One of the most eloquent leaders on climate change in the global south continues to be marginalized, partly because the U.S. government is not speaking out forcefully for democracy in his Indian Ocean island nation.
Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives is also exactly the kind of dynamic, progressive Muslim leader that America should be supporting enthusiastically, but some combination of cowardice and incompetence at the U.S. State Department has not only jeopardized the elections that are supposed to be taking place in his country right now, but may actually be putting his life in danger – again.
Nasheed, a charismatic young journalist, won the first free elections in Maldivian history in 2008, and he immediately earned worldwide attention with his passionate warnings that global warming caused rising sea levels that threatened the very existence of his country. The Maldives consist of 200 populated islands, which are only an average of 4 feet in height. He was one of the stars of the 2009 Copenhagen climate change conference, and a terrific documentary film called The Island President chronicled his pro-environment efforts, which included holding a cabinet meeting underwater, in scuba gear, to dramatize the danger to the Maldives’ 300,000 people.
But the old Maldivian elite never accepted that it had lost political power. On February 7, 2012, it instigated a police and army mutiny that forced President Nasheed to resign at gunpoint. The United States disgracefully recognized the illegitimate usurper regime immediately.
America’s pathetic anti-democratic stance continued. New elections were held on September 7, and Mohamed Nasheed, who is known widely and affectionately as “Anni,” led after the first round, with 45 per cent of the vote. The Supreme Court, which is still a tool of the old elite, annulled the election, claiming irregularities (that had passed unnoticed by an army of outside observers). Finally, yesterday (November 9) a new first round happened without incident, and Nasheed came in front again, with 47 percent. The second round, which is required if no candidate passes 50 percent, should be taking place today. But the Court postponed the vote until November 16.
The rest of the world has been protesting this travesty vigorously all along. The Canadian foreign minister actually joined a pro-democracy demonstration in New York, and even conservative British parliamentarians have issued tough statements. But only at the last minute did the U.S. State Department finally speak up, charging today that “the Supreme Court subverts Maldives’ democracy.”
For months, the U.S. ambassador (to Sri Lanka and the Maldives), Michele Sison, has said almost nothing officially, beyond meaningless (and misleading) generalities about ‘all political parties working together.’ But until recently, the official U. S. State Department website did include a photo of a smiling Sison, giggling as she cut a 4th of July cake with an honored guest – the Defense Minister, Mohamed Nazim, who Maldivian democratic forces contend was one of the main figures behind the February 2012 coup. Maldivians have noticed the friendship between Sison and Defense Minister Nazim, and partly blame it for America’s inexplicable silence.
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I visited the Maldives earlier this year, where I met with Shauna Amirath, who is the leader of the youth wing of Mohamed Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP). She paused during our conversation at the Seagull Café in the jam-packed capital city, Male, after a man in his 40s brushed by our table and shot her a hard look.
She winced. “He wants me to know that he’s with the police, and that he’s following me,” she said. “They keep trying to intimidate us.” A few weeks before we met, she had been jailed once again, this time for 6 days (“right after my 28th birthday”). Back then, 800 people had already been arrested after nonviolent demonstrations aimed at restoring democracy.
Shauna Amirath lived for six years in the United States, as a student in Missouri. “In 2008, I went door-to-door canvassing for Barack Obama,” she said. “So I am completely disappointed that his government has not spoken out against the violent overthrow of our elected government here in the Maldives. How can Obama call for democracy in a place like Egypt when he ignores us here?”
Maldivians do not claim that President Nasheed’s bold stance on climate change directly caused the military coup against him. Shauna Amirath says the more immediate reason was that the new democratic government imposed meaningful taxes on the wealthy for the first time. The main industry here is high-end tourism, mainly from Europe, and some of the “tourism tycoons” who own the expensive resorts scattered across the island nation almost certainly helped finance the coup.
Even so, Nasheed’s promise to make the Maldives carbon-neutral by the year 2019 must have also sounded potentially costly to the tycoons. By contrast, Shauna Amirath says the MDP’s forthright environmental views attract young voters. “Young people find Anni’s emphasis on human rights, democracy and climate change to be his best selling points,” she says. “And we are a young country.”
Global warming and the danger from rising sea levels is very much a part of day-to-day consciousness in the Maldives. The island capital, Male, has 100,000 people packed into only 2 square miles, the greatest population density on earth. The thicket of 10-story buildings reaches right up to the water’s edge. Just north of Male, expensive land reclamation on the island of Hulhumale is providing more space.
But in case the sea levels keep rising, Mohamed Nasheed and others have actually recommended that the Maldives set aside a special fund if the entire population has to be relocated some day. The nation’s distinctive Islamic culture dates back to the year 1163; the Old Friday mosque, which is still in use, was built of coral stone in 1656.
At the southeastern corner of Male island is a remarkable reminder of the Maldives’ environmental fragility. In what must be the only monument to a breakwater anywhere on earth, there is a statue in honor of the “tetrapod.” Tetrapods, made of concrete, look like jacks from the children’s game, with four stubby legs about a yard long. Their odd design disperses the crashing waves. Rows of some 20,000 of them protect the island’s vulnerable southern shore. They are credited with saving much of the capital city from destruction by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.