Trouble In Paradise

India in a soup over Mohamed Nasheed, finds Maldivian crisis an epic challenge 

By Mridu Kumari

In the Indian Ocean region, no other country has proved to be as much challenging for India as Maldives. While India-led international community members want situation to normalize in island nation, the Yameen government reportedly sought support from China to maintain security for Chinese investments. This prompted New Delhi, which has sought UN intervention in Maldives, to make sharp reaction. “We note that China has said Maldives government has the ability to protect the security of Chinese personnel and institutions in Maldives. We hope that all countries can play a constructive role in Maldives, instead of doing the opposite,” Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Raveesh Kumar said in a statement.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi earlier held telephonic conversation with US President Donald on the Maldivian crisis. “The US President and the Indian Prime Minister expressed concern about the political crisis in Maldives and [talked about] the importance of respect for democratic institutions and rule of law,” the White House said in a statement on February 8. The two leaders also agreed to work together to maintain security in the Indo-Pacific region. This gave some foreign experts a reason to believe that actions against Male are not far away. “Maldives, you know, sustains on tourism. If India, the US, the UK and the EU manage to bring economic pressure on Maldives by imposing sanctions on it, Male will not be able to afford to defy the world anymore,” former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal said.

India, which is very closely monitoring the situation in Maldives, is in regular touch with the US, the UK and the European Union and they are all planning to impose economic sanctions on the country if political situation further worsens there. Even as this option is under the consideration of South Block mandarins, they don’t like to completely forgo their time tested diplomatic engagement with other countries to make the island nation’s administration come to its senses. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj who undertook maiden three days visit to Saudi Arabia on February 6, is learnt to have broached the Maldivian crisis with Saudi leadership. It should be noted that Riyadh wields religious as well as economic influences over the island country. It has made a sizable investment in resorts and infrastructure projects of the island country.

India, as per diplomatic sources, wants Riyadh to use its influences on Maldives and persuade incumbent President Yameen to step down from his office so that normalcy could return to the island country where presidential election is due sometime in September, this year. The Maldivian Supreme Court had annulled the first round of the presidential polls in September, 2013, after opposition parties had leveled allegations of serious irregularities during the election. A fresh election was conducted in November in the same year. After five years, such fear has resurfaced on the electoral landscape of the island nation. Rather it has become more acute among Maldivian opposition leaders after the Yameen government’s handling of the court’s ruling, his complete disregard to democratic values and rights of people and muzzling of the press freedom.

Television channels have been forced to go off the air and newspaper houses have been locked, while journalists, including an Indian national working for a foreign media, have been arrested in the island nation. It is in this atmosphere of fear and chaos in Maldives, there is a rumour that India may support a military coup against President Yameen. Though officials of the MEA have rubbished such rumour, terming it “baseless and a figment of imagination.” They, however, hastened to add that “we should keep patience and should avoid jumping the gun at the moment.”

Earlier India turned down Male’s request to allow President Abdulla Yameen’s special envoy and Foreign Minister Mohamed Asim to visit New Delhi to apprise Indian leaders about the situation of the island nation. This fact was brought to light by the Maldivian government itself when in a bid to set the record straight, it termed media reports “far from truth” after they said that President Yameen decided to send its envoys to friendly countries like China, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia and not India. “The first stop of special envoy of the President was India. Foreign Minister of Maldives Mohamed Asim, the designated special envoy of the President was scheduled for February 8 to India, but the visit was cancelled on the request of the government of India,” Maldives’s New Delhi-based embassy said in a statement. Interestingly, announcement for sending special envoys to friendly nations came from the Maldivian President’s office hours after China, in an obvious reference to India, warned against military intervention in Maldives.

Beijing said such intervention would “complicate matter” in the tiny Indian Ocean nation. This warning came after former Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed who is in self-exile in Sri Lanka called India to use its military to end political turmoil in the country of atolls. Though India has no plan to repeat the 1988 Operation Cactus like military operations when troops were sent to Male to repel the challenges from armed Tamil mercenaries who had entered there to overthrow the then Maldivian government-led by President Abdul Gayoom, yet New Delhi has made it clear that it is “disturbed” by the imposition of emergency in the country by President Yameen. On February 5, instead of implementing the island country’s Supreme Court order which quashed terrorism charges against some political prisoners, including former President Nasheed and ordered their release from jail, the Yameen government arrested judges and imposed emergency across the nation for 15 days. Some people say that Supreme Court chief justice Abdulla Saeed and judge Ali Hameed who annulled the government’s charges against opposition leaders are close to former President Gayoom Abdul Gayoom who has fell out with his half-brother and current President Yameen and has since joined with the Nasheed camp.

Whatever may be the truth about links between former President Gayoom and these judges, India, within hours of declaration of emergency, issued a strong statement saying: “We are disturbed by the declaration of a state of emergency in Maldives following the refusal of the government to abide by the unanimous ruling of the full bench of the Supreme Court on February 1 and also by the suspension of constitutional rights of the people of Maldives. The arrest of the Supreme Court chief justice and political figures are also reasons for concern.” This statement was issued with an aim to “send across a message that India would not sit in rest if its backyard is burning,” former foreign secretary Shashank said.

In the light of prevailing situation in Maldives, sources say, possibility of a military coup against President Yameen could not be ruled out. In the 1970s, New Delhi helped the island country in setting up its largest military school in Male. Many Maldivian defence officials, including the current chief of armed forces of the island nation have attended military training programmes in India’s military centres, including Officers Training Academy (OTA) in Chennai and Gaya. The eighth edition of joint exercise between Indian army and the Maldivian National Defence Force was concluded recently in Karnataka. Then under the banner of ‘Dosti,’ Maldivian coast guard together with Indian and Sri Lankan coast guards holds biannual maritime exercise.

Significantly, China which signed Free Trade Agreement with Maldives during President Abdulla Yameen’s recent visit to Beijing, avoided asking Male to implement the Supreme Court order or anything on imposition of emergency in the country. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Gesn Shuang in a regular press conference on February 6 said: China has been closely following the situation in Maldives. We hope various parties of Maldives will properly resolve differences through dialogue and negotiation, resume the normal order as soon as possible and maintain national and social stability. We believe the Maldives government, political parties and people have the wisdom and capabilities to cope with the current situation independently.”

China is involved in several infrastructure projects in the island nation, including the China-Maldives Friendship Bridge that connects capital Male with Hulhumale where airport is located. This airport has been built by China. Earlier for the modernization and development of the lone airport which is also known as Velana international airport, India’s GMR had been selected. After the Yameen government was formed in 2013, Maldives cancelled agreement with GMR for the modernization and consequent operation of the airport for 25 years. GMR took the case to the international tribunal which gave its verdict in the favour of the Indian company and asked the Maldivian government to pay $270 million in compensation, which Male paid promptly. It is suspected that China gave this amount of money to Maldives for compensation to GMR.

In August 2017, Male permitted three Chinese warships to dock on its port. In the Indian Ocean, Maldives’ strategic significance can be accessed from the fact that it is a close to international sea lanes through which two-thirds of the world’s energy annually passes. The country is also located merely 700 km from India’s Lakshadweep island chain and around 1,200 km from the Indian mainland. As such, spurt in political turmoil in Maldives has triggered concern among strategic and diplomatic fraternity in India. Yet New Delhi presently wants to keep itself engaged in sending messages to Male which has turned out to be a bigger challenge for Indian diplomacy ever since the pro-China Yameen government came to power. In the South Asian region, Maldives is the only country where Prime Minister Modi has not yet visited, speaking volumes of the trust gap between the two nations.