Anni, the new hero: Obama of Maldives (Maldives Diary)

November 11th, 2008 - 4:41 pm ICT by IANS  

Male (Maldives), Nov 11 (IANS) The 41-year-old Mohamed Nasheed, the new president of Maldives, has morphed into a national hero ever since he dislodged Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, Asia’s longest-serving ruler, in the watershed elections last month. A former political prisoner who bore the brunt of political repression during the Gayoom era has become a symbol of hope and endurance for young Maldivians. Comparisons are being generously made with Nelson Mandela, who ended decades of apartheid in South Africa, and the new charismatic US President-elect Barack Obama, who has come to symbolise change not in the US but the world over.

“He is our Obama,” says Ismail, a young Australia-educated banker. Ameena, who manages a souvenir shop in Male, is excited. “Maldivians are expecting a lot from him. He has become a hero for all of us,” she said.

Nobody refers to the boyish-looking Nasheed, who studied at John Moores University in Liverpool before he became an uncompromising critic of Gayoom and co-founded the Maldivian Democratic Party along with his comrade-in-arms Mohammed Latheef in 2003, by his name. Everyone calls him Anni - his nickname since his college days.

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A carnival of democracy in Maldives
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It’s literally a carnival of the oppressed in this Indian Ocean atoll nation. Cobbled streets of the Maldivian capital are a riot of colour with yellow flags sporting scales of justice, the symbol of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) that led the pro-democracy alliance to victory in the historic polls last month, adorning virtually every seafront building and shop.

Maldivians, specially the young and idealistic who rooted for democracy, throng the streets well past midnight, singing, dancing and having a party time. MDP supporters have organised a generous feast - rice, mutton and colourful sweets, in a thanksgiving party that transcends the political divide.

Go to any street corner, and one will find a gaggle of motorcycle-borne youth chanting and singing, soaking in a new democratic dawn in their life. Says Abdullah Waheed, a 20-something entrepreneur: “It’s a new beginning and we are all very happy.”

In fact, Male, perhaps the most congested city in the world with 90,000 people living in a 2.5 km area, has been partying since the Oct 28 polls that ended three decades of one man-rule of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and brought a man three decades younger than him to power. There is also a sense that justice has prevailed after years of political repression that saw pro-democracy activists being tortured and detained for the most frivolous reasons.

Ironically, Mohamed “Anni” Nasheed, the new president who turned out to be Gayoom’s genesis, was jailed at least 13 times by the former president. “Anne Divehi Raj”, a Maldivian youth chanted. “A new dawn”, he replied when asked to translate his mantra into English.

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Where is Gayoom?
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Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, Asia’s longest-serving ruler who ruled the Maldives for three decades like his sultanate, has faded from the public view after he was unseated by his rival Mohamed Nasheed.

His portraits still stare from some of the buildings, but not many are missing the man who is widely credited with transforming the Maldives from a sprawling fishing village into a tourist paradise and a hub for Hollywood celebrities looking for their bit of islet to soak in the sun and sand. There is speculation about his future under a new democratic dispensation. But Nasheed, the new president, has chosen to behave in a statesman-like manner and has offered that Gayoom can stay in the Maldives without fears of retribution from those whom he jailed and tortured for many years.

In his maiden presidential address, Nasheed struck a reconciliatory note: “No flowers will bloom, no birds will chirp and no butterflies will flutter in the flames of hatred, jealousy and rancour.” His audience knew what he was talking about. Gayoom has already shifted out of the 60-million dollar opulent presidential palace to one of his private houses in the capital.

Clearly, it’s not easy for the man who has known absolute power for three decades to live the life of an ordinary citizen. Smarting from electoral humiliation, he decided to give a miss to the swearing-in ceremony of his successor Tuesday. But those who know him well say Gayoom is not the kind to stay out of limelight for long. He is now planning to reinvent himself as a UN envoy for climate change - an issue that has a direct bearing on the world’s lowest-lying country that can sink unseen forever if global warming is not checked.

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