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October 26, 2009
Maldives leaders seize democracy to save their country

The Maldives is made up of over 1,000 tiny islands, all of which sit only several feet above sea level. Photo: Megan Thompson

Megan Thompson, a Worldfocus producer, is traveling around the world to report on climate change’s effects on small islands. Read her post about Grenada and Antigua here.

President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives has made a lot of international headlines lately. While on a global crusade to call the world’s attention to the effects of climate change on his low-lying island nation of 103,000 people, Nasheed has delivered impassioned speeches at the UN and held a cabinet meeting back at home – underwater.

But what many people may not know is that behind President Nasheed’s emotional pleas and publicity stunts is an incredible story of his rise to power here.

Almost exactly one year ago, the Maldives held its first democratic election. For 30 years, the country was ruled by the autocratic regime of President Maumoon Abdul Gayoon, who repressed the opposition by banning political parties and jailing anyone who challenged him.

President Nasheed was one of those challengers. A journalist and human rights activist, he was imprisoned repeatedly, and allegedly tortured, for his constant criticism of the government. But then in 2005, the People’s Majlis (the Maldivian Parliament) voted to allow opposition parties. And after years of agitation, detention and exile, Nasheed and vice presidential candidate Dr. Mohammed Waheed Hassan, himself in exile for 16 years, ran and won in 2008 – finally bringing democracy to the Maldives.

“Male” — The Maldivian capital of Malé sits about six feet above sea level.

It’s truly one of the newest democracies in the world, and you get the sense that people here are still getting used to it, or don’t quite believe it’s actually happened at all. Most Maldivians we approached were hesitant to talk politics. But some expressed great support for the new government and its work on human rights, good governance and climate change. The locals we spoke to on Guraidhoo Island – a tiny island 40 minutes by speedboat but a world away from the capital of Malé – were more skeptical. Many still support the former president and told us they weren’t convinced that anything had really changed.

That’s not what some on the outside think. Just last week came the news that the Maldives jumped an incredible 53 places to number 51 in the Reporters Without Borders’ Worldwide Press Freedom Index. So today’s pesky Maldivian reporters – as President Nasheed once was – should now be able to write without the threat of being tossed in prison.

While in Malé, we were lucky to meet with Vice President Hassan. Conversation about climate change strayed briefly to his nation’s new democracy. Dr. Hassan’s joy was palpable as he spoke about his transformed nation and he pointed out that before the transition, he wouldn’t have been able to sit down with a group of journalists like us without getting into big trouble. He said that the greatest thing that has come from the change is the “freedom from fear.”

Dr. Hassan and President Nasheed have made climate change a central priority, and will convene an international summit next month in the Maldives to discuss the issue in the run-up to the important Copenhagen talks in December. Their predecessor, President Gayoom, does deserve credit for sounding the warning bell many years ago on the issue. But there’s a big difference now. When President Nasheed talks, the world knows they are listening not just to his voice, but to the voices, and the will, of the Maldivian people who elected him.

– Megan Thompson

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