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Pro-Democracy Activist Sworn In as New President of Maldives


A former political prisoner and pro-democracy activist, Mohamed Nasheed, has been sworn in as president of the Maldives. As Anjana Pasricha reports from VOA's South Asia Bureau in New Delhi, he is the first leader to come to power following a multiparty election.

Just before taking the presidential oath in the capital Male on Tuesday, 41-year-old Mohamed Nasheed congratulated his people for changing the old regime peacefully.

His takeover is a momentous change in the Indian Ocean chain of islands, where his rival Maumoon Abdul Gayoom was the undisputed leader for 30 years. Gayoom was ousted in the country's first multi party election held last month.

In his inaugural speech, President Nasheed has promised to strengthen democracy and combat poverty.

Political observers say the President's first priority will be to implement pro-democracy reforms. He comes to power after campaigning for more political freedom for years, and
strongly criticizing his predecessor for ruling like a dictator.

The new leader has already promised to look into the cases of all political prisoners held in the country. He himself spent several years in jail on what human rights groups say are false

However, his party leaders say it will not be easy for the President to manage high expectations in a country looking for quick change.

A South Asia expert with New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University, A.K. Pasha, says the new leader will have to move slowly.

"There will initially be a resistance from supporters of the previous regime. They were completely in the opposite direction. It will generate opposition from the entrenched sections. So he has to follow a step-by-step approach, and move cautiously," said Pasha.

President Nasheed has also pledged a host of economic reforms to ensure that more people benefit from the buoyant tourist-driven economy of the islands. Although Maldives has the highest per capita income in South Asia, many of its people continue to be poor. There are also fears that the global financial crisis will hit the tourist industry.

President Nasheed has another priority. He has said he wants to set aside funds to buy a new homeland for his people as rising sea levels threaten to submerge the over 1,000 islands which stand less than two meters above the ocean.

Environmentalists have warned that many of the islands which make up Maldives may disappear if climate change is not reversed. Mr. Nasheed says he has broached the idea of buying land with a number of neighboring countries such as India and Sri Lanka, and found them to be receptive. President Nasheed also says Australia is worth looking at because of the immense amount of unoccupied land in that country.