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Maldives ready for change, says Gayoom



President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom during the interview to The Hindu.

AFTER A MIRACULOUS economic graduation from a scattering of poor fishing islets to South Asia's richest country in just over two decades, the Maldives now demands democracy. With multi-party governance still to sprout in the nation of atolls ruled by President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, vox populi in the capital, Male, is emphatic that it is time for political change.

Last month, Mr. Gayoom (66) imposed a state of Emergency following public protests by pro-democracy dissidents and political opponents. As the world watches how the reforms unfold, Mr. Gayoom justifies the arrests of dissidents saying he did so to contain "mob violence."

Courteous but firm, soft-spoken but assertive, Asia's longest-serving head of state says he wants to replicate the economic miracle on the political front. Excerpts from an interview with V.S. Sambandan in Male on September 2:

Question: President Gayoom you have promised reforms and separation of powers. What is your timeframe for reforms?

Mr. Gayoom: I have explained my reform proposals to the general public on June 9. I propose to change the Constitution to make a greater separation of powers, including the separation of the post of President from a new post created for a Prime Minister, strengthen the role of the Parliament, limit the terms of presidency, now unlimited. I am in my sixth term; I want to limit it to two terms and also have a Supreme Court and introduce a multi-party system, which is going to be quite new to this country.

These are the major reforms I am thinking of. I have compiled a lot of draft articles to be presented to the Special Majlis [constituent assembly] so that they can consider these to be incorporated into our present Constitution.

What are the difficulties you expect? For instance, democracy itself is something new in the Maldives.

I think the country is now ready for a transition from traditional systems that we have known to a new, modern system. I think, for one thing, there are more educated people in the country. The country is now ready for change. I think we have reached a stage where political reforms are needed and will be received well by the general public.

That does not mean that there will not be any resistance to certain aspects of reforms. For one thing, there are a lot of people who don't believe that a multi-party system can work here. For that reason, I have prepared certain background papers on how these systems work abroad. I have already compiled these papers and distributed [them] among the Special Majlis members. I am also inviting a team from America [the National Democratic Institute] to help us create a system where a multi-party system can be viable.

Amnesty International has been quite critical of prison conditions. Then there are the unfortunate incidents of last September. How do you see these?

For one thing, though Amnesty International has been critical of us, they have not come here at all. They have not seen the situation for themselves. No one, to my knowledge, has come from that organisation. All their reports have been based on hearsay from a few vocal dissidents — Maldivians based abroad, five people, not more. I can name them.

This is a very sad thing that an international organisation of the stature of Amnesty International should take hearsay for fact, without referring to us. We have told them to come. We have told them to discuss these things with us, to visit our prisons.

Is the invitation open even now?

Yes, it is open even now. They can come, visit our prisons, talk to prisoners and see how they are being treated.

The arrest of Special Majlis members has also drawn criticism.

Yes. I know, this is a very unfortunate incident and I regret very much that there are two Members of Parliament [Citizen's Majlis] plus some members of the Special Majlis in detention at the moment. But what happened on the 12th and 13th of August was something quite unexpected and unlawful and the mob became violent. This situation was a very tragic and unlawful situation, where the Government had to take action to safeguard public property and lives.

Unfortunately, these members were there in the meeting; they had remained there for up to 16-17 hours. Repeatedly we have been warning them to go home peacefully. If they have any complaints or demands, they could have submitted their complaints to me personally or to any other government authority, according to the procedure laid down. But they remained there. They wanted to force the Government to do certain things, which no government can do. In the end we had to take action.

Everybody has to respect the law. Nobody is above the law, whether you are MPs or not. You oppose inside the Parliament, you have immunity; but outside, on the road, you are like any other citizen. If you break the law, you will have to answer that.

Your Special Envoy to India and Sri Lanka said that the Emergency would be reviewed and lifted at the earliest. Have you taken any decision?

I have not taken any decision yet, but it is being reviewed continuously. I have a ministerial committee overseeing the present situation. They meet almost every day and they will recommend to me when they deem it fit for the state of Emergency to be lifted. I do hope that it won't take too long for us to lift it.

One criticism is that everything is with the President. The President, your critics say, is all-powerful and the separation of powers does not translate into much. Would you like to comment?

I think it is an entirely wrong conception. The Parliament here is quite independent in the sense that certain proposals I made in the past have been rejected. Although we don't have a party system, it does not mean that the Government has its way, because every member is quite independent. He can either speak or vote whichever way he wants to. That has happened in the past. So the Parliament is completely independent, and they enjoy full immunity.

The Special Majlis had difficulty over secret ballot. The view is that a secret ballot would have come out with a different opinion and that is why it was not allowed...

It isn't the case of not being allowed because the Constitution does not specifically say that for the speaker of the Special Majlis to be elected, it has to be a secret ballot. Our tradition so far has been that the Speaker of the Citizen's Majlis is elected by a show of hands. So that's what the temporary Speaker wanted to do, but there was an objection from the floor.

The people who objected staged a walkout for the first time in the history of this country. They came here. I met them. I listened to their views. Of course, the sitting had to be adjourned because the Speaker did not want to make a decision in the absence of these 23 members out of a 108... although they are a minority, but quite a sizable one. So he said he would like to reconvene the first sitting, with the presence of the 23 members. He scheduled it for August 16, but before that [the protests] happened, so we had no option but to conclude that the mob violence was staged to derail the reform agenda I proposed.

If you are introducing more reforms, why would your dissidents want to derail that very process?

There are several groups here that are not of one opinion. There is a religious fundamentalist group, who don't want to see, for instance, a woman becoming the President. One of the proposals that I am making is removing the gender bar on the presidency. These people don't want that. Those people want all women to be kept in their houses, that no woman can hold a job. So, they are against my proposals for that particular reason.

Maybe there could be others who have their own political agenda, who see this as some sort of a barrier towards achieving their personal goals and a third group was a group of criminals, who have criminal records, who had been in prison and pardoned. Some people, still serving sentences, who had freed themselves, just came and attended the meeting. So these were the different elements which had gathered.

You have been the leader for 26 years now. Do you think that you've been around for a long time and it is time to call it a day after putting in some reforms?

Well, I know 25 years is a long time for any one man to be President. That's why I am now proposing that a President should serve at the maximum for 10 years — two terms of five years each. I think I have been here at a time when the country needed somebody to take hold of the country and to push it forward. The country has seen substantial change in all walks of life, in the way people think, in our interaction with the outside world. We have seen a complete transition. I think I must feel somewhat happy that this had taken place during my time as President.

Even now according to our Constitution, if the people don't like the President, they can, of course, have their say. The Presidential election takes place every five years and if the people are not happy with how the President runs the country, they can just say so, which is a secret ballot. They haven't done that.

What is your view on the trade-off between democracy and development? Do you think they are at cross-purposes?

I think they would help each other. They are not at cross-purposes because democracy will lead to further progress and prosperity and also, further development leads to democracy. That's what is happening here. In 1978, we were a very poor country. We are still a poor country but we have developed very fast. There are so many things that have been achieved here in the past 25 years. I think that has paved the way for further liberal democracy to be introduced here.

How do you see the transition path to liberal democracy? Are there going to be hurdles to delay the onset of the multi-party system?

I don't think there are going to be any hurdles but we must have the legal framework... that we have to develop. If a multi-party system is approved by the Special Majlis, then we have to have a law governing political parties here before political parties can be formed.

The Maldives is referred to as being ruled by a strong man with an iron fist. How do you react to such labels?

I don't think these labels tell you the truth. It so happens in the media that one person might write an article and others follow suit. Somebody must have written that I rule the country with an iron fist and every other person who reads that will pick it up. You can ask people around here. I am not such a person. I have these institutions and I rule through these institutions. Even we have regular Cabinet meetings and everything is discussed. This is actually a collective leadership. Whether you believe it or not, it is a collective leadership.

You referred to religious fundamentalists. Do you think they have the critical mass to change the Maldives?

No. They don't have a critical mass, but I think this is a potential threat we have to be very careful about. These could infiltrate into the country gradually and all of a sudden you are faced with a situation when you see that there are a lot of these people around and they become violent. Before that happens, you have to nip it in the bud; you have to control the situation.

Since the last elections there have been popular calls for change. Popular dissent is out on the streets. There is a feeling among the people that things have to change, but they don't know how. What is your view of things to come?

Change is something that is necessary. Not only now, I have been changing since I came to power 25 years ago. Nothing has stood still. I have been changing and we need more change. That I agree. I am making changes, I will be making more changes and I think the vocal dissidents are very few. There are five Maldivians abroad. Three of them are fugitives from justice. I can name them. Two of them were in prison and they had applied to go abroad for medical treatment, which we did at government expense [and they fled]. There are two other people who are not fugitives but they have personal grudges against the Government. These are the people who are very vocal abroad. These are very few people, but a majority know that the Government is serving them well. They are supportive.

Even those who are detained do not have access to lawyers. They don't have legal support...

In this particular case, in a state of Emergency, the President has the power to suspend certain rights. I had to do it in the interest of investigations being carried forward quickly. But that is in this particular case. Otherwise all other detainees have access to legal counsel. As soon as the Emergency is lifted, these people will also have access to legal counsel.

They would not be denied that?

No, they will not be denied that.

How do you see international relations of the Maldives, particularly with India?

Our relations with India are on an excellent basis. We have had very good relations over the past 25-26 years. I plan to visit India in the near future to meet Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and our friend Sonia Gandhi. The relationship is on an excellent basis. In addition [to the bilateral projects], there is people-to-people contact, with 15,000 Indians working here. Our relations are on a very firm and strong basis, and I wish India all prosperity.

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