In the Indian Ocean, far from India's southernmost tip, lies a chain of tiny islets and atolls that comprise Asia's smallest nation, and the smallest Islamic country in the world - the Republic of Maldives. In October, the world's attention was drawn to the Maldives when a former political prisoner became the nation's first democratically-elected president.
The event was not only a proud moment for the people of the Maldives, it served as another sign of the flowering of democracy in South Asia.
With barely 300,000 citizens inhabiting some 250 tiny islands, the Republic of Maldives is a nation that is easy to overlook. But for 30 years, much of the world looked the other way when it came to the autocratic rule of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. After surviving a number of coups and winning six consecutive - albeit uncontested - elections, violent protests in 2004 and 2005 forced President Gayoom to legalize political parties and improve the democratic process. Standing for re-election for a seventh term in October of this year, President Gayoom saw his tenure as the longest-serving leader in Asia come to an end.
Winning a run-off election against the incumbent president was one of his strongest critics and a former political prisoner, journalist Mohamed 'Anni' Nasheed. In handing over power to his successor on November 11, Mr. Gayoom apologized for any unfair treatment or injustices he had caused to the Maldivian people during his presidency. It marked the end of what some considered one of the world's most repressive governments.
Ahmed Moosa was among the most outspoken opponents of the Gayoom presidency. Editor in chief of Dhivehi Observer News, a tabloid website targeting Gayoom's government, Mr. Moosa returned to the Maldives last month after more than five years of exile in Britain. He says he believed the pro-democracy campaign he championed would eventually bring about his dream of free and fair democratic elections.
"I think Maldivians are quite resilient," said Moosa. "When they want to do something, they normally do end up achieving what they want. My confidence came from the fact that I was in a position to educate the people of Maldives and to inform them of their rights via the internet, via international media. I was safe in the UK. There was no way that Gayoom could get to me or try to arrest me while I was abroad. So my campaign was trying to educate the people and inform them that they deserve better."
The Maldives Ambassador to the United States, Mohamed Hussein Maniko, said the October election result was not unexpected. "I think it was not really a surprise in many ways," said the ambassador. "I think Nasheed ran basically as a candidate the younger population could adhere to. It was time for us to take the challenge, and the public and the previous government and the present government took upon themselves to do the right thing, and we have been successful in that."
Editor Ahmad Zahir of Maldives' English-language newspaper Haveeru Daily, says the people of Maldives were tired of the 30 years of authoritarian rule. "The former president had all the power in the country," said Zahir. "So, people were fed up with all this and finally they wanted to have a change."
South Asia analyst S.D. Muni said the new government will try to change a feudal system in which power has been controlled by a few families at the top of the social structure - in some cases for generations.
"Almost all the opposition parties seem to have come together under Nasheed Anni's support, and that would broaden up the governance and political system, with greater emphasis on not only democratization, but also on development and more of administrative efficiency," said Muni.
The new president, Mohamed Nasheed, is popularly known as Anni. An outspoken former member of the parliament in Male, Nasheed was imprisoned several times for his criticism of the Gayoon government. Despite the personal price Mr. Nasheed paid for speaking his conscience, he accepted Mr. Gayoon's apology upon leaving office. Editor Ahmed Moosa says forgiveness is part of the Maldivian mindset.
"Well, it was a long time coming. People expected him to apologize every time he made a mistake. Obviously it was very, very late. Maldivians are not violent people. They do not want to take revenge," said Moosa. “People have understood that he was under immense pressure to make sure that the verdict of the people is heard, and international community did play a part in it and our police and the defense force were committed to making sure that at the end of the day what people decide will be the final outcome. Personally I have no problem with Gayoom. Forgiveness is a very noble act."
Ambassador Maniko says both former President Gayoom and President Nasheed should be credited for the smooth transition of power. "I think this transition and the way it has moved smoothly gives credit to both President Nasheed and former President Gayoom for what has happened in Maldives," he said. "They both get credit for this."
In his inaugural speech, Mr Nasheed promised to strengthen democracy and to combat both poverty and drug abuse. Mr. Nasheed's victory continues a recent trend toward democracy in South Asia. Professor Muni said Nasheed's victory will strengthen that movement in the region. "This is important, looking at the democratization drive in South Asia. You have Nepal changing. You have Bhutan changing. Now you have Maldives also changing," said Muni. "So, it is strengthening the democratic trend in South Asia."
Upon taking office in November, Mr. Nasheed announced one of the most ambitious programs any government has undertaken. Remembering the terrible losses suffered during the 2004 tsunami, Mr. Nasheed has proposed the purchase of land elsewhere for the people of Maldives to relocate, should a tsunami or rising sea levels inundate the country. The government is reportedly considering locations in Sri Lanka and India and as far away as Australia.