In­dian Ocean Tur­moil

Caught in the ri­valry be­tween global pow­ers, the small is­land na­tion of the Mal­dives is work­ing to strike a pol­icy bal­ance to con­trol the dis­or­ders within.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Malik Muham­mad Ashraf The writer is a free­lance colum­nist.

The pains of growth.

Re­port­edly, the Pres­i­dent of the Mal­dives, Ab­dul­lah Yameen, in a mes­sage on the eve of SAARC Char­ter Day, lauded the ‘ Neigh­bours first’ ini­tia­tive of the Modi govern­ment. He also urged the SAARC coun­tries to pri­or­i­tize im­prov­ing re­la­tions with each other as a peace­ful re­gion was in­te­gral to en­sur­ing peace­ful na­tions. For this, the neigh­bour­ing coun­tries must work to­gether to com­bat cross­bor­der ter­ror­ism and vi­o­lent ex­trem­ism in or­der to en­sure peace and pros­per­ity in the re­gion.

Con­cep­tu­ally speak­ing, no per­son in his right mind can dis­pute what the Mal­di­vian Pres­i­dent said and the pol­icy of the Modi govern­ment to give pri­or­ity to im­prove­ment of In­dia’s re­la­tions with its im­me­di­ate neigh­bours. The en­dorse­ment of the In­dian ini­tia­tive by Pres­i­dent Yameen comes in the wake of at­tempts to sal­vage and reestab­lish re­la­tions be­tween the two coun­tries which soured in 2012 when the Mal­di­vian govern­ment abruptly ter­mi­nated an agree­ment with the In­dian in­fra­struc­ture gi­ant GMR to de­velop the in­ter­na­tional air­port in Male.

In­dia re­tal­i­ated with tight­en­ing of visa re­quire­ments for Mal­di­vians and re­voked a spe­cial quota for im­port of ag­gre­gate and river sand from the Mal­dives. Th­ese re­stric­tions, how­ever, were lifted when Pres­i­dent Ab­dul­lah Yameen as­sumed power in Novem­ber 2013. The re­la­tions again came un­der strain when Muham­mad Nasheed, the for­mer Pres­i­dent of the Mal­dives was im­pris­oned in March 2015, re­sult­ing in can­cel­la­tion of Modi’s visit to the Mal­dives. But this es­trange­ment was short-lived and in a sign of im­prov­ing ties, In­dian Ex­ter­nal Min­is­ter Sushma

Swaraj vis­ited the Mal­dives in Oc­to­ber and re­vived the Mal­dives-In­dia Joint Com­mis­sion af­ter 15 years. Both the coun­tries also com­mit­ted to broad­en­ing co­op­er­a­tion in de­fence, hu­man re­source, trade and health sec­tors. It may be pointed out that In­dia had very strong re­la­tions with the Mal­dives dur­ing the rule of Mamoon Ab­dul Gay­oum and even sent troops to quell the third coup at­tempt against Gay­oum.

The Mal­dives econ­omy has been dev­as­tated by losses in­flicted by the tsunami in 2004 and the political tur­moil that has gripped the coun­try since 2008, af­ter the end of the 30 years rule by Mamoon Ab­dul Gay­oom which more or less pro­vided a lot of sta­bil­ity to the coun­try. The Mal­dives now needs for­eign sup­port for in­fra­struc­ture de­vel­op­ment that was de­stroyed in the tsunami as well as new ven­tures to keep the econ­omy go­ing. To di­late on the ques­tion of whether this new re­la­tion­ship be­tween In­dia and the Mal­dives in­spired by the In­dian pol­icy of ‘Neigh­bours First’ would ben­e­fit the for­mer, it would be ap­pro­pri­ate to first look at the scope and think­ing be­hind the ‘ Neigh­bours First’ ini­tia­tive.

In­tel­lec­tual cir­cles in In­dia be­lieve that this pol­icy was ac­tu­ally spe­cific to im­prov­ing re­la­tions with Bhutan, Nepal and Bangladesh out­side the purview of SAARC and was de­signed to strengthen se­cu­rity and gov­er­nance in the north east­ern states to stop in­flow of arms and con­tra­band and not let the neigh­bours look the other way when their ter­ri­tory was used to launch mil­i­tant at­tacks in the north east­ern states.

The BJP and, more im­por­tantly, the RSS have for long in­vested a lot in the north east­ern states, try­ing to loosen the grip of Chris­tian mis­sion­ar­ies and stop cross-bor­der flow of arms and con­tra­band to in­sur­gent groups in th­ese states. The think­ing is that closer ties with Nepal and Bhutan can check in­fil­tra­tion and much else, par­tic­u­larly in the con­text of the Myan­mar govern­ment los­ing its con­trol over mil­i­tant groups and the emerg­ing Bud­dhist-Is­lamic con­flict. Sim­i­larly, a friendly govern­ment in Bangladesh can nur­ture a mu­tu­ally pro­duc­tive re­la­tion­ship that can thwart var­ied at­tempts to in­fil­trate in­sur­gents into the north east­ern states. Modi’s over­tures to­wards Pak­istan also have had a greater em­pha­sis on tack­ling cross­bor­der ter­ror­ism while mov­ing to­wards set­tle­ment of dis­putes be­tween the two coun­tries. As is ev­i­dent, this pol­icy is more fo­cused on se­cu­rity con­cerns though there are also eco­nomic rea­sons to pur­sue it.

There is, how­ever, a con­sid­ered opin­ion within In­dia that the ‘ Neigh­bours First’ pol­icy which was be­ing hailed as a rad­i­cal new break­through a year ago has failed to de­liver. Re­la­tions with Nepal have sunk to a new low and In­dia has watched from the side­lines as the Mal­dives has pre­pared to jump into an abyss. In­stead of fac­ing the threat from the Ji­hadists, the govern­ment has ex­pended its en­er­gies on im­pris­on­ing much of the op­po­si­tion lead­er­ship, pros­e­cut­ing one vice pres­i­dent on charges of try­ing to as­sas­si­nate the Pres­i­dent, im­peach­ing an­other, re­mov­ing de­fence min­is­ters and throw­ing out two Supreme Court judges. Bangladesh con­tin­ues to com­plain of the lack of counter-ter­ror­ism co­op­er­a­tion from West Ben­gal, among other things. Ties with Sri Lanka, though cor­dial, have not shown any ex­cep­tional en­ergy or di­rec­tion. Myan­mar, out­raged by In­dia’s de­ci­sion to go pub­lic with a cross-bor­der raid early in 2015, has been as­suaged but there has been no great push on eco­nomic ties or strate­gic co­op­er­a­tion. In short, this pol­icy has not shaken In­dia out of the tor­por that char­ac­ter­ized the poli­cies of the pre­vi­ous regime.

It is per­ti­nent to note that Pres­i­dent Yameen has im­ple­mented a for­eign pol­icy shift to­wards in­creased en­gage­ment with China, es­tab­lish­ing diplo­matic re­la­tions be­tween the two coun­tries. He has em­ployed Is­lam as a tool of iden­tity pol­i­tics, fram­ing religious mo­bi­liza­tion as a so­lu­tion to the per­ceived at­tempts by Western coun­tries to un­der­mine Mal­di­vian na­tional sovereignty. His poli­cies have not gone well in the coun­try and an at­tempt was made on his life on Septem­ber 28, 2015 as he re­turned to the Mal­dives af­ter per­form­ing Hajj. Since the vice pres­i­dent of the Mal­dives was ar­rested on charges of con­spir­acy to kill the Pres­i­dent, a num­ber of his sup­port­ers have been in­car­cer­ated and are fac­ing tri­als. The Mal­di­vian govern­ment, overreacting to the at­tempt, has in­sti­tuted a broader crack­down against political dis­sent.

Pres­i­dent Yameen is a man be­sieged by a myr­iad of lurk­ing dan­gers. He is try­ing to se­cure his po­si­tion and stem the rot in the Mal­di­vian econ­omy. There­fore, his wel­com­ing the In­dian ini­tia­tive and restor­ing eco­nomic ties with In­dia does make sense in the con­text of the ob­tain­ing sit­u­a­tion. How­ever, political an­a­lysts be­lieve that it would be dif­fi­cult for the Mal­dives to forge the bondage that ex­isted dur­ing Mamoon’s time. Things are not as sim­ple as per­ceived, as new play­ers have en­tered the arena. The tilt to­wards In­dia might lead to a sit­u­a­tion sim­i­lar to that of Sri Lanka where, af­ter the in­stal­la­tion of pro-In­dia and pro-US govern­ment regime, re­la­tions be­tween Sri Lanka and China have be­came strained. It needs to be re­mem­bered that China has in­vested heav­ily in the coun­try’s in­fra­struc­ture projects de­spite its fac­ing a fi­nan­cial cri­sis.

China still has a well-en­trenched po­si­tion In the Mal­dives. As such, the coun­try may not find its over­tures to­wards In­dia as re­ward­ing as per­ceived or forced by cir­cum­stances. The western coun­tries are also wary of the poli­cies of Pres­i­dent Yameen, par­tic­u­larly link­ing his poli­cies to Is­lam, which is rad­i­cal­iz­ing the Mal­di­vian so­ci­ety and re­port­edly some youth from the Mal­dives are also join­ing the IS. They are also likely to op­pose the Mal­di­vian regime and might even try to in­flu­ence In­dia from ex­tend­ing eco­nomic sup­port to Pres­i­dent Yameen. It is there­fore a very tricky sit­u­a­tion for the Mal­di­vian regime and it will have to tread very care­fully to avoid be­ing sucked into the dy­nam­ics of global pol­i­tics, as both China and the US-In­dia nexus are locked in a strug­gle for es­tab­lish­ing their as­cen­dency in the re­gion and be­yond.

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