[Burning Issue] A change in the Maldives

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Context

  • Voters in the Maldives delivered a stunning defeat for President Abdulla Yameen in a contentious presidential election, an outcome regarded as a victory for democracy over authoritarianism in the Indian Ocean island nation.
  • The people of the small archipelago in the Indian Ocean voted for change and brought to power the Opposition candidate, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih. They came out in huge numbers with the turnout being 89.2%.

BACKGROUND

Crisis in the Maldives 

• In October 2008, a popular opposition movement instigated by a coalition of parties challenged the power of incumbent leader Maumoon Abdul Gayoom (half-brother of Yameen Abdul Gayoom), forcing him to hold the Maldives’ first multiparty presidential vote.

 In the country’s first free elections, Mohamed Nasheed, backed by a coalition of opposition parties, defeated Gayoom in a runoff and became the Maldives’ first freely elected president in 2008. Two years later, the international watchdog Freedom House listed the country as an electoral democracy for the first time.

 However, in 2012, Nasheed was forced to resign from the office following a police mutiny and a political turmoil in the country better known for its exotic honeymoon resorts.

• It was Yameen Abdul Gayoom’s election as President in 2013 that ended the political turmoil. However, this trouble only intensified under Yameen.

 Recently in February 2018, Yameen declared a 45-day state of emergency in the country, ordering security forces into the Supreme Court and got former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom arrested. On his orders, Maldives police arrested Chief Justice Abdulla Saeed and another Supreme Court judge Ali Hameed.

• He had pulled the Maldives out of the Commonwealth in 2016 and fostered closer ties with China and Saudi Arabia over traditional allies India and the United Kingdom.

Importance of Maldives

  • The Maldives, long a popular tourist destination, has grown in strategic importance in recent years as China and India to establish their influence in the region, and as Beijing pushes ahead with its global trade and infrastructure plan.
  • Spread over nearly 1,200 islands spanning more than 90,000 sq km, key shipping lanes where Beijing and New Delhi compete to pursue their often-conflicting maritime strategies pass through this tiny Indian Ocean nation.
  • Though small, the Maldives is India’s important neighbour. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi called the Maldives “a valued partner in the Indian Ocean neighbourhood”.
  • India-Maldives “ties are built on a very strong foundation” the contours of which are defined by shared strategic, security, economic and developmental goals.

However, the bilateral ties are not without irritants, which can be seen in two broad areas: political and strategic.

How is China engaging with the Maldives?

  • Beijing has made large investments in infrastructure projects in the Maldives during Yameen’s time in office.
  • They include a US$830 million investment to upgrade the Maldives airport and build a 2km bridge to link the airport island with the capital Male, according to the Centre for Global Development.
  • Chinese are also building a 25-storey apartment complex and hospital in the Maldives.
  • Meanwhile, some 306,000 Chinese tourists visited the Maldives last year accounting for 21 per cent of the country’s total number of visitors. When three Chinese naval ships docked in Male in August last year, it only amplified India’s concerns.

The tilt towards China

  • Mr.Yameen’s China visit last year, the two nations signed 12 pacts, including a free trade agreement (FTA).
  • Mr. Yameen not only fully endorsed China’s ambitious Maritime Silk Road initiative but also made the Maldives the second country in South Asia, after Pakistan, to enter into an FTA with China.
  • The Yameen government pushed the FTA through the nation’s Parliament, the Majlis, stealthily, with the opposition not attending the parliamentary session.

Chinese Investments: Massive Debt trap, according to the opposition

  • The opposition accused the Yameen government of allowing a Chinese ‘land grab’ of Maldivian islands, key infrastructure, and even essential utilities, which “not only undermines the independence of the Maldives, but the security of the entire Indian Ocean region.
  • The massive infrastructure growth funded by Chinese debt was a key part of Mr. Yameen’s election campaign but the massive debt trap made it a difficult proposition to be accepted.

How have the Maldives ties with India fared under Yameen?

  • Bilateral ties between India and the Maldives have deteriorated during Yameen’s time in power.
  • In March 2015, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi cancelled his state visit to the island nation over the treatment of Mohamed Nasheed, the former pro-India Maldivian president who had been jailed.
  • The Maldives also declined India’s invitation to take part in its biennial eight-day naval exercise, Milan, this year.
  • Yameen’s government has also rejected visa renewals for Indians who were legally working in the Maldives, without giving any explanation.

Concern areas that need to be improved between India and Maldives 

  • No FTA with India: Maldives and India do not have a Free Trade Agreement. However Maldives and China entered into Free Trade Agreement.
  • Maldives growing “closeness” with China: Both China and Pakistan stepping up their strategic inroads into the Maldives
  • Religious radicalization: The Maldives is being radicalized by the Saudi funds and influence
  • ISIS threat: Growing Islamic radicalisation in the tiny island-nation of about four lakh people once known for its tolerant practices has many foreign governments, including India, deeply concerned.
  • Yameen government had asked India to remove its Dhruv advanced light helicopters from Maldives(which India had gifted in 2013).
  • Yameen government has alleged that tensions over the presence of the two Indian helicopters in two strategically important locations in the Laamu and Addu atolls have been growing.
  • Work permits are not currently being issued to Indian Nationals.

By changing to more democratic form of government in Maldives, India can engage with Maldives to establish much more friendly relations than previous government era to protect the safety and security of entire Indian Ocean region. During his inaugural address, Solih outlined priorities-

  1. On foreign policy, Solih said that he would work to “fortify” Male’s existing relationship with India, which had grown strained under Yameen, but has historically been strong.
  2. The geopolitical overtones of the change in leadership in the Maldives were clear during the inaugural address, when Solih referenced the cause for the government’s poor fiscal state as the previous’ government’s decision to pursue “reckless mega development projects undertaken purely for political gains.”
  3. Modi and Solih met, with Solih asking for Indian assistance on infrastructure development in the country.

What Solih means to India?

  1. Ibrahim Mohamed Solih and Mohamed Nasheed are considered as brothers in arms in Maldivian politics. Nasheed is seen as pro-India unlike Yameen Abdul Gayoom, under whose reign, China has outpaced India in the island nation.
  2. China was seen as dictating the foreign policy of Maldives under Yameen Abdul Gayoom making India’s strategic position vulnerable in the Indian Ocean.
  3. During his door-to-door campaign, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih promised that he would repair relations with the neighbours and India First foreign policy would be reinstated.
  4. His campaign was getting traction days ahead of the Sunday polls forcing Yameen Abdul Gayoom to say in his interviews that Maldives still maintained India First policy. Maldives was just opening up to other countries, Yameen Abdul Gayoom argued.
  5. India has been critical of the Yameen Abdul Gayoom administration for suppressing human rights and crushing the opposition political forces. During his campaign, Solih said that he would promote human rights and follow the rule of law if elected to the office of the president.
  6. India’s relations Maldives received a blow when Yameen Abdul Gayoom declared Emergency in the country in February this year.
  7. The Maldivian Supreme Court had ordered the release of jailed Opposition leaders calling the trials as a sham. Yameen Abdul Gayoom refused to execute the Supreme Court order.
  8. The Emergency was lifted 45 days later but the relations with India have suffered a lot since. With Ibrahim Mohamed Solih winning the majority in Maldives, the bilateral relations with India are expected to be restored and hawkish Chinese influence wane.

Way Forward

  • Many of the challenges the Maldives faces linger. The opposition may have been united in its desire to oust Mr. Yameen but this unity will be tested in governance.
  • Democratic institutions have been weakened and a fragile democracy can also be susceptible to radical ideologies if not effectively governed. Its economic presence in the Maldives is a reality that all governments will have to contend with.
  • Mr. Yameen’s defeat has certainly produced a favourable outcome for New Delhi and it should seize the moment to rebuild ties with Male.
  • If there is one lesson out of the Maldives crisis, it is that political elites in India’s neighbours will come and go.
  • But if India can stand together with the aspirations of citizens of neighbouring countries, then the prospects of a long-term sustainable relationship will be much brighter.
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