The Indian Ocean is churning once again as the world watches the unified Maldivian opposition press for a no-confidence vote on July 24, amid concerns that President Abdulla Yameen may disbar Opposition MPs and even use troops to prevent the impeachment of the Speaker. Few can imagine how this coral paradise — with high-end resorts in its 1,000-odd islands costing upwards of several lakhs of rupees per night — has latterly become an extension of the great game for regional influence being played out between India and China.
The smallest country in South Asia has a population of barely 400,000 people. But its atolls and islands straddle the strategic navigation and communication sea lanes over 800 km north to south in the Indian Ocean, making it a crucial for countries with global ambitions.
Chinese President Xi Jinping persuaded Male to become a key link in his expansive Belt and Road Initiative when he visited there in September 2014, en route to India. In an interview to The Indian Express, former Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed said President Yameen had given 16 geostrategically located islands to the Chinese, and was considering gifting an atoll to Saudi Arabia. (Wahabbism is spreading fast in the Maldives, and its citizens have been found fighting alongside the Islamic State.) As the crow flies, the southern city of Addu is only 736 km from Diego Garcia, an atoll just south of the Equator, on which the US has a massive naval and military base.
The outspoken Nasheed, whose ambivalent relationship with New Delhi meant India refused to back him when he was deposed in 2012, now seems much more conciliatory. Indian officials were unhappy when he inaugurated the Chinese embassy on the day Prime Minister Manmohan Singh landed in the Maldives for the 2011 SAARC Summit.
“What is in Maldives’ interest very much depends on what is in India’s interest. If India feels its safety and security is compromised, we must be mindful of that. We cannot be inviting rising powers and giving them long-term construction projects which are actually strategic in nature,” Nasheed said, referring to the several deals Yameen has agreed to with Beijing.
In exile since 2015 when the big powers persuaded Yameen to send him to London — he was in jail before that, and his family feared he might be poisoned — Nasheed has, over the last year, brought together former rivals in a coalition against the President, led by his own Maldivian Democratic Party.
They are former President Abdul Maumoon Gayoom, who was bailed out by Rajiv Gandhi in 1988 in an attempted coup and who ran the Maldives, before and after, with an iron hand for 30 years until Nasheed defeated him in the country’s first democratic election in 2008; the head of the Jumhooree party, Gasim Ibrahim, a magnate who owns several exclusive resorts; and the pro-Islamist Adhaalath party, the self-proclaimed branch of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Maldives, one of whose leaders, eye surgeon Mauroof Hussain, was trained in India.
Last week, Gayoom’s son and parliamentarian Faris Maumoon was arrested by Yameen’s forces. His father had just returned from Singapore, where he occasionally lives, and he saw it as a challenge by half-brother Yameen. Gasim was recently held at the airport as he tried to go abroad for medical treatment. Nasheed, meanwhile, relocated to Colombo, and has been lobbying with world powers to help restore democracy in the Maldives.
The world has been watching intently — or at least, tweeting about the political tensions. India is said to be in touch with all sides. On July 18, Atul Keshap, the US ambassador to Sri Lanka and the Maldives, who is based on Colombo, said: “Arrests & intimidation of elected legislators including @afarismaumoon [Ahmed Faris Maumoon] impedes the normal function of Parliament & #democracy in #Maldives”.
British High Commissioner to Sri Lanka and Ambassador to the Maldives James Dauris tweeted the same day: “Concerning that MP @afarismaumoon arrested in #Maldives today. Freedom to hold government to account is a fundamental element of democracy.”
On July 19, Shelley Whiting, the Canadian envoy to the two countries, wrote: “Concerned by ongoing harassment & intimidation of #Maldives opposition MPs. Democracies allow free expression of different political views.” For the moment, these western powers are waiting to see how India reacts to the ongoing tensions. In March, when the joint opposition tried to impeach the Speaker, Yameen got troops to evict recalcitrant MPs. Certainly, no one wants another coup — the requirement, from India’s perspective, is to find a leader who will not only behave democratically but also refuse to kowtow to the Chinese.
Yameen has tried to keep New Delhi happy with his “India First” policy. But he evicted GMR, the Indian company building an airport in Male (GMR later won $ 270 million in arbitration), and got in a Chinese contractor. He is allowing Beijing to build a port at Gaadhoo island in Laamu atoll, which sits at the entrance to the so-called One and a Half Degree Channel, a major international shipping passage.
Nasheed said that the no-confidence vote will be followed by Parliament investigating various frauds and money-laundering allegedly committed by Yameen, as well as the murder of 11 high-profile citizens, including the anti-establishment blogger Yameen Rashid. Parliament, he said, will also overturn all the laws that Yameen had passed to subvert the constitution, including those against freedom of speech and expression.
Certainly, Nasheed’s long agenda is easier published than done. Although the joint opposition has 45 MPs in a house of 85, Yameen will do his best to disqualify a few. The vote may never take place. Chaos could return to the streets of Male. And the world will be watching the churn in the Ocean again.