Conflict Reader # 46, 25 March 2018
D. Suba Chandran
International Strategic and Security Studies Programme (ISSSP)
National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bangalore
The political crisis that has been plaguing the Maldives since 2012 has now reached a breaking point.
Which side will the Maldives go now? Will the elections be held as scheduled, leading to the formation of a stable government? And will that election be free, fair and credible, resulting in the restoration of democracy and the rule of law? Will the external interests and pressure (political and otherwise) result in the Maldives getting back on track?
Wrong Focus on the Maldives
All the above three questions are significant and in the same order. The first two questions should be the priority, and the third one should be able to help Maldives achieve the former. Unfortunately, the primary focus seems to be on the third question – with the media and the analysts exploring the options and stakes for India and China in the Maldives, and what these two countries will do.
Had the international focus been on the first issue – political stability within the Maldives and the democratic reforms, the crisis would not have evolved in the first place. The issue should have been addressed in 2012 itself when the former President Mohammad Nasheed was overthrown following a political drama in Male. Many – both inside and outside the country had pinned high hopes on Nasheed to place the Maldives on a positive roadmap with political reforms. And he did try; but could not complete the process.
The political crisis in February 2012 led to another election in 2013, resulting in Abdulla Yameen becoming the President. The political trouble for the Maldives that had started slowly since 2012, got aggravated further under his Presidency. Many question the electoral process and the formation of the government by Yameen.
Yameen, though related to the former dictator Abdul Gayoom, succeeded in establishing his own authority and power over the political process in the Maldives. Gayoom, ironically is now a part of the opposition, who is protesting against Yameen, demanding a fair process!
President Yameen pursued a course of action, that had two strategies leading to the present crisis. First, he systematically purged any opposition – both within his party, and also outside in the Parliament. The opposition leaders were either jailed or forced to go on an exile, as the former President Nasheed had been. As a part of this purge, Yameen would like to subdue all other institutions to the Presidency.
It was the above autocratic approach, which had landed Yameen in the present crisis. The Judiciary, in a surprising verdict, ordered the governemnt to release the opposition leaders, including the former President Nasheed. The Judiciary during the rule of Abdul Gayoom maintained a low profile; many was surprised with its assertion. Yameen instead of adhering to the court verdict declared emergency. Though the emergency has been imposed only for fifteen days, many expect that it would be extended, ultimately leading to perpetuate his rule and aggrandize more power.
The second strategy that Yameen pursued was external. He cultivated China, knowing well the latter’s lack of interest in any democratic nation-building. He invited Beijing to involve in numerous infrastructural projects in the Maldives, leading to many what the media now calls it as the Chinese land grab. He also signed a controversial Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with China, that got passed in the Parliament without any discussion, in a record 15 minutes! All the above obviously came at the expense of India.
Yameen’s second pursuit – getting closer to China, is a strategy to ensure to fulfil the first – to become the strongman of the Maldives. If Maldives remain democratic and have strong institutions, then it is bound to keep the country as the first priority and not the individuals. In such a stable political and democratic environment, external decisions are bound to be rational and based on national interests than of the individuals or the regime.
External Interests in the Maldives
What are the external stakes in the Maldives? And how far will these countries outside the Maldives will go to realise their interests?
At the global level, there is an extra focus on the Chinese presence and their interests in the Maldives. This is because until five years ago, China did not have a foothold in the Maldives at all. Only during the tenure of President Nasheed, Beijing established its diplomatic and economic presence.
For Beijing, Male is vital due to the strategic location of the Maldives in the Indian Ocean. Until a few years ago, the Maldives did not figure strategically in Beijing’s calculations. But much has changed, ever since its announcement of the Maritime Silk Road (MSR) and a more extensive One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative. The Indian Ocean occupies a prominent position in Chinese MSR calculations, and the Maldives has become one of the focus points for Beijing in it maritime calculations, along with Sri Lanka. While the ports of Myanmar and Pakistan are significant for China, the Maldives and Sri Lanka assume a greater salience due to their proximity to global shipping routes across the Indian Ocean.
Historically, countries that seek an influence on maritime trade also invest in a strong Navy and a series of ports along the sea routes. Beijing also have the same plans for its PLA-Navy; its interests in Sri Lanka (especially the Hambantota port) and the Maldives, thus serve a twin purpose for China in the Indian Ocean.
India is the only country that had a historical and cultural linkage with the Maldives. While the discovery of the Maldives as a strategic outpost in the Indian Ocean is a recent phenomenon, India had its ties through its South Indian states – especially Kerala. From education to health facilities, Kerala remains one of the primary destinations for the Maldivians. Besides India, Sri Lanka is another destination for the people of Maldives. For the rest of the world, the Maldives is a tourist destination, rather than other way around.
India has remained neutral to the political developments within the Maldives. Despite President Gayoom’s autocratic approach before and after 1988, New Delhi maintained a political distance vis-à-vis the regime in Male, though it encouraged people to people level contacts at the popular level. When President Gayoom requested India’s military assistance to prevent a takeover by the Sri Lankan Tamil militants in 1988, New Delhi responded positively and secured Gayoom’s regime.
Though New Delhi is closer to Nasheed, it maintained a distance in the political drama that took place during 2012-13. Despite Nasheed’s repeated calls to intervene, New Delhi has kept a distance. When President Yameen cancelled Indian projects and awarded the same China, and started moving closer to Beijing, New Delhi was aware of the risks, but did not act.
Outside India and China, US has a stake in keeping the Maldives outside the Chinese sphere of influence, for it would not want Beijing to have multiple military presence in the Indian Ocean. Currently, the Indian Ocean, militarily is under the influence of the US. It has enough ports, ships and aircraft carriers in the Indian Ocean.
While US may preach about the ideals of democracy and rule of law, it would not be a factor in Washington making any decisions on the Maldives. It would rather expect New Delhi to manage and prefer to keep away.
So What Next?
The priority should be at establishing a stable and democratic environment in the Maldives. Unfortunately, the focus is on negating the Chinese presence in the Maldives and not allow it become a military and technological outpost of Beijing in the Indian Ocean.
Many in India has been projecting a military intervention in the Maldives to overthrow Yameen and install perhaps Nasheed as the President. It is an option, and perhaps doable, but may come back to haunt India in the long run. Perhaps, for this precise reason, the External Ministry has been cautious so far.
Establishing a stable polity through norms and elections should be the right approach. External intervention, however noble the objectives may be, is a short-term approach, which will certainly not help the people of the Maldives. It will come back to haunt, as has been the case historically elsewhere.