President Mohamed Nasheed: Encounter with a genial climate crusader…

President Mohamed Nasheed: Stop pointing fingers!

President Mohamed Nasheed: Stop pointing fingers!

It had taken many days to set up the interview, but in the end we got only 15 minutes of the promised 30. President Mohamed Nasheed turned up more than an hour late, lagging behind in his day’s schedule. While waiting, his staff had repeatedly asked me to cut down the interview as the President was already late for a state function. I had nodded half-heartedly.

President Nasheed (known among his people as ‘Anni’) walked in, beaming and apologising for keeping us waiting for over a day. We had set up our lights and video camera the previous day, only to find that the President had cancelled all his appointments that day to be with his young daughter hospitalised with the ‘flu. As a father myself, I could fully understand – even if it affected our filming plans.

I introduced myself and crew, and asked how his sick daughter was doing. She is not in any danger, he said, and should be home soon. That was a relief.

I ushered President Nasheed to the simple chair we’d chosen for him to occupy during our interview, being filmed in the stately room where the President normally receives high level state guests. As the crew pinned up the mic and adjusted the lights, I quickly explained who we were, and what the interview was for – a short film that would be globally distributed highlighting the vulnerability of his island nation to climate change impact.

There was not an air of pomposity around him. He exchanged a few words in Divehi with my Maldivian film crew – Ibrahim Yasir and Hussein Makzoom. As I would soon find out in the interview, he was also very well informed, articulate and passionate. (I remembered interviewing former President Maomoon Abdul Gayoom nearly 20 years ago when I covered the Small States Conference on Sea Level Rise he convened in Nov 1989. Gayoom was expressive in his own way but had an air of scholarly superiority about him.)

In the 15 minutes that we had, I asked a total of 10 questions. I had sent in advance a baker’s dozen questions to his media staff. I don’t know if they briefed him, but clearly President Nasheed was in his element. He didn’t have any notes, and yet answered my questions perceptively, genuinely and always eagerly. The one-time journalist and human rights activist was very media savvy.

Read my full interview on TVE Asia Pacific website and on Groundviews citizen journalism website (where a discussion is unfolding)

He must have been asked some or most of these questions many times before. Yet with each answer, he found his comfort levels with me and by about the fifth minute, we were nicely chatting along. I had to keep reminding myself that I was really talking to one of Asia’s youngest heads of state. At that moment, he sounded every bit a chatty technocrat.

Nalaka Gunawardene (left) with President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives

Nalaka Gunawardene (left) with President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives

President Nasheed had lot to say, and knew just how to say it. I had prepared for days, reading his recent speeches and op ed essays. I had figured out what to ask to elicit the kind of answers I was hoping for. He didn’t disappoint me. If his staff had not interrupted our interview, we could have easily gone on for half an hour or longer.

But I knew he had already given good ‘soundbites’ that we could excerpt in a short film. For example, how many heads of state would engage in plain talk like this when asked for his core message to the upcoming climate summit in Copenhagen: “In a nutshell, I’d like to say what has already been said: ‘Don’t be stupid!’. Going on and on about who did it is not going to save us. This is the time to realise that the deed is done. So let’s see how we may be able to proceed from here…

Earlier in the interview, he sounded grave when he outlined the prospects for his nation, the lowest-lying country on the planet, now on the frontline of climate change impact. “We will die if this goes on, and therefore, we have a fundamental right for life. If that is challenged, we have to link it be a human rights issue, and not just an environmental issue.”

The next minute, his tone became more resolute when talking on coping with massive changes already unfolding as a result of global warming. He stressed the value of democracy, good governance and people’s right to information as vital elements in adaptation – the difficult task of living with climate change.

Responding to my questions, President Nasheed talked about plans to make the Maldives carbon-neutral within a decade, and said the ‘sovereign wealth fund’ he announced soon after his election was already saving money “so that we will have something when the going gets very bad….”.

Sinking slowly in the East?

Sinking slowly in the East?

We also wanted to film President Nasheed at work, to establish him as an engaged political leader – the first democratically elected President of the Indian Ocean archipelago of 325,000 people. But there was no time. We then hoped to film his daily walk home after work. But the rain and delayed schedule meant he went home by car – and after dark. So we had to rely on stock footage instead.

The mix of democrat and technocrat in President Nasheed makes him an extraordinary personality and the world is taking note. The New York Times Magazine did a full length profile in May 2009 with the title ‘Wanted: A New Home for My Country’. A Hollywood film company is currently tracking the President as he travels the world, calling for urgent climate action that goes beyond mere words. (In fact, with my consent, they filmed me filming the President.)

A month after my interview, TIME Magazine named him an Environmental Hero of 2009 – the only serving head of state so honoured this year. I was delighted to see this, but TIME’s chosen photograph made me very jealous. I had dearly wanted to shoot our interview outdoors, but a combination of bad weather and presidential schedule ruled that out. Evidently, TIME photographer Chiara Goia had better luck: President in full business suit standing about a foot deep in the calm, azure waters of the Maldives.

The same waters that he and his team are trying desperately hard to keep at bay, for as long as possible.

Read my full interview with President Mohamed Nasheed on TVEAP website and on Groundviews

Watch the short film, Small Islands, Big Impact:

Blog post January 2008: Little voices from the waves: Maldives too young to die!

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