Problems in paradise-The story of Maldives

Maldives looks wise is a true approximation of paradise on earth. Situated in the middle of Indian ocean, it’s closest neighbors are India and Sri Lanka, both over 600 kilometers away.

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Geography is everything when it comes to Maldives. It provides the tropical monsoon type climate and the coral reefs that bring both fish and tourists to its coasts-together these two industries account for over 50% of the GDP of Maldives. But the same geography has also brought problems to the country. The highest point on Maldives is just 1.5 meters above the sea level, rising sea levels due to climate change poses an existential threat to its islands. Its strategic location by virtue of being situated adjacent to one of the busiest shipping lanes makes it a pawn in the game between India, China, the West and the Gulf countries . Known for its breathtaking beaches and coral reefs, it hides a dark underbelly of authoritarianism and religious extremism. Lately the ‘paradise’ has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. These developments have great importance for India.

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Nasheed being dragged to court

On feb 22nd, 2015 the former president of Maldives Mohamed Nasheed was dragged into the courtroom by policemen where he was charged under the “anti-terrorism” laws for his actions as the president. Just a few years ago, Nasheed became Maldives’ first democratically elected president(in 2008) after waging a 20 year struggle against the then dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom who ruled as the “elected” president from 1978 to 2008, shortly after gaining independence from British. Mohamed Nasheed is known all over the world for his efforts in bringing the small islands developing states(SIDS) together on the issue of climate change and putting pressure on US, China and India to agree for the first time to a climate change deal at 2009 Copenhagen summit. He has also made many efforts to modernize Maldivian economy.

But now Nasheed is behind bars, how did the tables turn and what are its implications for India?

Historical ties with India

Since its independence in 1966, Maldives and India had maintained strong strategic, economic and military relations with each other. India respected Male’s sovereignty and refrained from interfering in its internal matters. Maldives saw Delhi as an aid and security provider. It also viewed India as a balancing power in its equation with Sri Lanka which was its largest trading partner(in the 60s Maldives had 90% of it trade with Sri Lanka) giving Sri Lanka great leverage over Maldives. Indian and Maldivian politicians had a shared vision on the matters of Indian ocean, India succeeded in cajoling Maldives to adopt the non-aligned policy during the Cold War and to its credit Maldives did not succumb to the pressures of the super powers during cold war to let them use its islands as military bases. This prevented Indian ocean from turning in to another theater of cold war drama. Next to Bhutan, India enjoys its best relations with Maldives among its neighbors, this is because of absence of usual irritants like border disputes, immigration issues, overlapping areas of resources etc

Airmen fly with Indian air force counterparts

The Operation Cactus in 1988 by Indian Armed forced further transformed India’s relationship with Maldives.  On 3 November 1988, some Colombo based Maldivian businessmen planned a coup d’état to overthrow Maumoon Abdul Gayoom the then dictator-president. On that night, 80-200 Tamil mercenaries belonging to People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) who were funded by these Maldivian businessmen, entered Male and within hours were able to capture the airport and a major part of the capital as Maldives did not have an army or navy. Gayoom managed to flee and called India and other countries for help. Rajiv Gandhi’s government uncharacteristically, responded swiftly to the call and within hours 1600 Indian commandos were para-dropped in to the capital. They secured the president and the capital in no time and restored administration back. This earned considerable name for India in the international community as a responsible country with high capability and was began to be seen as a regional power. But some of our smaller neighbors’ fears about the strengthening Indian state’s hegemonism increased and not surprisingly Pakistan said that it was all stage managed by India to ‘occupy’ Maldives!

But the India-Maldives relationship soared to new heights after this incident. India began to have a presence in every sphere of Maldivian life. India built hospitals, shared doordarshan signals, increased the number of scholarships offered and the frequency of direct flights between Male and India increased. There was a four fold increase in bilateral trade in just two years. Today, Maldives in one of the largest recipient of Indian foreign aid and is an extended part of India’s security grid. India is helping Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) with capacity building, Indian navy trains Maldivian defence personnel, Indian ships and aircraft patrol Maldivian waters to protect its EEZ(exclusive economic zone), while Maldives contributes to the partnership by allowing greater Indian surveillance and anti-piracy patrol of Indian ocean. As part of military assistance. India in 2013 has ‘gifted’ Maldives the Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) DHRUV Mark-III as a symbol of mutual friendship.

Domestic issues of Maldives

Coming back to Maldives’ internal politics, Mohamed Nasheed a UK educated activist waged a peaceful struggle to bring democratic reforms in Maldives which was ruled by a single autocratic leader for 30 years. In his twenty year struggle, he was arrested twenty times and was tortured on numerous occasions by the regime. He brought in significant political awakening in the people of Maldives. In what is described as a ‘turning point’ for Maldives, violent civil unrest erupted in 2003 after a 19 year old was tortured to death by the regime, this brought in a wave of resentment against the regime among the Maldivians. Nasheed was helped in his struggle by the 2004 Tsunami and the 2007-08 global financial crisis which damaged the GDP of Maldives and its financial position. This forced President Gayoom to ask for help from IMF which demanded him to bring democratic reforms in the country. Gayoom over estimating his strength allowed Nasheed and his Maldivian Democratic Party(MDP) to participate in the first democratically held presidential election in 2008 and in a shocking verdict, Nasheed won the election in a run-off.

Nasheed became president of Maldives, but soon he recognized that activism is not the same as politics. People who got defeated, now banded together. One by one his coalition partners deserted him and severed ties with his party, MDP. accusing him of lacking respect for transparency and the constitution. He was also heavily opposed by conservative Islamists in Maldives for not repealing laws that allowed the serving of alcohol and pork to foreign tourists. Until Gayoom was president, Maldives was a moderate Islamic country. But ‘suddenly’, the country started becoming more and more conservative. Nasheed shot at his own foot by getting the Chief justice of Maldives Abdulla Mohamed arrested accusing him of being the stooge of Gayoom. For this, international community censured Nasheed for ‘attacking’ the judiciary. This opportunity was seized by opposition groups who along with the conservative Islamist groups protested violently in the streets and gave an ultimatum for Nasheed to step down or face bloodshed. It is believed that the police and defence chiefs were bought off by opposition who openly demanded Nasheed to step down. In an amateur video, Nasheed the president was seen helpless asking for the policemen to take some action against the protesters and shouting fervently that the country is falling apart, but they seemed reluctant to act.

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Seeing both the police and military siding with the protesters, Nasheed on 7th february 2012 resigned stating that his continuation as president would cause bloodshed in the country. With the resignation, Nasheed’s Vice President Mohammed Waheed was sworn in as the president. However, shocked by his resignation, his followers came on to the streets protesting. But they were met with brutality by the state that they had not witnessed since Gayoom’s era.

Between the lines-what really happened?

It was essentially a coup, designed by Gayoom and his loyalists. But there are many other partners in this adventure. It was partly funded by the wealthy resort owners who hated Nasheed’s tax policies. They bribed the police and defense chiefs promising higher positions when the opposition comes to power.

The gulf countries started pumping in petro dollars after 2008 election to spread their Wahabi strand of Islam in this Muslim majority country. They took advantage of the freedoms offered by democracy in which Islamic NGOs became powerful. Saudi government financed the construction of many mosques and funded Madrassas and seminaries which began to demand the implementation of harsh Sharia law in the country. Ironically, Gayoom who was himself a moderate muslim, joined hands with opposition parties to encourage these conservative elements in the country. The youth of Maldives have been heavily radicalized in the last 5 years and according to Gaurdian around 50-100 Maldivian youth have already left for Syria and Iraq to join ISIS and have developed sympathies for Al-Qaeda. Now as the opposition has captured power, they are not able to stem the growing radicalization of Maldivians.

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People marching in Male holding ISIS flags

Also since 2008, a gang culture was developed and nurtured by politicians of Maldives who are using their violent methods for political ends. These gangs have been used during the protest movement against Nasheed in 2012. According to World bank, these gangs are easily attracting the youth due to unemployment and rampant drug culture. 

The dragon tale

Maldives is also caught in an international tug of war. Since cold war ended, the Indian ocean saw very few tensions. But with  the rise of Asia, the Indian ocean through which over 60% of world trade transits gained importance again. These sea lanes are seen as arteries for the Asian economies which trades with Europe and Middle east. China exclusively depends on Indian ocean to transmit crude oil from gulf countries which has become its jugular vein. Traditionally India had domination over the Indian ocean by having considerable influence over the small Indian ocean island countries and having a strong blue water navy. In case of a war in future, India could block Chinese ships with ease as the PLAN(Navy) of China is still to develop long distance fighting capable Navy, though it is spending considerable amount on defense. This could cripple Chinese economy and disrupt its war efforts due to shortage of crude oil. This is also one of the main reasons why the west is courting India, they expect India to be a balancing power in Asia which can contain China’s aggression. To stave off this potential threat, China has developed a strategy called ‘string of pearls'(though they have never acknowledged it in public). This entails, China developing economic and military ties with the littoral countries of Indian ocean. They are developing naval ports in countries surrounding Indian coast in countries like Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan etc. India is worried that, in the garb of developing commercial ports, China is actually building naval bases close to its borders and that a naval network is being developed to surround India from all sides.This is seen as countering Indian influence in its own backyard.

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Maldives in one of the most strategically important countries in Indian ocean. But it also has less economical resources which makes them vulnerable to the pressures by Chinese hard power. Though, India traditionally maintained good relations with Gayoom, it is seen by some parties as pro-Nasheed as India encouraged democratic aspirations of the people and mediated between the parties during crisis times. There are worries that China may have fueled these anti-India feelings among Maldivians and may have encouraged anti-democracy forces.

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Aftermath

After Nasheed, stepped down, India and west did not publicly recognize that it was a coup but gave moral support to Nasheed by asking for early elections in Maldives. But Waheed(ex vice president) who became the president after Nasheed resigned held on to his seat for over one and half a year before the constitutional limitation dictated that presidential elections must be held every 5 years. The 2013 presidential elections were mainly fought between the ex-dictator Gayoom’s Progressive Party of Maldives(PPM) and Nasheed’s MDP. In the first round of the presidential elections held in sept 2013, Nasheed was clearly leading the race but as no candidate got more than 50% of votes, a second round run-off was scheduled to be held. But PPM and others went to court casting doubts over the fairness of the first round voting. As Nasheed was not a favourite of judiciary which was packed with Gayoom’s confidants, the court sought to delay the second round as Nasheed was thought to come to power if they were held. The total number of eligible voters in Maldives are less than two lakh fifty thousand people, that is less than the number of people in a small town in India, so the chances of irregularities in polling are very less and international observers say that the elections were largely fair and also the highly competent Indian election commission ‘guided’ Maldives election commission on how to conduct their elections. However, the supreme court cancelled the first round and it was held again in november 2013. Nasheed could not secure absolute majority in the second round too but he still polled over 45% of vote share which is way more than his rivals. Ironically, Waheed who was the president for 1.5 years polled just 5% of votes.

Still the PPM which was now being led by Gayoom’s half-brother, Abdulla Yameen resorted to delay tactics by repeatedly expressing doubts over the voter lists. The judiciary itself subverted the constitution by extending Waheed’s term as president without parliament’s approval  to delay the second round.

After sustained pressure and threat of sanctions from EU, the commonwealth and India, the second round between Nasheed and Gayoom’s half-brother, Abdulla Yameen was held. However in a shocking verdict, Yameen polled 3% more votes than Nasheed as all other parties and rich resort owners supported Yameen and the MDP fought without any alliances. Yameen became the president.

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Abdulla Yameen Gayoom

Effect on India

India was seen as backing Nasheed as it had sympathies for the democratically elected president. Ever since Nasheed was toppled, the relations between India and Maldives took a nose dive. Two incidents, the cancellation of GMR contract and Nasheed taking refuge in Indian high commission vitiated the goodwill of India.

GMR airport issue

In 2010, Nasheed government awarded India’s GMR group the contract to modernize and maintain the Male International airport. After Waheed became president, this contract was used for political mileage. In 2012, the airport contract was termed void accusing Nasheed of corruption and GMR group was given an ultimatum to handover the control of airport within a week. This was illegal under international law and illogical as the bidding was conducted by IFC(International financial corporation) an arm of the World bank in a transparent manner and Nasheed had little say in choosing the bid winner. Indian government was shocked by the turn of the events and how fast the events were drifting away from its control. India threatened with consequences if Male did not withdraw its ultimatum, but they fell on deaf ears. This was a huge blow to India’s prestige as a small island of not more than 3.5 Lakh population was hoodwinking a country which dreams of becoming a superpower. Some interpret that, Waheed’s government could not have ventured in to such an costly adventure without the backing of Chinese help. China in recent years has substantially increased the aid and technology it provides to Maldives and is one of the few countries which runs an embassy in Male.

In June 2014, in an arbitration tribunal, GMR got justice, when the verdict declared that the contract Maldives government made with GMR was binding and it asked it to pay damages to GMR for illegally cancelling the deal.

Nasheed in Indian high commission

Ever since, Nasheed was ousted from power, the government has been trying to put him behind bars which would have barred him from participating in elections. The case being pursued against him relates to ‘abducting’ the chief justice of Maldives for which he may receive over 10 years in jail. In february 2013, to escape arrest by police, after he ignored court summons, Nasheed entered Indian high commission for help. Indian negotiators succeeded in averting an embarrassing situation by making a deal with the government which included not arresting Nasheed and allow him to participate and conduct a free and fair elections. However, India did not escape without getting bruised. The opposition parties, especially the Islamists accused India as a western ally interfering in their internal affairs. They asked for the recall of Indian high commissioner posted at Male. It is the same case for which Nasheed was again arrested in feb 2015.

After elections

With this kind of history, India choose to play it safe even though Nasheed was the clear favorite in winning the elections. It made sure that it was not seen as supporting any one party and declared that it would welcome any outcome. This bet paid off when Yameen won the elections and India was one of the first country to congratulate him upon winning.

Alarmed by the prospect of China actually getting an Maldivian island on lease for building a naval base right at the middle of Indian ocean, India started reaching out to Yameen even before elections. India had good relations with Gayoom and so is not unfamiliar with them. Both Gayoom and his half brother visited and met UPA leaders several times before and after elections.

After a stormy two years, India and Maldives relations have been steadily revived. India stepped up military and medical help to Maldives. Yameen’s first overseas visit was to India. Yameen had also attended prime minister Narendra Modi’s swearing in ceremony.

In a diplomatic success, India has forged a trilateral maritime agreement with Maldives and Sri Lanka regarding maritime security in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). The main objectives for this is to help its smaller neighbors in capacity building, to put in place systems that allows better coordination between the three nations. But the main though unstated objective is to allay concerns about the growing strategic influence of the Chinese and Pakistanis on these islands.  India has succeeded in expanding this initiative to include Seychelles and Mauritius to this maritime agreement, which is now being called IO-5.

In dec 2014, India was the first country to react when Maldives faced a water crisis when one of its desalination plants caught fire and stopped working. A hundred thousand people in Male were left without water, India responded swiftly to this crisis and with in half a day, Indian navy and air force began transporting large consignments of bottled water to the island nation. India also sent two ships which have desalination plants on board and gave technical assistance to repair the damaged plant. Though China also offered assistance, it was India which demonstrated its resolve and capability to provide safety and assistance for the small nations in the Indian ocean in a quick time.

What should India do?

The manner in which the political witch hunt is going on against Nasheed and the way he was dragged to the court by the police denying legal and medical help, is causing a diplomatic headache for India. On the one hand, India cannot be seen silent on this onslaught against democracy as India markets itself as the champion of democracy in this troubled region. But India’s initial remarks calling for a fair trail received hostile comments from Maldivian government. Foreign Minister Dunya Maumoon the daughter of the former dictator Maumoon Gayoom said that the government did not appreciate lecturing from foreign governments on the country’s internal affairs.

The bigger dilemma for India is that China is silent on this matter and is maintaining a non-interference posture unlike India and the west. A bigger worry is that China is courting the Yameen government to participate in its Maritime silk route project-which is actually a less overtly threatening version of the ‘string of pearls’ strategy. China has recently signed a deal among others, to develop the Male international airport that GMR was first awarded, when Xi Jinping became the first Chinese leader to visit the Island country.

Some of my suggestions to our policy makers:

  • India has considerable influence over Maldives economically, militarily and diplomatically. It can expend some of these resources to secure Nasheed’s release. Not doing anything will alienate Nasheed’s MDP party from India which had always been pro-India and has not played the ‘China card’ when it was in power.
  • However, under any circumstances, India should not be seen as supporting any one party. People of a country despise those politicians who take support of foreign powers to come to power more than their most corrupt politician. By overtly supporting Nasheed we would infact be damaging our own image and it will help the anti-India elements as well as damage the popularity of MDP among the common Maldivians.
  • Similarly, India should also not directly involve itself in bringing ‘democracy’ in its neighboring countries. India respects democratic ideals and would encourage other countries to embrace them. But we should learn from the experiences of west which burned their hands by imposing democracy in other countries and so should refrain from doing so. Every country needs to go through struggles on their own to organically bring the form of democracy that is in line with their unique historical and cultural reality.
  • The growing influence of radical Islam and China in Maldives is a real threat to India. As Gaurdian has stated, Maldives could end up becoming a paradise for Jihadis from where Jihad could be exported to other countries like India to which they can travel easily. India needs to continue its security engagement with the Maldivian government and the defense establishment of Maldives. It needs to convey certain clear red-lines to Yameen’s government, that if crossed would have definite consequences. India needs to step up its intelligence gathering efforts in Maldives to keep an eye on the radical religious groups.
  • India should not overly react to growing engagement between China and Maldives. The MSR initiative of China is majorly stressing on economic development of the region and China insists that they are not building naval bases. The Yameen government is not as pro-india as we would like us to be, but there is still room for strategic manoeuvre with this government. Opposing Maldive’s economic engagement with China, will only help the cause of anti-India forces in Maldives, so India needs to be flexible in its demands. However, some redlines needs to be conveyed to Yameen’s government which include leasing Maldivian islands to China or allowing them to install surveillance systems on its land. These directly effect India’s strategic interests and India should not hesitate to take any kind of action to pressure them to reverse or halt such moves.

Modi government has already dispatched a top diplomat to Maldives to hold talks with Yameen’s government. Modi had earlier planned to visit Maldives as part of a tour of Indian ocean countries, but this crisis may avert his tour. From the time, Modi government came to power, this is the most dynamic foreign policy problem that it encountered. We have to see how differently, the NDA government reacts to it than what UPA did.

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