Former Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed who was alleged to have been ousted in February 2012 following a military coup is here in the country to wish new President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
Mr. Nasheed in an interview with Daily Mirror said if a military coup had taken place in Sri Lanka it would have been a disaster to many Indian Ocean countries. Referring to the alleged coup in the Maldives he said the Maldivian military was unprofessional and inexperienced in handling the situation and it supported one political party.
However giving credit to the Sri Lankan military for being one of the most professional armies in the world, he said there were many things his country could learn from Sri Lanka, its democracy and its civil society.
Q : How do you describe your latest visit to Sri Lanka?
The United National Party (UNP) is a member of the International Democratic Union and Prime Minster Ranil Wickremesinghe is the chairman of its Asia-Pacific Chapter and the Maldives Democratic Party (MDP) which I represent is also a member of the International Democratic Union. We are centre-right parties and we hold centre-right views and now we have Sri Lanka, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand and the BJP government in India all of whom have centre-right views. We think that this is a welcome opportunity for all of us to further promote centre-right views. It was good to see how your election was conducted in a peaceful manner and the fact that President Rajapaksa conceded power and left gracefully. With the new government coming in I am sure that there is so much opportunity and hope for the people. We are here to meet old friends and discuss similar ideas and we want to be with the people of Sri Lanka when these things happen.
Q : Referring to Sri Lanka’s election you said President Rajapaksa gracefully left. According to news and complaints that are being received, there was no such graceful exit by former President Rajapaksa. There could have been a situation similar to what happened in the Maldives in 2012. There are reports that there was an attempted coup with the help of some military personnel. With your experience how bad would it have been if that happened here?
It could have been a disaster for the countries in the region if democracy was derailed in Sri Lanka. There would have been no hope for any of us. Our people who follow how things happen here would have realised that a breakdown in democracy in Sri Lanka would have been the total disaster to all of us. I think it would have been so not only for the Maldives but also for Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and especially the Indian Ocean islands. But I have been always confident about your systems and how they work. Even after the end of the civil war the voting pattern has not been that outrageous. The country is always pluralistic and your military is far more professional and experienced. I also think this is becoming less and less now. One brother will be in the military while another brother is a banker, lawyer or politician. Each individual has a civil society within him. There is a strong civil society culture here within families, within villages, towns and cities. So you are more resilient to these situations and you come back quickly.
Q : So according to you where did the Maldives go wrong in February 2012 where you were allegedly ousted through a military coup?
The military and the police were not professional enough and they decided to take sides instead of upholding the constitution. So when you have these kinds of difficulties of course it is very difficult to maintain a proper form of government. Some of these professionals don’t often get the opportunity to move forward in their professions. So I think in the Maldives this was why the military took sides.
Q : Bringing centre-right views to power is not an easy task because people are prone to extremism. How challenging is it to promote right-wing ideas in countries like ours and yours? How do you see it in the Maldives?
It’s very challenging in the Maldives. Unlike in Sri Lanka our democracy is in its infant stage. They just had their first multi-party election in 2008 and then in 2013, but in your country multi-party elections have been held for so many years. For us there was always this idea of a witch hunt, personal animosities against the former government and also a strong tendency towards nepotism, the government being controlled by a single family or some other strong minister who seems to amass or collect Judicial power and parliamentary power. All these institutions are being tampered with and our road to democracy for a proper government is being obstructed. We must put our country back on track and I am hopeful that whichever government is here it will be always mindful about what happens in the Maldives and I am sure bilateral relations between Sir Lanka and the Maldives will be strengthened. But at the same time we have started working with our island council and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe would remember coming to the Maldives in 2009 and having the initial discussion about the local government system. Then he was in the Opposition but he was an experienced politician. Obviously you are now going into a constitutional amendment that will allow further devolution of powers. Now I think centralizing all the power in one institution and in one person will always lead to an inefficient form of government. So we have a lot of work to do. We would find support from likeminded people in society anywhere.Although it is difficult I think we can bring the country back on track.
Q : We have experienced how public institutions like the judiciary are eroded. Your party has complained of a similar situation in the Maldives now. What is the mechanism to fight when institutions like the judiciary are against you? From where do you get the strength?
Primarily the power rests in the people. And once you have the people on the move on the march it is difficult to stop them. We have to reform the Maldivian judiciary and this will take time. But I think we have to keep at it and in my view we just have to have line and length and then keep pitching at the same place and you are bound to get results. I think we must use the Sri Lankan example on how you have been able to deal with difficult circumstances sometimes but again and again you are coming back on track. If you look at the pattern of government in this country over the past 100 years you will see that you had a civil war for 30 years and still came out as a democratic society. If you compared this to some Latin American countries and many African countries with similar experience you will notice that they have become failed states. But here you have got the economy moving and growth on track and democratic institutions in place. So I think we must see and understand how you are doing it.
Q : Your pro-Western attitude has not been very welcome in your country and you have always been accused of this. What is your response?
We can’t isolate ourselves and move ourselves away from the outside world. It doesn’t work like that. We must have good relations with the West as much as with the East. We must understand that India is the major power in the Indian Ocean. And I think it would be very foolish of us to fiddle with that in balancing the politics in the Indian Ocean. So I am sure Sri Lanka also will see more tourists coming from the West, trade with the West and have more amicable relations with India. Are these liberal ideals do not match with our ideals? I don’t think our people are rejecting these liberal ideals. Millions of people were out on the streets on Wednesday when Pope Francis came here. You know all the people were not necessarily Christians. Many Buddhist friends and my friends would have been out there. the world today is interconnected and we cannot be isolationist. I think we must maintain human rights, media freedom and freedom of speech. These fundamental rights should be maintained by the civil societies and the politicians.
Q : The Maldives is in a strategically important position in the Indian Ocean and there were allegations against the previous government that it was giving more room to China. What is the situation in the Maldives now?
The situation in the Maldives is exactly the same. This is happening in the Maldives. We want the new Maldivian government to work more closely with the Sri Lankan government and synthesise their foreign policy. One of the proposals I want to make to the new government and the prime minister would be to work closely with the Maldives when it plans its foreign polices and be sure that we are on the same page. It is important that we remain on the same page.
Q : There are many connections between Sri Lanka and the Maldives. What type of relationship should these two countries maintain?
As you said there are many cultural ties between the two countries and our history goes together. We need to have easy access. We would like travel restriction to be lifted on both sides. In my view if we open up both countries for the labour market we would go far. We already have many Sri Lankans working in the Maldives. We import fruits, vegetables, tiles, tea, construction material, plastic and almost everything from Sri Lanka. We export a lot of fish to Sri Lanka. We can remove trade duties from both sides. Even after the government change we must continue with this relationship.
Q : Centuries ago the Maldives was a Buddhist country and some extremists element are creating a fear-psychosis that what happened to the Maldives would happen in Sri Lanka in the future. What is your response?
Undoubtedly we have been Buddhists. The archaeology and history are there to be seen. But through trade and Arab travellers, Muslims settled down in the Maldives. We still have a very rich Buddhist heritage and culture in the Maldives. Almost all your religious functions are there in the Maldives but they have other cultural names. All the Poyas have other name in the Maldives. They are still celebrated by the people. I think Sri Lankan Buddhists are open-minded and liberal and they do understand Muslims and Islam. The Muslim community here is again very old and organised. And I think we should all live in peace and harmony and must not allow any Buddhist-Muslim rifts to take place.
I think there are extremists on both sides. Islamic fundamentalists are also doing things making Buddhist extremists to hit back.
I think Sinhala people are far too clever to be scared of these things. And also mass conversion of the Sinhalese or the Buddhists to Islam is not possible. This is far more strong and I think what happened in the Middle Ages some1000 years ago will not be repeated. We should respect all religions and allow the people to follow their own religions.
Q : At a time when a new political culture is being created what is your message for Sri Lanka?
I like to tell the Sri Lankan people not to go on a witch hunt. Go forward and keep going forward.