'China is using a debt trap as a disciplinary tool to run Maldives': Ex-president Mohamed Nasheed tells Firstpost

Exiled former Maldivian president Mohamed Nasheed speaks to Firstpost about anti-India designs in his country, Chinese influence and much more

G Pramod Kumar February 14, 2018 14:12:59 IST
'China is using a debt trap as a disciplinary tool to run Maldives': Ex-president Mohamed Nasheed tells Firstpost

Barely a day after China’s strong rebuttal of his allegations, exiled former Maldivian president Mohamed Nasheed has reiterated his early charge that Chinese investments in his country did amount to land-grabs and that they must be opposed. "There is a rapid land grab process happening throughout the world, and the Maldives is now a target of this, a victim of this," he said in an exclusive interview with Firstpost. He added that the "huge vanity infrastructure projects" funded by China in his country were "debt traps" in return for supporting dictatorship, abusing human rights, and silencing local dissent.

Nasheed said he was still optimistic about an intervention by India to resolve the crisis in his country even while acknowledging the fact that the latter has to be "mindful of a number of factors". He also said that President Abdulla Yameen was whipping up anti-India sentiments in Maldives with the help of radical elements. "I don’t think it’s the sentiment of the people at the moment, but I do agree that there is a design, there’s work in progress to whip up anti-Indian sentiments. it's very worrying and we must stop it," he said.

In terms of leveraging India's influence in the Indian ocean, he said it doesn't matter if New Delhi cannot match the economic might of Beijing because the people of the Maldives know that they built their sustainable island economy with the help of State Bank of India, which was the first bank to operate in the country. "Concrete doesn’t mean development," he said. He was also hopeful that the western countries would impose sanctions on Yameen regime. "He must go," Nasheed said.

Edited excerpts follow:

Since you are speaking to me in India, let's start with India. Are you disappointed with the country's lack of response to your unequivocal call for intervention?
No, we are not. We believe that India would have to be mindful about a number of factors and my view is that these deliberations will continue.

So, you are still hopeful. Is it working?
Yes I am hopeful and I believe that we will have solutions and we must resolve these issues. Yes, I am hopeful.

Are you still speaking to India?
Well, we are in conversation with a number of people. But, mostly what we are trying to achieve would be what we should do in the Maldives. That would be the focus now.

In your editorial in The Indian Express last week, you had described in detail how President Yameen draws his strength from China at the cost of your country’s wealth and sovereignty. How real is the China threat to your country?
See, what I am saying is that there is a rapid land-grab process happening throughout the world, and Maldives now is a target of this, a victim of this. And I want to highlight the fact that it's happening in the Maldives now. What happens is that we get large amounts of loans at very commercial rates and these loans are for huge infrastructure vanity projects that don't necessarily break even or give any returns. My point is when we are not able to pay back the debt, then they will use it as a disciplining regime. In that process, when we can't pay back, very often what happens is that they ask for equity. That's where the loss happens.

In my view, in our view, these processes happen because you propagate and prop up a dictatorship, an autocratic form of government and then get legalisations changed, suppress local dissent and get the projects. None of these projects are tendered and transparent, and we do not know what's on offer and what's been given. When there's no operational oversight, what follows are human rights abuse, environmental degradation and inability to pay back. We end up in a debt trap. We feel that this pattern is visible all over the world and we want to address it.

China is using a debt trap as a disciplinary tool to run Maldives Expresident Mohamed Nasheed tells Firstpost

File image of Mohamed Nasheed. Reuters

You have been consistent and explicit about the China angle vis-à-vis Indian interests in the Indian ocean, but India is reluctant probably because it had burned its fingers in Sri Lanka and doesn’t have China’s economic might. Geopolitically for India, how compelling is the China case?
My focus right now is the Maldives.

In the past, there has been palpable anti-India sentiments in the Maldives, particularly during the GMR airport crisis, despite India being a longstanding friend to the country in general, and your former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom in particular. In hindsight, I am wondering if there was a Chinese hand in manufacturing that discontent, particularly because that's when the Maldives started moving away from India.
Yes. I don't know if there was an external hand, but there were radical elements — xenophobic elements — that were whipped up by President Abdulla Yameen. These sentiments — very very minority sentiments and xenophobic views — were whipped up and the campaign was coordinated. In the process, they pushed out our government and after the coup, were able to entrench themselves. Since then, they have been building on it.

Recently after the free trade agreement (with China), Yameen came out again and began these anti-Indian sentiments through their newspapers and rallies. We confronted them and started articulating our viewpoint. Yameen was not able to find currency for his view because we were somehow able to bring our viewpoint across as well. I don't think it's the sentiment of the people at the moment, but I do agree that there is a design, there's work in progress to whip up anti-Indian sentiments. It's very worrying and we must stop it.

I asked this question also because I wanted to know if your affinity for India finds sufficient resonance among the people of your country because China seems to have a lot to offer in terms of trade and investments that India can in no way match.
I don't see it like that. What I would like to explain to my people, and a lot of others, is that what's on offer (from China) is a debt trap. It's not development. The concrete is not equal to development. The people of the Maldives very clearly understand that they built their economy, their sustainable island economy, so much through the State Bank of India, which was the first bank to come to the Maldives and has always funded sustainable projects. And I think all these vanity projects — roads leading to nowhere, bridges with gaps — don't necessarily amount to development assistance.

If the stalemate continues, do you have any alternative plans? Now that Yameen has turned against Gayoom, isn't there a chance of you both burying the past and joining hands for another attempt at impeachment?
(Laughs) I don’t think anyone can now be with President Yameen. No one — neither his brother, Opposition parties nor any other group — is willing to work with Yameen, or will be able to work with him. They've all lost old trust. He must go.

My question was about you and Gayoom burying the past and coming together...
We are in alliance, we are in agreement. We formed the joint Opposition a few months ago and in fact, we got a parliamentary majority because Gayoom joined our alliance. That's when Yameen occupied the Parliament with the help of the military — and it is still under occupation.

With so many important people in custody, Yameen seems to be safe unless there's intense external pressure that can offset the Chinese protection. Are you speaking to your western interlocutors, multilaterals and civil society organisations?
We try to do it publicly and transparently. I meet western diplomats, western governments and western agencies. And I believe that the European Union has an obligation to come up with targeted sanctions against regime leaders. In the same breath as we ask for Indian involvement, we also did ask the West to see how they can impose financial transactions against regime leaders. The US, for instance, can do it. Yes, we are in conversation. We would like them to show some progress on that .

Do you see anything happening soon?
Well, we are working. We are patient and I think it takes time.

The second threat, after the Chinese suzerainty, that you have highlighted is the increasing influence of Islamists under the rule of Yameen. How dangerous is it? Can you elaborate please?
We have been observing that there are more Maldivians — per capita the highest from any country — fighting for the Islamic State. To have a network that is able to recruit hundreds of people who would go and fight would mean that you have a fairly good network at home. We have in recent years seen that extremist elements have been embedded in strategic positions within strategic institutions. Yes, there is a shadow State that controls or rather protects Yameen. He has an understanding with them. We find that worrying.

When you became the President of the Maldives after defeating Gayoom in 2008, did you ever think that your political future would be this unstable and tumultuous? That you would go to jail, would be in exile and would be fighting even to live as a free man in your country even when the whole democratic world was backing you?
Coming up to 2008, I had already spent a good half of my adult life in jail, in punishment, and in exile. It's been a fight against the odds. It has been difficult, it has been challenging, but we must go on.

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