The Lesson of the Maldives: Can a Coup Win?

TIME speaks to former Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed as he resumes his battle for the political future of the archipelago nation

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Adnan Abidi / Reuters

Supporters of former Maldivian president Mohamed Nasheed clash with soldiers during a protest in Male, Sept. 1, 2012.

In a part of the world not lacking in unstable, politically fractious countries, it’s easy to overlook the Maldives. But the Indian Ocean archipelago state of under 400,000 people, known for its paradisiacal atolls and honeymoon hotels, has gone through months of turmoil after democratically elected President Mohamed Nasheed was unseated by what some observers deemed a coup in February. Prominent figures in the three-decade-old dictatorship that preceded Nasheed’s government have insinuated themselves back into the frame. All the while, human-rights groups have documented systematic abuse by security forces allied to the current regime.

“The police seem to think they’ve impunity,” says Nasheed, who spoke to TIME over the phone from the Maldivian capital, Male. “They’ve gone on the rampage and beaten up so many activists and reporters.” An Amnesty International report published earlier this month charted “a campaign of violent repression” against Nasheed’s supporters and the country’s nascent civil society. Protesters have been met with egregious force and subject to arbitrary arrests. “The picture [these actions] paint,” reads the report, “is completely at odds with the tranquility of the waters and scenic islands of this elegant archipelago.”

(MORE: The Fall of the Island President: The Maldives’ Nasheed Steps Down)

More than two decades earlier, Amnesty International hailed Nasheed a prisoner of conscience, a democracy activist who had languished in the jails of the dictatorship of then President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. The relentless campaigning of Nasheed and his allies eventually won the country its first free and fair presidential election in 2008, which Nasheed won after a runoff. But the years that followed proved difficult for Nasheed, who found his attempts to introduce deep institutional reforms stymied by elements of the ancien régime and an increasingly influential hard-line Islamist wing in government, as well as some of his own political missteps. The putsch that forced him out of power on Feb. 7, allegedly coordinated by security forces and opposition politicians, seemed to snuff out one of the more inspiring democratic success stories in the Muslim world. (For further background on Nasheed’s rise and fall, see my pieces here, here and here.)

Nasheed says the new government, led by his former deputy, Mohammed Waheed, knows that it would lose an election to Nasheed and his allies if it was held in the near future and is doing what it can to create conditions tilted in their favor. “It’s perfectly mapped now, they’ve got all their people exactly in the places they want,” says Nasheed, who speculates that relatives of the septuagenarian Gayoom will challenge soon for the presidency. Meanwhile, a worrying trend has developed in the once laissez-faire archipelago: a strain of Saudi-funded Wahhabi Islam has taken root. Islamists were at the forefront of those calling for Nasheed’s removal from power; some even attempted to brand him a blasphemer, a loaded charge in a country that’s technically 100% Sunni Muslim. This past week, the country’s Islamic Ministry issued an order prohibiting mixed-gender dancing, while Maldivian protesters angered by the fringe American film Innocence of Muslims attempted to storm the U.N. headquarters in Male, wielding placards that read, among other slogans, “Maldives: Future Graveyard for Americans and Jews.”

(PHOTOS: Travels Through Islam: Memory of the Maldives)

Despite the considerable wellspring of sympathy and support, Nasheed has received from outside observers familiar and engaged with Maldivian political life, foreign governments have largely accepted the archipelago’s new status quo. A governmental report published in August by the nominally independent Commission of National Inquiry (CoNI), aimed at establishing what happened in the tumultuous weeks before Nasheed’s ouster, declared that his departure was voluntary, not forced. Nasheed, in an op-ed in the Huffington Post, claimed that the CoNI was “dominated by hand-picked appointees of the coup-installed government” and essentially “whitewashed” the coup. Still, both the Commonwealth and the U.S. State Department have welcomed the report’s release.

Nasheed sounds at a loss when trying to explain the disinterest of foreign powers in the democracy project many had ostentatiously backed in 2008. “Thanks for the international community, we’re back at square one again,” he tells TIME. “The U.S. has decided that nurturing democracy in the Maldives is not important to them.” Ever a battler, though, he insists “the story is not over.” His Maldivian Democratic Party will bide its time and seek to take advantage of growing splits among the motley forces once aligned against them. If there had been robust international engagement, says Nasheed, with countries like the U.S. and India taking an active role in bolstering the Maldives’ fledgling democratic institutions, then such cynical politics wouldn’t be necessary. Instead, says the former President, the next political chapter for the troubled state “is going to be done now in the traditional, feudal Maldives style.” Even if that result is positive for Nasheed and his supporters, it’s not a victory they ever wanted.

MORE: 10 Questions for Mohamed Nasheed

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ISHAAN THAROOR has given a vivid description with evidence based facts. What we see in the Maldives currently is a taliban/paki military junta cloaked under disguise as democracy, nothing else, the courts instead of serving justice serves injustice, how the dickens can the judge  free a murderer to commit another murder, is that justice, now who's going to be responsible for that, the vestiges of the former dictator and cronies are back, the economy is ruins, inflation is escalating, the free health care offered during Nasheed's tenure is gone, while the police amp; military are provided free, the housing schemes diverted to them, the country seems to be on the brink of civil war as most Maldivians will never accept slavery and subjugation by the accumulated wealth elite, the world is changing, you cannot subjugate us by the threat of force of arms anymore, bear in mind that the pyramid structure will be tumbled upside down!

Mohamed Naseem
Mohamed Naseem

Development is not Democracy its important for the country to re-form democracy,justice,peace,and unity and freedom.Its  important to control harassment and follow constitution and not give orders from the family or link to Enderimaage. dot like to  take orders as don,t ride" with him on his mo Bicycle". This a constitutional right and freedom given to every body to go riding with anyone she like


Nay sayers can say nay but Nasheed was a good president who attempted to install sweeping social and economic changes; taxation, social security, a transportation network between atolls etc. Didn't take long for the rich to rise up against him.


I fully agree with you as to what he did.But it is unfair to say that the rich brought him down.It's the frustrations among the mass including many local,rich,poor,police,soldiers,infants,kids,teenagers,lawmakers,civil servants  etc..etc..that made him act like a mad and he was terrified and gave up.But once the fear has gone he started accusing...By saying ''He did, He did,He did and pointing out a different person every time he said the word....


As a Maldivian I have to disagree with this article as it is against the facts.I am no supporter of Maumoon nor Nasheed but just a simple guy who walks on the streets and I see things that Ishaan Tharoor missed.

As a matter of fact it's not any body's fault that our president fell from the throne we gave him some 3 years ago,we had high hopes and as we hoped he full filled some but the problem with him was that his good actions surpassed his bad doings and that is the end of his story in short....

To make clear my sayings I would like to mention some things so that you can grasp his attitude and portray his picture.

*He wants no body guards.

*He want a bicycle instead of the car.

*He wanted to go to local market everyday for evening tea break.

*He ask for cigarettes from a passer by.

*He thinks it is better to switch hard drugs to light drugs.

*He is full of sympathy he wants criminals to the same rights as innocent.

*He once urinated at the street side while the whole public watched.

*He proclaimed that only his party will survive and it's members can be regarded as     Maldivians and the rest are scum bags.

*He said he is the supreme leader with all powers and he thinks the constitution should be adjusted according to his wishes.

*He declared that book keeping is not necessary the mobile phone would do the trick.

*He appointed Mr.Sobree(A taxi driver,his devoted supporter) as the head of the health corporation in south.

*He arrested Mr.Abdullah(not a good man) but head of the criminal court.

*He sold the established infra structure to build new infra structure.


Aaliya Aishath
Aaliya Aishath

We in the Maldives are sick and tired of these one-sided opinion pieces published as fact. This article is completely built on statements and accusations made by Mohamed Nasheed himself without any comments from those he has accused.

Also the gist of CoNI's report is not mentioned and the author has completely bypassed Nasheed's infamous mistakes that I sincerely believe, amount to just more than slip-ups.

Nasheed is no democrat. He merely piggybacked on a wave of support for toppling Qayyoom along with a coalition of political parties who practically handed him the Presidency on a platter. It is interesting to note that those political parties had joined the opposition only a mere months after he assumed the Presidency and still continue to point out Nasheed's horrible mismanagement of the country. 

Nasheed the (not-so) democrat:

- Used the military to arrest and detain his political rivals at military installments. 

- Used the military to threaten and intimidate the judiciary eventually locking up the Supreme Court building.

- Ordered his party members to gather mobs which used actual violence or threatened violence against political rivals near their private residences.

- Threatened to use the military to close down private media outlets who criticized the government.

- Attacked the resort industry after accusing businesses of financially backing a mass protest held against his rule.

- Used the military to arrest and detain the Chief Judge of the Criminal Court at a military installment where Nasheed administered psychological torture on the Judge and threatened to transport the Judge and his family out of the country.

- Handed out precious property for resort development without an open tender to his cronies and associates using flimsy loopholes in the regulatory regime.

- Repeatedly offended the cultural and religious sensitivities of Maldivian society.

I as an average Maldivian citizen am shocked and surprised at the amount of distortion used by foreign writers in articles such as these. Nasheed is hardly a saint and clearly not fit to be a middle-manager at a department store let alone a President of a sovereign country.

Is it that you are honestly duped by Nasheed's projections and pretentiousness, OR is this just "cynical politics" on your part.