Climate Injustice: The Real History of the Maldives

Summer Gray and John Foran

In one of the world’s countries most affected by climate change, the struggle for sustainability is directly linked to the struggle for democracy. It remains an uphill battle: Despite the urgency of positive change, reform efforts are constantly—and sometimes violently—thwarted.

MDP protests on October 5, 2013 against the Supreme Court injunction delaying the second round of presidential elections. Credit: MDP Youth Wing

Unhappy endings rarely give cause for optimism. Yet such may be the case in the Maldives—a sad and beautiful place that most people couldn’t pinpoint within a thousand miles on a world map. This tiny island state without a single mountain or hill may seem to be a world away. But what has been taking place there is a fight for the future, for everyone’s future, a fight waged within a war that we are all living through. It’s a fight for democracy, in the first instance, an old fight like countless others where a population stands up against lies, bullying, greed, power, and history. It’s also a fight for human rights against a backdrop of torture and repression. And perhaps most urgently, it’s a quiet fight on a vast front that concerns life as we know it: humanity’s daunting, dogged struggle to face up to the ultimate existential threat of climate change.

There’s nowhere to run and nowhere to hide. The alternative is suicide. You just have to keep going. And you will fall. You’ll have your setbacks. But you must get up and you must keep going. And I think that we must be as optimistic as possible. Wishful thinking is good because at least you’re thinking and wishing for something that you are defining yourself. You are creating a vision.
—Mohamed Nasheed, April 2014

What follows is a reading of the recent history of a too little known place where the battle for democracy and the right to exist has united people in a poetic stance against injustice.

After nine centuries of rule by a Muslim sultanate, the Maldives became an independent republic in 1968, only to be ruled by Maumoon Gayoom from 1978 to 2008, an authoritarian, quasi-dictatorial president who displayed a smiling face to the world. As The Economist put it in 2013, he was “an autocratic moderniser who made the Maldives the wealthiest corner of South Asia by promoting high-end bikini-and-booze tourism (usually on atolls some distance away from the solidly Muslim local population).”[1] As foreign income accumulated, so did a serious waste disposal problem: “Landslides of waste subside into the sea and at ground level the air is thick with dust and flies. The country dumps upwards of 330 tons of rubbish on the island every day, a figure attributed largely to the tourist industry on which the chain of atolls relies.”[2]

When a tsunami struck the Maldives in late 2004, Gayoom was forced by international pressure to permit free elections in return for assistance. The young journalist Mohamed Nasheed, who had been imprisoned for protesting the lack of democracy, returned from exile in 2008 to stand as the presidential candidate of the newly established Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP). Under the slogan “Aneh Dhivehi Raaje” (“The Other Maldives”), Nasheed’s party evoked the defining slogan of the global justice movement, “Another World is Possible.”

Nasheed won the presidency on October 28, 2008 by uniting the various oppositional parties. His rise from prison to the presidency in the country’s first democratic elections parallels that of Nelson Mandela in other circumstances. But just how different those circumstances would prove to be would become more apparent during his short term in power, which bears a striking resemblance to the tragic outcome to date of the Arab Spring in Egypt.

The Nasheed Era and the Politics of Climate Justice, 2008-2012

Nasheed and the MDP never commanded a parliamentary majority. Despite this, his administration made good on its promise to improve life conditions, delivering free healthcare, a national university, pensions for the elderly, social housing, improved transportation among the islands, and civil liberties such as freedom of expression and security of one’s person unheard of in the Maldivian context. He would deliver even more on a global stage.

On March 15, 2009 Nasheed declared Maldives’ goal of becoming the world’s first carbon-neutral country after the UK premiere of Franny Armstrong’s timely film about climate change, The Age of Stupid.

President Nasheed accepts a certificate from Franny Armstrong at the New York premiere of The Age of Stupid on September 21, 2009. Credit:  Spanner Films
President Nasheed accepts a certificate from Franny Armstrong at the New York premiere of The Age of Stupid on September 21, 2009. Credit: Spanner Films

As he argued, “for us swearing off fossil fuels is not only the right thing to do, it is in our economic self-interest…. Pioneering countries will free themselves from the unpredictable price of foreign oil; they will capitalize on the new green economy of the future, and they will enhance their moral standing giving them greater political influence on the world stage.”[3]

The world took note when the president staged a symbolic underwater cabinet meeting just before the historic UN climate summit in Copenhagen. After a few quick diving lessons, Nasheed and his ministers met six meters below sea level and signed a document calling on all countries to cut their greenhouse gas emissions, saying that “we must unite in a world wide effort to halt further temperature rises. Climate change is happening, and it threatens the rights and security of everyone on Earth. We have to have a better deal. We should be able to come out with an amicable understanding that everyone survives. If Maldives can’t be saved today, we do not feel that there is much of a chance for the rest of the world.” He added: “What do we hope to achieve? We hope not to die. I hope I can live in the Maldives and raise my grandchildren here.”[4]

Two months later in Copenhagen, Nasheed and his Minister of the Environment Mohamed Aslam carried the banner of the frontline island nations most threatened by climate change. When the two arrived in Copenhagen they went not to the UN summit but straight to a gathering of young climate activists who greeted Nasheed by unfurling a banner that read “You Are Our Global President.”

Banner at Copenhagen. Credit:  Flickr, niOS
Banner at Copenhagen. Credit: Flickr, niOS

In a short period of time the Maldives had changed the discourse around climate action away from the common framing of the global south as climate victims. They had rewritten this narrative to show leadership on climate solutions. “You can ask somebody to stop something,” Aslam explained in an interview, “but they won’t stop it until there’s an alternative to that. So our way of doing this is we wanted to talk more about the alternatives rather than talking about stopping.” In Nasheed’s view: “We felt that everyone should be responsible for climate change…. The United Nations Conference was becoming an endless talking shop and without any substance coming out from that and it’s still looking like that. So I think politicians need to sit down and not get the civil servants and the bureaucrats talking about it all the time. Leaders must lead”.

Climate justice is the Maldives’s long-term intergenerational struggle; it must be addressed for its fragile democracy to matter. As Nasheed states in the movie The Island President—which chronicles his efforts to raise awareness about the effects of climate change on the Maldives —, “we view climate change in the context of democracy. Without democracy, you cannot enact. The former dictatorship wasted $200 million because they gave the contracts to the wrong people.”[5] In the Maldives, the struggle against climate change depends on the success of the democratic project.

For Mohamed Aslam, too, the only way to address climate change is with popular pressure everywhere. As he argued in a speech in 2011, “The people must realize that this issue needs to be resolved. It must become an election issue. People should elect leaders who have got the courage to face this issue and to deal with it.”[6] The two campaigns—one for global climate justice, the other for democracy in the Maldives—had become inextricably connected, the fate of each depending on the other succeeding.

The Coup

The world’s climate justice and global justice communities thus woke in shock on the morning of February 7, 2012 to the news that Nasheed had “resigned,” and that vice president Mohamed Waheed was now the President. Within hours, Nasheed and his supporters were seen on the local airwaves being brutally beaten in the streets for protesting what they called a coup d’etat.

Nasheed’s supporters in the global climate justice community quickly voiced their concern. Mark Lynas, Nasheed’s climate consultant, wrote in the Guardian: “The deposed president is famous for his efforts to fight climate change, but his lifelong struggle has been for democracy—and now I fear for his safety.”[7]

On 350.org’s Connect the Dots day of action on May 5, 2012, the prominent writer-activist Bill McKibben’s thoughts went out to the Maldives, where, as McKibben observed, “people turned out even though a military coup had sidelined the island country’s democracy just weeks before.”[8]

Two weeks after the coup, the pushback in the streets and on global airwaves forced the new government to announce the formation of a Commission of National Inquiry (CONI) chaired by Gayoom’s former Defence Minister, Ismail Shafeeu, to investigate whether the transfer of power had been legal. The transparent hypocrisy of a government investigating its own legitimacy prompted the British Commonwealth to pressure for the addition of independent experts. Unsurprisingly, the report’s findings supported the new government. The Commission argued that “the change of president in the Republic of Maldives on 7 February 2012 was legal and constitutional…. The resignation of President Nasheed was voluntary and of his own free will. It was not caused by any illegal coercion or intimidation.”[9]

In the words of Mohamed Nasheed, “now we have a very awkward situation and in many ways very comical, where toppling a government by brutal force is taken as a reasonable course of action … accepted as long as it comes with an ‘appropriate’ narrative.”[10] Still, the United States and Britain welcomed the report and recommended that Nasheed and the MDP look ahead to the 2013 presidential elections.

The problems with the report are numerous, and there are two independent legal evaluations which unequivocally find it deficient. The first of these, conducted by Sri Lankan jurists, clearly rejects the findings, concluding that “CONI could not have reasonably satisfied itself on objective criteria […] that President Nasheed resigned of his own free will.”[11] The authors of a second independent report find that “President Nasheed resigned as President of the Maldives under duress, and […] his resignation cannot be considered voluntary or otherwise ‘in accordance with law’ […] To the extent that a ‘coup d’etat’ can be defined as the ‘illegitimate overthrow of a government’, we must therefore also consider the events as a coup d’etat.”[12]

The 2013 Elections and their Aftermath

The Maldivian Democratic Party prudently focused its energies on winning the 2013 elections. They were generally seen as a popular referendum on competing visions for the future of the country. As MDP spokesperson Hamid Abdul Ghafoor put it: “This is a clash between the past and the future, and we are the future.”[13]

The MDP campaign was based on four main development initiatives: the introduction of agri-business, development of a local tourism industry that would put “wealth within reach of all locals for the first time”, mariculture business, and the so-called “empowered worker initiative”, which would use $4.6 billion in tax revenues to generate 51,000 jobs, build 20,000 housing units, provide assistance to single parents and persons with disabilities, and make educational loans available to students.[14]

In contrast to Nasheed’s sustainable development plan, Yameen Gayoom, the half-brother of the former autocratic president, pledged to create jobs by pursuing oil exploration. At his campaign launch, he proclaimed that “it is very possible oil might be found in the Maldives.”[15] Another candidate, the billionaire tycoon Gasim Ibrahim, also campaigned with the promise to drill for oil, saying “It is very wrong to turn ourselves away from a blessing given by Allah … oil can be extracted safely without causing any harm to [the] tourism sector…. If I get to be the President, it would be the first thing my government would turn towards.”[16]

The development of an oil industry in the Maldives would reverse Nasheed’s declaration to become carbon neutral by 2020, as well as Mohamed Waheed’s 2012 declaration during the Rio 20+ UN Conference on Sustainable Development, where he pledged that the Maldives would “become the first country to be a marine reserve.”[17] The backlash against oil exploration and drilling has been voiced by Ali Rilwan of the local NGO Bluepeace, who objected to this unsustainable shift: “We can’t afford to go into that dirty energy…. When you take up the issues of drilling, we are concerned about the oil container tanks with unrefined fuel passing through.”[18]

Nasheed’s support was genuinely grass-roots. Azra Naseem, who runs an oppositional news site and supported the MDP campaign, recounts a campaign stop where he asked a group of women why they liked Nasheed so much: “He’s like one of us. He treats us like equals…. He visits all the houses, rich and poor alike.”[19] Naseem later concluded: “The most valuable lesson he learned from visiting all those houses, he said, is that ‘nothing is small.’ What someone tells him when he visits them may be a story about their gutter, their roof, or their sewerage pipe. They may seem trivial, but it is these stories that help reveal the big picture.”[20]

Painted at the entrance to Addu City, Maldives. Credit:  Summer Gray
Painted at the entrance to Addu City, Maldives. Credit: Summer Gray

On election day, Nasheed and the MDP received 45.45 percent of the vote. Sitting president Mohamed Waheed, who had come to power in the coup, suffered a humiliating rebuke with just 5.1 percent. The half-brother of the former autocratic president received 25 percent of the vote, to billionaire Gasim Ibrahim’s 24. A run-off between the top two candidates would be needed.

Scheduled for September 28, 2013, the run-off augured a clash of “people power” against the power of money, religion, and violence. The fact that the opposition vote had been split three ways was a distinct advantage for the MDP. But since Nasheed had failed to clear the fifty percent hurdle, the likelihood that all his opponents would ask their supporters to vote for the one still in the running on the second round augured a dangerous electoral math for his campaign.

The events that followed added more drama. The week after the election, Gasim’s Jumhooree Party filed legal papers alleging significant fraud, a case which the Supreme Court, packed with appointees from the days of the dictatorship, deemed sufficiently serious to investigate.[21] The lawsuit was an attempt to derail the electoral process, to annul the initial round of voting, and to allow Waheed and Gasim back into the political arena.

The evidence was flimsy at best. The Jumhooree Party presented a list of 568 people that were allegedly dead but still appeared on electoral rolls, and another list of 172 people whose names seemed to appear more than once. But as the Electoral Commission found, only seven of the 568 people actually appeared on the rolls, and four of them were still alive. The 172 allegedly double-counted voters turned out to be separate pairs of people who shared the same name.[22]

The saber rattling continued outside the court as well. At one political rally, an anti-MDP candidate announced that “we will not allow Mohamed Nasheed to return to power even if he wins the election.”[23]

Despite overwhelming endorsement as clean and fair by every international observer, a narrow majority of the country’s Supreme Court ruled that the September 7 first-round presidential elections were null and void. Neither the MDP nor the Electoral Commission were allowed to set foot in the courtroom for final arguments in the case.

When the first round was finally replayed on October 12, the results were nearly identical: Nasheed was first but under fifty percent, and Yameen edged out Gasim once again by a small but clear margin for the second spot on the final ballot. But for a public growing weary of the charade, the process was taking a toll.

In the run-up to the final round, attacks on Nasheed alleged his lack of respect for Islam. The overall political perspective of the Islamist Adhaalath Party comes across well in a speech by Sheikh Abdulla: “We came forward to save this Nation from Nasheed’s clutches […] Maldivians, have courage. I am ready to make any sacrifice with my body and my money to bring you Maldivians a happy and prosperous life. We will not give in to anyone.”[24] Behind it all lay the threat of street violence that had already preceded the previous coup.

Meanwhile, it was entirely unclear whether the two main opposition parties could form a viable coalition, despite their shared determination to prevent a Nasheed win at any cost. As Azra Naseem reported: “Former military man Mohamed Fayaz, one of the main coup-enablers who put his support behind Gasim, advised him to join Yameen following the election results. What else was there for Gasim to do? Gasim responded with unbridled anger, swore at [Fayaz], and told him: ‘I would rather walk into the sea with my wives and children than join Yameen’.”[25]

When the results of the second run-off election came in, they were heart-breaking: The two right-wing parties threw their votes together at the very last minute and Nasheed again came up just short of the 50 percent needed to regain his presidency. He won all major cities, but only gained 48.6 percent of the vote. As the journalist Yameen Rasheed wrote “[I]t is clear from the results that there is still another Maldives. A more isolated, isolationist, xenophobic and paranoid Maldives that is still susceptible to dangerous emotive politics.”[26]

In March of 2014, the MDP came up short once more in the parliamentary elections. Nasheed’s opponents won 53 seats for a solid majority in the 85-member parliament, which was expanded by eight seats for this election to reflect recent demographic growth. And thus the MDP’s decline was sealed. Voter turnout was 77 percent, down from the 88 percent in the presidential elections, perhaps reflecting the weary wariness of the democratic movement’s base. As Mohamed Aslam remarked in an interview, “people were very uncertain of what was happening and if there would be a fair election held. Nonetheless we decided to go ahead with the elections […] that’s the political reality now. Yameen and the old regime have got full power and the judiciary is controlled by them […] So they can run this country in any way they wish.”

Ibrahim Ismail, who had led the drafting of the country’s democratic constitution in 2008, had this to say about the elections: “I believe the election is a farce—while there was a free vote, it was not a fair vote. Government influences were used, voters were threatened, and people were bribed openly […] I think with these results, the constitution which protects minority rights and fundamental liberties will be suspended. It will be put on the shelf […] With tyranny of the judiciary combined with the tyranny of the majority, we will see the right to dissent, the right to exercise people’s will, the right to live freely will be curtailed.”[27]

Hamid Abdul Ghafoor, the MDP’s International Spokesperson, came to a similar conclusion but in a gloomier register: “The legitimisation of the 7/2/12 coup d’etat has reversed extensive democratic gains Maldives made post-2008. A cold winter has set on democracy in tropical Maldives.”[28]

Maldivian Futures and the Global Imaginary

The challenges that Nasheed and the MDP have faced in the Maldives are similar to those faced by communities everywhere on the front lines of climate change. Injustice is hardly poetic. It is too often the normal way of the world, with the deck stacked against both social and climate justice. Nasheed makes the connection: “We lose elections because of negative campaigns by our opposition, not because of a positive message. I think the same thing is happening in the wider climate change campaign.”

The locked-in nature of the hard fossil fuel energy path, the fragility of democracies led by authoritarian modernizers, the opening wide of nations caught in the clutches of neoliberal global capital—all of these portend a dystopic near-term future for the Maldives and for most of the world.

Lost for the present in the Maldives is a difficult but clear-eyed path toward low-carbon sustainable development and a functioning democracy. One wonders what would have happened if the elections had gone off as scheduled on September 7 and 28, and if Nasheed and Aslam had represented the Maldives once again at the COP 19 UN climate summit in Warsaw in November 2013 and in the crucial summits to come. Might the balance of forces now tilted so heavily toward the fossil fuel corporations and their governments, and thus to the climate catastrophe that their business as usual attitude is locking in, have shifted—at least to some degree—back in the direction dictated by science and championed by the majority of the world’s population?

“After all this, some Maldivians told me that they felt despair over the future of their country. I responded: ‘Don’t presume that this is the end of the book. We’re only in the middle of the story. Don’t be so hasty as to predict how the story will end.’”
—Mohamed Nasheed, June 2014

When asked what gives him hope and keeps him going in the face of the climate catastrophe underway, Aslam replied: “We have to accept the fact that change has already happened. We can’t undo what has been done […] So it’s about having that in mind and then reorganizing ourselves to live with the realities of these changes that are going to happen” (interview). For Nasheed, “we had to bring democracy to the Maldives, because I didn’t want my children to be in solitary confinement. Neither should they have to be environmental refugees. We just can’t disappear, we just can’t. We have to survive and we have to do whatever it takes to make that real.”[29]

Whether Maldives’ future is one of poetic and climate justice should matter a great deal to all of us. Nasheed’s vision of development as sustainable, social-democratic, and imbued with an insistence on radical climate justice is a future worth fighting for. This is an epic and consequential struggle, and some future day, the people will choose again. It might just be the break that they, and the global fight for climate justice, need.

References and Footnotes

  1. The Economist. 2013. “Yellow Fever: The Maldives Goes to the Polls” (August 31), http://www.economist.com/news/asia/21584375-presidential-elections-bring-chance-start-afresh-yellow-fever
  2. Hall, Chris. 2012. “Paradise trashed: The beautiful island in the Maldives that’s been reduced to a pile of rubbish.” (June 23, 2012) Dailymail, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/moslive/article-2162653/Maldives-island-paradise-Thilafushi-trashed-reduced-pile-rubbish.html
  3. Nasheed, quoted in Fielding, Nicholas. 2012. “The Maldives under Invasion - Under Threat, Under Water - Societies at Risk (December 20), http://underthreatunderwater.blogspot.com/2012/12/blog-post.htm
  4. Lang, Olivia. 2009. “Maldives Leader in Climate     Change Stunt.” BBC News (October 17), http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8312320.stm
  5. The Island President. 2011. Directed by Jon Shenk.
  6. Aslam, Mohamed. 2011. “Minister Mohamed Aslam’s Speech at ADB” (October 12), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1-DI8GP_Z6Y
  7. Lynas, Mark. 2012. “Mohamed Nasheed’s overthrow is a blow to the Maldives and democracy” The Guardian (February 7), http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2012/feb/07/mohamed-nasheed-overthrow-maldives
  8. McKibben, Bill. 2013. Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist. New York: Times Books.
  9. CONI [Commission of National Inquiry). 2012. Report of the Commission of National Inquiry, Maldives (August 30), http://www.maldivesculture.com/pdf_files/CONI-Report-2012.pdf
  10. Tisdall, Simon. 2012. “Maldives: Coni report causes predictable outrage” (September 9, 2012), http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/sep/09/maldives-coni-report-predictable-outrage
  11. Perera, Anita, Senany Dayaratne, and Shibly Aziz. 2012. A Legal Review of the Report of the Commission of National Inquiry [CONI] Maldives (September 5), Colombo, Sri Lanka, http://minivannews.com/files/2012/09/CONI-A-Legal-Analysis.pdf
  12. Henriksen, Anders, Rasmus Kieffer-Kristensen, and Jonas Parello-Plesner. 2012. “Arrested Democracy: The legality under International Law of the 2012 transfer of power in the Maldives and alleged human rights violations perpetrated by Maldivian security forces” (August 16), http://www.maldivesculture.com/pdf_files/Report_on_the_Maldives-Coup-Henriksen.pdf
  13. Naahee, Mohamed. 2013. “MDP appoints 1000 election observers as campaign spreads across country” (August 15), http://minivannews.com/politics/mdp-appoints-1000-election-observers-as-campaign-spreads-across-country-62437
  14. Naseem, Azra. 2013. “Island politics: on the MDP campaign trail” (May 29),http://minivannews.com/politics/island-politics-on-the-mdp-campaign-trail-58668
  15. Malone, Leah. 2013. “PPM would pursue oil exploration, foreign investment: Abdulla Yameen.” (January 15, 2013) Minivan News, http://minivannews.com/politics/ppm-would-pursue-oil-exploration-foreign-investment-abdulla-yameen-51214
  16. Naahee, Mohamed. “Presidential prospect Gasim Ibrahim also backs drilling for oil.” (February 4, 2013) Minivan News, http://minivannews.com/politics/presidential-prospect-gasim-ibrahim-also-backs-drilling-for-oil-52330
  17. The President’s Office. 2012. “President Dr Mohamed Waheed’s statement at the 1st Plenary Meeting at Rio+20, United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development” (June 20, 2012), http://www.presidencymaldives.gov.mv/Index.aspx?lid=12&dcid=7556
  18. Lovell, Lucy. 2014. “Oil drilling and Maldives’ tourism ‘cannot exist’ says NGO Bluepeace.” (March 18, 2014). Minivan News, http://minivannews.com/politics/oil-drilling-and-maldives-tourism-cannot-coexist-says-ngo-bluepeace-80127
  19. Naseem, Azra. 2013. “Island politics: on the MDP campaign trail” (May 29), http://minivannews.com/politics/island-politics-on-the-mdp-campaign-trail-58668
  20. Naseem, Azra. 2013a. “Ten minutes with Nasheed” (September 4), http://www.dhivehisitee.com/election-2013/section/interviews/
  21. Nasheed has written retrospectively of the failure to remove corrupt unqualified judges that “like giving Dracula the keys to the blood bank, this decision gave unfettered power to a judiciary that is rotten to the core,” seeing it as a problem that plagued Egypt as well after the ouster of Mubarak: Mohamed Nasheed, “Build a Party, Beware of Judges, and Never Give Up: Lessons from a lifetime of political activism” (June 28, 2014), http://minivannews.com/politics/comment-build-a-party-beware-of-judges-never-give-up-87743
  22. Naahee, Mohamed. 2013a. “High Court holds first hearing of Jumhooree Party’s case against Election Commission” (September 15), http://minivannews.com/politics/high-court-holds-first-hearing-of-jumhooree-party%E2%80%99s-case-against-election-commission-65569
  23. Naseem, Azra. 2013f. “Yesterday, on the Sunny Side of Life,” http://www.dhivehisitee.com/election-2013/latest-news/yesterday/
  24. Naseem, Azra. 2013c. “‘Rigged Vote! Rigged Vote!’: Sheikh Imrant” (September 14),http://www.dhivehisitee.com/election-2013/
  25. Naseem, Azra. 2013d. “Plan B” (September 19), http://bit.ly/18Bw3gb
  26. Rasheed, Yameen. 2013. “Comment: Et tu Maldives?” (November 17), http://minivannews.com/politics/comment-et-tu-maldives-72021
  27. Quoted in Rilwan, Ahmed. 2014. “Majlis elections: Undue influence, bribery, and disillusionment led to losses, says MDP” (March 23), http://minivannews.com/politics/majlis-elections-undue-influence-bribery-and-disilussionment-led-to-losses-says-mdp-80744
  28. Minivan News. 2014. “People’s Majlis elections 2014” (March 22), http://minivannews.com/politics/live-peoples-majlis-elections-2014-80594
  29. The Island President. 2011. Directed by Jon Shenk.