Ahead of a no-confidence vote by the unified Maldivian Opposition on July 24, which threatens to disrupt President Abdulla Yameen’s cosy relationship with China, former Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed has said the Opposition “will terminate all the Chinese projects” if it comes to power.
In exile for the last two years, after he was defeated in a controversial run-off election by Yameen, Nasheed said in an interview to The Indian Express, “What is in Maldives’ interest very much depends on what is in India’s interest.” He added: “If India feels that its security and safety is compromised in the Indian Ocean, then we must be mindful of that.”
A new politics could be unfolding in the Maldives as old rivals Nasheed and former President Abdul Gayoom join hands to take on Yameen. The arrest of Gayoom’s son Faris Maumoon, a legislator in his father’s Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM), earlier this week caused several ambassadors from the west, including the US, to tweet reprovingly.
“The arrest and intimidation of elected legislators including @afarismaumoon impedes the normal function of Parliament & democracy in the Maldives,” tweeted US ambassador to the Maldives and Sri Lanka Atul Keshap, from Colombo.
Indian officials, in touch with all sides, say they were waiting and watching. Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar was in Male in April and spoke to Yameen. Prime Minister Narendra Modi cancelled his visit to the Maldives in 2015 and still has not visited the archipelago. It is the only South Asian nation that he has not visited. However, Maldives’ importance has grown since Chinese President Xi Jinping went to Male in September 2014 and Yameen agreed that Maldives would join Xi’s Maritime Silk Route, a key element in his Belt and Road Initiative.
In his interview, Nasheed said that Yameen had allotted 16 islands to the Chinese that straddle key navigation sea-lanes, and was in talks with Saudi Arabia to give it an atoll. “Maldives occupies an 800-km geographical expanse from north to south and covers all navigable parts of the Indian Ocean. China has been given several strategically located islands by Yameen to carry out construction projects,” he said.
Nasheed insisted he would terminate these projects if the joint Opposition came to power after next year’s elections. He admitted that Maldives was in danger of becoming another Sri Lanka, referring to the huge loans that Colombo is having to pay back to China after former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse invited Beijing to build several projects, including an airport and parts of Colombo port and a city.
“Seventy per cent of Maldives’ foreign debt is in hock to one country, China. Our loan interest is more than our joint expenditure on health and education and more than 20 per cent of Maldives’ budget,” he said, accusing Yameen of selling Maldives’ national interest to the Chinese.
Nor has Nasheed been a Delhi favourite. He inaugurated the new Chinese embassy in Male the day former PM Manmohan Singh landed in the Maldives to attend the SAARC summit in 2011. Much to Delhi’s irritation, he tried to broker better relations between India and Pakistan at the summit. However, with China expanding its influence across South Asia, tiny Maldives becomes key in stalling that expansion.
Nasheed’s remark that the “MDP (Nasheed’s party) celebrates India and Indian democracy” may be music to Delhi’s ears, but Indian officials insist they have to watch every step carefully. They admit that the July 24 vote, when the Opposition seeks to impeach the Speaker, will be significant in showing which way the wind blows. Last time, when the Opposition tried to push for impeachment in March, Yameen evicted the Opposition MPs.