Maldives crisis: With military intervention out, diplomatic heavy lifting only choice for India to secure its interests in Male

Another round of political instability has hit the Maldives. The present crisis is hardly unexpected. After all, President Abdulla Yameen has pitted himself against the Judiciary, politicians, sections of the bureaucracy, and in recent times, even the police.

The Maldives is no stranger to political instability. When President Abdul Gayoom voluntarily gave up his seat as president after more than three decades, Maldives earned the honour of being one of the few states to adopt democracy in a time of the so-called "Arab Spring". That the transition happened after considerable pressure from the Opposition is a historical footnote, since it remained a relatively peaceful transition in comparison to the bloodletting in countries like Tunisia. Matters however soon turned awry when the elected President Nasheed was forced to resign after protests against his arrest of a judge.

The presidential election that followed brought Yameen to power. The arrest of Nasheed on terrorism charges and a sentence of 13 years of imprisonment followed shortly thereafter. This, in turn, led to a wave of protests, and the imposition of emergency. To make matters even more complicated, the vice-president was also impeached on alleged attempts to assassinate the president. To round things off, the head of the Adhalaat Party Sheikh Imran Abdulla was also arrested on terrorism charges.

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Maldives President Abdulla Yameen. Reuters

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Maldives President Abdulla Yameen. Reuters

All this arresting of all and sundry expectedly brought together some strange bedfellows. An Opposition coalition was formed that included former presidents Gayoom, Nasheed – who had been arrested at least 20 times – the Adhalaat Party, and Jamhoori Party leader Gasim Ibrahim.

This combined grouping tried to force a no-confidence motion against the Speaker Abdullah Maseeh Mohammed at least twice. The second time was just before the Maldivian independence day when Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif was the chief invitee. The Opposition was able to get the support of disgruntled members of the ruling party, thus winning the numbers to carry its motion.

The president and his group retaliated by disqualifying its rebellious members. The situation came to a head when the Supreme Court ordered the release on 2 February, 2018, of nine jailed Opposition leaders and reinstated the 12 parliamentarians who had been expelled from the ruling party.

While the president publicly swore to follow all constitutional rules and obligations, the numbers were against him. Reinstatement of the parliamentarians would have meant enough numbers for not just a vote against the Speaker but also allowed eventual impeachment proceedings against the president himself.

The court's order for a retrial of former President Nasheed also ran against him, particularly with presidential elections due this year. Caught in a pincer movement, he resorted to precisely the mistakes made by dictators of periods past, by arresting Opposition leaders including former President Gayoom, his son in law, a former defence minister and several other Opposition leaders.

He even dismissed the police chief for trying to implement the court's orders. As the situation began to worsen, he declared a state of emergency, pleading that this was the only way to save the situation. Its unlikely anyone will buy that argument, but as of the time of writing, it appears that the army is standing behind the embattled president. And in the Maldives, the army is a force to reckon with.

Expectedly, both former President Gayoom and Nasheed have called for Indian intervention a la Operation Cactus of 1988, when Indian forces dramatically and effectively ended a coup attempt launched ostensibly by outside forces. At that time, a group of Sri Lankan Tamil militants – for want of a better term – were launched from a freighter off the Maldives, and effectively took over vital installations, while the president took shelter from house to house while appealing for help.

That particular group owed allegiance to the People Liberation Organisation for Tamil Eelam, lost the show for the simple reason that they omitted to close down the airport, allowing Indian paratroopers to land and reverse the situation. That operation has long been suspected to have been masterminded by former President Abdulla Nasir, in the same way, that leader after leader has plotted and planned against his competitor. History repeats itself ad nauseam, and yet to no effect.

Hopefully, history will not need to repeat itself again in terms of a dramatic Indian intervention. Given that officials and garrulous seminarists have been talking about India being the 'net security provider' at every available forum, this might be somewhat difficult. Besides, it's not just us. Other countries like the United States have also christened us similarly, clearly expecting a regional power to flex its muscles when necessary.

It can be argued that notwithstanding the urgent appeals from former presidents, the whole situation is purely an internal matter of the shaky but undoubtedly the sovereign Republic of Maldives.

However, the point is this: If things turn ugly – and it well might – then some 'intervention' may well be needed. Second, if we don't lend a hand, someone else might.

It's no secret that China has taken a giant leap into the tiny island nation with its maritime version of Belt and Road Initiative. Since 2013, when the present government came to power, Beijing's influence has only increased. Apart from assistance to expand the international airport, and development of Hulhule Island and corresponding connecting roads, Beijing chose to send three naval ships to the Maldives last August. Most notably, the present government also chose to hurry through a Free Trade Agreement with China through Parliament in an emergency session.

Parliamentarians argued that they had no chance to go over the 500-page document much less discuss it. The rush was due to the fact that the president was due to visit China shortly thereafter. In the event, the Joint Statement between China and Maldives called for more Chinese investment, language centres, and notably, support from Male for enhancement of a Chinese role in SAARC. China, in turn, agreed not to interfere in the internal affairs of the country, which in plain English meant that it supported the government at a time of severe political turmoil and opposition.

It seems therefore that the Maldives has learnt from Kautilya in befriending China, as a balance against the near 'not quite enemy' India. The fact that the Narendra Modi government has stonily refused to visit the country at a time of 'neighbourhood first' policy is hardly lost on the leadership in Male. At a second level, it has also chosen to befriend Pakistan, who has offered a $10 million defence credit line to the Maldivian Armed Forces.

There is also an MOU between the training institutions of the respective foreign services. The chief of Maldivian National Forces major general Ahmed Shiyam is a product of the National Defense College as well as an alumnus of the Command and Staff College at Quetta. While the chief is a man of considerable stature, there has been persistent worry that the army may plan to take over power itself, a choice that is likely to be applauded by their counterparts in China and Pakistan.

India has, therefore, two choices. A military intervention at this time will seem – and will be – outright interference in the internal matters of a sovereign country. However, India does not have the luxury of not doing anything, particularly if violence escalates. A first choice is the obvious one, of diplomatic heavy lifting.

The US and other major powers are willing to weigh in to pressure the president to follow constitutional norms, together with assurances of his safety. Saudi Arabia may also be persuaded to join the call. If violence escalates significantly, a second choice – or lack of it – may be forced on Delhi.

New Delhi may consider consultation with the Maldivian Defence Forces and police in restoring order, with the objective of setting up the mechanism for a government of national unity under whom new elections can be held. Indian support for such a Maldivian initiative that brings together designated civilian and military leaders, may be emphasised with a naval 'visit', carrying a contingent of commandos.

There are however several lessons to be learnt for the longer term. For one, as regards to the neighbourhood, it is wise to nip trouble in the bud. You don't need to read 'The Godfather' to remember that. A second one is, build your own bridges – made up of several hundred ships that trade in everything the Maldives needs, including drinking water. Kickstart container operations by the Shipping Corporation of India as a beginning. Otherwise, a certain faraway nation will be building its own bridges instead.

Updated Date: Feb 07, 2018 17:44 PM

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