Male plot leader speaks out


By Shamindra Ferdinando

What would have happened if Abdulla Luthufee’s bid to oust the then Maldivian President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom succeeded on Nov. 3, 1988?

With President Mohamed Nasheed’s government scheduled to host the 17th summit of the Heads of State of the Governments of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) early this month, it would be pertinent to discuss Luthufee’s attempt to overthrow Gayoom’s administration.

The Maldives is a founding member of the grouping which was formed in 1985.

"The Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed is a good friend of mine," Luthufee told The Island in an exclusive interview on Monday on the eve of the 23rd anniversary of his failed takeover bid. Now a father of three grown up sons, Luthufee felt the founder of the Maldivian Democratic Party Nasheed was doing a good job.

Monday’s interview was Luthefee’s first since the coup.

Nasheed defeated long-time President Gayoom in a second round of voting at the Oct. 2008 presidential poll. Nasheed was sworn in as President in Nov. 2008. Since the defeat of terrorism in Sri Lanka, Nasheed had strongly defended President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government in the face of criticism of Sri Lanka by those still pursuing the LTTE’s eelam project. The recently concluded Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Perth, Western Australia was no exception.

Until Nasheed took over the Maldives following a bitter struggle, the country had been always under dictatorships. "Gayoom’s rule was undoubtedly the worst. In spite of our valiant efforts, the despot survived until the presidential polls in Oct. 2008," the clean shaven one-time rebel said.

Commenting on the raid on the Maldivian capital 23 years ago, the Maldivian said, "I wanted to get rid of Gayoom at any cost. As the election process in my country never gave a reasonable opportunity to the Opposition, I felt an outside force should be used to oust Gayoom. Due to my close association with the then PLOTE (People’s Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam) leader Uma Maheswaran, I negotiated for the deployment of an 80-member strong PLOTE raiding party. In fact, we discussed the sea-borne raid since 1987 after the deployment of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in the Northern and Eastern Provinces of Sri Lanka in line with the July 1987 Indo-Lanka peace accord."

Responding to a query, Luthufee emphasized said that PLOTE had been working with both Sri Lankan and Indian authorities in the wake of the Indo-Lanka accord. "PLOTE never asked for control over any part of Maldivian territory in spite of Gayoom and his propagandists alleging that PLOTE wanted to use the Maldives as a base. "Although, my revolt failed primarily due to shortcomings in planning, it forced Gayoom to realize that he couldn’t hoodwink the electorate," the ex-rebel said.

Luthufee and another Maldivian had joined a heavily armed PLOTE contingent on the night of Oct. 29, 1988 on the Mollikulam beach. They had left the north-western shores at about 8.30 p.m in two 40-foot long fishing trawlers. Luthufee had the support of several key persons in the Maldivian military, ex-Major Abbas Ibrahim, ex-Corporal Abdulla Shahid and Umaru Jamaal. The trawlers had reached Male at 4.30 a.m. on Nov. 3, 1988. Having secured the beach without a fight, the group divided into over half a dozen groups and moved to specific targets. Among the targets were the army barracks, President’s house and the Deputy Defence Minister’s residence.

Luthufee said that he was confident of a bloodless coup. But due to an irrevocable mistake on the part of the PLOTE group assigned to seize the army barracks, the entire plan collapsed within a matter of hours. "In spite of them being asked to enter the barracks through a lightly guarded police entry point, some PLOTE personnel opened fire prompting those at the base to retaliate. Had they entered the barracks, the majority would have thrown their weight behind us. We lost the group leader, and thereby the initiative," the Maldivian said."I didn’t want to kill anyone. I believed those loyal to Gayoom would give up quickly. They wouldn’t have been a match for the experienced PLOTE cadres. Unfortunately, due to hasty action on the part of the group tasked with seizing the army barracks, we gave the game away."

Luthufee said that another setback was the failure on the part of those based in Male to join the fight. "They didn’t throw their weight behind us. The absence of their support made us vulnerable and automatically strengthened Gayoom’s position. But still we could have achieved our military objectives if those assigned to seize Gayoom succeed. Unfortunately, Gayoom managed to escape as PLOTE cadres approached the presidential residence and immediately got in touch with the Maldivian ambassador in Colombo, Ahmad Abdulla and Ali Manisha, his Singapore-based advisor.

The wily Gayoom struck back. Although the then Sri Lankan President JRJ offered elite troops to quell the coup, India acted swiftly and decisively.

The rebel leader said that he decided to retreat as soon as he became aware of Indian intervention in support of Gayoom. "But we didn’t have a way to escape as those trawlers which brought us to Male weren’t there. We allowed the trawlers to leave as we were confident of seizing control. There was total chaos. During gun battles we lost two PLOTE personnel, while several received gunshot injuries. We retreated towards the Male harbour as Indian para troopers landed in the capital. We didn’t have any other option other than to seize the Maldivian vessel, MV Progress Light. We got away at about 11 a.m. on Nov. 3, 1988. We left the bodies of two PLOTE cadres killed in action. Three PLOTE personnel trying to get away in a rubber dingy were captured."

The retreating PLOTE group took a small group of hostages, including a Maldivian minister, Ahmed Mujuthaba and his wife. The commandeered MV Progress Light made progress amidst Indian fire and proceeded towards Java. Around 10 a.m on the following day (Nov. 4), the rebels decided to reach waters between India and Sri Lanka.

"We believed the presence of hostages, particularly a minister and his wife gave us an advantage over those pursuing us. An Indian military helicopter maintained constant surveillance, while we proceeded towards our target. But on the following day at about 4.30 p.m our radar picked up two objects. We knew the Indian navy was on its way to intercept us. One of the vessels, subsequently identified as INS Gadavari fired at our ship, though it didn’t cause any serious damage. We kept on course. They contacted us over the ship’s radio and demanded the immediate surrender or face the consequences. A five-member Maldivian defence team, including Major Adam Saheer was on the Indian warship."

Luthufee said that the Indians and the Maldivians demanded that MV Progress Light should change course either towards an Indian or a Maldivian port. "We refused to give in. We demanded mid-sea negotiations to settle the dispute. The Indians started firing at our ship at the behest of the Maldivians onboard their vessel. The PLOTE commander got in touch with their headquarters in Sri Lanka and sought instructions. They received instructions to execute one hostage and throw his body to the sea. In spite of the Maldivian minister in captivity making a desperate bid to avoid the execution of one of the hostages, the PLOTE took one person to the deck and shot him. They threw the body and the Indians recovered it. The remaining hostages volunteered to come on the main deck in a bid to discourage the Indians from firing at us. But the Maldivians onboard the Indian warship wanted all of us killed.

On the morning of Nov. 6, they fired at our ship and gave us three hours to surrender without any preconditions or face the consequences. We didn’t stop but proceeded towards Sri Lankan waters. We were about 30 nautical miles away from our position when the Indians opened up with big guns. The minister was among the persons hit during the initial fire. We didn’t fire back as Indian ships were out of the range of our guns. I directed the Filipino engineer to stop the engine. As I was watching him ‘killing’ the engine, he was hit. We were ordered to jump into the sea and were rescued by the Indians immediately after we raised a white flag.

(Continued tomorrow)

animated gif
Processing Request
Please Wait...