In three weeks’ time, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi lands in the Maldives on his first state visit to the islands, he will find a nation divided — with one side demanding India’s help. Monday’s arrest of former President Mohamed Nasheed on terrorism charges has escalated long-standing political tensions into street clashes, and fuelled fears that an emergency could be proclaimed.
The fighting on Male’s streets is the latest phase in a long-running drama. In 2012, Nasheed had sacked the country’s top judge, leading to a coup d’etat he blames on old oligarchs determined to guard their privileges. Following a bitterly fought election, a coalition led by President Abdulla Yameen came to power. However, the coalition has proved unstable.
The government has sought to guard its flanks by prosecuting Nasheed, hoping to eject him from the electoral game. Last week, Maldives’s prosecutor-general withdrew charges against Nasheed for sacking the judge — but issued a fresh arrest warrant for the same alleged crime, this time under anti-terrorism laws. The government claims it acted because Nasheed was planning to flee trial. His legal team, however, says the move is meant to deny him a fair trial — an assessment the international community largely shares.
Nasheed has called on Modi to intervene to uphold democracy. In fairness, though, it isn’t entirely clear what he can do. It is improbable cutting economic ties would achieve much, for example, other than giving China new opportunities. The Maldives’s problems, moreover, aren’t the kind that can easily be fixed by even the sternest diplomatic telling-off. Maumoon Gayoom’s quasi-despotic rule from 1978 to 2008 did not allow a democratic political culture to flourish.
In the years since, politicians have poisoned the democracy well, using everything from religion to witchcraft allegations to slander each other. Islamists have cashed in on the political disarray. Experts estimate more than 200 Maldives citizens are serving with jihadist groups, entire families have migrated to join the Islamic State. For India, this spells danger — but to avert it, the Maldives political class needs to understand they are headed down a dangerous slope. Modi can’t save the Maldives’s élite from themselves — but some plain speaking might just avert disaster.
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