In­ter­view with mal­di­vian am­bas­sador to In­dia

Governance Now - - CONTENTS -

Ahmed Mo­hamed talks about In­dia-mal­dives ties and his coun­try’s per­ceived lean­ing to­wards China

Un­der pres­i­dent Yameen Gay­oom, the Mal­dives has closed ranks with Bei­jing on a free trade agree­ment and the belt and road ini­tia­tive. Re­cently, it sus­pended op­po­si­tion coun­cil­lors who met In­dian am­bas­sador Akhilesh Mishra in Male. The sig­nals are that Mal­dives is nei­ther com­fort­able with In­dia, nor does it care for New Delhi’s in­ter­ests in the In­dian ocean re­gion. In an in­ter­view with Shankar Ku­mar, the Mal­di­vian am­bas­sador to In­dia, Ahmed Mo­hamed, de­fends his coun­try’s lean­ing to­wards China. He also holds In­dia re­spon­si­ble for re­duc­ing the po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic weight it com­manded in the Mal­dives.

Mal­dives has signed a free trade agree­ment with China. Does it have any im­pact on re­la­tions be­tween New Delhi and Male?

Well, firstly, what we need to bear in mind is that trade is one of the fac­tors that con­trib­ute to mov­ing us out from poverty to pros­per­ity. if we have bet­ter trade links with mul­ti­ple sources, it is bet­ter for the Mal­di­vian peo­ple and its econ­omy. The FTA with china gives us space for sourc­ing the best goods in terms of their qual­ity, va­ri­ety and price. it lets us keep the door open for im­port of goods and ser­vices in a way that is ben­e­fi­cial to the Mal­di­vian peo­ple. You have to un­der­stand that we are vir­tu­ally an im­port-de­pen­dent coun­try. even if we pro­duce our own wa­ter [by de­sali­na­tion], we im­port

[drink­ing] wa­ter to cater to the needs of lo­cal pop­u­la­tion as well as tourists. i think in sign­ing the FTA with china, the Mal­dives has no in­ten­tion to keep one na­tion or another in ad­van­ta­geous or dis­ad­van­ta­geous po­si­tion. if it is fea­si­ble and both in­dia and Mal­dives are will­ing to sign FTA [be­tween them], there is an equal space for that.

But the me­dia has ex­pressed sur­prise over the man­ner in which the FTA was signed with China.

it should not sur­prise any­body be­cause, two years back, when ne­go­ti­a­tions on an FTA be­tween Mal­dives and china be­gan, we had made it pub­lic. it was re­ported in the me­dia. Has the in­dian gov­ern­ment ex­pressed sur­prised over it? i am sure the in­dian mis­sion in Mal­dives would have informed new delhi about it two years ago.

Is there any In­dian pro­posal for an FTA with Mal­dives?

As far as i am aware, there is no such pro­posal.

In­dia and Mal­dives share close cul­tural, eth­nic, lin­guis­tic and re­li­gious ties. But they are not on the same page on sev­eral is­sues. Is it true that for Mal­dives China has be­come a pre­ferred des­ti­na­tion over In­dia?

in re­la­tions be­tween two coun­tries, per­cep­tion mat­ters. There is quite a vis­i­ble en­gage­ment with china, but there’s not so much vis­i­bil­ity in en­gage­ments be­tween in­dia and Mal­dives. Lately, our for­eign min­is­ter has vis­ited in­dia four times, but the in­dian for­eign min­is­ter has vis­ited just once. en­gage­ment and vis­i­bil­ity are im­por­tant to change per­spec­tives. see, if in­dia wants its in­ter­ests to be pro­moted in Mal­dives, then it is in­dia which will have to do it. it can­not be pro­moted by Mal­dives. We have pro­posed many in­vest­ments to the in­dian gov­ern­ment, but has any­thing hap­pened? Busi­ness as usual would not work any­more.

By al­low­ing Bei­jing to have a larger foot­print in Mal­dives, isn’t Male try­ing to hurt In­dia’s in­ter­ests in the In­dian ocean re­gion?

With re­gard to the in­dian ocean re­gion, i should tell you that Mal­dives is a strong ad­vo­cate of mak­ing it a zone of peace. This pol­icy has not started with the present gov­ern­ment; rather, it is there since our in­de­pen­dence. For us, it [the In­dian Ocean] is as much a sen­si­tive mat­ter as it is for in­dia. But i think merely en­gag­ing in com­merce [with China] or invit­ing in­vest­ment [from China] doesn’t af­fect se­cu­rity in the in­dian ocean.

In­dian an­a­lysts ex­pressed con­cern when Mal­dives leased the Fey­d­hoo Fi­nolhu is­land to China for 50 years for about $4 mil­lion in De­cem­ber 2016. What is your com­ment?

What is the con­cern? Well, let me tell you, there are sev­eral in­dian com­pa­nies, in­clud­ing the Taj group, that have taken is­lands on lease for run­ning re­sorts. This helps the Mal­di­vian gov­ern­ment to gen­er­ate rev­enue. We have also re­quested the in­dian gov­ern­ment to en­cour­age more in­di­ans to in­vest in the coun­try’s tourism sec­tor. The par­tic­u­lar is­land you re­ferred to was on an open bid. We se­lected the high­est bid­der for it. so far as we are con­cerned, it does not mat­ter who was the high­est bid­der, whether they were chi­nese, sri Lankans, in­di­ans or saudis. Mal­dives is an in­de­pen­dent sovereign state and the said is­land lies within the bound­ary of the coun­try. Be­fore sign­ing an agree­ment be­tween the Mal­di­vian gov­ern­ment and in­vestors, they are clearly told about land use there. in more than 40 years of tourism in Mal­dives, no­body has used land given to them for pur­poses other than what it was meant for. There are chi­nese in­vestors on other Mal­di­vian is­lands also, but some sec­tions of peo­ple cre­ate a dif­fer­ent view about them ac­cord­ing to their own con­ve­nience. The con­ve­nient view is not nec­es­sar­ily the real view. i will tell you that our con­sti­tu­tion doesn’t al­low any third coun­try to es­tab­lish a mil­i­tary pres­ence there. That is clear.

How you see China’s One Belt, One Road ini­tia­tive?

if we see eco­nomic merit in it, if we see our pros­per­ity in any in­ter­na­tional ini­tia­tive, we will go for it. Any bi­lat­eral or mul­ti­lat­eral ini­tia­tive seen to be eco­nom­i­cally ben­e­fi­cial, Mal­dives

“Our records show that 40-50 Mal­di­vians had joined ter­ror­ist groups, not 100-200 as the me­dia said. We face the chal­lenge of re­ha­bil­i­tat­ing them.”

will latch on to it. This is the rea­son we have sub­scribed to the Bri [belt and road ini­tia­tive] of China.

Ter­ror­ism is a ma­jor prob­lem of the sub­con­ti­nent and the world. What ef­forts are be­ing made by Male to stop rad­i­cal­i­sa­tion of youth? There are re­ports of Mal­di­vian na­tion­als join­ing the ISIS and Al Qaeda in Iraq and Syria.

Ter­ror­ism, ex­trem­ism, rad­i­cal­i­sa­tion – these are con­cerns for Mal­dives. i’m sure ter­ror­ism is a mat­ter of con­cern for any coun­try. Hav­ing said that, no coun­try is im­mune to ter­ror­ism. ours is an archipelagic state, com­pris­ing 1,200 is­lands over a vast area, with peo­ple liv­ing in iso­lated pock­ets. But some­how, peo­ple are pen­e­trat­ing into them [Mal­di­vians]. What hasn’t been ac­knowl­edged in the me­dia is that even be­fore ter­ror­ism cre­ated a buzz in the in­ter­na­tional arena, we have been a Mus­lim coun­try for cen­turies. Yet any pub­lic or re­li­gious lec­ture or Friday ser­mon can be de­liv­ered only af­ter ap­proval from our min­istry of Is­lamic af­fairs. And this has been a prac­tice for 30-40 years. The min­istry of ed­u­ca­tion or min­istry of is­lamic af­fairs has to ap­prove a book be­fore it is sold. But such re­stric­tions have lost mean­ing with the ar­rival of the in­ter­net. still, the fact is that all imams are em­ployed by the Mal­di­vian gov­ern­ment. it is not that any­body can go to a mosque and start preach­ing there. de­spite this, we agree that peo­ple have gone out to join isis, Al Qaeda or other ter­ror­ist groups. How­ever, our of­fi­cial records show that 40-50 Mal­di­vian na­tion­als have joined ter­ror­ist groups and not 100-200 Mal­di­vians as the me­dia has shown it. Thanks to our bi­lat­eral re­la­tion­ship and in­tel­li­gence­shar­ing mech­a­nism with var­i­ous coun­tries in europe, the Mid­dle east and south Asia, we have been able to bring some of them back to the coun­try. But be­ing a small coun­try with lim­ited ca­pac­ity, we are fac­ing the chal­lenge of re­ha­bil­i­tat­ing them and mak­ing them join the main­stream. For this, we need help from bi­lat­eral and mul­ti­lat­eral part­ners.

What is Mal­dives’s stand on the In­dia-led res­o­lu­tion on the Com­pre­hen­sive Con­ven­tion on In­ter­na­tional Ter­ror­ism (CCIT) pend­ing be­fore the United Na­tions since 1996?

Well, this is a spe­cific ques­tion on a spe­cific UN res­o­lu­tion and I, while sit­ting in in­dia as a Mal­di­vian am­bas­sador, don’t have im­me­di­ate re­sponse to it. My col­league sit­ting in new York would have prob­a­bly bet­ter un­der­stand­ing about it. But in prin­ci­ple, i feel, we will agree to any mech­a­nism that brings ad­di­tional mea­sures to de­feat ter­ror­ism.

What is Male’s po­si­tion on SAARC? Is there any need for its re­vival?

SAARC is a ben­e­fi­cial group and it should be re­vived. one of the most im­por­tant things to come out of the saarc mech­a­nism is SAFTA [the south Asian Free Trade Area]. Such is the pri­or­ity we give to it that among all saarc na­tions we have the least neg­a­tive list for SAFTA and this shows as to why we see trade as a mech­a­nism to move to pros­per­ity. There­fore, our stand is that saarc should be re­vived and so should be SAFTA.

What about de­fence co­op­er­a­tion be­tween the two coun­tries?

de­fence co­op­er­a­tion [be­tween the two coun­tries] con­tin­ues. The eighth edi­tion of joint ex­er­cise be­tween the in­dian army and the Mal­di­vian na­tional de­fence Force was con­cluded re­cently in Kar­nataka. Then, un­der the ban­ner of ‘dosti’, the Mal­di­vian coast guard to­gether with in­dian and sri Lankan coast guards holds bian­nual mar­itime ex­er­cises. Be­sides, many Mal­di­vian de­fence of­fi­cials, in­clud­ing the cur­rent chief of de­fence force, have at­tended mil­i­tary train­ing pro­grammes in in­dia. We also re­cip­ro­cate in a small way by

“There are In­dian firms that have taken is­lands on lease. There are Chi­nese in­vestors on other is­lands too. But some cre­ate a dif­fer­ent view about them.”

Pho­tos: arun ku­mar

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