Only Maldivians can topple Yameen’s dictatorship

As Maldives President Abdulla Yameen extends the emergency in the country by a month and Chinese warships enter the Maldivian waters, the citizens of the Indian Ocean country need to take a stand

Photo courtesy: Twitter/@Asim_mv
Photo courtesy: Twitter/@Asim_mv
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Anand Kumar

Maldives, in recent times, has seen a number of political crises at regular intervals. On some occasions, requests have been made to India to intervene militarily. Perhaps that is influenced by what India did in 1988 as part of ‘Operation Cactus’. India at that time played a benign role and restored order in the Indian Ocean archipelago.

This Indian intervention sought by a legitimate Maldivian government brought stability not only to Maldives but also in the surrounding Indian Ocean region (IOR), which is crucial for unhindered trade and commerce.

But things are now different as, in the interregnum, China has emerged on the global scene. This new major power has significant political, economic and military interests in Maldives. China expects Maldives to play an important role in its Maritime Silk Road (MSR), that is part of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), also known as One Belt One Road (OBOR).

To get Maldivian support for its MSR project, Chinese president Xi Jinping had visited Male in September 2014. That was the first visit to the island nation by any Chinese president. It took place on the eve of his visit to India. Maldives readily agreed to what President Xi Jinping was looking for. It endorsed the MSR project of China. Both countries also disclosed at the time that they are negotiating a Free Trade Agreement (FTA), which was recently signed.

It’s not uncommon for India’s smaller South Asian neighbours to engage China with the hope to counter-balance India. In fact, this policy in the case of Maldives was initiated by none other than former dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. Gayoom, in the latter half of his rule, tried to get close to China. During this period, a people’s movement for democracy was going on in Maldives.

This movement was led by Mohamed Nasheed, who was also jailed by Gayoom a number of times. Gayoom thought that a democratic India would not help him against a democratic upsurge in his country, while China fitted perfectly well in this role.

But Gayoom was clear about few things. There is no doubt that he wanted to use China to counter-balance India, but he never contemplated giving the Chinese a predominant position either in Maldives or in the Indian Ocean region.

This has been one of the cardinal principles of the Maldivian foreign policy since its independence. This rule was followed during the Cold War, when both the United States and the Soviet Union were jostling for influence in the Indian Ocean, whose sea routes are crucial for world trade and commerce.

When multi-party democracy was introduced in Maldives in 2008, Gayoom was replaced by Mohamed Nasheed. Interestingly, the influence of China in the Maldives did not diminish even during the regime of Nasheed. At best, it stagnated. Nasheed himself was negotiating with China for several projects. It is believed that China had considerable influence during the rule of Nasheed through his Vice President, Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik, who was later used to depose Nasheed.

Even Gayoom and Jamhoori Party’s chief Qasim Ibrahim were opposed to Nasheed during this phase. The convoluted political developments in Maldives has now brought all of them on the same opposition platform. Under the present circumstances, however, Nasheed appears to be the best bet for Maldivian democracy and the security situation in the IOR.

The incumbent President, Abdulla Yameen, has however violated the rule of keeping equal distance from all major powers. While Yameen rhetorically claims that he follows an ‘India first’ policy, he has been actually working to entrench Chinese in Maldives. This could be seen in all his policy decisions. Immediately after taking over, he awarded the contract for airport expansion to a Chinese company. This contract was earlier given to an Indian company, GMR, by the Nasheed government.

The Chinese have been given a number of other infrastructural projects. He passed a law whereby foreigners can buy land in Maldives. This was seen to be at the behest of the Chinese. Yameen claims that he would do nothing that would endanger the security in the IOR. But the joint exercise undertaken by the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) with the Chinese Navy proves otherwise. Actually, it is believed that this act of Maldives forced India to leave its policy of neutrality and openly engage with the Maldivian opposition.

There is no doubt that Maldives under Yameen has decisively gone in favour of China and is working to harm the security situation in the IOR, where India aspires to be a net security provider. What is worse, Yameen has worked in a concerted way to capture power even in the next elections which are likely to take place later this year. By manipulating Maldivian institutions like the military and the judiciary, he has ensured that none of his major political rivals can contest against him. It is also possible that a free and fair election may not take place at all. This will perpetuate the illegal regime of Yameen for some more years and further endanger India’s security. However, it would not be advisable for India to go for a direct military intervention.

It is actually the time for the Maldivian people to assert themselves and regain their democratic rights that have been snatched away by a rogue dictator. In the event of brutal suppression, which is quite likely, India can come to the help of the Maldivian people in any mission authorised by the international community.

(Dr Anand Kumar is Visiting Professor at University of Dar-es-Salaam and Associate Fellow at IDSA, New Delhi).

(The column first appeared in last week’s edition of National Herald on Sunday).

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Published: 20 Feb 2018, 6:05 PM