In 1988, when a group of mercenaries attempted to take over the Maldives, the first country that President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom turned to was India. Within hours, India mounted Operation Cactus, which is still regarded as one of the most successful military interventions by New Delhi on foreign soil, and foiled the coup.
Fast forward nearly three decades, and the autocratic regime of President Abdulla Yameen has ignored repeated nudges and even a rare warning from India not to extend a state of emergency that he imposed after a showdown with the judiciary last month. Government ministers went a step further and said all outside powers, including India, shouldn’t interfere in the honeymoon islands’ internal matters.
What has led to ties between India and the key Indian Ocean archipelago plummeting to an all-time low? Commentators and Maldives watchers think one of the key reasons Yameen has ignored the world community’s calls to roll back the emergency is because he strongly believes Beijing has his back, thanks to the burgeoning growth in ties and investments from China.
The latest trouble in the island nation began on February 1, when the Supreme Court quashed the conviction of former President Mohamed Nasheed and eight other opposition politicians on various charges, including terrorism. Yameen responded by imposing emergency and detaining Chief Justice Abdulla Saeed, another judge and several politicians, including Gayoom.
The three remaining judges of the Supreme Court overturned the ruling ordering the release of the nine politicians and Abdulla Yameen’s regime rammed a 30-day extension of the state of emergency through the Majlis of Parliament on February 20 despite complaints from the opposition about a lack of quorum in the House.
India has been concerned about developments in the Maldives long before the current political crisis.
In February 2012, Nasheed, the Maldives’ first democratically elected president, was forced to resign by rogue police and army officers in what he said amounted to a coup. Nasheed’s ouster followed protests against his order to arrest a top judge.
India and Maldives
India was once a leading development partner of Maldives and has established many leading institutions in the island nation
Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital (IGMH): The 200-bed state-of the-art hospital is considered a premier institute
Faculty of Engineering Technology (FET): The institute has a capacity to train several hundred students a year in various technical/vocational disciplines and is one of the leading technical institutes in the country
India-Maldives Friendship Faculty of Hospitality & Tourism Studies: The institute is a pioneering institute in training Maldivians in tourism studies
◼ India’s exports ◼ India’s imports
(in $ million)
Other notable numbers
◼ 22,000 Indians in the Maldives, the second largest expatriate community
◼ 125 Doctors are Indians of the total 400
◼ 25% Teachers are Indians
Source: Embassy of India in Male, Maldives
A year later, Nasheed sought refuge in the Indian high commission for 11 days to avoid arrest in connection with a court case. Following his conviction on terror charges in 2015, Nasheed went into self-exile the following year when he was allowed to travel to the United Kingdom for medical treatment.
Yameen, the half-brother of Gayoom who came to power in late 2013, has cracked down on the opposition and free speech while taking steps to tighten his grip on power. Among these measures was a gradual tilt towards China, which too, was keen to expand its strategic footprint in the Indian Ocean with its “string of pearls” policy.
Just six years after Beijing opened its embassy in Male in November 2011, Yameen signed the Maldives’ first bilateral free trade agreement with China after the Parliament ratified the pact during an “emergency” session that was attended by only 30 members of the 85-strong Majlis. The opposition Maldivian Democratic Party said it was “deeply concerned” over the rushed free trade agreement with China, “without any disclosure of details to the public or to the MPs”.
China had already secured the Maldives’ backing for its Maritime Silk Route, which aims to connect the Chinese coast with Europe via the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean, during President Xi Jinping’s visit to Male in the year 2014.
Beijing has also poured in millions of dollars for big ticket projects, including a bridge linking the capital and the main airport, called the “China-Maldives friendship bridge”. Yameen responded by amending the Constitution in 2015 to allow foreign ownership of land in projects with investments of more than $1 billion for which 70 per cent of the land is reclaimed from the ocean.
The expansion of China’s role has also coincided with India’s GMR Infrastructure being unceremoniously thrown out of a project to develop the Male international airport in 2012. Former president Mohamed Nasheed’s government signed the contract with GMR in 2011 but the deal was terminated by his successor Mohamed Waheed Hassan. At the time, the $511 million concession agreement represented the largest foreign direct investment in the Maldives’ history.
Nasheed has accused China of being involved in a “land grab” while exposing the Maldives to a debt trap through its loans for mega projects.
Elizabeth O Colton, a retired US Foreign Service officer whose PhD research at the London School of Economics was on the Maldives’ political system, said, “President Yameen, like his predecessors, has made decisions such as extending the emergency based on internal calculations – he wanted more time to show he’s in charge, to keep detainees imprisoned, and to wait till the ‘street noise’ dies and the crowds dissipate. Yameen may have hoped for Chinese support, but part of that support, he would know, depends on his debt to China.”
Colton, who was also the first foreign correspondent based in the Maldives, added, “In the late 1970s, the superpowers in the Indian Ocean were the USSR and the US. Both China and India were watching and openly concerned about any moves in or around the Maldives.
“Now, though, China has certainly been developing ties and relationships throughout South Asia and the Indian Ocean region over the past decade, India has shown little sign of countering such Chinese inroads. India has been building internally and on the other hand, China has been expanding externally in terms of influence and funding throughout the region.”
In response to questions on the impact of the emergency on India-Maldives ties and New Delhi’s concerns about the Chinese presence in the island nation, a spokesperson for the President’s Office said: “There’s continuous engagement between the two countries as always.
“Representatives from both countries exchange views and are engaged in discussions. Diplomatic engagement between the nations remains strong.”
There are other reasons for the foreign policy mandarins in New Delhi to be concerned.The Maldives is located just 700 km from the strategic Lakshadweep island chain and 1,200 km from the Indian mainland, and the growing Chinese presence in the archipelago could have serious security implications.
A Maldives affected by political chaos and uncertainty could prove a fertile breeding ground for extremism and religious fundamentalism, smuggling and drug trafficking.
Opposition Maldivian leaders have said that some 200 people have gone to Syria and Iraq to fight with the Islamic State and the Lashkar-e-Taiba, through its front organisation Idara Khidmat-eKhalq, is believed to have established a foothold in southern Maldives under the garb of the post-2004 tsunami relief operations.
Despite the strong measures adopted by Yameen, the united opposition is fighting back and the political uncertainty is unlikely to be resolved soon.
“The united opposition has coalesced and grown since the imposition of emergency. It is growing bigger every day and is made up of many former enemies,” Colton said. India, with limited options, may have little to do but wait and watch for the current crisis to play out.
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