Gayoom: I was no dictator, I was a reformer

Former President says Male govt’s lack of respect for constitution led to political crisis

by Ameen Izzadeen
Courtesy: The Sunday Times

(August 12, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian)
The Maldives’ former President, Mamoon Abdul Gayoom, says the Male government has been involved in a campaign to defame him and keep him out of public life because it still believes he is a threat.

“My family and I have been targeted by the present government for the past 20 months. There have been demonstrations outside my house, various campaigns and intimidation. I don’t want to put my family in harm’s way. To do politics is inviting trouble for me and my family,” said Mr. Gayoom, who governed the Maldives for 30 long years, in an interview with the in Colombo.

He also dismissed allegations of misappropriating government funds as baseless and a conspiracy by the present Maldivian leadership which is being backed by foreign powers.
He refuses to be drawn into any comments on the present political deadlock between the president and parliament. However, he says the present government’s lack of willingness to respect the constitution is the main cause of the crisis.

Presently out of active politics, Mr. Gayoom now spends much of his time promoting a foundation named after him – the Maumoon Foundation. He was in Sri Lanka last week to promote the work of the foundation and to meet its Sri Lankan well-wishers.
Excerpts from the interview:

Q: I understand that you are in Sri Lanka to promote your foundation. What are the aims of this foundation? Has it got any political motive?
A: It’s largely a social movement. It tries to raise the religious awareness of the people of my country and promote Islam as a religion of tolerance and moderation. For this purpose, we plan to set up Quranic schools. We also want to promote the value of education, gender equality, sustainable development and the protection of the environment. We also seek to create an awareness of dangers facing small states like the Maldives.

Q: Your aims are indeed noble. But when you say you want to promote Islam, you may be accused of promoting extremism?
A: That is why I said that my aim is to promote the moderate Islam. I agree there are western forces which try to portray Islam as a religion of warfare, violence and terrorism. That is why in several of my speeches abroad I have tried to convey the message that Islam is a religion of peace, tolerance and compassion.

Q: How can your foundation find answers to the Maldives’ social ills, especially the acute drug abuse problem?
A: I am confident that religion has the power to change society. That’s why it plays an importance place in our foundation. You mentioned the drug crisis. In Islam, all intoxicants are haram – forbidden. If we raise a society based on moderate Islam – the Islam of peace, tolerance, unity and compassion, we will find answers to many social ills.

Q: Though you are out of active politics now after leading your nation for 30 long years, you continue to be the target of your opponents, both at home and overseas. You are being accused of being a dictator and of embezzling public funds. What is your response?
A: These allegations are not new and baseless. My opponents have nothing to prove these allegations. If I had been corrupt, I would have been ousted long ago. I have been elected for six consecutive terms as president, sometimes with a majority of over 90 percent.

Q: But the system under which you were elected was a one-party or one-man show.
A: There was no party in the previous political system. It was the Majlis (Parliament) members who voted for a presidential candidate in a secret vote. The victory of the candidate was then put before the people in a referendum.

Q: Wasn’t it something like what is happening in countries like Egypt, where the system is criticized for the lack of democratic choice?
A: Yes. It was something like that. But the governance was carried out in accordance with the constitution in force and what was important in that system was the election of the president through the secret ballot of Majlis. The members were free to decide on whom to vote for. They faced no threats. I did not influence them and there was nothing I could do to influence them.

When I became the president for the first time more than three decades ago, I introduced many changes. The regime of President Ibrahim Nasr, whom I succeeded in 1978, was tight fisted and inward-looking. I changed this system and put into place several democratic practices. I delegated powers to the ministries and encouraged the cabinet to take decisions. My ministers had a free hand to take decisions, although under the constitution the president had absolute power. I found that the then existing constitution was outdated. So we adopted a new constitution in 1998.

Q: You are giving me the indication that you want to say that it was you who initiated the reforms process. Am I right?
A: Of course. In my acceptance speech to the Majlis, after being elected for the sixth time, I said that the time had come for the Maldives to go for a more liberal form of democracy. We began a fresh reform process in 2004 by appointing a special Majlis and electing members to it with the task of drafting a new constitution worthy of a modern liberal democracy. We finished this task in 2007 and in August 2008, I ratified the new constitution which provides for a multi-party system. In fact, even before the adoption of the new constitution, I urged political groups to register themselves as political parties in 2005 because a multi-party democracy was one of my priority areas.

The new constitution which we adopted is strengthened by independent commissions and institutions to oversee the government. This was because the earlier system had all powers in the executive president. Concentration of all powers in one institution was not good for democracy. Parliament should be independent of the executive. To make the government accountable for its policies and actions, we made provisions for the creation of an independent judiciary, an independent anti-corruption commission, an independent human rights commission and an independent civil service commission.
So how can anyone accuse me of being a dictator when I have promoted and encouraged liberal democratic reforms?

Q: But unfortunately, the very reforms that you say you have initiated have led to the present political crisis where parliament is at loggerheads with the executive.
A: Well I wouldn’t say the constitution is at fault. It is more a case of how it is applied to achieve the reforms that were intended. You can have a constitution and apply it fully. You can also apply it selectively or even totally ignore it. This is what is happening now in the Maldives.

Actually I don’t want to comment on the present political situation in the country. The main problem is there are parties which don’t respect the constitution and the laws. That is the main cause for the present political crisis in the country. It is not the fault of the constitution, the fault of the reforms agenda or the fault of what I have done. That is one aspect of the problem.

The other aspect is, as you said, there are moves to defame me saying that I have either misused government funds or embezzled money from the Treasury. A presidential candidate for the 2008 elections accused me of misappropriating US$ 80 million that was supposedly given by the government of Qatar for tsunami rehabilitation work. But the fact of the matter is we received only US$ 500,000 worth of goods, equipment and other things in kind. Qatar did not give money. All the aid whether they are in cash or kind was accounted for. There was an oversight committee which also included the Maldives’ UN representative as a member. This committee had been furnished with all the documents and it supervised the aid and how it was spent. The allegations that I received money were ridiculous. No donor sends money to the personal account of a president.

It is sent to a government account. There is no way I could have taken money. I did not do anything of that sort. During my 30 years as president I have not misused my authority to take one cent of the government money. I completely deny these charges. These charges surfaced during the presidential elections time to influence the people.
Again later, very recently, there was an article published in the New York Times. In that article the writer accused me of misappropriating US$ 400 million government money. They could not show any evidence. Some Maldivians also spread the canard. We successfully sued the Finance Minister and the editor of a newspaper. We have sent a rebuttal to the New York Times. These are all baseless allegations. The present government targets me because it thinks I am still a major threat.

Q: Does that mean that you will return to politics?
A: No not at all.

Q: You were known to have followed a pro-South Asia foreign policy. Do you think the allegations which even have gone all the way to the New York Times are part of a western scheme to keep you out of politics so that they can bring the Maldives under the influence of the West? There are also rumours that a new airport being built to facilitate foreign powers.

A: I don’t want to name any countries. But I am sure a number of foreign agencies had been involved in ousting me. They had helped the present president. And the way the present government is running the country, there is ample proof to show foreign involvement. As you said the building of the airport is given to foreign companies. Hospitals, schools, other projects and even the development of resort islands are given to foreigners outside the legal procedure. Our law clearly lays out the procedure to follow when government contracts are given and says the development of the resorts should go through proper tender procedures. The government’s acts show that there is some kind of understanding or whatever you may call it between the government and the foreign groups. The people are not happy with this. They want to see transparency in government deals and the majlis to be informed of the government’s decisions and actions.

Q: What happened to Sri Lankan President’s mediation efforts aimed at resolving the political crisis in your country?
A: I was very happy that your president came to the Maldives with the hope of solving our crisis. He made a genuine effort. But unfortunately one of the parties to the crisis was adamant and did not allow the hoped-for outcome to be materialized. Your president is a true friend of our country. Even when he was the prime minister, he showed a lot of love and care for my country. Our two countries enjoy age-old relationship dating back to thousands of years as some of our Buddhist artifacts show. Sri Lanka has been helping us in times of crises and need. In the 1960s, when the Maldives introduced English medium education, it did not have enough teachers. We recruited hundreds of teachers from Sri Lanka. Thanks to them, now we do have English qualified teachers. So Sri Lanka should be credited for the development of the education sector in the Maldives.
In other areas too, for example, the tourism sector, Sri Lanka’s contribution was great. Lots of Sri Lankans worked in the tourism sector in the early days. Today, big Sri Lankan companies such as John Keells and Aitken Spence have made big investments in the Maldivian tourism sector. All this shows the relations between our two countries very strong and very old. All Sri Lankan presidents have helped the Maldives during my time as president and after that too.

Q: Do you think that you can play a role in resolving the current Maldivian crisis?
A: Well a number of friends, both Maldivian as well as international, have suggested that I should do something to bring the country back to normalcy, saying that I am the only person who could do this. My position is that I have retired from active politics. I feel my further involvement in politics would be harmful to me and my family. I want to focus my attention on the foundation and spend time with my family. You know myself and my family have been targeted by the present government for the past 20 months. There have been demonstrations outside my house, various campaigns against me and intimidations. I don’t want to put my family in harm’s way. To do politics is inviting trouble for me and my family,

Q: But unfortunately the crisis is taking a toll on the country with economy being the worst affected while the legislative process is in limbo with parliament and the president involved in a conflict. Your comments please?
A? The conflict is not only between parliament and the executive. The judiciary is also affected by the conflict. The judiciary should be independent. Otherwise there is no guarantee for personal freedom. But I don’t want to talk much about this.

Q: Do you have to say anything else?
A: Two things. First I want to thank Sri Lanka for everything it has done, especially to you president. Then I want to reiterate my denial of all the allegations against me. I have never been a dictator. I was responsible for introducing a liberal form of democracy. All allegations regarding any misappropriation or embezzlement of government funds are completely untrue.