About the Author: Michael DeTar serves as the Political Section Chief at the U.S. Embassy in Colombo, Sri Lanka. The U.S. Ambassador and some Embassy staff in Sri Lanka are accredited to the Maldives.
I was glad to accept the Human Rights and Democracy Achievement Award on behalf of the people who actually deserve it. Ambassador Blake, Deputy Chief of Mission Jim Moore and entry-level officers in my section, supported by the entire U.S. mission, did most of the important work. Diplomatic colleagues from other countries collaborated with us and encouraged us. Many dedicated human rights advocates and freedom defenders in Sri Lanka and Maldives persevered in the face of adversity and at great personal risk. I have received greetings from a number of them. They look to the U.S. as a source of inspiration.
Listening to the Secretary’s remarks, I was struck by the disturbing accounts of human rights abuses in Russia, Zimbabwe, and Sri Lanka. While working in the area of human rights can be disheartening and frustrating, the story of the struggle for democracy is also inspiring and uplifting. This year, one of the world's smallest countries has taught us valuable lessons about the constant struggle for freedom.
Maldives has fewer than 400,000 citizens, half of whom are under 18. The country consists of open ocean and hundreds of small, flat islands grouped in several atolls. By tradition, Maldives is one hundred percent Sunni Muslim. This November, Mohammed Nasheed, a former Amnesty International Prisoner of Conscience, took the oath of office as Maldives’ third President since independence. I and several of my predecessors have known Nasheed as an activist, freedom defender, and personal friend. The path he and his country took to democracy is a remarkable one.
Nasheed, a journalist, was jailed for his writings in 1991 -- the first of many stints in prison for his political views. Elected to Parliament in 2000 to represent the capital Male’, he was arrested on trumped-up charges six months later and sentenced to internal banishment -- then a common punishment in Maldives. The death in 2003 of a teenage prison inmate set off riots in Male'. However, Maldivians channeled their outrage into a movement for democratic change.
In self-imposed exile in Sri Lanka and the United Kingdom, Nasheed founded the Maldivian Democratic Party with Mohamed Latheef. In 2004, the incumbent president committed to reforms, setting up a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution. But two months later, the government declared an emergency, arresting reform leaders.
In 2006, urged on by reform-minded ministers, the government established a "Roadmap for Reform" and released many political prisoners. After long months of negotiations, the constituent assembly finished its work. The new, democratic constitution took effect this August. Still, many were not convinced that the democracy movement would succeed. Some feared that the incumbent would manipulate the polling process, or that the security forces would intervene.
But none of this happened. In October, five challengers and the incumbent contested the first round. Three weeks later, the former political prisoner defeated Asia’s longest-serving ruler in the runoff. I was there for both rounds of the election and in November for Nasheed’s inauguration. The mood in Maldives was of pride and quiet elation. There was no gloating. The new government recognized the former autocrat’s role in ushering in democracy and allowed him to retire in dignity.
Maldives is an example in the Muslim world in which a human rights-driven reform movement has brought about a peaceful, democratic transformation. Many problems, including a huge fiscal deficit, face the new, pluralistic, free market-oriented and pro-Western government -- which also has to deal with rising expectations of the people who voted for change. Maldives’ new leaders are now taking their first baby steps toward consolidating the democratic revolution. The U.S. must be there to support them.