James North on November 20, 2013 18
Did the U.S. undermine democracy in the Maldives because it wants to set up military bases there?
There was depressing news from the Maldives this week, after the Indian Ocean island nation voted in the second round of presidential elections on November 20. Mohamed Nasheed, the dynamic, young, pro-environmentalist Muslim leader who had led after the first round, lost by a couple of percentage points to the old regime’s candidate, Abdulla Yameen.
As I reported, the imressive Nasheed had been elected back in 2008, but then overthrown in a military/police coup on February 7, 2012. Since then, the old regime had tried to block Nasheed and his reformist, youthful Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) from making a comeback, including annulling and postponing the election three times, and regularly arresting and jailing his nonviolent supporters.
The rest of the world protested vigorously; the Canadian foreign minister even marched in a pro-democracy demonstration in New York. But the United States was conspicuously quiet. The Obama administration accepted the illegal coup in 2012, and issued only feeble admonitions at the more recent pre-electoral maneuvers.
Why the pathetic and embarrassing silence, given that Nasheed and his movement are exactly the kind of forward-looking, democratic Muslims the United States should be supporting every chance it gets?
One suggestion was that the U.S. ambassador (to Sri Lanka and the Maldives), Michele Sison, had too close a friendship with the Defense Minister, Mohamed Nazim, who the pro-democracy movement believes was one of the 2012 coup leaders. But that (possible) relationship did not seem to explain enough.
I had been following the crisis on Twitter (@jamesnorth7), in part because mainstream media coverage was misleading or non-existent. Many Maldivians are fluent in English, and #Maldives was vigorous with debate. So I put the question to them: what explains the disgraceful American policy?
I got immediate and valuable responses. Apparently, earlier this year the U.S. government was negotiating with the Maldives about a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which would have led to increased military cooperation between the two countries, possibly including U.S. bases there. Someone leaked a draft of the agreement to the Maldivian press, and the U.S. embassy was forced to concede that such talks were going on, although denying plans for a permanent American base.
This is an extraordinary revelation, completely unreported in the New York Times or elsewhere. The U.S. government was willing to set aside its stated principles and negotiate with a regime that came to power in a violent, illegal coup. An administration headed by Barack Obama was prepared to sell out the Maldivians who should be its natural allies, brave people who have risked their freedom and even their lives for democracy, just so it could set up yet another unnecessary U.S. military base at the other end of the world.