In Maldives: First Democratically-Elected President Sworn In
November 12, 2008
It was after 1:00 on Monday morning when I made my way out of the airport in Male, the capitol of Maldives. There was a cool tropical breeze and the smell of salt water in the air. Across a stretch of sea from the airport, Male’s skyline had grown noticeably since my last visit in 2002. I was tired after a long flight, but excited to be back to attend the inauguration of my old friend, Dr. Waheed Hassan, as the Maldives’ first elected Vice President.
Two weeks earlier, President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom had lost the first democratically contested presidential election in the nation’s history, after 30 years in power. The new president-elect was Mohamed Nasheed, known as “Anni,” a 41-year-old journalist and former political prisoner. I had read about the election, but did not know that my old friend Waheed was Anni’s running mate, until receiving an email last week inviting me to attend the inauguration.
Waheed, known throughout Maldives as Dr. Waheed, was The Asia Foundation’s first Maldivian grantee, having received a fellowship in 1982 to study international education at Stanford University. He later returned home as his country’s first Ph.D. I initially met Waheed in 1989 when I was serving as the Foundation’s country representative for Sri Lanka and Maldives. He was my main contact at the Ministry of Education where we supported a program to train the headmasters who administered schools in the island nation’s 19 atolls.
At that time, in addition to his work at the Ministry, Waheed had also been elected to the national Majlis, or Parliament, after conducting the first Western-style campaign in the country’s history. Walls along Male’s dusty streets still bore his campaign logo, a red “thumbs up” sign. In retrospect, Waheed’s campaign and election to the Majlis in 1989 sparked the democracy movement that 19 years later would culminate with the leadership transition this week. Waheed served in the Majlis for two years before having to leave the country due to political pressures placed on him and members of his family. He subsequently served internationally with UNICEF, including tours in Bangladesh and Nepal that coincided with my own.
During 1989-1992 when I managed the Foundation’s program in Maldives, we supported the development of young journalists, conducted training in commercial law, provided an expert with knowledge of both Western and Shariah law to advise the Majlis on constitutional drafting, and sent young diplomats to study abroad. Through our Books for Asia program, we expanded collections of English-language books at the National Library and other institutions. In a modest way, I believe these programs helped to strengthen institutions that eventually would be required under a democratic government.
Now, on the morning of Tuesday, November 11th, 2008, I found myself sitting with several hundred Maldivians and foreign dignitaries in a crowded hall to watch Anni and Waheed be sworn-in as the country’s first democratically-elected President and Vice President. It was a solemn event with deep historic and emotional significance for Maldivians, especially those who had lived under autocratic rule and pressed for democracy for almost two decades. Although former President Gayoom had been gracious in his statement to the international press ceding power to the next generation of leadership, he disappointingly was absent from the ceremony.
At the reception that followed, I spoke with a number of friends from my earlier days in Maldives who have now risen to positions of prominence in the new government. They acknowledged their many challenges, including the need to extend development more equitably to outlying atolls, improve health care and education, and stem a serious drug problem afflicting the nation’s youth. They also must cope with the impact of global warming as rising sea levels threaten to submerge the country’s 1,200 coral islands. I was pleased to be able to tell them that the Foundation has restarted its modest Maldives program, with activities planned in education, library development, and training for an expanded diplomatic corps.
Before leaving the reception, I asked Waheed’s son, Jeff, about a brass pin he had fastened to his lapel. He pulled another just like it from his pocket and handed it to me. It was Waheed’s old thumbs-up logo from 1989 surrounded by the inscription “United for Change — Dr. Waheed.” What a privilege, I thought, to have been in Maldives when democracy was just a dream, and then return to see it realized.
Nick Langton is The Asia Foundation’s Country Representative in Nepal. From 1989-1992, he managed the Foundation’s programs in Sri Lanka and Maldives.
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