In 2006, in the Pacific island nation of Fiji, troops overran the capital city, threatened the Prime Minister, forced his resignation, placed him under house arrest, imposed censorship on the media, and the coup leader, in the form of the head of the army, went on television to declare himself the new ruler of the country.
In 2012, in my country, the Indian Ocean island nation of the Maldives, mutinying police andsoldiers overran the capital city, gave me, the President, an ultimatum to resign within the hour or face bloodshed, placed me under effective house arrest, raided the headquarters of the national broadcaster, and the coup leader, in the form of the Vice President, went on television to declare himself the new ruler of the country.
In the case of Fiji, the international community swiftly condemned the coup, blackballed Fiji from the club of civilized nations and suspended it from the Commonwealth. In the case of the Maldives, a report drafted by a Commission of National Inquiry (CoNI) which was dominated by hand-picked appointees of the coup-installed government, and endorsed by the Commonwealth, has just whitewashed the coup, declaring it a perfectly legitimate and constitutional transfer of power.
Fiji and the Maldives’ contrasting experiences provide useful tips for coup-plotters everywhere. When planning your coup, remember that first impressions count — so don’t dress like an obvious coup leader. The man who takes over from the democratically elected leader should not wear military fatigues, as Commodore Frank Bainimarama did in Fiji; instead wear a lounge suit, as former Vice President Waheed Hassan did in the Maldives.
Secondly, get your messaging right: never, as in Fiji, publicly state you are overthrowing an elected government; instead, as in the Maldives, announce that the President’s resignation is a run-of-the-mill and Constitutional transfer of power.
Finally, have patience: if you follow steps 1 and 2, sooner or later the international community will tire of political upheaval and accept the new, coup-led political order, regardless of outward commitments to democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
The CoNI report, which declared the Maldives’ coup lawful, has been a huge blow and a profound disservice to the Maldivian people, many of whom watched February’s illegal transfer of power unfold in front of their eyes: in the streets, on television, and through the hundreds of eye-witness video clips posted on YouTube and Facebook.
On the one hand, Maldivians should not have been surprised by the CoNI’s conclusions. The Committee was created by Waheed, the chief beneficiary of the coup, who stacked it with his own allies, and placed the defence minister of former dictator Gayoom at its helm. However, the eleventh hour inclusion of a retired Singaporean judge, appointed with the blessing of the Commonwealth, plus one single nominee, appointed by me, was supposed to provide a modicum of balance to the final report. Sadly, it did not.
My nominee, Ahmed Saeed, resigned from the Committee before its report was released, citing that crucial evidence, such as video footage of the police rampaging through Male, was not included in the Committee’s report. He further noted that the testimony of key witnesses was not included, and that central figures involved in the coup, such as opposition figure Umar Naseer who publicly admitted the existence of a coup “command center” from which events were directed, were not even interviewed.
A recent assessment of the CoNI report by a legal team led by Sri Lanka’s former Attorney General, states that the report “amounts to a dangerous and severe erosion of the electoral franchise and mandate of the people.” In effect, the CoNI report says it is perfectly legitimate for a mob of mutinying police and army to topple an elected government from the streets. The legal team’s assessment further states: “there was in fact adequate evidence to suggest that duress (or even ‘coercion’ and/ or illegal coercion as used by CoNI) is attributable to the resignation of President Nasheed.”
Despite these serious flaws, and in the interests of moving forward, I have formally accepted the CoNI report – but only alongside Ahmed Saeed’s reservations.
A more useful analysis of the Maldives’ sorry situation comes from a recent report by Amnesty International, whose researchers conducted a professional and truly independent on- the-ground investigation. Amnesty’s report strongly condemns the on-going abuses by the coup-installed regime, stating that: “Without an end to – and accountability for – these human rights violations, any attempt at political reconciliation in the Maldives will be meaningless.”
Many other international human rights bodies have joined Amnesty in categorically condemning the Waheed regime’s repeated human rights violations, including Reporters without Borders and the UN Human Rights Committee.
Unfortunately, the CoNI report has gifted the regime with the get-out-of-jail-free card and the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group may now decide on 11 September to remove the Maldives from its watch-list of human rights violators. If they do, it will offer the regime a green light to crack down even harder on civil society, the media and the political opposition.
In an ironic twist of fate, the regime has also announced that they will use the CoNI report as a pretext to place me on trial — likely barring me from standing as the MDP’s elected nominee in the next presidential election.
As the Arab Spring continues its inevitable march across the Islamic world, the Maldives could have been an example of where the international community stood up for Muslim democrats, by forcing a coup regime to hold early elections and restore democracy. Sadly, the Maldives’ case is more likely to be used by aspiring coup plotters, as a useful guide on how to pull it off. Commodore Bainimarama must feel he instigated Fiji’s coup too early – had he waited until February 2012, he too could have learned how to usurp power and avoid the censure of the watching world.