The inside story of the coup in the Maldives, where the country's first democratically elected president says he was forced to resign at gunpoint.
Airdate: 
Tuesday, February 28, 2012 - 21:32
Channel: 
SBS One

Until recently, the Maldives were most famous as a luxury holiday destination. Now, the islands are at the centre of a potentially explosive power struggle.

The country's first democratically elected President, Mohamed Nasheed, says he was forced to resign at gunpoint in a coup backed by Islamic hardliners.

Mark Davis speaks to him to shed new light on exactly what happened, and puts challenging questions to new President, Mohamed Waheed.

And he's on the streets of the tiny island capital of Malé, where there have been violent protests.

International concern is growing too over the future security and democracy of the islands, so what does it all mean for the Maldives?

WATCH - Click to see Mark's report.

Photo (protest): AAP

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Transcript

It's the holiday destination that dreams are made of, so it's hard to imagine the Maldives as a country in political turmoil, whose leader has just been forced from office. Surprisingly, the international community hasn't exactly rushed to defend the elected government. To date, it's been unclear exactly why the President resigned. Tonight, Mark Davis has crucial new information about how the nation's first democratically elected president was overthrown.


REPORTER: Mark Davis


Welcome to the Maldives. Not the place of long, white sandy beaches and cocktails, but a place of tear gas, police mutinies, and a rising sense of Islamic extremism. This is the capital, Male - a tiny but very densely populated atoll. Everything has been happening here - an incredible drama unfolding in the Manhattan of the Maldives.

More than 100,000 people live on this narrow atoll only 1.5km long. It's a place where politics can become very cosy, and - at times - explosive. February 7 this year - a police protest unfolded on the streets of Male, culminating in what appears to be the very calm resignation of its president, Mohamed Nasheed - the first democratically elected leader in the nation's history.

MOHAMED NASHEED, FORMER PRESIDENT (Translation): I hereby resign from my post as President of the Maldives.

But gentle exteriors can be deceiving. Tonight, we reveal the story of what happened just before this press conference.

MOHAMED NASHEED (Translation): I pray that we all find happiness in both this life and the next.

The day after he leaves this room, Nasheed declares that he resigned in fear of his life, and that the Maldives was in the midst of another coup. When the news spreads to his supporters, they take to the streets, and the new government's response is brutal. Dozens are severely beaten, including many members of parliament. Not just the jails, but the hospitals of Male are full that night.

Nasheed was hauled from the rear of this shop. President one day - punched up on the street the next. At Nasheed's apartment, supporters of the Maldivian Democratic Party, the MDP, gather to provide some slim protection for Nasheed, who's been sheltering here since being released by the police. Nasheed - a former human-rights activist - ended the brutal rule of Maumoon Gayoom in 2008, in the first open elections in the nation's history.

According to Nasheed, Gayoom's associates have just taken back with guns what they couldn't take at the ballot box. And if deposing him wasn't enough, news has now come through that a warrant has been issued for his arrest.

REPORTER: You're not a man that scares easily. You've been imprisoned before. How long for?

MOHAMED NASHEED: I've been in prison many times. I've been tortured twice. I've spent, altogether, more than six years in jail. Torture was a routine affair in Gayoom jails. And I've seen so much happen, so much human-rights abuses happen. And again, we are seeing the same pictures back on our streets again.

Today, Nasheed is heading into the heart of the city for the first time since the mutiny and the street crackdown seven days before.

REPORTER: There is an arrest warrant out on you.

MOHAMED NASHEED: Yes.

REPORTER: Is it provocative for you to come out onto the streets like this?

MOHAMED NASHEED: Well, I think the people want us to continue with the work that we are doing. So we will continue with the work that we do.

The crowd begins to grow as Nasheed heads towards his party meeting hall to reopen it for the first time since it was ransacked in the mutiny. And the closer he gets, the bigger the crowd...

REPORTER: It was destroyed?

MAN: It was destroyed by the police, the military.

REPORTER: Is this the first time back?

MAN: Yes, first time back.

REPORTER: Back to business?

MAN: Back to business.

If the government wants to arrest Nasheed, they won't have far to go. His apartment, like everyone's here, is only about five minutes drive away from police headquarters, and from the presidential house where I'm heading now, where his former deputy - Dr Waheed - is now very firmly ensconced.

REPORTER: I can't understand why you've been involved in a military takeover. What reasons do you have for that, given your perm background?

MOHAMED WAHEED, PRESIDENT: I deny that is a military takeover in the first place. I think the records have to be put straight. I hope that nobody's going to call for street violence, damaging private offices and so on.

REPORTER: It's a bit ironic, isn't it? The violence was on the streets of this capital by the police and their supporters and, now your allies. They were the violent ones.

MOHAMED WAHEED: You know, this is a matter of opinion -

REPORTER: No, it's not! Would you dispute that, sir, that it was the police?

MOHAMED WAHEED: You know there was one incident where...

Dr Waheed now heads an unelected cabinet loaded with associates of Gayoom, and with religious figures from parties that don't hold a single seat in parliament.

MOHAMED WAHEED: It is very clear in our constitution that, for any reason...

The MDP broadly view him as a puppet for forces that could never have defeated them electorally. I was invited by the speaker of the parliament -

REPORTER: It's under duress, sir. You're an educated man. You know if a general comes and puts a gun to your head, metaphorically, that is not a resignation. Do you not accept that as a principle of law?

MOHAMED WAHEED: I do not accept that.

His attempts to present an independent image, not helped by the advisors that now surround him.

ADVISOR: Give him a chance, please. There was a coup...

MOHAMED WAHEED: You see, I would not have associated myself to any effort if I thought there was any kind of irregular, unlawful takeover of power. This is not the case, as far as I understand. I was watching what was going on on television like everybody else. If you watch those tapes, you really wonder what actually happened that day.

For the international community, at least, whether Nasheed resigned under duress is a key issue.

MOHAMED WAHEED: In front of television, he could have said something...

But what was on television that day did not give the full picture. The story of Nasheed's downfall begins in December, when Islamic religious leaders begin demonstrations calling for stricter Sharia law. Their protest was soon joined by opposition party figures.

REPORTER: Locally, the people really hate him. Internationally, he's a star. Locally...

UMAR NASEER, PROGRESSIVE PARTY OF MALDIVES: Oh, definitely! He's not a liberal, I would say. He's too far on the left, you know? And we on the right, actually.

Initially, the rallies were nothing about right and left, but about religious purity. Nasheed was accused of encouraging vice, secretly allying himself with the Jews, and being a front for Christian missionaries - all of which he vigorously denies.

UMAR NASEER: He calls for alcohol and soft drugs to be free on the street, you know? No liberal president or prime minister would go as far as that. His nickname was "Gunjabo." That means "Drug addict." Seriously.

REPORTER: I'm sure it's a serious allegation! Is it a fair allegation?

UMAR NASEER: It's a fair allegation, definitely, yeah. OK.

Although enjoying limited electoral success, the political power of Islam and the call for tougher implementation of Sharia law has grown sharply in recent years. The opposition certainly embraced the movement in contrast to Nasheed's more tolerant ideals.

UMAR NASEER: This is the difference, actually. We believe in an Islamic democracy - a democracy that can fit into Islam. This is what we believe in. Most of the parties that have opposed Nasheed believe in an Islamic democracy.

MOHAMED NASHEED: We are losing our way of life. The vast majority of people in this country are moderate Muslims. They don't like all these extreme Islamic ideologies. So they don't have a public backing. It's very, very sad that the new -- that this new regime has given so much prominence to them, and they've also included them in their government.

Whatever the religious clashes that were unfolding in January, Nasheed added fuel to the fire when he arrested the chief judge of the criminal court, Abdullah Mohammed, who he accused of incompetence and corruption.

REPORTER: Was that, on reflection, a mistake?

MOHAMED NASHEED: I don't think so. I think we had to do it. The judicial services commission -

REPORTER: No-one agrees with you. I mean, there's hardly an international body.

MOHAMED NASHEED: These judges are hand-picked by Gayoom. They are not judges sworn in according to the new constitution.

The arrest of the judge gave the opposition protests a whole new momentum. On February 6, events begin to spiral out of control when the police join the protests to the delight - if not the surprise - of Umar Naseer.

UMAR NASEER: So, on the protesters' side, we were informing the police, educating the police, and educating the army through our speeches, through television programs.

REPORTER: Were there any other inducements? There have been quotes of police being told, if they switch sides, they'll be looked after, their families will be looked after?

UMAR NASEER: We called on army and police - if a person is fired from his position because of refusing to follow an unlawful order, then the opposition will take care of them.

As February 7 dawned, the police had seized police headquarters, stormed and taken the national TV station, and were now clashing with soldiers from the barracks in the centre of town. Nasheed appeared in the crowd, urging calm. But he was soon forced back. The square was now dangerous, and Nasheed took shelter inside the army base. This extraordinary video shows the moment his power began to slip away, as he paces the yard pleading for help.

MOHAMED NASHEED (Translation): Do something about this -start working! The whole country is falling apart - the whole of Male is falling apart while your people do nothing.

Although ineffective, the troops seem loyal to their president. For all appearances, a spontaneous protest is unfolding - not a coup.

REPORTER: Where were you, by this stage?

UMAR NASEER: I was actually - we had a small centre of command, actually, when we do all the protests and then I command from the centre. I give instructions to my people. I was at that point.

REPORTER: Where was the command centre?

UMAR NASEER: I will not disclose the location of the command centre.

Everything changes later in the morning, with the mysterious arrival of two civilians who seem to take command. Mohammed Nazim, a former army officer, is ushered into the barrack, together with a former police officer, Abdullah Riaz. These two men begin to issue orders, and Nasheed says threatened bloodshed unless he resigned within the hour.

MOHAMMED NEZIM (Translation): Our proposal is that the president resigns without any conditions.

According to Umar Naseer, in an extraordinary admission, they were acting on his authority.

UMAR NASEER: Yeah, it was, I think, around 7:00, 7:30 - it was around that time.

REPORTER: In the morning?

UMAR NASEER: In the morning. Nazim called me, actually - the present Defence Minister called me said and "I'm inside the headquarters. Can I talk on behalf of the opposition?" So I told them, "You talk, but don't agree to anything without our authority." But I have told Nasheed to resign. And I was afraid of his life, actually, because if Nasheed came out of the headquarters, people might beat him on the streets.

While the international community deliberates on whether Nasheed resigned under duress or not, this audio recording - broadcast for the first time - may be illuminating. It begins in the minutes after Nasheed claims representatives of the opposition made their threats of bloodshed. Nasheed begins with a plea for his family's life.

MOHAMED NASHEED (Translation): I want to request that you protect my family. You should do that for me under the circumstances. I should settle this with you first, right here, okay?

CROWD (Translation): No problem! I will protect your family with Allah's will - I will protect you as my leader, with my life and soul.

MOHAMED NASHEED (Translation): Then I will go to the president's office and publicly announce that in my view, the best thing for this country right now is my resignation. Is that alright? So that is what I'll say.

MOHAMED NASHEED: That was an attempt for me to get out of where I was.

REPORTER: The army base, basically? The army headquarters.

MOHAMED NASHEED: Yes, I could have heard on, but that would -- held on, but that would have been at very huge cost to the country and the people.

REPORTER: There would have been bloodshed.

MOHAMED NASHEED: There would have been a lot of blood.

CROWD (Translation): The president will accept our proposal and resign after going to the president's office.

WOMAN: We're having a walk. Just a peaceful walk. Going home, walking.

As Nasheed walks home through the streets of Male, the crowd continues to grow - and they make their view of the police crudely clear.

MOHAMED NASHEED: The criminals are obvious. The pictures are there. The people are identified. So I think this is a blessing in disguise, in many ways. We are now able to reform a very, very brutal police, because we now understand who is who and what everyone is doing.

REPORTER: You're a confident man. They've got the guns at the moment. Are you in any position to be talking about arresting them?

MOHAMED NASHEED (Translation): Well, we have the people behind us. We have the whole country behind us.

But it looks like the wrong kind of people behind him. They don't have guns, and they don't have money. To cap off Nasheed's woes, he believes wealthy resort owners were also behind his demise. Smarting, he says, from the introduction of taxes in the Maldives last year.

REPORTER: Now you're saying that the resort owners funded...?

MOHAMED NASHEED: They funded the coup. I have information that about four resort owners funded the coup. Of course, a proper investigation would make it much clearer.

REPORTER: Yes, but there's an incredible dichotomy here, as in this whole country, of course - people are sipping daiquiris out on resorts at the moment and paying their $2,000 a night. And you're suggesting that their money is funding the type of brutality that's unfolded here?

MOHAMED NASHEED: Yes.

Encouraged by his walk through the city, a few days later, Nasheed launches an official rally to test his strength. A protest, he declares, which will remain day and night until President Waheed calls an election.

MOHAMED NASHEED: We need to have an election as soon as possible. This is the only way to stabilise the country.

But it's not so simple, according to the newly installed president.

REPORTER: At the moment, we've had tear gas decide, we've had batons decide. We haven't heard the people.

MOHAMED WAHEED: The people are not convinced, at the moment, that if we hold an election, that it could be free and fair.

REPORTER: Why? Why?

MOHAMED WAHEED: Partly because there are so many deep divisions.

REPORTER: Whatever its faults, you know that the best resolution of political division is an election. It's the only one that is clarifying.

MOHAMED WAHEED: Still, the conditions are not ripe for an election just now.

The MDP rally rolls on. Now in its 12th day, an election is the constant call.

MOHAMED NASHEED: But we don't give up. We've won against odds before. I've fallen many, many times, but I've been able to come back. I've been able to start it all over again. And I don't see any difference now.

But Umar Naseer firmly believes there'll be no comeback for Nasheed.

UMAR NASEER: Nasheed should face justice. He should face justice and I think he will get a prison term of 10-15 years.

REPORTER: You don't give up easily, do you? You've got the guy out of government, and now want you want to see him in prison?

UMAR NASEER: We want to see justice served.

REPORTER: He wants to see an election.

UMAR NASEER: He is seeking election because he won't get away with this sentence. I have no doubt that Mr Nasheed will be out of Maldivian politics for a long time and we want to make sure of that.

YALD HAKIM: Mark Davis there. On the weekend, the new President, Dr Waheed, called on Islamic supporters to rally to his cause, saying, "We are prepared to sacrifice ourselves. God willed this change. You are my mujaheddin."

REPORTER/CAMERA
Mark Davis

PRODUCER
Gary McNad

EDITORS
Micah McGown
Nick O'Brien

TRANSLATION/SUBTITLING
Inan Abdul Muhsin

ORIGINAL MUSIC COMPOSED BY
Vicki Hansen

28th February 2012