Maldives crisis: Neighbors’ role


IN a democracy, political leaders are either in government or sit on the opposition benches, preparing for the next election. But in the Maldives, according to Mohamed Nasheed, chairman of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) and a former president, “you’re either in government or in jail.”

The latest developments in this South Asian island country, located in the Indian Ocean, have also something to do with the jailing of political opponents. The crisis began after the Maldivian Supreme Court quashed convictions ranging from corruption to terrorism against nine opposition figures, including Nasheed, its first democratically elected leader, and ordered the government to free those in jail.

Yameen reacted by declaring a 15-day State of Emergency on Feb. 5, granting law enforcement agencies sweeping powers and suspending parts of the constitution. The authorities have arrested the chief justice and another judge of the court. Monday night also saw the detention of Nasheed’s political predecessor Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. Gayoom who ruled the Maldives for 30 years and under whom Nasheed was arrested several times is Yameen’s half-brother but is now allied with the opposition. Two journalists including an Indian working for French news agency Agence France-Presse have also been arrested.

Nasheed, in exile since he was allowed to go abroad for medical treatment in 2016, risks arrest if he returns to the Maldives. He has urged India to send an envoy “backed by the military” to his country to free the detained judges and political prisoners. India had sent soldiers to foil a coup against the government in 1988 but has since avoided getting directly involved in the country’s internal affairs. India’s only statement issued on Tuesday called the government’s refusal to abide by the Supreme Court verdict and the imposition of emergency “disturbing”. New Delhi did not refer to Nasheed’s appeals that sought military intervention but expressed “concern” at the arrest of the Supreme Court’s two top judges.

Britain, US and the United Nations share India’s view of the Maldives developments. According to the White House, President Donald Trump had discussed the situation with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The Chinese official media have come out in support of Yameen’s regime.

The latest developments cast a shadow on presidential election due later this year. It is doubtful if the opposition could take part in the election. Right now, Yameen appears to have gained the upper hand in a bitter power struggle.

What worry the observers are the external ramifications of the Maldives power struggle on a wider battle for regional influence between India and China.

The Maldives’ atolls straddle sea lanes of great commercial and strategic value. New Delhi fears a weakened Maldives could prove a fertile ground for extremism, smuggling and drug trafficking. India has had longstanding political and security ties to the islands about 400 km away, but relations have been under strain for some time now, especially after the Maldives signed a free trade agreement with China, ignoring its “India First” policy.

China views the Maldives as key to its Maritime Silk Road project in the Indian Ocean and it has acquired two islands in the archipelago. China is funding and building mega infrastructure projects, including the Friendship Bridge linking Male to Hulhule Island and a 1,000-apartment housing project on Hulhumale, a suburb built on reclaimed land. China’s presence, especially in tourism, sector has also expanded. It has replaced Europe as the Maldives’ largest source of tourists.

Let us hope that India and China will not do anything to exacerbate the situation. India’s response to the calls by some Maldivian politicians for intervention has been cautious. China, while warning against any outside meddling, has made it clear that it doesn’t want the issue to become another “flashpoint” between Beijing and New Delhi. China said on Friday it is in touch with India to discuss ways of resolving the crisis. This should reassure Maldives’ neighbors and friends.