“We could have done better:” conversations with an independence hero

“We could have done better:” conversations with an independence hero
July 26 12:00 2015

Abdul Sattar Moosa Didi was just 29 when he led the negotiations to obtain independence for the Maldives from the British. “I didn’t think I’d be alive to see this day. I am 79, I am no longer what I was 50 years ago,” he said. Today, he laments the forgotten legacy of Prime Minister Ibrahim Nasir, and worries about the growing crime rate and political instability in the Maldives.

Sattar was the Maldivian government’s representative in Colombo in the early 1960s. He humbly said, “I was only given the work because I was the representative in Colombo.” When he was first sent there in 1960, there was no talk of independence. The issue came up after the southern atolls of Addu, Fuvahmulah and Huvadhoo broke off to form the short-lived United Suvadive Republic.

At the time, the British had an Air Force base at Addu Atoll Gan, originally built without the government’s knowledge in the Second World War. The Maldives had sought British protectorate status in 1887, but prohibited interference in domestic politics. “Nevertheless, they periodically interfered in politics,” Sattar said, noting that sometimes British approval was needed in appointing Sultans.

“I think they had the opportunity to interfere in Maldivian politics because of internal strife. We even became a protectorate because of a conflict between the ruling families,” he said.

The British followed divide and rule tactics in the Maldives too, stoking the southern rebellion. Nasir twice raided the island of Thinadhoo in Huvadhoo as the rebellion persisted, the second time depopulating the island and destroying all properties there.

The trigger for independence came when the British in 1963 transported Abdulla Afeef, the leader of the breakaway republic, to Seychelles without the government’s knowledge.

“Nasir heard of Afeef’s departue on the BBC. That afternoon, the Prime Minister had a meeting with Humphrey Arthington-Davy, the British representative here, and he was told the news. He said, how can a Maldivian citizen be taken abroad like that without the knowledge of the Maldivian government? Davy, very rudely, said that anyone under the British protectorate can be taken anywhere. That’s when Nasir said, in that case we don’t want protectorate status any longer.”

The British government then presented a draft agreement. Its power was waning on the world front, and many of its former colonies had gained independence, including neighbouring India, Pakistan, Burma (present-day Myanmar) and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). The negotiations for Maldivian independence took two years. From Colombo, Sattar sent messages via wireless to Nasir on details of the day’s discussions.

At times, negotiations were heated, but they never broke into quarrels, Sattar said. Talks on the Addu issue and the right of passage for British ships through the Huvadhoo channel were particularly difficult, he said.

“In some ways the process was easy because I could send details of an update of the day’s discussions straight to Prime Minister Nasir, written in Latininised Dhivehi. When I asked for advice, he responded very quickly. If it wasn’t a public holiday, I would receive an answer by the second day, at the latest. The answer would be signed by Nasir himself.”

Finally on July 26, 1965, Nasir signed the declaration of independence for Maldives in Colombo. Sattar still has the pen Nasir used to sign the agreement.

England was the first country to recognise the newly-independent Maldives. Nasir stayed back in Colombo to send more than 100 letters to the heads of state of sovereign states and the UN, informing them of the Maldives’ independence and asking for their support.

The biggest change, the one that affected all citizens, was that they now could get a Maldivian passport. Before independence, they had to request one from the British government for international travel, such as to go on Hajj.

The new state faced numerous challenges in nation building; the most significant was the lack of human resources. But Sattar said Nasir had already laid the foundations to allow for advancements in education, health and broadcasting. He had established English medium schools and a radio station. With independence, the World Health Organization (WHO) trained nurses. Australia offered scholarships to train teachers and public health providers.

Abdul Sattar Moosa Didi

Noting India had remained the Maldives’ most important development partner, Sattar stressed the need to keep up good relationships with neighbours and the need for a non-aligned foreign policy.

“It was the time of the Cold War. A non-aligned policy is important, not just then, but now as well. At the time, the government thought if we were to favour one side, it will bring about issues for us, as a small and newly independent nation,” he said.

With independence, Maldives had only two missions – in Sri Lanka and Washington. Nasir pursued a tight fiscal policy and did not want to open more embassies. “He didn’t like the idea of borrowing. He wanted to spend within our means.” That meant development was slow, but Nasir laid good foundations, Sattar said.

“Most of what we see today was started in his tenure. Tourism, broadcasting, British medium instruction, road construction, dealing with communicable diseases, and building an airport, everyone, nationwide, participated in the construction of the airport. Nationwide, people contributed labour to the project. That opened us up to the world.”

After serving as prime minister from 1957 to 1967, Nasir served as the president of the Maldives from 1967 to 1978. His successor, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, stripped him of his property, tried and sentenced him in absentia for alleged corruption. Nasir died in exile in Singapore in 2008, soon after Mohamed Nasheed assumed power. His body was brought back to the Maldives and given a state funeral.

“Nasir’s legacy was buried. He was the president here. Everything he did was definitely not bad. The transition from Nasir to Maumoon was very smooth, but what followed was another matter. It was not very nice, it really went out of limits,” Sattar said.

At fifty years of independence, the country is badly in need of healing, for numerous wrongs done by various leaders to individuals and communities, Sattar said. He believes civil society organizations, rather than politicians, must lead the process.

“Political stability must be there. The people should decide on who rules them. If not, there will be frequent changes in the leadership and arbitrary actions. We need continuity,” he said.

Sattar’s biggest worry today is the growing crime rate in the Maldives.

“The crime rate, drug abuse, these are major issues. I even pray for a solution to these problems. The crime rate is saddening. Just 15 years ago, I had heard of only one murder. Now it’s one murder a week. These are issues related to drugs and gangs. We must resolve them. We may not have a completely crime free Maldives, but these must be controlled with strict actions,” he said.

Reflecting back on the fifty years since Maldives gained independence, Sattar said there is much we could have done better.

“I’d like to compare [Maldives] with Singapore, which received independence at the same time as we did. It is also a very small country with very few natural resources and a small population. Compared to Singapore, we received a lot of foreign currency through tourism, but I think we could have done better. They even had to import water. But look where they are today,” he said.

“Even if we were unable to develop at the same level as they did, we could have done better.”