Over 50 students and faculty gathered Monday afternoon at the University of Michigan International Institute for a panel discussing the struggle between democracy and corruption, as well as climate change, in the Maldive Islands and worldwide.
Before the event began, the documentary “The Island President,” which explored then-President Mohamed Nasheed’s struggle against the political powers and the rising sea levels in the Maldives, was screened. Nasheed came to Ann Arbor as a featured speaker, explaining his ongoing aspirations as a political activist for human rights and combating climate change.
The panel began by detailing his experience, including his chaotic administration and numerous arrests. His most recent arrest, which has lasted thirteen years and resulted in his seeking asylum in order to escape the authoritarian political regime in the Maldives, is due to his involvement with politics.
“There is a lot of work to do before we can start living a more happy life in the Maldives,” he said, explaining how his more democratic views were challenged and then later used against him by his rivals. “I just couldn’t confess. And I couldn't capitulate. I couldn’t give myself to the state.”
Nasheed became the first democratically-elected president of the Maldives in 2008, after his consistent work in peaceful activism against the government. He was forced to resign and was put in prison in 2012 after a coup by a group of individuals that was loyal to the former president.
He shared with the crowd that he plans to run for president again in 2018.
Nasheed’s lawyer, Jared Genser, a UM Law School alum, has been heavily involved with human rights. In particular, his organization, Freedom Now, has worked to free prisoners of conscience who hold politically charged views.
Their paths crossed while Nasheed was imprisoned in the Maldives — Genser worked on his case and aided in his eventual release in 2016 to the United Kingdom, where Nasheed was granted asylum and medical treatment.
“Having been involved with this work for more than 16 years, what I find most remarkable is that freedom is a universal value across all cultures,” he said.
Panel member Rebecca Hardin, associate professor in the School of Natural Resources and Environment, praised Nasheed’s motives for activism. She stated his life changed her own perspective as an American citizen, emphasizing the growing relevance of Nasheed’s case to in political atmosphere of the United States today.
“We are listening to you in some ways as a mentor,” she said. “I think that changes the energy that we can find between where you are sitting, where you’ve been, your journey and the one that many of us now feel that we are beginning in earnest for the first time in our own country and its relationships pulling away from multilateralism.”
The top of climate change dominated the remainder of the panel discussion, with a distinct emphasis on the connection between Nasheed’s work in the Maldives and the methods he uses to battle climate change globally.
Nasheed himself stressed the vital relationship between political climate and one’s ability to incite positive social change.
“The most adaptative measure (against climate change) is democracy,” he said, describing the importance of better governance and legislation as necessary conditions to encourage the private sector and work to create a carbon neutral state.
He explained his vision for the differing states and how they have worked to mobilize their populations to support these changes, labeling them as economically beneficial for countries involved. Genser added there is difficulty with the distinct gap between enforcement of international law and countries’ actual commitments to following through.
This topic especially attracted students such as Rackham student Yihan Wang, who said she attended the panel because it was relevance to her studies.
“I am interested in sustainability and development that doesn’t hurt the environment, while at the same time boosts economy,” she said.
Despite all his troubles, Nasheed has a positive outlook on life.
“The world is changing, the future is looking like the past,” he said. “We are again embroiled in the same fears as our parents and grandparents were. Strong men are on the rise … mind you it’s always a strong man … that man will suppress us. Please, stand up to that man and don’t break.”
LSA sophomore Skylar Gleason expressed her appreciation for Nasheed’s spirit.
“It was amazing to hear about (Nasheed’s) experience and just the resilience and positivity he has for where the world is going, despite steps being taken into the past,” she said. “I think it's inspiring to see such optimism.”