The President and Honorary Consul
PUBLISHED: 01:16 08 April 2011 | UPDATED: 21:31 20 February 2013
With revolution very much in the air, Nigel Tyrie explains how the overthrow of a genuinely despotic tyranny came about through the hard work and courage of just a few people from"Salisbury
David Hardingham, newly appointed Honorary Consul to the Republic of the Maldives, shares his house in Salisbury with his ex-wife, two children and a dog. Shades of Kingsley Amis one might think, but David finds the arrangement easy. It enables us to share bringing up the children and it works well for us both. He has lived in the Friary, Salisbury, where the consular offices have been based for ten years. It was while he was at school at Dauntseys that he first met Mohamed Nasheed, now the first democratically elected President of the Maldives.
For those who are not assiduous students of Maldivian politics, the island archipelago achieved independence from Britain in 1965, and after a period of instability in the late 70s, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom became President, quickly establishing a repressive dictatorship to ensure his retention of power and employing all the usual criminal tactics of the dictator down the ages. No free and fair elections, no free press, detention without trial, and the indiscriminate use of violent interrogation and torture.
I asked David about Mohamed Nasheed. What sort of man did it take to overthrow a despot like Gayoom?
Hes a very dynamic personality, irrepressible. He enjoyed school, made a lot of friends, a good debater. His democratic ideas were definitely formed in Britain. He had strong opinions and wasnt afraid in voicing them.
After Mohamed left Liverpool University in the late 80s, he returned to the Maldives. He worked as an historian and journalist and started a magazine critical of the human rights abuses and bad governance in the Maldives. Torture was routine, with frequent disappearances.
And all this was going on in a tiny paradisiacal country of only 280,000 people, where everyone knew everyone else. This was what interested me, says David. It was bizarre. How they could get away with it? And, of course, there was a lot of corruption. You couldnt go into politics unless you effectively supported the regime. You either went with it or didnt go in at all. Most people didnt go into politics. Then, fortunately, someone like Mohamad comes along who just has the force of personality necessary. But he was detained and tortured many times.
In September 2003, a 19-year-old was beaten to death in prison, and a further 20 prisoners shot. There was almost no reporting of this in the international media, and it was at this stage that Mohamed contacted David to see if he could help. David, along with Robert Key, then MP for Salisbury, began to put pressure on the Maldivian government to release him, and brought it to the attention of the British government.
In 2003 Mohamed established the Maldivian Democratic Party though he had to do so from exile in Sri Lanka and in 2004 he was elected leader. However, even in Colombo he was not free of the attentions of the dictatorship. Eventually he came to the UK and applied for asylum, along with a number of fellow exiles. David helped get the small band of Maldivians established and political asylum granted. Again, Robert Key was instrumental in accelerating the asylum process.
The Maldivian government had one serious Achilles heel:"the Maldives are heavily dependent on tourism, and it was the threat to the continued influx of tourists that persuaded the dictatorship to release Mohamed rather than risk even stronger measures. The greatest thing the dictatorship feared was a perception taking hold among the international community that the Maldives is ethically unsound to visit. Thus the Maldivian government was forced to engage with, and respond to, international opinion.
David had set up a human rights group called the Friends of the Maldives, which was fully independent of the MDP. He is certain that it was the international pressure and awareness that Friends of Maldives and other international Human Rights NGOs were able to generate that finally resulted in Mohameds release.
David is keen to stress it was a completely independent Human Rights NGO. It works with other NGOs involved in human rights in both the UK and elsewhere in Europe. The Friends would research human rights abuses in the Maldives with information provided by local Maldivians.
Was it dangerous? The whole thing was dangerous. Most of the people we worked with had been incarcerated at some stage, so they knew the form. We set up an office here in Salisbury and our human rights and aid effort was co-ordinated from here. After the Asian tsunami, we sent 120 tonnes of aid to the Maldives. The Maldives were hit very hard partly because they are so low-lying. Unfortunately, for a time, we were unable to do much human rights work.
In May 2005 Mohamed returned to the Maldives. Partly as a result of Davids tireless efforts, he and the pro-democracy movement were well known internationally and it would now have been very difficult for the government to imprison him again. Things then moved fast. The Maldivians, especially in the capital, Mal, were simply no longer prepared to tolerate the repression... the knock on the door in the night. They also knew more of what was going on in their own country partly as a result of a free radio station co-founded in Salisbury by David. This broadcast direct to the Maldives on shortwave in the local language. As Broadcast from the Free Space of Salisbury was the signature of the station, many Maldivians have now heard of the city and perhaps gained the impression its a rather more important place than it really is! Either way, Salisbury is now close to many Maldivian democracy campaigners hearts.
The collapse of the regime finally occurred in October 2008 when Mohamed was elected President.
Sometimes, perhaps just once in a lifetime, the ordinary citizen has the chance to make a really exceptional contribution to the lives and well-being of his fellow men. David Hardingham seized his chance with both hands, showing at times great courage and perseverance in doing so. Last summer he was appointed Honorary Consul to the Maldives and the island states national flag flies proudly from his house in the Friary.