Coup in Maldives Threatens Ousted President Mohamed Nasheed, a Leading Voice for Island States Threatened by Global Warming
For years, Mohamed Nasheed was the most vocal world leader on the threat climate change poses to residents of small island states. After becoming the first democratically elected president in Maldives, he pledged to make the nation the first carbon neutral country and once held a cabinet meeting underwater. We discuss Nasheed’s ouster and his outspoken campaigning on global warming with environmental activist Bill McKibben, whose group 350.org has collected some 30,000 signatures on a petition in support of Nasheed. We also speak with Jon Shenk, director of the new documentary film, "The Island President," which chronicles Nasheed’s rise from jailed pro-democracy activist to the Maldives presidency and island-state champion. McKibben says Nasheed was "in certain ways, the first precursor of the Arab Spring, the Mandela of the Indian Ocean, who really brought democracy to a country where it hadn’t been before," as well as "the most outspoken head of state around the issue of climate change on our planet." McKibben further argues Nasheed "was a thorn in the side [of the U.S.], because he kept bringing up the topic of climate change, a topic they’re not that keen on. On the other hand, he, almost to a fault, was cooperative with U.S. efforts to try and do something—you know, what little we’re doing—about climate change. The State Department owes him, and I hope that they take this seriously."
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking about the coup in the Maldives and the ousting of the president there. In October 2009, Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed held a cabinet meeting underwater in an attempt to bring attention to the dire consequences of global warming. Nasheed and 11 of his government ministers wore scuba gear and plunged nearly 20 feet into the Indian Ocean.
PRESIDENT MOHAMED NASHEED: We are actually trying to send our message, let the world know what is happening and what might—what will happen to the Maldives if climate change is not checked. This is a challenging situation. And we want to see that everyone else is also occupied as much as we are and would like to see that people actually do something about it.
AMY GOODMAN: That is the ousted president, Mohamed Nasheed, of the Maldives. Bill McKibben, you’re founder of 350.org. Talk about what has happened this week.
BILL McKIBBEN: Sure. Look, Nasheed, who I know a little bit, is a remarkable man for two reasons. One, he was the—in certain ways, the first precursor of the Arab Spring, the Mandela of the Indian Ocean, you know, who really brought democracy to a country where it hadn’t been before. Second, he’s been the most outspoken head of state around the issue of climate change on our planet. He has provided the leadership, both symbolic and practical, that we desperately need. You know, until Tuesday, the Maldives was on target to become the first carbon neutral nation on earth. That won’t save the climate, but it’s the kind of thing that should shame the West into beginning to act itself. They also were—he and his government did a tremendous job of cooperating with activists around the world to try and bring attention to this most desperate of problems.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And Bill, the denial of the State Department that this is even a coup?
BILL McKIBBEN: You know, it’s so depressing to hear that. Let’s hope that the State Department is getting new information. We’re sending more than 30,000 signatures over there today that we’ve gathered in the last few hours from people around the world in the 350.org network who are incredibly upset at what’s going on.
I was at the Maldives 20 years ago, at the height of the Gayoom thugocracy, and it was an unpleasant place—people with machine guns on corners and things. Malé, the capital, during the Nasheed years was a very different place: open, vibrant, alive democratic, humming with people trying to make a difference in the world. It’s just the saddest of thoughts to think that we might be moving backwards and that the State Department—I mean, one trusts that they’re not—you know, that they’re taking this seriously.
Clearly, in certain ways, Nasheed was a thorn in their side, because he kept bringing up the topic of climate change, a topic they’re not that keen on. On the other hand, he, almost to a fault, was cooperative with U.S. efforts to try and do something—you know, what little we’re doing—about climate change. The State Department owes him, and I hope that they take this seriously.
AMY GOODMAN: Let me turn to a new documentary, The Island President, about Mohamed Nasheed, the one we just played a clip of, directed by Jon Shenk. This part looks at Nasheed’s time as a political dissident under the old regime.
PRESIDENT MOHAMED NASHEED: After graduation, I came back to the Maldives. By this time, the state had become more and more repressive. So we decided that it would be good to come up with a magazine.
MOHAMED ZUHAIR: Nasheed and I and a few others began a publication called Sangu, which was a political publication.
PRESIDENT MOHAMED NASHEED: It was talking about two things: corruption and human rights abuse. It was very critical of the regime. One night, at about 3:00 in the morning, they came to my house. They raided my home and took a whole lot of papers.
LAILA ALI: They came in. They took him away. It was in the middle of the night. I mean, we had heard so many stories of what they were doing in the jails and all that, so it was terrifying, you know, really.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Mohamed Nasheed’s wife.
PRESIDENT MOHAMED NASHEED: I refused to give a confession. So, because of this, I was taken to a corrugated iron sheet cell. The whole cell is five feet by three feet. You had a mat. That’s all.
AMY GOODMAN: Mohamed Nasheed eventually went into exile but returned to Maldives to lead a fledgling pro-democracy movement. Here is another excerpt from The Island President.
PRESIDENT MOHAMED NASHEED: The Maldives was looking very much like an occupied country.
MOHAMED ASLAM: I would be lying if I tell you that I wasn’t afraid. But—and he keeps telling us all the time, you know, "You must get courage from each other. So, stand by together."
PRESIDENT MOHAMED NASHEED: Demonstrations were taking place all throughout the country. There were huge demonstrations in Fares-Maathodaa, Thinadhoo, Kinbidhoo, Ukulhas—you know, many, many, many islands. This was spreading like wildfire. It just finally came to a point that Gayoom had to relent, and he had to allow free and fair elections.
AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt from the new documentary, The Island President. We are joined by Jon Shenk, who’s its director. This news—you have spent a good deal of time with the ousted president in the Maldives. This history—he has been held, he has been beaten and tortured by the ousted—by the former dictator. What about what’s happening now, Jon?
JON SHENK: Well, thanks for having me.
You know, when I arrived in the Maldives in 2009, a few months after the first-ever democratically presidential held election there, it was a—it was a very strange place. You know, on one hand, you had people who were clearly still looking over their shoulders from, you know, decades of having lived in a police state. And then you had, on the other hand, Nasheed and the new fledgling democratic government there, you know, acting in the most open, kind of democratic, transparent way that you can imagine a good government acting.
So, what is happening now, in some ways, is obviously shocking and stunning and, to those of us who know Nasheed well, very sad—but not surprising, given just the kinds of things that we heard during the making of the film, which is that, you know, it’s in a small country that was ruled for so long by an entrenched dictatorship. You had so much of society, you know, sort of, quote-unquote, "in his pocket," or, you know, sort of—or at least fearful of repercussions that might occur, you know, speaking out against him.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, I’d like to ask Paul Roberts, the adviser to the ousted president, Nasheed, about this—the Maldives and the WikiLeaks documents concerning the Copenhagen climate talks. In 2010, The Guardiannewspaper published an article titled "WikiLeaks Cables Reveal How US Manipulated Climate Accord." The Guardian reported that within two weeks of the Copenhagen—the climate change conference, "the Maldives foreign minister, Ahmed Shaheed, wrote to the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, expressing eagerness to back [the accord]."
By February 23rd, 2010, "the Maldives’ ambassador-designate to the US, Abdul Ghafoor Mohamed, told the US deputy climate change envoy, Jonathan Pershing, his country wanted [quote] 'tangible assistance', saying other nations would then realise [quote] 'the advantages to be gained by compliance' with the accord."
According to a leaked cable, "Ghafoor referred to several projects costing approximately $50 [million]."
Your response to those WikiLeaks documents?
PAUL ROBERTS: Yeah, sure. I mean, I was in Copenhagen with Nasheed, and I saw him battling very vigilantly to get a deal. We were very nervous at that point that there would be no deal, with this almighty row that was breaking out between America and China. And eventually we did get a deal. It was a very bad deal. It was a very poor deal. It was a compromised deal. But it was a deal. And Nasheed played an instrumental part in that and in preventing those talks from collapsing. And then, you know, we’ve—since then, we’ve had some baby steps forward in Cancún and Durban, which seems to sort of justify his decision to keep the U.N. talks on the road. But, I mean, the last day of Copenhagen, Nasheed said publicly, and in writing, that the Maldives had written—sorry, had supported the Copenhagen Accord. So this was two months before these meetings.
But the—you know, one of the key parts of any U.N. accord is that some of the poor, vulnerable countries, like the Maldives, but like many others in Africa, have to spend an increasing proportion of their budgets on adaptations. In the Maldives, this is tens of millions of dollars on sea walls and beach revetments and stuff to protect these islands from the rising seas. So, you know, what the Maldives was saying was that, you know, if we can have some help, then—you know, then that’s great, and for other developing countries, too, that needs to be part of the accord. And suddenly there’s at least $50 million worth of sea walls and revetments and water breakers that are in need of building in the Maldives alone.
But I think one thing where some of the analysis is incorrect is that somehow the Maldives kind of used money as a bargaining chip to sign on to the accord. That’s not true. We had already signed on to the accord a month, months or weeks before any of these meetings took place.
AMY GOODMAN: Did the U.S., Paul, deliver the money, the $50 million?
PAUL ROBERTS: Well, we never asked them for $50 million. If you look at the cable in detail, what it says is we have $50 million worth of adaptation that we need doing, and so, if anybody would like to help, that’s great. And, you know, of course, one of the big things at Copenhagen was that there was supposed to be this transfer from the rich to the poor to help pay for these sorts of things. But no, Amy, no, they didn’t deliver a cent. There’s been no financing from the U.S. for any adaptation in the Maldives.
AMY GOODMAN: So what’s going to happen now, Paul Roberts? You know, we go back to different attempted coups. In Venezuela, Chávez refused to sign a resignation letter, which seemed very important to the coup makers. He remained in office. President Aristide in Haiti was being pushed to sign a resignation letter by the—one of the U.S. officials from the U.S. embassy before he was ousted the second time. He did sign, and he was ousted and could not return. What’s going to happen now to your president, as we wrap up?
PAUL ROBERTS: Well, we’re very concerned. We think—you know, the new regime have got the—they already had—they always had the judiciary in their pocket. They’ve now stormed the state TV, so they have—they basically have most of the fourth estate in their pocket. They now have the executive in their pocket. And they’ll probably be able to get the legislature in their pocket, as well. The only thing they don’t have in their pocket is the fact that Nasheed is still extremely popular, then likely to win any new election. But this is where I think there’s another insidious thing going on. I think they are trying to arrest him. They’ve said they’re going to have 14 cases for his arrest. And I think what they will do is they’ll try and charge him with anything, with something, so he’ll have a criminal record, and that will prevent him standing in any future election.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we thank you very much for joining us, Paul Roberts, adviser to the Maldives. Can you say where you are?
PAUL ROBERTS: I’d rather not. There’s been arrest warrants out for all of Nasheed’s former aides.
AMY GOODMAN: As well as yourself?
PAUL ROBERTS: I believe so.
AMY GOODMAN: Paul Roberts, speaking to us from an undisclosed location, an aide to the ousted president, Mohamed Nasheed, of the Maldives. Jon Shenk, thanks for being with us. His new documentary film, The Island President, has premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Before we go, Jon, what will you do with this film now? It seems this is the point, more than ever, to get this information out.
JON SHENK: Yes, absolutely. You know, the film is being distributed in the U.S. by Samuel Goldwyn Films, and we’re moving ahead with our release next month, and obviously trying to get the word out. I think that, you know, one remarkable thing about the film is that it really is an unprecedented look at a sitting head of state. To my knowledge, no other project has ever followed a head of state with such transparent access. So I think, just by the nature of watching the film, I think people will get a sense of who the real Nasheed is. It’s kind of undeniable that he approaches his presidency, and pretty much everything he does, with just, you know, honesty and openness and a can-do attitude.
AMY GOODMAN: Jon Shenk, director of The Island President. And Bill McKibben, thanks very much for being with us, founder of 350.org, among his books, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.