did so on a platform of anti-corruption legislation and the promise of greater human rights. His refusal to exact revenge upon Gayoom after ending his 30-year long autocratic rule won him plaudits.


The Maldives’ densely-packed capital city Malé

“You can spend time running after the former regime,” he told me, “but you also get into a situation where you increasingly start thinking that the means justify the end. Then you start bending legislative procedures because you are unable to get them, so you come up with kangaroo courts and summary justice and the whole sense of what you stand for is then lost. Democracy is a better dispenser of justice than the courtroom. It’s difficult, it’s cumbersome, and it’s expensive, but so far it’s the best system we’ve found, and it is producing results.”

The green god

Nasheed might have been the leader of one of the most politically insignificant countries on earth, but in the three years after his election he made a disproportionate impact on global politics. One of the Muslim world’s first democratic leaders, he was feted by the West, celebrated as a visionary by development agencies, and became the de facto leader of the international green movement. Time magazine made him a 2009 ‘Hero of the Environment’. He was among Foreign Policy magazine’s 2010 ‘Top Global Thinkers’, behind Barack Obama and Steve Jobs, but ahead of Madeleine Albright and Aung San Suu Kyi. The same year Newsweek named him one of the ‘World’s Ten Best Leaders,’ while the UN cast him as one of six ‘Champions of the Earth’.

“Global warming is not just an economic issue,” Nasheed told me. “It is not just an earth science issue, and it is not just a development issue; it is becoming a major foreign policy issue too. It is becoming a security issue, and so we have to deal with it.” For Nasheed, the green movement had an added urgency: unless climate patterns were substantially reversed, he wouldn’t have a country to govern. With the highest point in the Maldives barely scraping two metres above sea level, any meaningful rise in the ocean would literally sink the state. It’s a fact that Nasheed referenced frequently.

The poster for the award-winning documentary 'The Island President'

The poster for the award-winning documentary ‘The Island President’

While the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Change Summit was the green movement’s biggest flop to date, for Nasheed it was quite the reverse. A week before the conference, he hit high in the gimmick ratings by holding the world’s first underwater cabinet meeting, highlighting the perilous position of the Maldives. More recently, Nasheed starred as himself (the embattled Developing World president up against the massively polluting triptych of BRIC, the EU and the US) in American filmmaker John Shenk’s excellent documentary, ‘The Island President’.

The film itself was yet another string in the bow of Nasheed’s PR machine, whose aim was to make him one of the world’s most recognised statesmen. But the president was not the only one to rate the film – on its first outing at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival, ‘The Island President’ won Best Documentary and earned rave reviews.

Eager to satisfy the insatiable hunger of the world’s climate press, Nasheed announced that the Maldives would become the world’s first carbon-neutral country by 2020. It was part of an audacious plan to show the world what little countries can do to save the planet, in the hope that those more powerful would follow suit. But some commentators noted that many of Nasheed’s policies sounded a lot better on paper than they appeared in practice. While the Maldives claimed to be working towards carbon neutrality, it was – and still is – also experiencing the most rapid resort expansion in the archipelago’s history.

“Tourism is very friendly to low-carbon technology,” Nasheed assured me. “The richer you get, the more environmentally friendly you can become in many ways, because you can afford it.” If this sounds like a plea for Western money for green initiatives, that’s because it was. The Maldives might have some of the best resorts in the world and a small wealthy elite, but as a country it is dirt poor. Ambitious initiatives, such as the idea of a solar panel power station, need donors. Some suspect that if the Maldives were to ever achieve carbon neutrality, it could only do so with massive outside subsidy – on a scale that would be impossibly costly to achieve elsewhere: less of a blueprint, more of a white elephant.

For the country to turn its back on tourism would be catastrophic – 30 per cent of the country’s economy depends on it, and it makes up 90 per cent of government revenue. But it was not simply climate observers who saw massive resort expansion and plans to increase international flights to the Maldives as a threat to the very existence of the country. Many inside the country also felt that expanding tourism would threaten its fundamental Islamic values.

The opposition rises

On the 23rd December 2011, Microsoft founder Paul Allen had just arrived in the country for the holidays. Footballer Ronaldo could already be found beachside. It was the height of the season, when prices for rooms go through the roof and airports become a tangle of private jets and chief executives, along with a gaggle of new monied celebs. In Malé, meanwhile, the biggest protest in over a decade was beginning to build.

Over the course of the previous three months the Maldives had gone from a country that practically had ownership of the words “idyllic resort” to one that had been discussed for the first time in the same sentence as Afghanistan. On 13th December, the United Kingdom’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office became the first government to issue a travel advisory against the Maldives since the Asian tsunami, citing “social unrest” and a “general threat from terrorism” and urging its citizens to be cautious. There was a billion-and-a-half dollar tourism industry at stake, and for the first time since he came to power, Mohamed Nasheed, world leader, international statesman, green warrior, was silent.

Opposition supporters stage a protest in Malé's Republican Square on 7th February 2012. Photo: Sinan Hussain/AP/Press Association Images

Opposition supporters stage a protest in Malé’s Republican Square on 7th February 2012. Photo: Sinan Hussain/AP/Press Association Images

The December 23 Organisation, a loose alliance between opposition parties, Islamic fundamentalists, and disgruntled impoverished locals, had taken to the streets. The cohort of protesters shown on television looked familiar thanks to a year in which the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement had dominated headlines around the world. Their rhetoric, however, was not that of Egypt, Tunisia or Wall Street. It was squarely Taliban.

What had started with an attempt by Israel’s flag carrier El Al to get a landing permit for Malé International Airport in May 2011 had resulted in a polarised debate about the state of Islam in the Maldives, one which had exposed the deep divisions in the country and led to intense international scrutiny. In November a diplomatic storm blew up when Maldivians attacked and defaced “idolatrous” gifts from Sri Lanka and Pakistan during the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation summit in the Maldivian paradise of Addu atoll.

Sheikh Imran Abdulla, president of the fundamentalist Adhaalath Party, which had growing support in the country but only one member of parliament, led the calls for the Sri Lankan Lion and the Pakistani Buddha to “not be kept on Maldivian soil for a single day”. A member of the Progressive Party of the Maldives, Ahmed Saleem, went a step further and filed a case with the police against the Maldives Customs Department for allowing the gifts to be imported.

The scenes of the protests on 23rd December were precisely what the tourism authority of the country did not want the rest of the world to see. A group of up to 5,000 protesters (that doesn’t sound like many, until you consider that the equivalent percentage in a London protest would be nearly 700,000) clad in thobes marched and called for death to the West. Some were protesting against UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay who, in November, called for a moratorium and debate on flogging in the country as a punishment for extra-marital sex. Some targeted Nasheed himself; others called for an end to relations with Israel. All joined together in a cry for the Maldives to become more Islamic.

Nasheed's supporters are confronted by riot police, 19th March 2012. Photo: Sinan Hussain/AP/Press Association Images

Nasheed’s supporters are confronted by riot police, 19th March 2012. Photo: Sinan Hussain/AP/Press Association Images

Shortly after the demonstrations, Nasheed’s government issued a decree to shut down hundreds of resort spas, in a move to pacify opposition parties who see such establishments as fronts for brothels and drugs. Calls to ban pork and make alcohol illegal throughout the country would, it was suggested, be considered. These moves – along with the fear of civil unrest – seemed likely to imperil the goose that lays so many golden eggs for the island nation: tourism. The Maldives economy had come perilously close to taking a dive, and six weeks later its democratic leader would fall.

After the fall

Four months after the fateful day of the coup, I manage to speak to Mohamed Nasheed on the phone. He sounds smaller, still insistent but less sure of himself than when we met in Malé. We talk about the night before the coup, when bad news avalanched into the Presidential Office as factions of first the police and then the military switched sides and joined the opposition.

“We always knew the situation was high risk – mainly because we hadn’t purged the police, and we hadn’t purged the military,” Nasheed says. “The old dictatorship and its network was still intact. The more they saw us consolidating and delivering, the more they saw that it would be impossible for them to win the next election.”

In the days following the coup, Nasheed began once again to resemble the man who had won the first democratic elections in the history of the Maldives, the vocal campaigner whose ambition for reform was matched only by his endless energy. But in the months since, his optimism seems to have weakened. On the phone I notice a hint of fatigue, a faint suggestion of defeat.

Paul Roberts, a former communications advisor to Nasheed, who fled the country in fear of his life on the day of the coup, sees a long road ahead for the former leader. “The people in power have not pulled off the coup yet – if they lose the next election… then the people who orchestrated this are in big trouble. So they have to stop Nasheed standing at the next election because he might win.” The Maldivian constitution prevents anyone with a criminal record from standing for office. With the coup leaders scrambling for ammunition against Nasheed – he’s been accused of everything from drinking alcohol to “unconstitutional behaviour” – any mud that sticks will damage his political ambitions for good.

Nasheed speaks about the coup in New Delhi, April 2012. Photo: Mohamed Ali/AP/Press Association Images

Nasheed speaks about the coup in New Delhi, April 2012. Photo: Mohamed Ali/AP/Press Association Images

But although Nasheed’s been bruised, he’s far from beaten, and he’s vocal about being let down by the global leaders who had feted him. “It was my very firm belief that the international community would not tolerate a coup,” he says. “The idea was that even if there were a coup, everyone would know it was unsustainable. But now it’s clear that the international community doesn’t necessarily stick to their guns.”

While Asia’s main players, most notably India, refused to interfere, the Commonwealth, the UN and the EU all sent missions to attempt to defuse the tensions and reinstate democratic values. But as time has limped on, little has been achieved other than the promise that early elections will be “considered”. In a particularly galling affront for Nasheed, several of the ministers who he claims led the coup were invited to the UK for the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations.

Democratic demise is not the only thing that the Maldives is currently battling. In order to galvanise support from the Islamic factions in the country’s surprisingly diverse political spectrum, Nasheed’s opponents characterised their fight against him as jihad, an Islamic crusade. Nasheed’s international reputation allowed the opposition to paint him as an infidel, a lapdog of the West. As he retreated from office on the day of the coup, the protesters screamed at him that he was a pig.

As long as Nasheed remains a viable political opponent, the current Maldivian government will have an uphill struggle to suppress democracy”

After the chaos of the coup, the Islamic Adhaalath Party was richly rewarded. In the democratic elections they had been all but erased from power; after the coup they were given three positions in the cabinet. Nasheed sees dark days ahead. “This has exacerbated an existing problem. Islamic fundamentalism was always there. But the Maldivian people have always been taught that religion is between the individual and God. Yet now the state has jumped into it in a very big way.”

As long as Nasheed remains a viable political opponent, the Maldivian government will have an uphill struggle to suppress democracy. Thanks to his relentless self-promotion and the fact that the ‘The Island President’ has secured international distribution, he remains one of the world’s most recognisable statesmen. Paul Roberts, who worked with Nasheed for three years and considers him not only a former colleague but also a close personal friend, doesn’t see Nasheed lying down any time soon. “Internationally he was known as a great climate change activist, but that was not his main focus,” he says.

“His real burning passion was democracy. And the interesting thing about someone who has gone through that amount of time in jail, during which he has been tortured and beaten, is that he is not actually scared of anything right now. There’s no threat that can work on him.” And in politics, it is the fearless that are the most feared.

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