Business Standard

A political tinderbox

The Maldives is in a political shambles. It is courting China and Saudi Arabia with gusto. All Indians ought to be concerned


Mohamed Nasheed, ousted president of the Maldives, living in exile, and the man who tried to propel Maldives towards a multiparty democracy, was in India earlier this week. The Maldives is in a political shambles. And all Indians ought to be concerned.

The Maldives was a single-party state until 2008. The executive was in charge of the civil service, the security forces and the judiciary. It also had control over parliament through a “constituti­onally appointed” group of members of parliament. The country was ruled for 30 years by Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.

This was challenged by Nasheed, who became president of the Maldives after forming his Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) in exile, contesting the 2008 presidenti­al elections and winning 54 per cent of the vote. A new constituti­on was formulated but in 2012, Nasheed was overthrown with the help of security forces and put under home detention.

In 2013, fresh presidenti­al elections were held and former president Gayoom’s halfbrothe­r, Abdulla Yameen, became president through what Nasheed supporters say was a rigged election. For several hours afterwards, Nasheed sought “refuge” in the Indian High Commission, making India a factor in the internal politics of the Maldives. Nasheed was in prison for nine months; he was tried and found guilty of terrorism and given a 13year jail sentence. He then sought to go to the UK for surgery where he sought and got the status of a refugee. If he returns to his country he will be arrested to serve the rest of his sentence.

Not surprising­ly, this caused a vacuum in the MDP’s top leadership. Meanwhile, Yameen became very active on the foreign policy front, hoping foreign powers would help secure his own position if it was threatened. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s September 2014 visit to the Maldives was his first visit to South Asia, signalling the balance of power dimension to India. Xi was accompanie­d by a 100-member business delegation and mooted the idea of a Maritime Silk Road (MSR) connectivi­ty between China and the Maldives. As this required land, the Maldives constituti­on (which previously prohibited foreign ownership of any part of Maldivian territory, but allowed leasing of land for up to 99 years) was amended to allow foreigners, who invest more than USD 1 billion, to buy land within the project site, the only condition being that at least 70 per cent of the area of the completed project must be reclaimed land. Chinese tourists are flocking to the Maldives. This is part of the plan.

Other agreements signed between the Maldives and China have seriously worried India. The latest is the Maldivian offer to China to develop its main airport as part of its i Haven project. India’s GMR had earlier got the contract to build the same airport, later cancelled and taken to internatio­nal arbitratio­n that GMR won. GMR got the contract during the Nasheed administra­tion and lost it when Nasheed was overthrown.

Yameen’s last visit to India in 2016 saw New Delhi endorsing him, rectifying its proNasheed tilt. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Yameen signed a defence agreement. This was nothing short of a dramatic turnaround. Barely a year earlier, India had almost openly sided with the Nasheed administra­tion, going so far as to lobby with the Commonweal­th Ministeria­l Group to sanction the Maldives for overthrowi­ng Nasheed in a “coup” (Yameen responded by quitting the Commonweal­th altogether).

India and China are not the only countries in the mix. The Maldives is an Islamic republic and is 100 per cent Sunni. The first Maldivian embassy in Riyadh was opened only in 2014, but it was the first embassy in any Middle Eastern country. And after the constituti­onal amendment in 2015 allowing foreigners to own land, Saudi Arabia has drawn up plans for a massive integrated developmen­t project in the Maldives, fuelling speculatio­n of the sale of Faafu Atoll to that country. Following his official visit to the kingdom in 2016, Yameen had declared that the Maldives and Saudi Arabia are “currently at the peak of diplomatic relations”.

The risk of this increased visible presence of Saudi Arabia is that it could have an even more radicalisi­ng effect on the Maldives’ young population: Already hundreds of young Maldivians are in Syria to join Daesh. A Maldivian national, Ibrahim Fauzee, imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay for his connection­s with Al Qaeda, has since been released and runs an Islamic Foundation in Male.

Politician-entreprene­urs have not really allowed the Islamic clergy to play a role in politics. But Maldives will see presidenti­al elections in 2018. India will be watching the outcome closely.

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