NEW DELHI: As India seeks to expand footprint in southeast Asia, it continues to suffer serious reverses in the Maldives, the Indian Ocean archipelago which once fit neatly into India’s formulation of its strategic backyard. The Abdulla Yameen regime has now asked India to remove its second ‘gift’ naval chopper (ALH Dhruv) from the Laamu Atoll.
The Letter of Exchange (LoE) for this chopper expired last month and but Male has not just officially refused to renew it but also asked India to complete the process of removal of both Indian choppers by June end.
TOI had first reported on April 5 + that Male wanted one of the choppers (deployed at Addu) out. At that time, Male had denied that it wanted the other chopper (in Laamu) removed too. The Indian government had gifted 2 ALH helicopters to the Maldives but, according to reports from Male, the Yameen government is upset about the presence of Indian navy staff who are stationed in the Maldives for the maintenance of the choppers.
India had stationed six pilots and over a dozen ground personnel to operate the ALHs and also help the Maldivian National Defence Forces.
Maldives ambassador to India Ahmed Mohamed, when contacted by TOI, said he had no reaction to offer on the issue.
A source here said that work on a police academy which India is building in the Maldives has also been delayed because of Male’s “informal” instructions to immigration department to put on hold all fresh work permits in respect of Indian skilled personnel whose presence is essential for projects funded by India.
The location of Laamu is significant as this is where the Chinese are said to be considering building a port. Maldives ambassador to China Mohamed Faisal was quoted as having said earlier this year that China indeed had expressed interest in building a port in the Maldives.
“Even Addu (location of the other Indian chopper) is significant as it is located at Equatorial Channel and close to Diego Garcia. It seems Male wants to rid both these strategic locations of any Indian footprint,” said a government official who didn’t want to be quoted.
Male had earlier said that it wanted Dornier maritime surveillance aircraft from India. However, according to government sources here, a LoE for deployment of Dornier in the Maldives has been pending with the Yameen government since 2016.
These developments come at a time when the united opposition in the Maldives seems to believe that India, as it seeks to mend ties with China, has let the strategically located country fall off the radar. “Ultimately it is India which will pay the price because it is not just about democracy but also China’s strategic encroachment of Indian space,” said a leader of the Maldivian Democratic Party.
There are still strong, even if sidelined, voices within the Indian establishment who believe non-military, concerted measures are required to generate pressure for democratic reform and fair, inclusive election later this year. It’s a no-brainer that the prevailing status quo in the Maldives helps Yameen and his electoral calculations.
Yameen is in complete control of all state institutions including election commission and judiciary. For the opposition, now is the time for India to take the lead in ensuring at least “moderately” free and fair elections.
“If he comes back to power even by manipulating state institutions, China, Pakistan and some OIC countries are likely to quickly provide his government recognition. It will be too late then,” said a source.
Before that though, and later in the week, India has to choose between the Maldives and Indonesia for the Asia-Pacific non-permanent UNSC seat. While the government isn’t sure if it wants to vote in favour of Male, it is waiting to see if Indonesia can enlist support from 129 UN member states.
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