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Time to Act in the Maldives

President Abdulla Yameen of Maldives is in political trouble, having lost his majority in parliament. He is, however, preventing the elected reps who have abandoned him from joining up with the opposition party MPs in parliament, He has utilized the Maldivan National Defence Force (MNDF) to physically prevent the opposition from convening for a ‘no confidence’ vote against him. There’s now a standoff in Male.

Yameen has skillfully navigated three separate sets of policy imperatives. He has to have Delhi on his side because losing its favour would result in his displacement in Male with India supporting his political opponent, the former President Mohammad Nasheed of the Maldivan Democratic Party (MDP). Nasheed had been imprisoned by Yameen, was released on Indian government’s pressure and spent a while in exile in London, and is back, dogging Yameen and the ruling Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM).

China has been eager to have a Maldives gateway for its Indian Ocean plans and Yameen is playing ball. Keen to have China play a role both as a counterweight to India and because it has the money to invest and to build infrastructure, Yameen has been tempting Beijing with offers of whole atolls in return. And then there’s Saudi Arabia, the fount as I have long maintained of the monies lubricating the spread worldwide of the hard Salafi brand of Sunni Wahhabi Islam of the desert, but is being a free pass. Yameen has permitted the Wahhabis to flourish under cover of charitable Saudi funds until now when Maldivians comprise a conspicuous part of the foreigners’ s contingent fighting with the Islamic State, which with the fall of Mosul, is being run out of Iraq. So there’s a radicalized Islamic element in Maldivan society that’s inimical to India’s interests but whom Yameen has nursed as fall-back muscle in case the national security forces desert him. Riyadh is being paid back by, yes, you guessed it, with an offer of an atoll to set up God knows what — a Wahhabi nursery, perhaps?

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Yameen dutifully entertained two visits by MEA minister Sushma Swaraj in Oct 2014 and again the following year, and made his pilgrimage to Delhi in April 2016 where PM Narendra Modi feted him. “The Maldives is among India’s closest partners,” Modi said after the bilateral delegation-level talks. “The stability and security of the Maldives are in the interest of India. He added that “India understands its role as a net security provider in the Indian Ocean and is ready to protect its strategic interests in this region.” There was a hint of the mailed fist here that the Indian government will not tolerate any deviant behaviour by Yameen or any attempt by him to pull Maldives away from India. Modi virtually demanded “The prompt implementation of a concrete action plan in the defence sector [to] strengthen our security cooperation” to involve “Information exchange between security agencies and training and capacity building of Maldives Police and security forces [as] an important part of our security cooperation.” So, what’s the problem?

In a nutshell, Yameen is playing Delhi, even as the India-friendly Nasheed has been crying himself hoarse, warning about the perfidious Yameen and his design to perpetuate his rule by ridding the country of any and all opposition. The surest sign of this was Yameen’s decision in October 2016 to quit the Commonwealth because it was hauled up the Male regime for its undemocratic practices. Nasheed has been in India trying to drum up support but apparently without much success.

The Indian government believes that whether it is Yameen or Nasheed, Male cannot afford to alienate India. Except, over the past several years Yameen has let the Chinese and Saudis to strengthen their presence in his country. Rather than nipping this threat in the bud, Delhi is letting it grow, and it will, even as Delhi remains blissfully inattentive.

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It is time India acted. There are contingency plans for armed intervention, which will need activation. The last time India nearly intervened was in 2012 when Nasheed’s removal by Mohammad Waheed Hassan precipitated a crisis. But Waheed was quickly replaced by Yameen and turmoil abated, until now when the Maldives is once again on the boil. But some years back, it may be recalled, that in response to Yameen’s moves to lease out islands to China just 19 kms from the Indian Lakshadweep chain, Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha, then FOCINC, Western Naval Command, Mumbai, deployed a warship to the Maldivan waters. Yameen got the message and that initiative with a Chinese group fronting for Beijing, was dropped.

It is time for Modi to order a variant of “Cactus” and have an SF unit first expeditiously secure the Male airport, have a warship with MARCOS embarked as backup, and then clear the Parliament gate off the complicit MNDF members, arrange for a free and fair vote of ‘no confidence’ to proceed against Yameen without hindrance from any quarter, and thereafter keep Yameen out of the Male scene.

If Modi continues to trust Yameen despite every evidence to merit extreme distrust of this slippery character, and doesn’t act very soon, we’ll see the Saudis with the extremist Islamic threat, and the Chinese — the source of the more conventional naval danger not just to mainland India but to India’s access to the East Africa coast, and the embryonic India-Japan maritime corridor to Africa, ensconced off India’s southern tip. Questions will then be asked when it is too late to anything: “Who lost the Maldives?”

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