How Luthufee moved SAARC venue from Male to Addu



Part 1 and II published on Nov. 3 & 4

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Had it not been for me, the 17th South Asian Summit for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) would never have been held in the southern island city of Addu, says Abdulla Luthufee, who spearheaded an armed attack on Male targeting the then President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom on Nov. 3, 1988.

Gayoom would never have shifted the venue from Male to any other island, Luthufee said in an exclusive interview with The Island.

"Male was Gayoom’s world and he simply didn’t have time for those living in other parts of Maldivian territory. In fact, Gayoom sought to restrict boat movements to and from Male as part of his security measures. The bottom line is that Maldivians living in islands needed special permits to visit Male until I struck Gayoom’s base," Luthufee said.

Although the raid on Male carried out by Indian trained PLOTE, one of the most powerful terrorist groups active in Sri Lanka in the 80s failed to oust Gayoom, it shook the dictatorial administration and set the stage for Mohamed Nasheed’s ascent to power. Nasheed succeeded Gayoom in 2008, 20 years after Luthufee’s courageous bid.

The Maldivian expressed delight that the 17th SAARC summit was being held in a once neglected island. The meeting of the Standing Committee comprising SAARC Foreign Secretaries took place on Nov. 7-8.

The Foreign Ministers of the SAARC countries met on Nov. 9.

Luthufee said that he was glad Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who had saved the country from LTTE terrorism, was in Addu for the summit. The two-day summit began at the newly-built Hithadhoo Convention Centre yesterday.

The one-time rebel emphasized that those in power needed to address the grievances of the people. The vast majority of people living in eight SAARC countries live in abject poverty, he said. "Although those in power promise grandiose plans at various international conferences, they don’t pursue policies, which can bring relief to the poor struggling to make ends meet. What we need is not talk shops, but tangible poverty alleviation measures. The SAARC grouping, too, is yet to embark on projects beneficial to ordinary people. Giving scholarships to officials and their henchmen or holding conferences in five-star comfort and expensive meals cannot help the poor."

Why did you choose Sri Lanka to mount an armed raid on Male? "I was just 14 when I first arrived in Colombo in a boat. It took three days to reach Colombo. Since then, I have been visiting Colombo and in the mid 80s, I set up the first foreign venture by a Maldivian here, a duck farm at Kadawatha before I got in touch with the then PLOTE commander, Uma Maheswaran and reached an agreement on a sea-borne assault on Male. Had we succeeded in Male, the rest of the Maldivian territory would have quickly accepted my action. Colombo was the ideal place. The availability of well trained PLOTE personnel experienced in combat operations gave me the much needed wherewithal to take on Gayoom. The then President’s security personnel couldn’t have matched the fighting skills of PLOTE personnel. Gayoom’s men were thugs, who derived sadistic pleasure by inflicting pain on innocent people,. They were only good at assaulting and torturing unarmed prisoners. Had India looked the other way, we would have succeeded."

Commenting on his prison life, Luthufee said, "After surviving Gayoom’s plan to do away with me and my three key supporters, ex-Maj. Abbas Ibrahim, ex-Corporal Abdulla Shahid and Ahamed Nasir, Gayoom went out of his way to inflict maximum possible pain on us. Exactly 10 years after our abortive bid to seize power, the four of us were moved to Maafushi prison. We were held along with about 700 other prisoners, including drug addicts and common criminals. In our section alone, there had been about 175 detainees. The Maldivian National Security Forces had been in charge of the notorious torture facility. For the slightest provocation on the part of the detainees, Security Forces tortured groups of men. Torture was Gayoom’s policy. They enjoyed what they did. Some of them used to give cigarettes to selected prisoners and when they were caught smoking, both smokers and non-smokers were taken to an open ground and punished."

Luthufee said that at the time Gayoom had him and his three associates moved in Nov. 1998, they were the only political prisoners at the Maafushi prison. "In the following year, Gayoom targeted the Sandaan group, which used the internet to attack the Maldivian regime. Four Sandaan group members were brought to Maafushi prison. They were there for life. Also in the same year, they detained four others, who were accused of making a bomb to assassinate Gayoom. Except for my group, the remaining eight political prisoners were there for life."

"Inmates were ordered not to use freshwater to wash their bodies. Anyone caught violating this particular directive was punished. As captives of Gayoom’s democratic regime, which had the support of all SAARC countries, we suffered at the hands of Maldivian thugs until the death of an inmate, Hassan Evan Naseem by security personnel at Maafushi prison on Sept. 19, 2003 forced Gayoom to change his style. A section of those held at the prison forced open their cells and advanced towards the prison headquarters to protest against the killing of Nazeem, a drug addict. At the behest of Gayoom, security forces fired at those advancing on the prison headquarters, though they didn’t pose a direct threat. The murderous government alleged troops had no option but to open fire to thwart an attempt by the prisoners to seize arms and ammunition."

Luthufee alleged that Gayoom ordered a crackdown on the premise that those held for the Nov. 1988 coup were responsible for the Sept. 19, 2003 protests at Maafushi prison. ‘We weren’t involved in anyway. We kept our distance from those protesting as we knew Gayoom would exploit the situation to finish us off. Soon after realizing his folly, he ordered an inquiry and punished some of those who fired at unarmed prisoners and the man in charge of the detention facility.

"Soon after that inmates launched a protest campaign demanding freedom. Gayoom feared organized trouble. In a bid to neutralize the threat posed by the prison community, Gayoom ordered a small section of them released, while some had their prison terms reduced. The lucky ones were placed under house arrest. But Gayoom was very slowly losing control. Ex-Maj. Abbas Ibrahim and ex-Corporal Abdulla Shahid were moved from Maafushi to their homes and finally released in 2007. I along with Ahamad Nasir, were moved to our houses in 2006 on medical grounds."

Why did he let you go? "Gayoom wasn’t a compassionate man, but the rapidly changing political scene in the Maldives forced him to adopt new tactics. Nasheed, who had been held with me at the same prison facility was spearheading a strong campaign forcing Gayoom to take precautions. Gayoom probably felt that he could come to some sort of understanding with us and focus on Mohamed Nasheed’s campaign. But Nasheed kept his pressure until Gayoom’s defeat in 2008."

Do you regret taking up arms against an elected government? " Once I decided to bring in the PLOTE to oust Gayoom, I abandoned my lucrative business in running a duck farm. I moved to a PLOTE base in Vavuniya, where I underwent military training for several weeks, alongside PLOTE cadres to embark on the sea-borne assault."

Luthufee said that he was glad and would have done the same again to oust a dictator. But to the credit of Gayoom, the dictator took a series of measures to improve the situation in Male soon after hearing what I had to say to Indian and the Maldivian authorities interrogating me. Luthufee said that Gayoom realized that he had been blind to the shortcomings in every sphere experienced by the Maldivians. Gayoom did away with a mechanism, which prevented those living in islands other than Male from coming to the capital city without obtaining a special pass. It was nothing but a visa. Gayoom’s promise to fight corruption was restricted to setting up of an office."

In spite of Gayoom not being at the helm, Luthufee is still not a free man. A few years of his 25-year prison term imposed by the Maldivian courts at the behest of Gayoom still remained to be spent in exile. Though Gayoom is no longer in control, those jealous of Luthufee for what he had achieved through his courageous action seems to be an obstacle for the former fighter’s return to Male.


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