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Will ‘Russian imbroglio’ deflect the West off Maldives?

A Maldives-centric ‘neo Cold War’ involving a West-backed India and China may have to take a backseat — Representational image | Flickr user Dying Regime

It is not unlikely that the West’s current engagement/disengagement with Russia could lead to a situation — if not immediately — where the post-Cold War geopolitics shifts back from Asia, especially Indian Ocean Region, to Europe, where it had belonged.

After the US-led West’s current imbroglio involving Cold War combatant in Moscow, the political opposition in the tiny Indian Ocean archipelago, Maldives, are concerned if the former would still have all the energies for their nation, where post-emergency presidential polls are due in October-November. They want the ‘autocratic’ President Abdulla Yameen out through the democratic process, and acknowledge that they would still want the international community exert greater pressure than already. At the same time, they are not so sure if the West would be as forthcoming now as it was during the days and weeks prior to the ‘Russian drama’ unfolded.

No one should question the Maldivian opposition if they, in the inimitable style of jailed and self-exiled former President Mohammed ‘Anni’ Nasheed, start complaining to the West first, and follow it up promptly with criticism in public. They have their priorities, and seem to be in doubt, if in the ongoing trans-Atlantic tussle, where the high-profile current diplomatic tiff with Russia may end up having to be replaced at least in the interim by a diplomatic give-and-take may be in order, viz China.

If so, these Maldivians are concerned that the West may (have to) put their own IOR priorities in the backburner, at least for now. That could well mean that Yameen could stabilise the post-emergency situation to his advantage even more, and try and ensure that he won the presidential polls, too, without anyone stalling what his critics claim would not be a free and fair election, after all. They having approached India through the West, mostly, in recent months and years, any return of their own ‘IOR concerns’ to the original status as India’s ‘traditional sphere of influence’ may rise more questions than provide immediate answers — given New Delhi’s own cautious approach to neighbourhood issues and problems.


Maldivians are concerned that the West may (have to) put their own Indian Ocean Region priorities in the backburner, at least for now. That could well mean that Yameen could stabilise the post-emergency situation to his advantage even more, and try and ensure that he won the presidential polls, too, without anyone stalling what his critics claim would not be a free and fair election, after all.


Overall, it is not unlikely that the West’s current engagement/disengagement with Russia could lead to a situation, if not immediately, where the post-Cold War geopolitics shifts back from Asia, especially IOR, to Europe, where it had belonged. In between, there was the West’s engagement with non-state actors like al-Qaeda as China was reluctant to make the arrival call, though there were independent reasons of the 9/11 kind, as well. Later on, when China was coming to be seen everywhere and was heard everywhere, there was the IS and a resurgent Taliban, in action — again, in Asia. If the current conditions leading to a return of the Cold War to Europe, the more recent, Maldives-centric, ‘neo Cold War’, involving a West-backed India and China, may have to take a backseat — or, so goes the argument.

Sri Lankan precedence

Even without the current, greater western engagement on the Russia front, sections of the Maldivian polity have had reservations about looking elsewhere for solutions to problems that are Maldivian in form, content and character. Very few Maldivians outside of the MDP claim to have mastered Indian foreign policy, as a neighbour. But most Maldivian politicians, having family members and businesses in the other neighbour, Sri Lanka, have intimate knowledge of the working of the nation’s politics and policies.

Independent of political ideologies and preferences, almost every Maldivian politician have been following the Sri Lankan politics of the past decade especially, given the finality of the ‘LTTE war’ and the post-war ‘international engagement’ with the island nation. As they point out, the US-led West could only so much in terms of post-war reconciliation and reconstruction in Sri Lanka.

On the crucial ‘war-crimes probe’ in Sri Lanka, which was ‘closer to the western hearts owing to their own experiences from the Second World War and beyond,’ the ground situation has not moved an inch beyond gestures and generalisations by the national unity government that they all had helped to come in the place of the war-time Rajapaksa regime. Despite UNHRC resolutions and further initiatives, the West, according to certain Maldivian thinking, too, could do precious little on this score, also because they had presumed and prejudged ‘the day after’ the Rajapaksa regime was replaced, without weighing the real intentions and capabilities of the new leadership, or the strength and longevity of their so-called ‘unity’.

‘New normal’ at work?

In this context, questions are being raised from within, muted however, about the wisdom of the Maldivian Joint Opposition (JO) to count any more on external powers, to deliver on creating a level-playing field and ensure free and fair presidential polls. The JO’s choice now on the ground is also limited, post-emergency, when what Nasheed called the ‘new normal’ may have come to stay.

In context, the Yameen Government has since freed MDP leader of the JO parliamentary group, Mohamed Ibrahim ‘Ibu’ Solih, after the initial, nine-day court remand, obtained following arrest at an anti-emergency rally, when the emergency was still in force. However, a few dozens of those arrested during the period remain in prison. So do the terrorism cases against jailed former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, Chief Justice Abdulla Saeed and Justice Ali Hamid, with the lawyers of the Chief Justice claiming without elaboration that he was being tortured in prison.


Questions are being raised from within, muted however, about the wisdom of the Maldivian Joint Opposition to count any more on external powers, to deliver on creating a level-playing field and ensure free and fair presidential polls.


Interestingly, the truncated, three-judge bench of the Supreme Court, hearing Attorney General’s plea for reversing the 1 February full Court order that had culminated in the emergency four days later, has since observed that ‘criminal intent’ (of taking bribes to help ‘topple the elected government’) was no reason to nullify the same. The three judges, who later reversed the original, sweeping order-part relating to freedom for all political prisoners, however declined the government’s plea to rescind the full bench restoration of 12 ‘defector-MPs’.

The government, however, got the Parliament to pass suitable legislation in the matter during the emergency, which now could be challenged again in the court. So could the Supreme Court be called upon to decide on the emergency period parliamentary legislation, empowering the executive to sack judicial officers, convicted in criminal cases — a reference this to the two jailed SC justices.

As the Maldives Independent reported, “After consulting among themselves, the three justices — who also signed the unanimous 1 February order — Justice Ahmed Abdulla Didi explained that criminal allegations against an individual judge cannot invalidate an order by the bench, which could only be overturned after a judicial review process.” The bench however observed that such a ‘review’ was possible, implying that the current hearing itself may be the one.

Brothers and cousins

Though the ‘Russia episode’ were days away, it is, however, in this overall context that the Yameen Government’s reaction to the post-emergency Indian statement on implementing 1 February SC order and restoring the political process got a repeat-mention. “The Government of Maldives firmly believes that the recent political developments are an internal political matter.. Furthermore, the Government of Maldives wishes to reiterate that public statements made without genuine regard to facts and ground realities of the situation in the Maldives are not helpful at all to ensure a stable, peaceful and prosperous Maldives that meets the aspirations of its citizens,” a Foreign Ministry statement said on the occasion.

As the Maldives Independent recalled, the Yameen Government “previously took the extraordinary step of directly rebuking New Delhi after it expressed ‘deep dismay’ about Parliament’s extension of the state of emergency.. More recently, India was told to stay away from the political crisis, which was called an internal matter like Kashmir,” where Minister Shainee said that Maldives was getting involved. It’s possibly the first time that any neighbour of India, barring of course Pakistan — and China — has ever expressed any view on the ‘K-issue’, other than to stand by New Delhi, wherever, whenever. That should include Sri Lanka, which at the height of the ethnic issue and allegations of India training and arming Tamil militants, including the LTTE, refrained from drawing any parallel. Though under the more recent Rajapaksa regime, some peripheral groups in the country made the reference occasionally, no one in the government was known to have done so.

Interestingly, around the same time as the Foreign Ministry response to India, Maldives Ambassador in Beijing, Mohamad Faisal told the South China Morning Post that “India is our brother.. China is a long-lost cousin who is ready to help the Maldives. China is providing us the necessary means to finance our development.” He added that his country’s foreign policy was based on working with everyone and that all of its neighbours were “brothers and sisters.”

Amb. Faisal was quick to clarify: “India will always have a very special place in the hearts of all Maldivians, not just our politicians. India should not fear that Maldives is trying to move out of its sphere of influence. There is no sphere of influence.” In this context, he said, “We’re not going to allow any military establishments or military undertakings in the Maldives. Not for China, not for any other countries.”

Amb. Faisal also rejected the idea there was a land-grab, echoing China’s foreign ministry which last month called such claims nonsense, pointing to the local laws that say, “You can’t buy land from Maldives,” Faisal told the SCMP. “We don’t sell land to anybody. There’s no way any foreign party can come and own Maldivian land. This is not true.”

If the Yameen interpretation of Maldives’ India-China equations reflects the war-time Sri Lankan approach, outlined by then President Mahinda Rajapaksa, it seems to be as much. At the time, Rajapaksa told The Hindu, “India is a sister, China, a friend.” However as subsequent developments have shown, at least in the Indian eye, both during the Rajapaksa regime and afterwards, and more so, now under the new, national unity government of President Maithiripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, the ‘friend’ seems to have got the better of the ‘sister’ — at least in Sri Lanka’s case.

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