The nonviolent president

Presidents have not fared well in the Maldives, a tiny archipelago nation in the Indian Ocean. The first president was lynched by a mob. The second president had to flee to Singapore. Even before it became a republic in 1968, very few sultans ended their reign peacefully. Some were deposed, forced to abdicate, go into exile, or even assassinated. The point is, transitions of power in the Maldives are usually violent.

The latest incident occurred February 7, 2012, when President Mohamed Nasheed, by his own account, was forced to resign at gunpoint in a coup organized by loyalists of the previous regime. What’s particularly noteworthy, however, is that Nasheed came to power four years earlier in a rare instance of peaceful transition.

It was for this reason that he found himself in Boston last week to receive this year’s James Lawson Award for Achievement in the Practice of Nonviolent Action. Amidst the turmoil that has befallen his country as of late, Nasheed is in large part responsible for democracy even coming to the Maldives in the first place.

Maumoon Abdul Gayoom had ruled for 30 years and became Asia’s longest-serving dictator. But Nasheed — a long-time opposition activist, who had been jailed three times, exiled and even named an Amnesty International Prisoner of Conscience — led a nonviolent movement that ultimately forced free and fair elections in 2008. So, it is not without exaggeration that Nasheed is called “the Mandela of the Maldives.”

As a president he received his fare share of criticisms, particularly for selling off some of the country’s assets to foreign corporations, such as the only hospital and international airport. But he also managed to implement an impressive series of social programs, including universal health coverage for all.

Perhaps more than anything, though, Nasheed became known as a leading figure in the climate movement. To underscore his nation’s vulnerability to sea-level rise, Nasheed famously held an underwater cabinet meeting, pledged to become the first carbon-neutral country and personally installed solar panels on his home.

While the new president is trying to legitimize the coup, Nasheed has been traveling the United States — which has backed the junta that ousted him — to not only support the new documentary The Island President, but also to push for international support of early elections. Once again his skill at forcing the peaceful transfer of power is being summoned, as he calls upon tourists to boycott the Maldives and his people to return to the tactics of “agitation and street protests.”

In an interview with Waging Nonviolence after his award reception, the former president discussed the difference between being the leader of a movement and the leader of a nation, how he was influenced more by satirical author Tom Sharpe than political theorist Gene Sharp and how little he has been impressed by the U.S. climate movement.

What was your strategy for building the movement that brought down the Gayoom regime in 2008?

First to take membership and to organize ourselves into cells, branches, parts and bits and just arrange a jigsaw out of it — and how to disseminate information and pass information from one another and to understand what is the information you want to pass. We might think one thing is very important for the public, but when you go into a household, she’s not worried about it at all. But there’s something else that she’s very very worried about that she would go to any length in trying to change it. So what is important for people is not necessarily always what’s important to me or important to the rest of the population. So on the one hand, asking them “What’s wrong with you?” “What do you want?” “How can life be better?” and get that information and write what we want to do based on that. So it’s a two way conversation that we have to have with the people.

How quickly did the movement grow when you returned to the Maldives from political exile in 2005?

When I started it was just me. No, it wasn’t very big. When I came back it wouldn’t have been more than 200 of us. On the day that I came back, we got 7,000 people joining us. We are now 49,000. The Maldives is just 350,000 and we are the biggest political group. It took a while, but when it started going, when 7,000 people joined, Gayoom had to allow that to be legal. Otherwise, he knew that this organization was going to function even if it were illegal and so on. So he had to legitimize it.

What were the key tactics that you found to be most successful?

Not to be afraid. When a policeman raises a baton, keep looking at the baton. Make sure you know. Don’t lose your focus from the baton until it hits you. I feel if you do that, the pain is much much more bearable. If you start running from it and you cover from it, it’s very very difficult.

Did you find people were able to summon that courage easily?

People were able to watch others do it and then I found that a lot of them were able to do it. Running away doesn’t help. When the police charge, don’t run away, hold your ground, and then, very often, they pass you by and go after those who are running and you are easily able to walk away.

Who inspired you the most and what were you reading as you organized this movement?

What I always read has nothing to do with the politics of this movement or anything. I love reading novels. So that’s all that I read. I flip through Gene Sharp’s things and I get someone else to read it and I kind of flip through them. I’m very bad at it. But I like reading Tom Sharpe for instance. Have you read Writer’s Assembly? Tom Sharpe depicts the South African regime with Writer’s Assembly and for me, it’s comical, it had a lot of material in it on how silly the whole thing was. So I like comedy. I like to make it light. The theory that Jack [DuVall, president of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, which presented the Jim Lawson Award] and Gene Sharp and everyone else was writing about is important. But if you ask me, I think it would be a lie if I told you I had his book at my bedside all the time. That’s not true. I had Tom Sharpe. I am always reading other things. I like that.

Did any of the skills you picked up as an organizer remain useful when you became president?

It was always useful because it gave me some skills on the ability to speak to the people, to talk to them. And then, very often, high powered economics is good and if you’ve read for instance Niall Ferguson or any of the economics texts, it’s good. But you have to relate that to the people and you have to be able to talk to them about it. Direct action and peaceful political activity is also very necessary if you want to become a statesman or you want to become a country.

The underwater cabinet meeting sure seemed like a sign of your activist past. Where did that idea come from?

We asked someone how much they would charge to promote climate change issues in the Maldives and they said $100,000 to $150,000 a month. So I thought this is silly. The idea is to get the message across and impress upon the people the gravity of the issue. So you kind of go into a Tom Sharpe extent of it which is so comical that it is underwater. Exaggeration helps. The ultimate end of it is fun.

Were there many differences you found between being the leader of a social movement and the leader of a nation?

Yes, I like walking and I always walk, and I don’t like all the guards, and I don’t like all the military, and I don’t like all the pomp and ceremony. So that was difficult. People would tell me, “President, you be a president now.” And they would come and say, “There’s a little bit on your hair.” That was always kind of nagging, but I suppose that’s part of the deal. So you had to do that. You had to be polished. You had to be proper. Not that ordinary most people are not polished, but as a president you had to do things in a certain manner.

Were you able to carry over your role as a movement leader to the international stage, advocating on behalf of a small nation?

I was just trying to be me. Meeting Wen Jiabao and Hu Jintao is very difficult — all that regimentation and brass and the military around. When you go to other countries and meet the other presidents, everyone kind of judges the strength of your country by how pompous you can become, how many military parades that you can have, how proper your commanders are shouting it out. You kind of had to tolerate that. And I did that. In meeting other leaders you also soon find out that they are also fairly human and they have a very soft side to it as well. And I think they like it when you cut the ice and start talking normally.

Were there compromises you had to make as the leader of a state that would have been much more difficult to make as the leader of a movement?

One of the difficulties was that every day and every thing was a compromise. There was nothing that I could do according to what I thought had to be done. I’d sit and think this was a brilliant idea and someone would say, “No president, this is how you do it.” They wouldn’t say no, but they would find 10,000 reasons to not be able to do it and just make sure that it’s not done. So there’s very little that as a leader you yourself could do. It’s always a compromise.

What do you think of the American environmental movement?

I’m very disappointed by the slow pace of the social movement. 350.org is a good group, but I’m very disappointed by the slowness. It’s not gathering. I was hoping that there would be a million people out on the streets in the United States this summer, but then no, it’s not happening.

What about the Tar Sands Action campaign in which more than 1,200 people were arrested in front of the White House last year?

This is a country of 350 million people. There will be 1,200 arrests in the Maldives today. So I’m not impressed. We have to have the numbers out and more people need to be active at it. If you want to make a difference, you don’t make this difference staying at home.

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