Dhaka, Bangladesh
Maldives in turmoil

Maldives in turmoil

Writes SD Pradhan

The Maldives is facing a serious crisis since the beginning of this month when the country’s Supreme Court overturned the convictions of several opposition politicians, including the President Yameen Abdul Gayoom’s main rival exiled former President Mohammed Nasheed. The Maldives Defence Force surrounded the Supreme Court and arrested the chief justice and another judge on charges of graft while the three other judges party to this unanimous judgment declared the order null and void. President Yameen on expected lines leaned towards China to ward off international pressure while former President Nasheed appealed to India to save democracy. President Yameen sent his envoys to ‘friendly countries’ – China, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to explain why the Supreme Court’s ruling had been turned down. In fact, the genesis of this could be traced since 2013 when the current President in 2013 Yameen came to power by defeating Nasheed. Yameen’s first task was to roll back all democratic gains made during Nasheed’s time. All of his potential political opponents were either jailed or exiled. His government curbed freedom of speech and assembly, with heavy fines imposed on journalists and social media users found guilty of defamation. In 2015, in a trial widely criticized by rights groups, Nasheed was sentenced to 13 years in prison. He later received asylum in Britain. Yameen had shown inclinations to move towards China keeping his domestic political situation in view. He was seeing India as a supporter of his rival. His suspicion of India was clearly revealed when in 2017 three local councilors belonging to the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), were suspended for meeting the Indian ambassador without permission. Yameen’s coming to power was seen as an excellent opportunity by China to enhance its leverages in that country and to turn it as an important maritime base in the Indian Ocean. China by this time had come up with its ‘One Belt One Road’ initiative [later termed as Belt Road Initiative] ostensibly to facilitate trade but actually to expand its area of influence in the Indian Ocean. The Chinese writers had also revealed dragon’s plan to have three lifelines in the Indian Ocean. The North Indian Ocean supply line includes bases in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and the Maldives. Finding Yameen willing to move closer to China, it began to play its usual card of alluring Maldives through the financial aid and promises to build ports and other necessary infrastructure to serve the Chinese interests for the Belt Road Initiative. The Chinese policy of turning economic power into political concession has already proved successful in Cambodia, the Philippines, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. China began to move in this direction since 2013. Yameen took several steps to facilitate Chinese investments. In 2015, the People’s Majlis, the unicameral legislative institution of the Maldives, passed an amendment in the constitution whereby foreign ownership of territory within the country was given the green signal. The Chinese investment significantly increased as a result of this provision. Chinese heavy investment in the Maldives elicited the remark from Nasheed that China is “buying up the Maldives” under Yameen. He pointed out that the President Yameen has opened up the floodgates to Chinese investments with little or no oversight and transparency. The security implications for Chinese increasing hold are obvious for India. In addition, the Sino-Maldivian free trade agreement with the Maldives has economic implications for India. What is more revealing is the manner the free trade agreement was pushed through the parliament without any discussion. It has opened the gates for entry of the Chinese cheap goods into India via the Maldives. Another cause of concern is the fact that Maldives has provided a number of fighters to ISIS. The growing radicalisation, drug trafficking, smuggling in the Maldives remains a security concern for India. While India has stated that it would not intervene in the internal affairs of Maldives, the security concerns deserve primacy. Whether democracy prevails in the Maldives or not, it is not India’s primary aim. India cannot allow the developments that go against its security and geo-political interests in its backyard. China’s larger objective needs to be kept in view. In the past Chinese submarines were observed moving in the Indian Ocean. Gradually by acquiring maritime bases in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Maldives, China is intending to establish its hegemony in this region. The Chinese intents to change the strategic balance in its favour demands strong and calculated steps from India.

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