By Easwaran Rutnam @easwaranrutnam
Former Maldives Foreign Minister and eldest daughter of the former President of the Maldives, Dunya Maumoon, speaks exclusively to the Colombo Gazette on the current state of affairs in the Maldives, the relationship between the Maldives and Sri Lanka and China’s role in the Maldives and calls for unity to address several issues in her country.
You were part of this administration and strongly defended its policies. In your opinion where has this Government gone wrong now?
I was working in the Foreign Service even before this Government. I worked closely with the current President and his team and his campaign and I came into Government as the first Foreign Minister of President Yameen’s Government and also the first woman Foreign Minister of the Maldives and we had a lot of high hopes for our country. As you would know, it has been in the last ten years or so or a little more than that that political parties were first introduced in our country, so steps towards a modern democracy were taken only in the last decade really. There was a lot of work we needed to do to strengthen our democracy and in terms of the Foreign Service to strengthen our relationships with the different countries around us, to get around the financing we need for the big projects, to deliver on the pledges we had made to our people in terms of development of the country and to make their aspirations. We had, I think, one year or so where things were going smoothly but sadly as we entered into 2015 and going on into that year and into 2016 we realized that the path we were on was not really the path we had envisaged when we brought in this new Government. And as you would be well aware my family had a very influential role specially my father, in bringing this Government. So it was of concern to us to see that problems were emerging that we needed to resolve that unfortunately things were not going in the direction that the party had wanted to see and that the people who worked to bring in this new Government wanted to see.
Would you say there were opportunities that were missed by this Government to meet the expectations of the people?
I think that definitely prior to this Government, we had the Government of President Nasheed. Even he came in with the support from the international community and also a lot of support of the youth of our country. I always felt he had it on a golden platter to fulfill many of the pledges and take the country in the right direction. If you compare that to President Yameen’s Government, he came in with an even better backing if you will because he had very strong backing in the Parliament and definitely in terms of the vote though the election was very tightly fought. I think he had the support of a lot of people in the country. So he had also a golden opportunity to unite the country and go ahead in the right path in terms of strengthening the democracy, strengthening our institutions, ensuring the independence of the judiciary and addressing a lot of concerns that people had, including corruption for one. So definitely, the opportunity was there. But sadly what I saw with President Nasheed and also currently, is the ability to rise above party politics and to keep the national interest in mind and to kind of unite the people to go ahead and acknowledging our problems and then working to address them. I think we haven’t seen that as much as we would like to see.
So you see an opportunity for the political parties in the Maldives working together to address the issues?
Yes, very much so. I have said this on many occasions. I call it a cycle of vengeance, which we see in other countries as well, we have one party that comes into power and prosecutes the other and you know this history we are now starting to build up, we need to overcome this and only if we unite as a people, can we move ahead. And that can only be done by sitting down and by discussing very frankly and open with an environment of trust that we do have real issues and that in order to address this, all the parties have to work together. Currently we see a very polarized situation in our country where we have a situation where Parliament is not functioning properly, many are detained and many families are suffering because their loved ones are not with them, and there are questions raised about the judiciary itself and how it’s functioning. So I think it’s in everybody’s interest to address these issues, to unite once more and to take the country ahead instead of looking back and saying who-did-what and blaming and never moving beyond that.
How do you think the upcoming Presidential elections can help change the situation?
One thing I’m encouraged, the Government 2 or 3 years back also invited the parties to sit down for all party talks and recently again we have seen that the Government has re-issued this invitation. Part of the problem always has been there’s been questions about the genuineness of this invitation, opposition always had various grievances where they felt unless these were addressed they were not ready to sit down. And I have mentioned the detained persons earlier as well. So this time around, again, I am hopeful that we have to give and take on both sides if we are to build that trust and if our politicians are genuine in their efforts to sit down then we can see certain things put into place to make sure that we have a free and fair election and that’s very important for the credibility of the elections of our country and the stability for our people. So once again I have welcomed the Government’s initiative, I have also raised that the opposition has various concerns and we’ve always found excuses not to sit down. So I think it’s time to move beyond that and I remain hopeful that we would have the maturity as a country because we owe it to our people to really sit down and resolve these issues, especially before the elections but also going on from there into the future.
I think it was a wise and mature decision. I know Nasheed is a strong force and continues to be a strong force in the Maldives in politics. My father also remains a very prominent and well-respected figure in Maldivian politics, though unfortunately he is detained and remains in prison at present. So I think given that there was a legal decision taken in terms of Nasheed and certain acts he had committed whilst in office and also given the realization that it was important for someone who could actually take part in the election to come out as the opposition candidate, I think he showed a wise and mature decision on that, in terms of stepping back to give other people opportunity. My personal view is that within many of our political parties we actually need to see leaders doing that, stepping back where new leadership and new leaders can come out. I don’t necessarily mean only younger people. I strongly always believe that maturity is important, experience is important. We have a very young population so it’s not just necessarily someone’s age but more – who they are, what they stand for, their integrity and their commitment to the country and its people rather your own future or getting wealth or power or fame, which is sadly what we do see a lot in many countries including mine at the moment.
What can you tell us of the opposition Presidential candidate Ibrahim “Ibu” Mohamed Solih and what can he do to bridge the gap between the Government and the opposition?
I think he has spent quite some time in Parliament. I myself don’t know him personally that well but I do know of him and I think he comes across as a mature and sensible person. And I hope that that maturity will help unite people and that it would help to also bring an opportunity to perhaps sit down with the Government and have more of an inclusive process in working together towards the election. Obviously I think at the moment the opposition is keen to maintain their unity in working together and have managed that in bringing out this common candidate. There would be many other individuals who would also come out and submit their names. I think again, currently, the view is that how free and fair this election would be, would we really be able to carry it out in a peaceful environment, can we create that level playing field that everybody wants to see, how would the rest of the world support and assist us in this process. So I am hopeful and I would also like to see the Government also taking steps to ensure that this election is a free and fair election and that we create a better environment. I mean, I know this is being a little bit idealistic, because coming up to an election is often the bitterest of times I guess. But I think there are steps that we have to take together to make sure we have a free and fair, peaceful and inclusive election, where people who really want to contest are able to contest and freely campaign with whatever resources they have and that the media and others are also able to work and cover the election and cover the candidates and the issues that are relevant.
As a former Foreign Minister how do you see the Foreign policy of the Maldives?
Before, I think during my father’s time, we had maintained a very balanced foreign policy, if you will. As you know we are in the Indian Ocean and even now the Government says we have an India first policy. I think I myself would have repeated that quite often. And India is a very close and long-standing friend of the Maldives. During this Government, we have definitely developed our relationship with China and that is, I think, not a surprise, because we see this in many countries and there are many reasons for that. I think largely, because China is able to make some of the financing and other support that our developing countries require available to us and there are certain expectations of our population, especially in terms of infrastructure and even my own country, currently they are supporting to build a bridge and now we see big projects, like a new airport terminal and a new runway coming in. These are positive development that I think will benefit the Maldives in a longer time. Which is why I think we have developed this stronger and closer friendship. Now many people have raised issues. Are we going to pay back these loans? Are we going to fall into a trap where we are held because of the debts that we have? As a former Foreign Minister I strongly feel that sovereignty, our independence is important. So not just China but any country, I think we need to maintain a respectful relationship, definitely, we should have as many friends as we can. But we must also be careful not to compromise our sovereignty, so that we are able to really make our own decision as a country and a people. So for that we have to be cautious I think. And we urge all countries to be respectful also of our sovereignty and the decisions that our country wishes to take or our people wish to take, but to be there to support us in our development and particularly not to compromise our democracy and our freedoms. Because you can have structures, we can have buildings, but ultimately, human beings want their freedoms, they want their rights. So if you see an environment where these are being compromised, I think that is not something that is acceptable to our people and in the longer term, I think the quest would be to have a society which is respectful of that. And if there is anything to learn from our past, it’s to make sure we don’t repeat those mistakes that we have seen and to move ahead from there so that anyone can live there with the knowledge that they are not fearful that things could be unfair, that they face allegations, accusations, that everybody is entitled to a free trial that they have rights that should be protected even while detained, even if investigated, even if on trial for such an allegation. So I think that is the wish that the Maldivian people do have for the future.
Is there a role the international community can play to ensure democracy is established in the Maldives or should it be an internal process as some say?
I guess I’m an internationalist, if you will. You know a lot of countries use the argument that these are all internal matters to us; no country should comment and I may have made statements along those lines. But I think there is a balance, because we live in a world where we have international systems. The UN exists – how effective it is may be debated, but there is a moral duty, I believe, of other countries to make sure that things are going in the right direction, to be there, to support that process that people wish to see, and if you see atrocities that we see across the world – wars, genocide – then it’s very much the duty of the international community and you cannot just step back and say that is the country’s internal matter and ignore it. I think definitely the Maldivian people want to see that support coming; they don’t want to be dictated to, but they want to see that support, that people are watching what’s happening that they would be there to help and I am also glad that the international community is watching closely to what is happening in the Maldives. I would not want to see any kind of sanctions or actions against our country. I don’t think anybody would want to see against their country, because in the longer term it may well impact the people of that country and it may not address the actual issue that it is trying to address. So I would rather see a process where engagement, and I hope our Government continues to do that to engage and to listen and to genuinely take some of this advice, for example, to acknowledge that there are things to improve and I think that first step is very important because you can always get very defensive and say, you know, you’re just criticizing us, not helping us. But if the Government were to also say, ok, we acknowledge that there are these issues and we haven’t done a great job of addressing them, help us and be there with us and then genuinely show steps that they are going towards the right direction then I think they can definitely avoid any actions, and in the longer term that would be for our country that our people find the solutions through discussions, through acknowledging our problems and saying ok we want to go to a better place. And I hope to see that in our country.
What is your opinion on the relationship between Sri Lanka and the Maldives?
We value the friendship. We have strong historical ties, our people to people to contacts are also very advanced and I’m happy to see that. Many Maldivians live here, many Sri Lankans are working in the Maldives and there’s a lot of travel, there’s trade between the countries and I value that relationship and I hope we can strengthen it. Sri Lanka has also on some occasions, but very rarely, made public statements about Maldives and I also remember speaking to the Foreign Minister a couple of years back to say that as a close friend we don’t really like being criticized by public statements, because close friends talk to each other, they do give frank advice if things are not going the right way, and I think Sri Lanka definitely should urge Maldives and the Maldives Government to take things in the right direction which would benefit the Maldivian people in the long term. We in the Maldives are glad to see that things are going well in Sri Lanka. I know you’ve had very difficult years. I know you’ve had a bitter long-drawn war and it’s very heartening for us to see you overcome that and you are moving ahead and things are generally looking good and we can feel it even when we visit. We wish the Sri Lankan people well and hope to have that continued support while we struggle also with democracy. I know you’ve had many experiences that you can share with us. Hopefully we won’t make all the mistakes and can avoid some of them. So I think there’s a lot we can learn together and we look forward to continue with that support and to remain close as countries. I was one of the first foreign dignitaries or the foreign first dignitary to come to pass greetings from our President to President Sirisena when he was elected and that was an election where I think the results that not many people expected. We’ve had close friendship also with President Rajapakse and I can see that he contributed a lot to also developing the country. There were many things that your people wished to see addressed and we saw that change. So I hope that the current Government will deliver on those expectations and the pledges they have made to the people. Ultimately I think the peace and stability is important. Sri Lanka is also one country that faced a lot of criticism from the world and I guess maybe there are issues that still need to be worked on and I wish well to Sri Lanka and its people.
Where does the Maldives stand on women in politics and in your opinion where should it be in a few years from now?
I have strongly advocated for it. One of the reasons why I think there is a reluctance for women to come out I think specially for higher positions in public office, our last Parliament actually had more women than our current Parliament. So definitely in terms of presence in Parliament we need to improve it. In cabinet we need to improve it. So at various decision-making levels we need to improve the presence of women. I think women need to gain the confidence that they can perform in many of these positions and come out more strongly. I’m heartened to see that in Sri Lanka we have very active women in positions and it’s definitely my wish to see more women active in Sri Lanka and the region generally as well. One thing I also wanted to highlight is that whether a man or a woman, when they come out for an election or for public office, it’s not so much the gender that matters as much as their experience and their maturity, perhaps their educational qualifications and mostly their motives, what they stand for, their integrity in working in public office and honestly serve the people and to work for the betterment of the people in the country. Because there is a debate going on in Maldives, especially when we don’t have very many women candidates for particular positions within parties where there’s a strong push for women, but I think just being a woman alone, same as just being a man alone, does not make you entitled as such to a particular position. I do support some level of positive discrimination, like reserve seats for Parliament, which we see in some countries but in our constitution it wasn’t passed. But I think to give women a push in a certain area, sometimes you need to see that. So that qualified women can have the opportunity to come out and serve the people in their capacities. We have a number of significant women who have served, including speakers in Parliament and now we’ve seen Attorney Generals. We’ve seen women in many positions including within the cabinet. So I’m hopeful we’ll see many more women coming out in the future.
And where would you like see the Maldives heading in a few years?
I think I’ve spoken a little bit about overcoming this very bitter polarization and to really working more closely as a society to address these very real issues that we do have. We have a hug young population that want jobs, we have issues of housing because you know housing is very expensive in the Maldives, we have very limited land. Even for a young couple to have their own place to live is a challenge. I know the current Government is also doing more work in producing more flats and trying to bring in availability and affordability for young people. Healthcare we’re doing well I think. Education is still a challenge. A lot of young people also want to go abroad for higher education. We have a national university at the moment but I think there’s always the challenge of quality, improving that. Environment is also an issue for the Maldives. We have a number of social issues – we have drug issues, crime increasing. So these very real issues cannot be addressed while we’re involved in cross-party bickering and much more petty things and much of our time on negative things like calling each other names and doing unnecessary things like that. So I hope that with these elections we come into an era where we genuinely work to address the concerns that we have but really mostly to unite the people and to address the issues that we face. Corruption is an issue that has been around for a while and I’m sure exists in many countries but it’s something we need to tackle. And the levels and how some people start justifying certain things, but that doesn’t make it right. So I think we need to have stronger checks and balances in place and we need to really address those issues as well. So a lot of work to do and I hope to see Maldives as a stable, a peaceful country, which has strengthened democracy, where the will of the people can really be exercised so that our representatives in Parliament can function well to voice our views and use that in legislation, where we see a strong, independent judiciary where people can see justice is being served and we have access to legal representation where rights are protected even when you face allegations and a strong Government in place that listens to the people and is sensitive to these issues and is also aware of our position in the international stage where we continue to have the respect of other countries where they see Maldives as a small country with limited resources but at least we’re heading in the right direction where we have the will to correct things that are going wrong and to work with the rest of the world, that we belong in the rest of the world, that we are not just a pariah country that is not listening to others. So I think Maldives has maintained that very much in the past and we had a lot of respect in the past specially for our work on environment, advocating to address issues on climate change which impacting on many small low-lying countries, in fact we were seen as a leader within the low-lying countries as well. So I think we have a lot of work to do to regain that position and also to regain the confidence of our people in politicians, in politics, in Government and the institution. So let’s hope that things go in the right direction.