September 23, 2006 1:41:47 am
Once, during the tenure of then PM Rajiv Gandhi, the Indian Navy had rushed to island country Maldives — to the south-west of Kerala — to ensure that an attempt by a group of Sri Lankan mercenaries to take over doesn’t work. But since, Maldives hasn’t been the stuff of front-page news. Now, protesting the manner in which current President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom has held on to office since 1978, leaders of the opposition Maldives Democratic Party (MDP) are in India, hoping for support once again.
Founder of the MDP Abdul Latheef says Maldives despite being declared a republic in 1968, is a de facto “autocratic sultanate”. However, the Opposition is talking to Gayoom and the UK has moved in, facilitating secret, informal talks between the government and representatives of the MDP. In the past four months, at least four rounds of talks in Westminster House in London have been held and as a conciliatory gesture, chairman of the MDP Mohammed Nasheed ‘Anni’, held since August 12 , 2005, was released yesterday.
Leader of the MDP in the Maldivian Parliament Mohammed Shihab said “the charges have not been dropped, but with his release we can now think of formal talks with Gayoom.” Representing the largest constituency in Maldives, capital Male (30,000 voters!), he claims that despite just 11 seats in the 50-member Parliament (the Majlis), “we represent more than 50 per cent of Maldives.” Very critical of the present Maldivian regime, MDP leader Ahmed Nassim says, “We are working towards a smooth transition in Maldives, as we don’t have the might of Gayoom to be violent.” Highly cynical of the government and accusing it of tailing them, threatening and disallowing protests of any kind, most MDP leaders don’t live in Maldives, but shuttle between Sri Lanka and India.
Visiting government representative Mohammed Anil, director at the Attorney-General’s office, however, says, “The charges of Gayoom rigging polls are wrong. He has been elected six times since 1978, and there have been SAARC observers at all times. Last time, three years ago, even Commonwealth observers were present. These people simply want to capture power.”
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Despite the fact that traditionally a very liberal and localised version of Islam has been practised in the Maldives, both sides talk about the fears of Islamic fundamentalism taking root in the country. The government representative says the Opposition ratcheting the debate with the government will “create instability and help Islamic forces to gain ground.” The Opposition says the opposite. Nassim says that the “number of headscarves are on the increase, and the present President is encouraging the trend towards Islamisation.” The opposition leaders claim their voice is being muzzled and say they are in India to mobilise support.
India may not want more controversy, trouble and conflict in its backyard and that may explain why it has kept its position on this low key. But the Opposition leaders say India’s hesitation to act may also have to do with Gayoom “playing the China card. So India, which may have helped, but after seeing Gayoom cosy up to China, will not move against him, for fear of losing a neighbour to China.”
Anil dismisses all this as speculation. “It is true that the President went to China before going to Havana for the NAM summit, but too much is being made out of that. He remains a friend of India first and has made innumerable trips to India in his 28 years in office.”
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