Maldives' Shauna Aminath describes her path to activism at Westminster College

Tuesday, March 19, 2013 | 6:51 p.m. CDT; updated 12:02 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, March 20, 2013
Shauna Aminath speaks to a room of students and faculty Tuesday at her alma mater, Westminster College in Fulton. Aminath is a political activist who worked in her home country of the Republic of the Maldives to encourage a democratic government.

FULTON — Before Shauna Aminath went to Pearson College UWC (United World College) in Canada for pre-university education, she was asked why she wanted to go there.

Aminath, a native of the sprawling double-chain of atolls in the Indian Ocean known as the Republic of the Maldives, said she wanted to see a new type of government.

Recalling this moment on Tuesday, she laughed. "I was so young I didn't realize what I was saying at the time," she said.

If you saw "The Island President" at the True/False Film Fest last year, you know something about the Maldives. The film documents former President Mohamed Nasheed's efforts to get the world to notice how the rising oceans are affecting the Maldives.

Nasheed was the first democratically elected president there, and during his administration, from 2008 to 2012, Aminath was deputy undersecretary. She is now president and policy secretary of the Maldivian Democratic Party youth wing.

This week, Aminath has been back at her alma mater, Westminster College, where she earned her bachelor's degrees after attending Pearson. She was there to meet with students and give presentations as part of the school's Global Leaders in Residence program.

In February 2012, weeks before "The Island President" was shown at True/False, Nasheed resigned. His supporters said it was a military coup d’état.

"I remember that on the day he resigned, I was saying, 'The dictator is walking free around this country while the first democratically elected leader is being forced out — it was unfair,'" Aminath said, referring to previous President Maumoon Gayoom. His 30-year term was rife with accusations of nepotism, corruption and suppression of dissent.

She said that the morning after Nasheed's resignation, members of the Maldivian Democratic Party crafted a statement saying they believed Nasheed's government had been overthrown and called for another free election.

Aminath said thousands of Maldivians rallied; the military got involved and violently broke up the rallies, including the use of tear gas.

"To see violence first hand, to see policemen in their uniforms beating and grabbing our own citizens — I can’t describe how awful it was," Aminath said. "I can’t say it in words."

After Nasheed resigned, his vice president, Mohammed Waheed, took charge, and Aminath left her position. She has since peacefully demonstrated to demand a fair election in the Maldives, which has, at times, led to her arrest and imprisonment.

But she said she is never afraid of her Maldivian adversaries; rather, their stubbornness spurs her on.

Aminath's attraction to political activism began in the ninth grade when she wrote up a few lines criticizing the government to add to her argument in a debate. Her superiors told her not to say those lines, she said, but she felt wrong staying silent.

After 10th grade, the final year for Maldivian high school students, Aminath went to Pearson. She graduated in 2004, right as a revolution was budding in the Maldives. It was tempting to return home.

Aminath decided to stay in the West and attend Westminster, where she became more politically involved in environmentalism. After graduating in 2008, she started working in the policy office of the Office of the President in the Maldives.

She pushed for an international reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and for turning the Maldives into an active participant in the global climate debate.

Aminath said the increasingly conflicted, anti-democratic environment in her homeland compels her and others to act.

"It’s not me that wants to be a politician," she said. "It’s things like this that make people like me into politicians. Every time they arrest someone, that’s 10 more people who will come out in the streets."

Aminath said that more criticism from the U.S. would have hampered the military's actions last year when Nasheed resigned.

"The U.S. needs to say a country like the Maldives without a leader like Nasheed is unfair," Aminath said. "The government now that came there by force is not free. And it’s not fair."

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

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hank ottinger March 20, 2013 | 10:37 a.m.

I heard her speak yesterday -- she's a courageous young woman, devoted to seeing democracy thrive in her country. Sadly, after the military coup that deposed the first elected president in 30 years, the United States was among the first to recognize the legitimacy of the junta.

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