Mr Steven Cole: Hello and Welcome to Talk to Aljazeera. I’m Steven Cole. We meet today with President Mohamed Nasheed. The President is educated at a British public school. He’s a maritime engineer who went on to become a political prisoner, spending time in solitude and confinement. Now, he leads a country, the Maldives, threatened with extension.
Mr President. In 2004 you came to Britain seeking political asylum. You formed an opposition, you went back to the Maldives and you won an election. Has the transition to democracy been smooth?
President Nasheed: Well, the transfer of power has been smooth. We haven been particularly mindful of trying to or at least maintaining a smooth transfer of power. You have to understand that moving from feudalism to pluralism, from autocracy to democracy is never easy. The challenges are great and quite substantial. We have to build a number of institutions: the legislature; the judiciary; the independent institutions such as the Human Rights Commission, Anti Corruption Commission, the Prosecutor General’s Office; so on and so forth. There are number of institutions that we have today. Meanwhile, we have to be able to deliver the pledges, the promises that we made to the people. We always told them that democracy would bring happiness. We defined autocracy or dictatorship with unhappiness. Therefore, it is not time that we have to be able to deliver. It is not easy, but we are working on it and we believe it can be done.
Mr Stephen Cole: It’s been a remarkable political journey for you personally. What was the greatest challenge for you in that journey?
President Nasheed: I think patience. To be in solitary confinement, if need be. To be arrested, if need be. To sustain all sorts of hardships and difficulties, when the need arose. I think these were very tiring, very demanding times.
Mr Stephen Cole: And you also took over from one of the longest serving regimes and one of the repressive regimes in Asia.
President Nasheed: Well, it’s true. I mean Gayoom was in power for a long time. When he was the President of the Maldives, the Constitution didn’t allow us to do anything. He was the chief justice, he was the President, he was the Commander-in-Chief, and he was the head of the legislature. He was everything! So basically, to change that and start running a system where there is separation of powers and where there is freedom of expression, respect for human rights, is a challenge.
Mr Stephen Cole: It was a challenge for you too because you spoke up against him and the result was, you were thrown into prison.
President Nasheed: A number of times. It wasn’t easy. It was hard, but we had to…..
Mr Stephen Cole: You’re making light of it. It was a bit worse than that, wasn’t it?
President Nasheed: Well, you know, we had to do what had to be done.
Mr Stephen Cole: You were fighting for democracy in the Maldives.
President Nasheed: We were fighting for a better life for the people of the Maldives. We believed, and we still believe that democracy is a beautiful form and we could deliver a better system through democratic forms.
Mr Stephen Cole: Has the battle for democracy been won?
President Nasheed: No, no. Certainly not. It is just a beginning. We have been able to win these elections; we have been able to remove the dictatorship. So therefore, we have the work of sustaining it, establishing it.
Mr Stephen Cole: Indeed. There are elections next month?
President Nasheed: There is a parliamentary election. That’s one of the elections that are coming very soon. We just decided that it has to come soon. And soon after that we want to see local elections.
Mr Stephen Cole: So this would be a new territory for many people in the Maldives.
President Nasheed: All of them, all of these things are new to the people. But to understand the political landscape, you need to have elections. And without understanding the political landscape, and where you stand, and how people view you, it would be difficult to govern a country.
Mr Stephen Cole: When you were arrested and thrown into prison many times, do you know how many times?
President Nasheed: Well, I think twelve.
Mr Stephen Cole: Twelve times you have been thrown into prison. And sometimes you were put in solitary confinement.
President Nasheed: Yes.
Mr Stephen Cole: What were the thoughts that went through your mind in those very lonely times?
President Nasheed: Yes, this question has come time and time again. In my mind, in a tragedy, if you can find a romance to it, then you can perhaps sustain it.
Mr Stephen Cole: And what was the romance for you in solitary confinement? Dreaming of one day leading your country perhaps?
President Nasheed: Well there are two elements to this. The dreams, the future, the vision – that’s one element. But also the realisation or the belief that the precept, the hardships, when you are in solitary confinement. Now, the dreams are about the future. But as you are in the dungeon, there must be some mechanism to deal with that. I thought that this was romantic, that this was happening to you and only to you, and no one else. And therefore, it would be only you who understands this.
Mr Stephen Cole: And what kind of future did you dream of or did you envisage to the Maldives during those 12 incarcerations?
President Nasheed: Basic things – of health care, housing, transport, the drugs issue, juvenile delinquency, gang violence, political pluralism, freedom of expression – all these things we thought were very, very urgent to the Maldivian society.
Mr Stephen Cole: You have won the battle for democracy - the early days of democracy, as you say. But also, you are fighting for your life against nature also, aren’t you? That’s going to be a longer battle?
President Nasheed: This is going to be a longer battle. We have to understand that the world faces a very real threat in terms of climatic change. Now, what we are trying to say is Maldives is in front line stage in this threat. What happens to the Maldives will happen to everyone else later on. So if you can’t save the Maldives now, God save the rest of the world! What we are saying is that it’s just not the Maldives alone. If the Maldives cannot be protected, you won’t be able to protect your own cities and towns.
Mr Stephen Cole: How many islands are inhabited in the Maldives?
President Nasheed: Two hundred
Mr Stephen Cole: Are they all faced with extinction if the oceans continue to rise?
President Nasheed: Well if the oceans do continue to rise, yes certainly. Because they are just about 3ft or 4ft, maximum 6ft above sea level. So, if there is a rise in sea level as predicted by the IPCC, then we have a problem.
Mr Stephen Cole: And you believe the oceans will rise?
President Nasheed: The science is very certain I think. There is no room for us to question it. The way I take it is, even if you don’t believe in god, it is safer to believe in god because if it is true than of course you would be in trouble later on. Even if you are sceptical about sea-level rise, just in case that it is true, it is better to be secure.
Mr Stephen Cole: You have vowed to make the Maldives carbon neutral in a decade. Is that feasible?
President Nasheed: I think it is quite feasible. The Kyoto Protocol and the present narratives and the present outlook to global climatic change has been about not doing things – about not emitting gas, about not going on holidays, about not having an ice-cream – it was about not doing things. My feeling is that this is the wrong way to be going on about it. We should be demanding to do things – to do greeneries, to invest in renewable energy. We feel that renewable energy is financially feasible. It is doable, and we think that it would give a handsome return. If you take a country like the Maldives which has a lot of sun; a lot of ocean and therefore, currents; a lot of wind – these are our natural resources. There is no reason why we should be importing another resource from elsewhere, while we have our own resources. I think we are on the brink of a major breakthrough in the science of renewable energy. Maldives would hopefully be a showcase where these breakthroughs can be exhibited for other bigger nations to view.
Mr Stephen Cole: If your country did drown, this would be an environmental catastrophe the world has never seen the like of before. That must give you sleepless nights or does it drive you on.
President Nasheed: Well, it drives me on. But you have to understand that if the Maldives sinks, you won’t be there either. Sixty percent of the world’s population live near the coastal areas. So it’s not really a Maldives thing. Sea-level rise is not the only issue. Climatic aberration is a more acute problem. When you have higher winds, when you have bigger waves and when you have more hurricanes and so on, it is not only going to be the Maldives that is going to be affected. So we really need to do something now.
Mr Stephen Cole: You talked about a major breakthrough or major breakthroughs. What is it? What are they?
President Nasheed: In solar energy, in wind, in geothermal. There are many areas of technology. If you look at this cynically, through the prisms of, let’s say, established energy companies then you won’t see the light.
Mr Stephen Cole: The Maldives is known as the most romantic tourist destination in the world. I wonder in such an environment as the Maldives, to what the impact has been on the islands?
President Nasheed: For instance, we have recently banned shark fishing. One of the reasons why we had to do that was the pressure from the tourists that the government is facing. There are many positive sides to tourism. Of course, there is the impact of development and the fact that you have to do a certain amount of construction for tourism development. You have to be mindful that without money and without development you cannot protect the environment.
Mr Stephen Cole: You have to make compromises.
President Nasheed: You have to make compromises. You have to have a proper balance to it.
Mr Stephen Cole: Do you regret having to make those compromises?
President Nasheed: No. I think to be able to deliver, you have to make compromises. So of course, it is question of where you compromise. The process of making that decision, if that process is transparent and if that process is institutionalised, then I suppose you can be home and dry and safe.
Mr Stephen Cole: The world is suffering, at t he moment, very much from an economic downturn. Has the global financial crisis impacted on your tourism industry?
President Nasheed: It has. We are fortunate to be a very up-market destination. So your superstars are not so heavily hit by the credit crunch. There is a downturn. But the downturn experienced in the Maldives is not as much as some other countries.
Mr Stephen Cole: There has also been criticism. You say it’s a high-end destination, there is not doubt about that. But the money, the revenue accrued from tourism, are they been spread evenly?
President Nasheed: No. Certainly not. There is a huge disparity in income. The poor are getting poorer. The gap between the poor and the rich are expanding. So, no, it hasn’t been spread evenly.
Mr Stephen Cole: What are you doing to address that?
President Nasheed: We want the government to move in and get the resorts to twin, in a sense, their infrastructure facilities with inhabited islands. We have a model where we ask the resort owners to stop producing their electricity, their utilities and give it to another concern who would produce it for that island and the adjacent island. We have a situation in the Maldives where you have next to a very poor third world island, you have a very rich European island which is the resort island. So what we are suggesting is that if these two islands can be combined for their utilities and for their infrastructure then both people can come out benefitted.
Mr Stephen Cole: Can the islanders still lead what people might call the traditional life they had led a long time, despite the tourism. Is that possible?
President Nasheed: No it’s not possible. It’s not possible at all. And I doubt it whether the islanders want to live that traditional life at all. They like their mobiles, they like their TVs, they like their washing machines and they are not interested in this traditional life.
Mr Stephen Cole: You had a big idea, didn’t you? You saw the threat of global warming, climate change, sea-levels rising. And you thought lets move the Maldives somewhere else. Tell us more about that.
President Nasheed: No Maldivian ruler can be ignorant or blissfully unaware about the plight. But leaders cannot afford the luxury of ignorance. As responsible politicians, we have to be mindful of setting up structures and processes so that in time to come, maybe my grandchildren or our future generations 70 years down the line, if the bottom line is dry land, if the people of the Maldives wants to move from where they live now, we, today should be able to start a process that would help them in the future.
Mr Stephen Cole: Now what do you mean by helping them in the future? Are you telling me you are saving up for some ….
President Nasheed: Yes we are saving for a rainy day. Live by your means, save for a rainy day. These are very simple philosophies in life. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand it. You just save for a rainy day, live by your means.
Mr Stephen Cole: What is then your long term mission?
President Nasheed: Adaptation. My long term vision is the Maldives to be able to adapt for possible climatic aberrations and the effects of it. We would ideally not want to see these climatic changes or we don’t want to go to the tipping point where climatic change becomes unruly, in a sense. I believe that before reaching that tipping point, societies would tip the governments to act. Democracy is such a beautiful form. Once people decide to act, governments would instantly come out with legislations and all sorts of measures to avert the disasters and the dooms day scenarios.
Mr Stephen Cole: But what about the reports of trying to buy some territory in a different country, where you can move the population?
President Nasheed: You see, what we are trying to do is, we are trying to bring out the issue for debate. Basically, what we are saying is this is, this is what the Maldivians would ultimately have to do, are you ready for it. Of course when we are in difficulty, when 60 percent of the world is running around from place to place, trying to find dry land, people are not necessarily going to pay much attention to Maldivians.
Mr Stephen Cole: What about the countries you are reported to have looked at or thought about moving the population to islands of Australia or Africa. Is that true?
President Nasheed: We think there are many receptive places where the people of these countries have similar environment, have similar outlook to life. Maldivians of course would be looking at similar things. What we would be asking these countries would be, to start with, when Maldivians want to buy land abroad, please don’t tax them. We don’t have land. And we are not losing our land because of anything that we have done.
Mr Stephen Cole: You are tying to save a country, but you are moving the population.
President Nasheed: A country is its people. The land is very important. What we are saying is if there is a need for anyone to move, then this person should have the possibility and the opportunity of doing that.
Mr Stephen Cole: But wouldn’t you empty the islands in that case?
President Nasheed: We can’t force to people to stay at places, neither can we force people to migrate.
Mr Stephen Cole: But financially you would make it worthwhile for people to leave?
President Nasheed: Financially, if we can setup structures. I mean I certainly wouldn’t go. But I cannot plan….
Mr Stephen Cole: You would be the last one to leave?
President Nasheed: I will be the person not leaving. I wouldn’t leave and I haven’t met anyone who actually wants s to leave.
Mr Stephen Cole: But you must have reclamation schemes as well?
President Nasheed: Well we have adaptation measures. We will be going into adaptation measures – breakwaters, revetments, reclamations – all these things would come up. But at the end of the day, we have to be able to, you know we don’t know what’s coming. We really do not know. It’s not only sea level rise. Climatic aberration is more important and more severe. The winds are getting stronger, the rains are longer, the droughts are longer. There is so much that is changing. So in a sense, even if you brace yourself for sea level rise, then what do you do with the wind? Its madness to think that there can be an adaptation measure. Basically, the issue about climatic change doesn’t stop at sea level rise.
Mr Stephen Cole: You have recently been talking to the Queen. Did you ask her advice?
President Nasheed: She was very supportive. She has always been very supportive of the Maldives and the Commonwealth. She is, of course, very concerned about the plight that we might have to be. I did sense that she is very concerned about what we might have to suffer. Being a member of the Commonwealth, she would hopefully understand. She does understand the situation.
Mr Stephen Cole: You have been described or I’ve been told you are a bit of a hit at the Commonwealth. You have been described as the Obama of Asia.
President Nasheed: I don’t know. I just try to do what is possible. We have a vision. We have a focus. And we have not diverted from that and we will continue to go along these lines. And we feel that we can save the world. We do not want to point fingers at others. We want to do the proper thing. Even if we die, we would die with the satisfaction that we have done the proper thing.
Mr Stephen Cole: President Mohamed Nasheed, thank you very much indeed.
President Nasheed: Thank you so much.