COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — As the Maldives’ autocratic president, Abdulla Yameen, cracks down on opposition to consolidate power ahead of another election, analysts and diplomats warn that the small nation’s troubles could provoke a larger crisis that draws in China and India, which have long competed for influence in the Indian Ocean region.
Mr Yameen, who this month declared a state of emergency and rounded up Supreme Court judges and opposition leaders, has cosied up to China. He has invited heavy investment into the Maldives as part of Beijing’s ambitious “One Belt, One Road” initiative, the infrastructure program reviving land and sea trading routes that China is using to spread its influence around the globe.
Mohamed Nasheed, the opposition leader, who has largely lived in exile since his term as the country’s first democratically elected president ended in a coup of sorts in 2012, fears that an expansionist China is propping up Mr Yameen to lock the country into a “debt trap” — a term that refers to China’s taking over of infrastructure projects when a country cannot pay back its loans, such as the recent takeover of a port in Sri Lanka.
China or any country that tries to “prop up a dictatorship” must realize that such a government will inevitably fall, Mr Nasheed said in an interview at his home outside Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital. “And when it does, they will lose.”
“When you have no democratic oversight and when you have no transparency, we do not know how much debt we are going into, we do not know what we are relinquishing,” he said. “Very often, that leads to hollowing out the state, that leads to a land grab by other countries.”
A spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry, Geng Shuang, dismissed Mr Nasheed’s complaints about a “land grab” in a sarcastic tone, saying, “I wonder whether Mr Nasheed put all the cooperation on the list as a ‘grab.’”
Mr Nasheed, trying to rally alliances at a time when many opposition figures are either imprisoned or in exile, has pleaded for international intervention, including repeated calls for India, long seen as a security guarantor in the region, to send in troops to release Mr Yameen’s grip.
Indian officials have expressed concern about the situation but have remained measured in their response. Indian influence in the Maldives has waned since 2012 when it did not stand firmly behind Mr Nasheed, who had been an ally, as he was ousted from office.
Anand Kumar, a fellow at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses in New Delhi, said although India was clearly alarmed about losing influence to the Chinese in the Indian Ocean, it had struggled to respond.
But he said India would be ill-advised to consider a military option against a sitting president, because its attempt to send troops to counter an insurgency that was fighting another ally, the Sri Lankan government, had turned disastrous.
Part of the dilemma is that “the Maldives is just another front for the Chinese,” Mr Kumar said, citing its militarization of islands in the South China Sea as one example. “China has deep-rooted economic, political and military interests in the Maldives, and it’s not going to be a win-win situation for India.”
The Maldives government has condemned Mr Nasheed’s calls for intervention by India’s military.
“There is no threat of the Maldives being invaded by a foreign military,” the Defense Ministry said in a statement. “The government of Maldives would like to reiterate that it has maintained good relations with India since the Maldives declared independence and firmly believes that India would not act on any such calls.”
The latest escalation in the Maldives began this month after an order by the Supreme Court to release political prisoners and reinstate members of Parliament whom Mr Yameen had removed for crossing over to the opposition. The court also threw out Mr Nasheed’s case; he is supposed to be serving a 13-year prison sentence but has been living outside the country.
After the Supreme Court overturned criminal convictions against nine of the president’s opponents and ordered that those in jail be freed, Mr Yameen sent troops to surround the court and arrest two of the judges and later even his half-brother, former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom.
Despite calls from many Western countries for Mr Yameen to lift the state of emergency and release the judges and opposition leaders, just how much leverage other nations beyond China and India have over the Maldives is an open question.
After Mr Yameen declared the state of emergency, several Western ambassadors arrived in Malé, the capital, to meet with him and his officials and ask for an explanation of what was happening. But they said Mr Yameen’s government showed no interest in talking.
“There was an announcement made by the government that the international community was welcome to come and visit the country and speak to the officials,” Tung-Lai Margue, the European Union ambassador to Sri Lanka and the Maldives told a news conference in Malé afterwards, flanked by his German and British colleagues. “Well, we came. And we couldn’t meet anybody.”
Since independent Raajje TV broadcast this impromptu interview with me & diplomatic colleagues yesterday, it has had to suspend regular broadcasts to ensure the safety of its staff following multiple threats.
— James Dauris (@JamesDauris) February 9, 2018
One pressure point Mr Yameen might feel is a steep drop in tourists from abroad, a major source of revenue. Tourist reservations fallen sharply since the state of emergency was declared, and many countries, including China, have cautioned their citizens against travelling to the Maldives.
In recent years, the Maldives has become a significant target for Beijing’s ambitious economic expansion. Its international airport, the major road connecting it to the capital and other projects fall under “One Belt, One Road.”
President Xi Jinping’s visit to the Maldives in 2014 underscored efforts by China to increase its presence in the Indian Ocean. And when Mr Yameen went to Beijing last December, the two nations signed a trade agreement that opens up the huge Chinese consumer market to the Maldives’ fishing industry.
After declaring the state of emergency, Mr Yameen sent envoys to China, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, all of which he considers friendly to his rule, to update them on the situation and seek their support.
Western diplomats said that Mr Yameen’s government had signalled a willingness to talk to opposition groups, but that its condition that the talks take place in Malé made it impossible, as no opposition leader trusted the government enough to fly home for such talks. The country’s politics has been long treacherous, both before and after it became a republic, not least when its first president was lured into a mob lynching in the 1950s near an old mango tree that still stands in the army headquarters.
Mr Nasheed, who has spent much of his adult life in prison, in exile or on the run, has been dismayed by international calls for the Maldives government and opposition to sort out the issue domestically.
“If you tell us to ‘Fend for yourselves and continue your hardship,’ the next step would be a rebel army — and I don’t want to see that,” he said. “I am afraid that by asking us to find a local solution, you are really asking us for a fist fight.”
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