Updated: February 1, 2022 11:32:48 am
Members of the main ruling party in the Maldives are considering legislation to criminalise protests “that affect the country’s relations with other nations”. A draft Bill circulated within the Maldives Democratic Party (MDP) comes against the backdrop of protests in the Indian Ocean country over the perceived proximity of the Ibrahim Solih government to India.
The “India Out” protests, which began two years ago, have increased in pitch since the release from house arrest of Opposition leader and former pro-China president Abdulla Yameen late last year.
Titled “The Bill To Stop All Actions That Could Negatively Affect Relations Established By The Maldives With Foreign Countries”, the draft is seen as effectively targeting the “India Out” campaign, and could be submitted when the country’s legislative body, Majlis, reconvenes on February 3.
But it is still unclear if the government wants to be involved. An MDP politician, who has seen the draft, said some members of the party were advocating the legislation but there has been no formal discussions between the government and the party on it.
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The draft Bill is said to have proposed a fine of 20,000 Maldivian Rufiyah, and six-month imprisonment or one-year house arrest, for those who insinuate that the Maldives is under the political, economic or military control of another country.
In recent weeks, President Solih has faced flak from anti-government protestors for “selling out” the country to India, and pressure from within the MDP to decisively stamp out the campaign.
“Such a legislation is required because it will put the government on alert about such things,” said another MDP politician.
With an overwhelming majority of 65 in the 87-member Parliament, the proposed legislation is expected to go through if brought to the Majlis. “We have a huge majority in the Parliament. It does not matter which member has proposed the legislation. It is the general belief in the MDP that this legislation is required. Our security and India’s security are linked,” the politician said.
But some in the party are more cautious, pointing to the “extreme” provisions in “violation of democratic norms”, and fear a backlash. They predict that even if the legislation goes through, it would not be acceptable to most within the ruling party in its present form, and would see a lot of amendments before it comes up for debate.
The anti-India campaign, which has picked up speed in the last two months with the involvement of Yameen and his Progressive Party, asserts that large numbers of Indian military personnel are present in the Maldives and that the government is planning to hand over the Uthuru Thilafalhu atoll to the Indian Navy.
In February 2021, India and Maldives signed an agreement for the development of the UTF Harbour during the visit of External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar. The Union Minister had tweeted that the project would “strengthen Maldivian Coast Guard capability” and described the two countries as “partners in development, partners in security”.
The “India Out” campaign also targets the presence of military personnel operating aircraft gifted by the Indian government to the Maldives.
While the protestors say they are opposing only the presence of Indian security personnel on Maldivian soil, the campaign has led to insecurity in the large Indian expatriate population of teachers, and medical and tourism sector professionals. Last year, the Indian High Commission asked for more security after flagging to the Maldives government that its diplomats were being targeted repeatedly in social media posts.
Former President Yameen, who was seen tilting his country’s foreign policy toward Beijing during his term in office, has been actively leading the protests since he walked free after his conviction in a money-laundering and embezzlement case was overturned in December 2021. One of the anti-India protests took place in front of the Chinese Embassy in Male.
The Speaker of the Majlis has already written to a Parliamentary committee on national security to investigate the “India Out” protests.
MDP leader and former president Mohamed Nasheed had told The Hindu in January that it was getting “more and more crucial that the MDP remains in government. There is a lot of bad blood, especially with President [Abdulla] Yameen, and his campaign and narrative against India that is making our people very uneasy”. He described India as Maldives’ “first port of call for assistance”.
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