Trouble’s brewing for us in the Maldives

Parul Chandra | Updated on January 17, 2018 Published on July 10, 2016

Take another road: One that calls the Maldives to question RK RADHAKRISHNAN

With the island-nation being radicalised, thanks to Saudi funds and influence, India can no longer afford to be a spectator

As the strategically important Indian Ocean archipelago of the Maldives continues its descent into political anarchy with democratic institutions facing an unabated onslaught under the authoritarian regime of President Abdulla Yameen, India can no longer afford to be a mere spectator.

India has, for some time, chosen to maintain a studied silence on what’s happening in this troubled tourists’ paradise. But with both China and Pakistan stepping up their strategic inroads into the Maldives, coupled with Saudi Arabia pumping in money for religious radicalisation, India seems to be fast ceding its traditional space for effective diplomatic influence in the archipelago.

ISIS threat

The Yameen government stands accused of stifling democracy, riding roughshod over the country’s 2008 constitution, reducing its majlis (parliament) where his party has a majority to a mere rubber stamp, and weakening the judiciary. Unfair persecution and imprisonment of political rivals, rampant corruption and severe curbs on press freedom are other charges.

What should add to New Delhi’s worries is the fact that political stability continues to elude the Maldives. The tug-of-war within Yameen’s Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM) led to Foreign Minister Dunya Maumoon resigning on July 5 — the rift was over implementation of the death penalty. Dunya is the daughter of PPM leader Maumoon Abdul Gayoom who ruled the Maldives for three decades and has had serious differences with Yameen in recent months.

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. While the Maldivian government says only 49 of its citizens have joined ISIS, unofficial figures pitch the number at about 250-300.

Reconsider support

In the coming months, New Delhi will need to step up pressure on the government in Male if it is to safeguard its own strategic and security interests in the archipelago that straddles important sea lanes in the Indian Ocean Region. Quiet persuasion is what India has been engaging in so far, but it may need to rally international opinion against the repressive regime, possibly through the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG).

In February this year, New Delhi along with Islamabad had chosen to back the Maldives in CMAG after which a grateful Yameen had thanked India for “protecting” his country during his visit to New Delhi in April this year. He even called upon India to continue supporting his country against any “unfair, punitive action” by CMAG. The CMAG sought “clear, measurable progress” in the Maldives in six priority areas.

Among them were an “inclusive, purposeful, time-bound and forward-looking political dialogue” as also the release of political leaders detained or are in custody, and the return of those from outside the country. It also wanted steps taken to prevent the ongoing use of anti-terrorism or other legislation to stifle national political debate.

However, little has changed since February. India, therefore, should seriously reconsider its support for Male in CMAG when it meets in September to “assess progress, take stock, and take decisions accordingly”. Although New Delhi is increasingly finding its patience tested with the Yameen regime’s strong-arm tactics to quell any form of dissent and political opposition, and enfeeble democratic institutions, it’s yet to voice its opinion publicly. Any public expression of displeasure, of course, carries with it the accompanying risk of alienating the Yameen government with whom India has tried hard to re-engage after Prime Minister Modi cancelled his visit to the archipelago last March. The very fact that Modi, despite all his globe-trotting diplomatic forays, is yet to visit the Maldives two years into his tenure is indicative of the many concerns, even anxiety, that New Delhi continues to harbour about the government in Male.

India’s cautious dealings with the Yameen regime followed a period of strained bilateral ties after Mohamed Nasheed — he was the first democratically elected president of the archipelago in 2008 — was ousted in 2012. Unwilling to be seen as aligning with any political faction, India has engaged in outreach to the entire political spectrum in the archipelago. New Delhi is also unlikely to accede to the request of the Maldives United Opposition (MUO) — a broad coalition of political parties seeking restoration of democracy — to directly intervene or impose sanctions to arm-twist the Yameen regime.

The MUO that has Nasheed as an advisor, was launched in early-June at London with a 25-member shadow cabinet. Some of its members were in New Delhi recently to seek India’s support to “bring back democracy to the Maldives” and ensure the elections which are still two years away are “free and fair” by having a “transitional arrangement” in place after Yameen’s removal.

However, as India walks the middle path, what remains worrying is the Yameen’s regime’s “deep involvement” with China. The contract for the $500-million Male international airport modernisation project bagged by GMR was unilaterally terminated once Nasheed was ousted. India’s loss was China’s gain with the latter bagging the contract for the airport and the China-Maldives Friendship Bridge project that will link Male to the airport.

Saudi influence

Concurrently, Saudi Arabia’s Binladin Group too has been awarded a contract worth $800 million to build a new passenger terminal at the airport. The continuing money flow from Saudi Arabia for the construction of mosques and madarsas which now dot the archipelago is also worrying as they emerge as hubs for religious radicalisation and indoctrination. The Saudis along with Pakistan and Egypt are seen as fuelling extremist religious views through the scholarships they are offering to Maldivian youth who are returning radicalised after having travelled to these countries.

Amid all this, the window for Indian diplomatic intervention seems to be closing. In seeking to balance its geo-strategic interests along with the need to remain engaged with the Yameen government, India cannot afford to trust Yameen’s enunciation of an ‘India First’ approach. Especially when at stake is India’s influence in the Indian Ocean region.

The writer is a senior New Delhi-based journalist

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Published on July 10, 2016
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