Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed, ousted in a coup last month, joins us in studio along with Jon Shenk, director of "The Island President," a new documentary about Nasheed’s rise to power and his climate activism. The tiny Indian Ocean state of Maldives remains in a state of political turmoil seven weeks after Nasheed, the country’s first democratically elected president, was ousted in what he has described as a coup at gunpoint. He had become an internationally recognized leader on climate issues, urging the world to do more to save small island states from rising sea waters. Nasheed criticizes the Obama administration’s quick recognition of the coup government, calling it "shocking and deeply disturbing." He also discusses his commitment to environmental activism, saying, "Climate change is a real issue, and it is happening now. It’s not something in the future. ... We feel that we have to advocate, that we have to try and get the message across that there has to be better understanding and international agreement on reducing carbon emissions." [includes rush transcript]
JUAN GONZALEZ: The tiny Indian Ocean state of Maldives remains in a state of political turmoil seven weeks after the country’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Nasheed, was ousted in what he has described as a coup at gunpoint.
In 2008, Mohamed Nasheed beat the longtime ruler of Maldives, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, in the country’s first free and open election. Prior to the vote, Nasheed was a longtime pro-democracy activist who was jailed for six years. At the time, he was described as the "Mandela of the Maldives." Nasheed now insists the February 7th coup was led by supporters of the former dictator.
The coup became news across the globe in part because Nasheed has become an internationally recognized leader on climate issues, as he urged the world to do more to save small island states from rising sea waters.
AMY GOODMAN: Ousted Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed once held a cabinet meeting underwater to highlight the threat of global warming to the Maldives. He also pledged to make the Maldives the first carbon neutral country and installed solar panels on the roof of his presidential residence.
President Nasheed’s rise to power and climate activism is the focus of a new documentary called The Island President. It’s just opened at the Film Forum here in New York. This is an excerpt.
MOHAMED NASHEED: If we can’t stop the seas rising, if you allow for a 2-degree rise in temperature, you are actually agreeing to kill us. I have an objective, which is to save the nation. I know it’s a huge task. I’ve been arrested 12 times. I’ve been tortured twice. I spent 18 months in solitary.
We won our battle for democracy in the Maldives. A year later, there are those who tell us that solving climate change is impossible. Well, I am here to tell you that we refuse to give up hope.
AMY GOODMAN: Mohamed Nasheed, the ousted president of the Maldives, joining us here in studio in New York. Also with us, Jon Shenk, the director of this new documentary called The Island President.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! President Nasheed, I last saw you at the U.N. summit on climate change. That is where you’ve become famous around the world. But talk about what happened, the date, the time, and what took place in your country, in the Maldives, that led you—your forced departure from the presidency.
MOHAMED NASHEED: Thank you very much, and good morning.
As you know, in 2008, we had our first multi-party elections. I was fortunate to be elected then, and we were able to beat President Gayoom, who has been in power for the last 30 years then. It’s—one of the things that we are now coming to understand is it’s easy to beat a dictator, but it’s not so much easy to get rid of a dictatorship. The networks, the intricacies, the institutions, and everything that the dictatorship has established remains, even after the elections.
On the February 6th—on the February 7th, rather—on the 6th, on the night of the 6th, I asked the military to restrain 200 riot police who were rebelling. These 200 riot police has been—they were established in 2005, specifically to disrupt the peaceful demonstrations of the Maldivian Democratic Party at the time. When we came into government, we, in a sense, fired them, or rather, we stopped using them, and we had them scattered across the islands and in other islands, as well, because we had no use to use so much force. But unknowing to me, they were—the opposition, or rather, the dictatorship and the elements connected to it were talking to these people.
And on the 7th, they staged a rebellion. And they were sitting on the—they were sitting—they were protesting on the Republican Square. And I asked the military to restrain them. I asked them at 11:00 in the evening that day. By 5:00 in the morning the next day, the military was—the military still hadn’t done that. So I went to the military headquarters. And then, there, I found that sections of the military had also joined with the rebellion, and they were refusing to restrain the police. Then, around early that morning, about 9:00 in the morning, the generals started asking me to resign, and they told me that if I did not resign, they would resort to using arms. They would use arms on me, and they would also use arms on the people. Then, I had no choice, really, because sections of the military who were in the headquarters were with the rebellious police, and also I saw more than a hundred other soldiers coming from the other barracks in Malé and also another hundred soldiers coming from another barracks near Malé. And so, at the end of the day, it was about 500 soldiers and policemen against about a hundred or so soldiers who were loyal to the government and to the constitution.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And the reaction of the—of others in your government, and the one who then assumed the presidency?
MOHAMED NASHEED: Well, the vice president assumed the presidency, but the vice president had been, we understand now, talking to them throughout the month before that, and they had these understandings that after my forced resignation, the vice president would take over, and then to seemingly make it look like a usual resignation and for him to take over.
But after I was forced to resign and after the announcement of my resignation, again, I was incommunicado for more than 24 hours. I was only able to get in touch with the British high commissioner roundabout evening that night. Then again, it was not me. It was my secretary. The British high commissioner rang my secretary and wanted to speak to me. I told my secretary that I’m surrounded by the police in my—in the presidential residence. They were really sacking the residence and going through every—all of my personal belongings and so on. So I said, "I can’t speak." That was the only telephone conversation or only message that I was able to bring to the outside. Otherwise, I had—I was there in the presidential residence.
But then, later that night, I still had some loyal soldiers who were there. So with their help, I was able to slip out from the president’s residence and go to my family home. As soon as I went home, I almost fell, because I hadn’t slept for two nights by then, by this time, and I’d been very, very abused and pushed around and bruised. So I slept that night. The next morning, I spoke to our party members, and we decided that we should go out on the streets and tell the people that this is not on, and here is a coup in every sense, and we would want to—we would want reinstatement, and we would want investigations into the coup.
AMY GOODMAN: At this time, I wanted to play what the Obama administration was saying in the midst of this coup, with the coup in the Maldives. Within a day of your ouster, the State Department here in the United States defended the ouster and confirmed the new leadership had been in contact with the Obama administration. This is State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland, who was questioned in February about the U.S. stance and diplomat Robert Blake’s visit.
REPORTER: Are you going to withhold—I mean, are you taking any position on the suggestions that it might have been a military coup? Are you going to investigate that? Is Blake going to check that out? Or do you think that that’s not a sort of a reasonable suggestion here?
VICTORIA NULAND: Well, obviously, we are talking to all parties. That’s why we’re sending our folks down. But that is not the information that we have at the moment. But Assistant Secretary Blake will have a chance to be there and talk to everybody on Saturday. But in the interim, we are urging calm, we’re urging dialogue, we’re urging the—President Waheed, as you know, has committed to forming a national unity government, and we think that will also be an important signal to political factions across the Maldives.
REPORTER: Does that mean that a determination on whether this was an unconstitutional change in power is going to wait until after Blake’s visit?
VICTORIA NULAND: Well, our view, as of yesterday—and I don’t think that that has changed; obviously we’ll collect more information going forward—was that this was handled constitutionally.
AMY GOODMAN: So that was Victoria Nuland, the State Department spokesperson, saying that the coup was constitutional already, talking about the new president, who was the Vice President Waheed. President Nasheed, what is your response?
MOHAMED NASHEED: Well, it was really shocking and deeply disturbing that the United States government so instantly recognized the former dictatorship coming back again. We were hoping that they would look into the facts and understand what was happening on the ground. And we would still hope that they look into it and urge the dictator, or urge Dr. Waheed, the former vice president, to resign and, therefore, to allow for fresh elections in the Maldives. We have to have democracy back on track in the Maldives. It’s very young. It’s a very young democracy. We only were able to have our first multi-party elections in 2008. And it was only three years down the line, and suddenly there was a very well-planned coup, and Dr. Waheed has been installed as a facade, and Gayoom is back. We were shocked that the United States acted so swiftly in recognizing the new regime.
Especially disturbing was, all throughout our last three years, we worked very closely with American ideals, with democracy. We wanted to have better relations with Israel. We wanted to have a more moderate Islamic country in the Maldives. And we’ve been fighting for all the civil liberties and all the human rights, fundamental rights of the people. And therefore, it’s deeply, deeply disturbing that your government has not been able to understand what was happening in the Maldives.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, what’s even more disturbing is that we’ve seen this script so many times now in recent years, whether it’s in Haiti with President Aristide or in Honduras with Manuel Zelaya Salaya or with Chávez in Venezuela. The U.S. government seems always to jump in immediately, as the coup is occurring, to support the coup plotters rather than the legally elected officials. And so, on the one hand, I understand your shock, but on the other hand, it’s amazing how it keeps happening, and no one seems to say anything about it here in this country. But I’d like to ask Jon Shenk—you had unparalleled access to President Nasheed’s administration, in terms of being able to chronicle or document what it is that he was trying to do. And if you could talk about the film and how you managed to get that access?
JON SHENK: Yeah, well, The Island President, as far as I know, is just a—is a unique documentary. It’s really the first-ever documentary that gets a kind of no-holds-barred access to a sitting head of state. And, you know, now, sitting, you know, weeks after this coup occurred in the Maldives, I have to think back of—you know, on the film as really an example and proof of President Nasheed’s penchant and desire to have transparency in government. And, you know, the Maldives had a dictatorship for 30 years, and the type of press that would come out of that dictatorship was highly controlled by a state-run television. You know, that was the only station in the country with programming that was, you know, sort of only blessed by the president himself. And then, as soon as Nasheed stepped into office, there’s instantly several independent television stations. The state-run media was privatized and made independent. And, you know, this film is really just an example of what can happen when there truly is a commitment to transparency. And the camera went to places that, you know, cameras have not gone before, not only to his strategy meetings and behind-the-scenes sessions, but also to bilateral meetings in the international climate debate, which is just, you know, fascinating and highly dramatic.
AMY GOODMAN: The film is playing—played at the Film Forum last night, going national around the country. Is it there this weekend at the Film Forum?
JON SHENK: Yeah, it started at the Film Forum last night. We had sold-out crowds. And it’s opening in San Francisco tomorrow and L.A. next week, Washington, D.C., etc.
AMY GOODMAN: President Nasheed, in this part of the conversation, we’re going to continue it and post it online at democracynow.org. Your final comments about the importance of climate change and why you think it is that you were ousted?
MOHAMED NASHEED: Climate change is a real issue, and it is happening now. It’s not something in the future. If you—from Jon’s film, you would be able to see how precarious and how vulnerable the Maldives is. Any imbalance to nature will have very, very huge impacts on the low-lying Maldive islands—and not just simply the Maldive islands, but also all coastal regions around the world. I think about a third of the population of the world lives on coastal areas. And they will be seriously challenged if we are unable to do something about climate change in the next few years. We feel that we have to advocate, that we have to try and get the message across that there has to be better understanding and international agreement on reducing carbon emission.
AMY GOODMAN: President Mohamed Nasheed, Jon Shenk, I want to thank you for being with us. We will continue our conversation and post it online at democracynow.org. On tomorrow’s show, we’ll play the legendary poet, essayist, feminist, Adrienne Rich. We’ll post her words online at democracynow.org.