The politics of Abdulla Yameen: Maldives' democratically-elected president has stifled free speech, courted China

The political crisis enveloping Maldives is showing no signs of easing up, with the Indian military being asked to remain on "standby" mode. As reported by The Times of India, the Indian armed forces were "prepared for any eventuality" and "deployment at short notice". The Indian Navy has warships which can be diverted to Maldives if required, the report said. "India also has some defence personnel in Maldives due to defence cooperation; our warships, aircraft and copters often patrol its exclusive economic zone," a source told the report.

Even if it comes to a military intervention, it won't be the first time India has done so in Maldives. In 1988, India intervened in the political crisis of the island nation to prevent an attempted coup by mercenaries against the then president Abdul Gayoom.

However, things have changed in the 30 years since. The 1998 coup was carried out by Sri Lankan Tamil militants on behalf of Maldivian businessman Abdulla Luthufi, as Sushant Singh explains in his book, Operation Cactus: Mission Impossible In The Maldives. Then Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi dispatched 1,600 troops and it was only a matter of hours before order was restored.

In the current situation, however, the sitting president Abdulla Yameen has not specifically asked for India's help. In fact, doing so would be tantamount to overthrowing a democratically elected government. If India "does something" in the name of saving democracy, it would be acting on a request made by former president Mohammad Nasheed, who had said "democracy is at stake".

File image of Maldivian president Abdulla Yameen. Reuters

File image of Maldivian president Abdulla Yameen. Reuters

"Declaration (of State of Emergency) is unconstitutional and illegal. Nobody in the Maldives is required to, nor should, follow this unlawful order. We must remove him from power. The people of the Maldives have a legitimate request to world governments, especially to India and the United States," Nasheed had said.

The only problem is Yameen isn't a self-appointed dictator. He won democratic elections in 2013, defeating Nasheed in a controversial run-off. As reported by the BBC in November 2013, Nasheed won the elections with 45 percent of the vote, falling just short of an outright majority. Yameen came in distant second with just 25 percent of the vote.

However, the Supreme Court then annulled the results and ordered for a run-off vote between the two following complaints of irregularities, with votes allegedly being cast in the name of ineligible voters, children and even dead people. The run-off vote was then organised, and Yameen's Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) finally proved triumphant.

Yameen's presidency

Upon assuming power, Yameen had said he would usher in a new form of functioning. He said he will draw only half his salary, and continue living in his own house. "God willing, just the way I have promised, I will not stick by the pledges I made. So my salary will be just half of what I am supposed to get," he had said.

His predecessor, Mohammad Nasheed, had made climate change a key priority of his regime, even holding an underwater Cabinet meeting to highlight the low-lying archipelago's plight. But Yameen said the focus of his regime will be the upturn of the beleaguered economy, and since the Maldivian economy was heavily dependent on tourism, on improving the tourist infrastructure in place.

However, he has often adopted a conservative approach towards political office, taking steps to restrain Opposition, critics of his government and even the media.

Yameen, half-brother of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who ruled Maldives for over three decades, passed a law in 2016 that criminalised defamation, a move Opposition said was aimed at stifling dissent. The law criminalised defamatory speech, remarks, writings and actions that include gestures deemed to be against "any tenet of Islam".

Those found guilty of breaking the new law will be fined between 50,000 Maldivian rufiya and 2 million rufiya or face a jail term of between three and six months. Publications, including websites, found carrying "defamatory" comments could also have their licences revoked.

And that was not all. As reported by the Observer Research Foundation, Yameen also summoned armed forces to "discipline unruly Opposition MPs in Parliament".

In 2017, upon orders from Yameen to prevent lawmakers from taking part in a vote to impeach the parliamentary Speaker, the government had the military lock down gates to Parliament, and and "lawmakers were forcibly prevented from entering the parliamentary compound", Associated Press reported.

When the Commonwealth threatened him with disciplinary action following these moves, Maldives quit the Commonwealth altogether.

Growing closeness with China

Then there is the China equation. The Maldives, under Yameen, has allowed Beijing to court it with increasing aggressiveness. Especially with New Delhi dragging its feet over whether to support the Yameen front or the Nasheed front in Male, China has picked sides with alacrity.

As reported in The Diplomat, Yameen visited China last year, and the two nations signed 12 pacts, including a free trade agreement. Yameen also fully endorsed China's ambitious Maritime Silk Road initiative. President Xi Jinping declared that "China deems the Maldives as an important partner" in this initiative, and Yameen repaid the favor by claiming that the Maldives viewed China as "among (its) closest friends". He said the "Belt and Road Initiative has greatly helped the development of many small and medium countries".

At a time when the Belt and Road Initiative is beginning to attract scrutiny around the world, with even erstwhile supporters calling for a reassessment, such an endorsement was much sought after by Beijing, the report said.

China has also quickly expanded its economic profile in the Maldives by building mega infrastructure projects, including the development of Hulhule island and a bridge connecting it to Male as well as the country's main international airport.

A constitutional amendment allowing foreign ownership of freehold land was passed in 2015, which can potentially enhance China's military presence on the island nation. Already, Chinese naval ships have become regular visitors to Male, The Diplomat wrote.

Already, Maldives' imports from China now exceed those from India, as pointed out by a report on the Nikkei Asian Review. Beijing has also become the Yameen government's biggest lender. And debt owed to China is surging at a worrisome rate. Nasheed had already said the Maldives was falling deeper into a Chinese debt trap. "Already more than 70 percent of our foreign debt is owed to Beijing, which gives it huge leverage over us, undermining Maldivian sovereignty and independence," he had said.

But Yameen and China seem set on continuing on their path of mutual convenience.

With inputs from agencies

Updated Date: Feb 07, 2018 12:45 PM

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