Presenting himself as a nationalist with a focus on economic development and listing out a number of big ticket infrastructure projects mostly funded by China, Maldives President Abdulla Yameen is seeking a second term as Maldives will vote for the next president on Sunday. Opposition counters his claims of development with serious charges of his ‘authoritarian regime’ that imprisoned or forced to flee almost all the top opposition leaders and even Supreme Court judges in the last two years.
In his first ever interview with an international media, Yameen spoke to The Indian Express about the charges against his regime, Chinese debt trap and the ‘India First’ policy.
You have been in power for five years and the Maldives have been witness to significant changes. Yet these five years have also seen political turmoil. What message or assurance do you have for the people of the Maldives, and the world?
The transformational changes that the Maldives has witnessed in the past five years far outweighs any political turmoil. True, the past five years has been challenging but we are capable of resolving our domestic affairs among ourselves. International partners must respect our right to self-determination, a founding principle of the charter of the UN.
My administration is committed to having free, fair and transparent elections, as has been the tradition since the 2008 Constitution came to force. If elected, my administration is further committed to fulfilling our vision of an independent and progressive Maldives.
Which do you think are the significant measures your government ushered in? And what do you think remains to be done?
We have made significant investments in order to ensure sustained socio-economic growth. The bridge linking Velana International Airport (VIA) and Hulhulmalé to Malé will introduce much needed synergy for the Greater Malé area to prosper. The development of VIA to cater to upwards of 5 million visitors a year, complimented with the development of regional airports and seaplane hubs, is going to bring transformational growth, and allow all corners of the Maldives equitable access, to tourism and related businesses – the integrated tourism project mere minutes away from the airport and additional resorts and guesthouses will further ensure the industry is ready to cater to the huge influx and such projects also increase jobs and opportunity for our young women and men; our driven youth population.
Across the nation we have delivered clean water to more than half of the population, we have delivered sewerage services to over three fourths of the population and we have built over two dozen airports – over the past administrations we have been lagging behind but these are the expectations, and the developments, that my administration has delivered within these last five years. We have spent MVR 90 billion across the country towards this achievement; towards improving the lives of Maldivians and towards building national infrastructure whereby delivering lasting, meaningful and sustainable change.
Your government has cracked down on political rivals, even detained judges. This has led to criticism in different parts of the world. How do you counter the charge of high-handedness?
Justice is blind and my administration upholds this principle. There is no one charged, detained or sentence outside of the procedures outlined in our Constitution, Laws and Regulations. Legal and judicial procedures have been followed in every case and the rights guaranteed in our laws have been upheld. Despite criticism, my administration will not falter in upholding the rule of law, regardless of who, why or when.
After the 2013 elections which brought you to power, your political rivals, especially former President Nasheed, complained that the polls were not fair. What assurances can you provide on the transparency of the election process?
Every election since the 2008 Constitution has been observed and monitored by local and international partners, who have declared those elections as free, fair and transparent. In 2013, I believe the former President did in fact concede defeat and all legal remedies available were exhausted. The world accepted the election as free and fair.
I have no reason to believe that this election will be any exception.
We have had two elections after the Presidential elections of 2013. During the Parliamentary elections seats were fairly well distributed between all parties but in the Council elections the opposition came out in quite a favorable position.
I am confident in our state institutions, their independence and capacity to ensure credible elections.
What is your response to critics and political rivals who claim that the country is staring at a debt-trap?
The Maldives is a small state but some observers take that also to mean that we do not have the capacity to evaluate or decide. The Maldives is home to one of the most well educated and literate populations in the region, if not globally.
What I am saying is that we have done our homework. We have exceptional minds who have excelled at their academic endeavors in the best western and regional educational institutions who also have the added insight and advantage of “on the ground” observation – they are well aware of global best practices and local trends and needs. I myself am fortunate enough to have had the same, if not similar, academic and practical exposure.
We know our position.
We are not staring at a debt-trap – even the most modest estimates based on arrival growth alone should make this abundantly clear and the positive ratings by two independent global agencies speak to this. Add to this the rising profits, and increased performance potential, of our companies due to a vibrant economy and new, and incoming, investments; we have full confidence that we will be able to leverage our debt to bring even more progress and prosperity to our people.
Which are the economic challenges you intend to address on priority if you were to return to power?
As illustrated in my party’s Manifesto, housing is a priority. I have pledged to ensure that all youth will have adequate housing by 2030. Housing is at the core of many socio-economic issues and I believe that adequate housing is the important first step towards economic stability.
The Maldives are a popular tourist destination and tourism is key to its economy. The political upheavals have prompted some countries to issue travel advisories cautioning their citizens. Has that impacted the Maldives? What would be your message to them?
Certainly political developments in the country does have an impact on our tourism. However, the experience has always been that political unrest is localized to the Capital or other major cities across the nation. Tourist resorts are largely unaffected and life goes on as normal. It must be noted that even the state of emergency that was precipitated by a constitutional crisis, went on peacefully. Apart from the travel advisories that are automatically triggered as a result of a state of emergency in effect, our schools, roads and beaches were open. Life went on, as usual.
There is concern in India that ties with the Maldives are under strain. Many suspect that this has to do with you government’s growing ties with China, thereby threatening Indian geopolitical, security interests. How do you address this worry in India?
India is historically, our oldest ally. The Maldives has always had an India first policy. That being said, Maldives is open for business, especially during this time of unprecedented economic growth.
How do you intend to expand ties with India? And China?
The Maldives is now at a place where we have to surge forward towards development and economic growth and as such we are ready to foster economic, and bi-lateral ties with all nations willing to be our partners in progress.
There is concern in several quarters over what they believe has been the rise of Muslim hardliners in the Maldives in recent years. How do you respond to this?
The rise of religious fanaticism is an issue that plagues all nations. I am confident that social inclusiveness and economic stability is the key to addressing this issue. These are priorities of my administration. In the meantime, we are constantly working with our international partners, through resource and information sharing, to curb radicalization and extremist thought.
Sourcing and building a strong local network of professionals and skilled workers, strengthening health tourism and providing shelter were among your priorities. How much of a headway has your government made?
The government funded 25 storey multi specialist Dharumavantha Hospital will come online later this year and long with that we will begin internships for fresh medical graduates laying the foundations of the first medial university program locally. While already we have several specialist facilities for kidney diseases, heart diseases, respiratory diseases, and more.
Our approach towards encouraging investments and our policies within the health sector has also seen the development of the first multi-specialist private hospital in our smart city Hulhumalé which is currently in operation and they have been ramping up services throughout the year.
Have the Maldives made progress on gender equality? Where do women professionals, leaders and workers stand?
One of the pledges of my administration was to ensure that 20% of all government boards and state companies, are held by women. This has been achieved. I have further pledged to increase this number to 50% in the next 5 years.
I have also ratified the Gender Equality Act which have steps towards prevention of discrimination based on gender.
Interestingly, as health professionals, teachers and lawyers, women currently contribute more and outnumber men in these key service sectors – this is true even in the civil service.
In terms of access to education girls have the same opportunity as boys and consistently outperform them – I am proud to say the Maldives maintains a 99% literacy rate. Our Police has the highest percentage of women on the force when compared to the entire region.
The wellbeing of, and opportunity for, women and children are one of my highest priorities and we plan to introduce a specialized hospital for them. Already we have facilitated for mothers to work from home.
Which world leader/s do you count as your role model? Tell us about your love for football, interaction with youth, and the books you read.
Lee Kuan Yew has been across the board, for me personally, the most inspirational world leader. His vision of what a small state could achieve is what grounds me in my reality that the Maldives can far exceed expectations others may have of our nation.
I have been an avid footballer since my school days and I play regularly while also keeping up with the game. This is why our win in the recent SAFF Cup is especially close to my heart – after a decade we are rightful champions once again and I firmly believe we will not wait another 10 years to move on to other, greater, successes.
I like to explore history. I read up a lot on that when I can and also do my own research in the area.