Colombo, August 12: With the Presidential election due in a little more than a month, the ruling Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM) led by President Abdulla Yameen, appears to be stepping up its nationalist rhetoric to contrast with the internationalism of the opposition coalition led by the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP).
As stated by President Yameen in his campaign speeches, the PPM is fighting the September 23 Presidential election on two core issues: first, Maldivian nationalism or the independence and sovereignty of the Maldives; and second, the defense of the country’s Islamic values.
Yameen and his ministers are portraying the MDP and its cohorts as handmaidens of Western hegemonic powers and the regional overlord, India.
Harder on India
But there appears to be a difference between the way in which the Yameen regime looks at, and responds to, the threat from the West, and the way in which it looks at the threat from India.
Given the fact that Maldivian tourism, the mainstay of the economy, is heavily dependent on Western tourists (though China is the single largest contributor), the Yameen regime does not go for confrontation with the West.
It has not taken any hostile steps in answer to stinging criticisms from the West about the democracy deficit in Maldivian governance. The regime has been negotiating with the West to avoid the European Union’s targeted sanctions.
But the Yameen regime has been manifestly tough on India, which it believes poses an immediate threat, especially after MDP supremo-in-exile, Mohamed Nasheed, openly called for a “military-backed Indian diplomatic intervention” to subdue Yameen, and the vocal support his call got from Indian strategic experts and former diplomats.
Maldivians are acutely aware that India considers their country as being within its sphere of influence and that India deeply resents China’s bid to gain a foothold in the archipaelago which is on the main West-East shipping route.
After the exit of the pro-India Nasheed regime in 2013, the Maldivian government drove out the Indian company, GMR, from the $511 million Male airport project and handed it over to the Beijing Urban Construction Group Company Ltd.
Since then, China has been the main beneficiary of Yameen’s infrastructural projects. Chinese tourists are now the single biggest group arriving in the country outstripping European nations. China has thus become a vital component of the Maldivian economy.
In the latest confrontational act, the Yameen regime has asked India to immediately withdraw the two Druv military helicopters and 48 personnel posted there following the expiry of an agreement on June 30.
However, Sputniknews reported on July 23 that both India and the Maldives had agreed to extend the deadline to December this year. If the latter is correct, the envoy’s statement indicates a further toughening of the Maldives’ stance.
On August 10, Reuters quoted the Maldivian envoy in India, Ahmed Mohamed, as saying that the two helicopters gifted by India are mainly used for medical evacuations and search and rescue operations and that the choppers are no longer needed because the Maldives has developed its own resources to that end.
However, the Maldivian president’s International Spokesman, Ibrahim Shihab, told The Citizen that the choppers were unsuited for the weather conditions over the Maldivian seas as they get tossed about in turbulent weather.
Maldivian Ambassador in Sri Lanka Mundhu Shareef said: “We asked for Dornier aircraft which are more suitable. But India did not want to give it for some reason.”
Other Maldivian diplomatic sources said India has stationed the helicopters and a large number of personnel only to spy on Chinese activity on land and sea.
Reuters quotes Abhijit Singh of the Observer Research Foundation as saying that the Indian helicopters are deployed near the islands where the Chinese are present. “It is not the helicopters that trouble Yameen so much. It is actually the fact that there are these people there.”
An Indian official told the Times of India that the location of the second helicopter in Laamu is significant as China has proposed a maritime port in the atoll. “Even Addu (location of the other Indian chopper) is significant as it is located at Equatorial Channel and close to Diego Garcia. It seems Male wants to rid both these strategic locations of any Indian footprint,” the unnamed official said.
The Maldives is moving closer to Pakistan also. It has agreed to a US$10 million loan from Pakistan to finance the purchase of two Super Mushak military aircraft from Pakistan Aeronautical Complex. The Pakistani army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa visited the Maldives recently setting off alarm bells in Delhi.
Affront to sovereignty
Above all, the Maldives considers India’s actions as affronts to its sovereignty and national self-respect.
A Presidential Secretariat official said: “We want India to participate in Maldives’ economic development. But the aid or investment should be without strings attached, especially strings which entail a dilution of our right to choose our friends or a dilution of our decision making power. Pure commercial ties are what we are looking for.”
Gradual slide towards confrontation
Although the Maldivian Defence Force recently conducted some sea exercises with Indian forces, the two countries are moving on a path of confrontation.
India has been on the warpath since 2014. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had decided at that time that he would not visit the Maldives and has not visited it to date, though he has been to all the other South Asian nations.
When the Yameen regime sent a special envoy to explain the state of emergency and the arrests of top opposition leaders in February this year, New Delhi refused to receive him.
Apart from reprimanding the Yameen regime for curbing democratic freedoms, New Delhi deported a Maldivian MP, Ahmed Nihan Hussain Manik, albeit on the grounds that he did not come with the appropriate visa.
The pro-Bharatia Janata Party think-tank, Vivekananda International Foundation, carried an article on June 13, warning the Maldivian government of the “enormous harm” which would be caused to the Maldivian public if it continued its anti-India policy.
The author of the article said by throwing open the Maldives to Chinese economic and strategic investments, the Yameen regime has seriously jeopardised India’s strategic interests in the main East-West sea route. He warned that India cannot remain passive in this context and may have to re-design its options.
However, as a top official of the Maldivian Presidential Secretariat told The Citizen, India will not go to war to press its claims.
“Those days of gunboat diplomacy are over. These days, all matters are settled by talks and discussions. An aggressive posture does not necessarily translate into aggressive action. The Maldives and India will one day begin talking and come to an agreement. We draw inspiration from the way India settled the Doklam issue with China,” he said.
Will regime change help?
As on date, India is an unwelcome guest in the Maldives. New Delhi is perhaps hoping that the September 23 election will result in the joint opposition candidate, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih of the MDP, becoming president. Perhaps India is holding its horses until the elections.
However, as the change in regime in Sri Lanka shows, the Solih government could turn out to be more pro-China than the Yameen regime because it may realise that China is the only country that can fund the kind of rapid and massive infrastructural development which developing countries are yearning for.
The government of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in Sri Lanka was pro-West and pro-India only for a few months.
Today, it has given more to China and less to India than the avowedly pro-China regime of Mahinda Rajapaksa. The regime change brought no relief to India or the West.