Opinion: Politics in paradise – why the Maldives matters

As coup d’états go, the toppling last week of the Maldives’ first elected President, Mohamed Nasheed, appears an undramatic affair. Nasheed, a former political prisoner, announced suddenly he was standing down; his deputy would be taking over. This involved no tanks, few casualties and little shock and awe.

Should we care about politics in paradise? The answer is a resounding yes.

Politics in the Maldives has been a rough game over the past four years. In an article in the New York Times last week, Nasheed wrote of the corrupt legacy that 30 years of dictatorship had left the small Indian Ocean state. Dictatorships don’t always die when the dictator leaves office, he wrote.

The Maldives’ recent history was dominated by Maumoon Abdul Gayoom who came to power in 1978 and had the dubious record of being returned unopposed no fewer than six times.  Gayoon was an autocrat responsible for fostering a repressive system demanding obedience and showing little care for human rights

A Maldivian former colleague of mine suffered under Gayoom’s watch. Having been granted permission to live in North America, the night before his departure he was arrested on unsubstantiated sodomy claims, beaten and subsequently sentenced to two years imprisonment. My erstwhile colleague had fallen foul of the Gayoom regime’s pernicious social mores.

Only the more attentive among us may have noticed the Maldives coup, overshadowed as it was by the tragedy unfolding in Syria. Yet, what happened in Male last week is directly relevant to the Arab Spring.

Why?

First, in terms of the emerging Muslim democracies in North Africa and the Middle East, events in the Maldives are a reminder to those who have fought and deposed demagogues that they need to be vigilant and scrutinise the actions of their governments. Reform is an ongoing, long-term process. Fatigue isn’t an option.

Second, and of equal significance, the EU, the US, the Commonwealth and especially Britain as the former colonial power should apply tough pressure on the Maldives for the return of the democratically elected President to office. Allowing democracy to be hijacked and a return to power of the old vested interests will send a damning message of indifference by the West to the nascent, pluralist societies emerging in the Arab world. It will also embolden awaiting autocrats to create the conditions for a return to graft, patronage and nepotism.

We may never know the impulses surrounding Nasheed’s removal from office. But if the democratic process of a small nation such as the Maldives – which has a negligible military and security force – continues to flail four years after the sweeping away of dictatorship there, then the process of detoxifying complex societies in the Middle East and North Africa may take decades and will require years of international vigilance. There is a responsibility for Liberal Democrats everywhere to provide that vigilance – and it starts at the Foreign Office.

One year on after the uprisings took hold in the Arab world, the deposed Maldivian president offers a prescient assessment of the challenges to come: the dictator can be removed in a day, but it can take years to stamp out the lingering remnants of his dictatorship.

* Andrew Wigley is a public affairs professional who has lived and worked in the US and the Middle East. He began his career working for the Liberal Democrats, first in London and then Brussels. He previously managed community and public affairs for an oil company with facilities near In Amenas.

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