India and the US have expressed concern on the “political crisis in the Maldives” and underlined “the importance of respect for democratic institutions and rule of law”, the White House said in a statement after Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Donald Trump spoke to each other on the phone Thursday night.
On Friday, Chinese official sources told PTI that Beijing and Delhi were in touch over the ongoing crisis in the Maldives and did not want it to become another “flashpoint” in bilateral ties. But late evening, in a statement from Amman in Jordan, where Prime Minister Modi stopped on his way to Palestine, the spokesman for the Ministry of External Affairs said: “China has said that the Maldives government has the ability to protect the security of Chinese personnel and institutions in the Maldives. We hope that all countries can play a constructive role in the Maldives, instead of doing the opposite.”
Sources said India was simply indicating that it was closely watching the situation in the Indian Ocean and hoped that all regional powers play a constructive role. The fact that Delhi felt the need to comment on a Maldives-China statement is unusual because India usually declines comment on relations between other countries. But given the evolving situation in that country, sources said, it was deemed necessary to issue such a comment, if only to indicate that Delhi is not about to abandon its stake in the neighbourhood.
The fact that the statement was issued from Amman, where the Prime Minister’s party including National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale would have cleared the statement, is significant. Diplomatic sources told The Indian Express that the Maldivian special envoy to China, Minister Mohamed Saeed, had requested China not to renew its travel advisory cautioning Chinese tourists from travelling to the Maldives. It is not clear what the Chinese response to the Maldivian request was.
While it cannot jeopardise the security of its citizens, it also does not want to be seen not backing President Abdulla Yameen who has gone against his government’s “India first” policy to reach out to the Chinese. Chinese tourists are a large and reliable source of income for the Maldivian exchequer and Male hopes that Beijing will honour this commitment that was part of the free trade agreement it signed with China in early December.
The White House statement on the Modi-Trump call added that the two leaders also pledged to continue working together to enhance security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region. The reference to “Indo-Pacific” harks back to a statement that US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made some months ago in which he called India and the US the “bookends of the Indo-Pacific”.
Western diplomatic sources said the US was nudging India to take “swift action” in the Maldives, but that Delhi preferred to adopt a wait-and-watch approach for the time being.” This is India’s moment to demonstrate its leadership in the region,” diplomatic sources said.
Meanwhile, a prominent Maldivian human rights activist Friday said “some kind of intervention” by the international community was necessary to turn around the situation in the country for the better, but also said people were unsure and insecure about the implications of such intervention.
Speaking from Male to The Indian Express, Shahindha Ismail, Executive Director of the Maldivian Democracy Network, said the situation had changed since last Thursday, when the Supreme Court passed its order releasing Opposition leaders including former President Mohamed Nasheed. President Yameen responded by clamping emergency and arresting judges, former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and others.
“When the Supreme Court ruling came out, there was hope among the general public that something good might happen. People were also anticipating that the government would declare a state of emergency and arrest former President Gayoom and his son. But the way the government carried out the arrest of the judges was really alarming, it changed the whole atmosphere,”she said.
“I don’t think anyone actually imagined that the government would use so much force, and tactics that they used involving the military and the police, climbing over the walls of the Supreme Court and breaking the gates of the court,” said Ismail who is also facing a police investigation for alleged blasphemy after she was accused of advocating secularism. Maldives is a Sunni Muslim country.
“I am still very hopeful because I know something is shifting. But when I speak to my friends or their families, they are very confused, they want to know what’s going to happen next, and they ask if there’s anything they can do. The truth is there is nothing anyone can do, we just have to wait and see,” she said.
On Friday, pro-Opposition Raajje Television suspended routine scheduled programmes after a statement from the Maldivian Defence Ministry warned action against channels airing “sensitive content”. Rushdha Rasheed, a journalist at the channel, said the organisation decided to “preemptively suspend television news operations” because it perceived a real danger that soldiers would break into the office, harm people and destroy equipment.