Nine hour power cut in Malé caused by damaged switch gear

The State Electricity Company (STELCO) has said that a power outage in the Galolhu ward of Malé around 1:00am last night was caused by a damaged switch gear at a distribution centre in Lily Magu.

The power cut lasted more than nine hours and followed STELCO warning of intermittent cuts in the capital after one of two main 8MW generators at the power plant suffered damage.

STELCO spokesperson Ibrahim Rauf told Minivan News that electricity services resumed around 11:00am this morning after the switch gear was replaced.

Contrary to rumours, Rauf said last night’s outage was not the result of an overload caused by LED lights placed at government buildings to mark the upcoming 50th anniversary of independence.

Rauf suggested that the damage could have been caused by heavy rainfall last night, but said that the exact cause has not been determined.

The damage to one of the main engines earlier this month was caused by “technical problems” and will take time to repair, Rauf said. The generator’s parts will have to be brought from overseas and replaced, he added.

STELCO is yet to determine the cause of the generator failure.

The government-owned electricity provider in the atolls, Fenaka Corporation, is meanwhile transporting two 2MW engines to Malé from Addu City for temporary use during the independence day celebrations.

Rauf said one of the generators was shipped out last night and STELCO “will see when it arrives” whether it could be installed ahead of Independence Day. But he expressed confidence that STELCO will be able to handle the high demand for electricity on July 26 without power cuts.

Meanwhile, in a Facebook post on Sunday, Addu City Mayor Abdulla Sodiq said electricity services provided by the central power station was disrupted last week while power outages have been common in recent weeks.

The transfer of the generator to Malé is regrettable, he said, calling on the government not to “deprive citizens of such basis services.”

The government’s policy of ensuring reliable, round-the-clock electricity across the country has “failed,” Sodiq contended.

“The question is if Addu faces an electricity problem tomorrow, will an engine be brought from Greater Malé?” he asked.

Rauf meanwhile told Minivan News last week that the LED lights strung for independence day celebrations will use around 2.5 MW of electricity from the STELCO grid.

“We are very concerned and saddened because the lights may also suffer due to the power cuts,” he said.

Malé uses 46MW of electricity on average, but the amount could go up to 52MW at peak hours or on dry and humid days.

“The demand for electricity depends a lot on the weather. If we have wet cold weather then people would not use air-conditioners and electricity demand will be reduced,” he said.

It has been raining heavily in Malé this week, but July 26 is expected to be dry, according to weather forecasts.

Power cuts will last only one hour at high demand periods, and will be spread out in different areas of Malé, Rauf said.

Maldives is celebrating 50 years of independence from the British on July 26.

The government is planning grand celebrations to mark Independence Day, including a parade by the army and school brass bands, reopening of public parks with water fountains, an official function at the Usfasgandu area with more than 100 foreign dignitaries, official games at the national stadium, and a football tournament in the atolls.

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International rowing tour to begin in Addu this weekend

The Maldives is to hold an international rowing tour in the southern atolls, organised by the Rowing Association of Maldives, World Rowing Federation, and Addu City Council.

The tour, which will see 19 international rowers participating, is set to start at Gan with the route taking the athletes through nine islands in Huvadhoo Atoll and Fuvahmulah before concluding at Gaafu Dhaalu Thinadhoo.

Rowing Association of Maldives President Ahmed Habeeb told Haveeru said that the tour will kick off on February 7 and will finish on February 16

Habeeb said that he believes that this tour will help advertise Addu to the world, and help boost tourism in the atoll.

The Maldives joined the International Rowing Federation in 2010, just months after British Olympic rower Guin Batten broke the record for the solo crossing of the Zero Degree Channel between Huvadhoo and Fuvahmulah.

Source: Haveeru

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Majlis approves reallocation of flats from southern atolls to Hulhumalé

The People’s Majlis voted 38-31 yesterday to grant a request by President Abdulla Yameen to reallocate 704 flats to Hulhumalé from a 1,500-housing unit project planned for four southern atolls.

MPs of the ruling Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) and coalition partner Maldives Development Alliance (MDA) voted in favour while opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) MPs and Jumhooree Party (JP) MPs voted against the proposal.

On June 11, President Yameen asked parliament to review a decision by the 17th People’s Majlis in December 2013 to deny the president’s request.

The year before, the previous parliament had also denied his predecessor President Dr Mohamed Waheed’s request to revise the housing project to shift 704 housing units to Hulhumalé.

In December 2012, parliament rejected the proposed change with former Speaker Abdulla Shahid casting a tie-breaking vote after the vote was tied 33-33.

An MVR2.5 billion (US$162 million) loan was secured during the administration of former President Mohamed Nasheed in 2011 to construct 1,500 housing units in Gaaf Alif, Gaaf Dhaal, Fuvahmulah and Addu City.

In a letter seeking parliamentary approval for the revision – which was read out at the parliament sitting on July 2 – President Yameen stated that the government had conducted a “needs assessment” and determined that there was “no need at present” to build more than 796 housing units in the southern atolls.

Yameen also contended that “micro-level decisions regarding loans” should be made by the executive, adding that an affordable housing scheme was essential to develop Hulhumalé with a large enough population to provide education and healthcare services and create job opportunities.

Developing a ‘youth city’ in Hulhumalé with a population of 50,000 was a campaign pledge of President Yameen, whose vision for the artificial island includes the creation of light industries and a “technopolis” park as well as sports and entertainment facilities.

The president’s request was forwarded to the public accounts committee (PAC) earlier this month, which approved it over the objections of opposition MPs on the committee and sent a report (Dhivehi) to the Majlis floor for final approval. The report was compiled by the PAC of the previous parliament.

Pro-government MPs had rejected MDP MPs Ibrahim Shareef’s proposal to seek further information after summoning Housing Minister Dr Mohamed Muiz and voted in favour of a proposal by PPM MP Riyaz Rasheed to pass the previous report.

Parliamentary approval for revising the terms of a loan is required under amendments approved to the Public Finance Act in 2010.

Regional disparity

During the final debate on the report at Tuesday’s sitting, MDP MP for the mid-Hithadhoo constituency in Addu City, Ibrahim Mohamed Didi, alleged that the contractors stood to gain an additional US$21 million by shifting the flats to the Malé region.

“Who on the committee looked into what happens to this US$21 million?” the retired brigadier general asked, characterising the move as a “betrayal” of the people of the southern atolls.

He explained that the cost of a flat decreases from US$150,000 to US$75,000 when it is built in Hulhumalé.

Due to the low value of land outside the central region, Didi said people in the outer atolls were unable to secure housing loans and appealed to pro-government MPs to vote against the proposal on behalf of their constituents.

JP Leader Gasim Ibrahim also alleged “serious corruption” in tendering the construction work to a contractor as the cost of building a flat should not exceed US$75,000 on average.

Flats for tsunami victims in the south were built with loan assistance from the Saudi Fund and elsewhere for about US$50,000, he added.

The JP MP for Maamigili called for investigations by the Auditor General’s Office and Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC), questioning the US$150 million price tag for 1,500 flats.

Independent MP for Gaaf Dhaal Madaveli, Muaz Mohamed Rasheed, said his constituents were “very concerned” with the decision to reallocate the flats from the south.

If the flats are to be built in Hulhumalé, Muaz suggested that citizens of southern atolls should get preference in the awarding process.

However, despite the misgivings, Muaz said the government should be able to make revisions in the interests of loan repayment. While he attended yesterday’s sitting, Muaz did not participate in the vote.

PPM MP for Gaaf Alif Gemanafushi, Jameel Usman, noted that a large number of citizens from the atolls resided in the capital and were in need of housing, to whom President Yameen wished to provide low-cost housing.

MDA MP Ahmed Amir meanwhile cautioned that further delays caused by parliament could jeopardise the loan, which was secured on favourable terms at a “very low” interest rate.

The PPM-led government’s manifesto included land reclamation of several islands in the outer atolls, Amir said, where housing units would also be built.

UNDP Human Development Index released last month highlighted regional disparities and inequalities in the Maldives as a “major challenge” towards human development.

“Where one is born within the Maldives determines many of the opportunities and choices available to a person,” the report concluded.

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Finance Committee approves reallocating southern flats to Hulhumalé

Parliament’s finance committee has approved President Abdulla Yameen’s proposal to relocate 704 out of 1,500 housing units, planned for the southern four atolls, to Hulhumalé.

The 1,500 housing units were originally planned to be constructed in Gaaf Alif, Gaaf Dhaal, Fuvahmulah, and Addu City with a MVR2.5 billion (US$162 million) loan secured from the Chinese EXIM bank under President Mohamed Nasheed’s administration.

The request to move 704 units to Hulhumalé was first made by President Dr Mohamed Waheed in December 2012, but denied by parliament at the time.

President Yameen, who has pledged to develop a ‘youth cityin Hulhumalé with a population of 50,000, recently requested the same change, stating there is “no need at present” to build more than 796 housing units in the southern atolls under the project.

Yameen’s request, which was approved on Monday by the finance committee, has now been sent to the Majlis floor for approval.

At Monday’s committee meeting, the proposition to approve the request was made by ruling Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) MP Riyaz Rasheed who said it was not feasible to develop all the units in the southern atolls.

He proposed to accept the president’s request and to pass a report compiled by the previous Majlis’ finance committee, in response to President Waheed’s request in 2012.

The report states that the committee approves the decision to relocate housing units from four southern atolls to Malé because the Ministry of Housing has said in a letter that this decision was made after a ‘housing needs assessment’ in those atolls.

The 13 member committee has six members from the ruling PPM, two from the Jumhooree Party (JP) and one member from the ruling coalition party the Maldives Development Alliance (MDA).

However, the decision was met with fierce opposition from the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) who have four MPs in the committee.

Addu city’s Maradhoo MP Ibrahim ‘Mavota’ Shareef from the MDP proposed to seek further information on the issue by summoning Minister of Housing and Minister of Housing to the committee, but the motion received just three votes in favor.

Shareef accused the government of trying to isolate islands other than Malé and described the decision to relocate housing units as a betrayal of Addu people.

He said the initial plan to develop all 1,500 units in the southern atolls was also based on a feasibility study and a proposal by the MDP administration and was focused on relieving congestion in Male’ area.

Responding to Shareef’s comments, PPM’s Addu Feydhoo MP Ibrahim Didi said the government is not acting against Addu people and he has no objection to the government decision as Feydhoo does not have space for the construction of those housing units.

MDP parliamentary group leader Ibrahim Solih said the party has no issue with the government changing projects to fit their policies, but the concern is over not knowing the details of the justification for such a change.

The issue of regional disparities in development were highlighted in the UNDP’s Human Development Index report which argued that regional inequalities remained a “major challenge” towards human development.

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‘Namoona Dhoni’ case retracted by Prosecutor General’s Office

A senior official at the Prosecutor General’s (PG) Office has revealed that the 2006 ‘Namoona Dhoni’ case, thought to have been re-opened earlier this month, has now been retracted.

“We decide not to continue with the charges and we have retracted the case,” said the official.

“We only found out the case was still still active when the Criminal Court scheduled the hearing. I  was under the impression that this case had been retracted and discontinued.”

A Criminal Court Media Official was quoted in local media as stating that it had received the charges from the PG’s Office at the start of this month.

Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) member Ameen Faisal, alongside former member Abbas Adil Riza were reportedly facing charges of disobeying a lawful order under section 88 of the penal code.

Seven other individuals were also reported to be facing charges in relation to the incident.

The PG Office official, however, stated that the retention of the case had been an “oversight” as the PG had previously opted to retract all cases for which it lacked constitutional authority.

“Before 2008 constitution, the government could make laws and issue guidelines for people to follow, and if they fail to follow them they could be prosecuted. One of the bases of this prosecution was that there was an announcement made by the Home Ministry.”

The official confirmed that the announcement in question was order for the fishing vessel ‘Namoona’ not to set-off from Addu in November 2006.

State prosecutors had claimed that authorities ordered the journey not to go ahead, arguing that the group intended to “unlawfully sow discord among the public and to disrupt the public order” by joining an MDP demonstration in the capital.

The journey had been prompted by the MDP National Council’s call for party supporters to travel to the capital in order to pressure autocratic leader Maumoon Abdul Gayoom to expedite the drafting of the new constitution.

“We can’t base our prosecution on a statement or an announcement made by the ministry. After the 2008 constitution, there was no basis to continue with the prosecution,” said the PG official.

The November 2006 incident involved the Namoona travelling from Addu to Male’ being forced to change course by the Coast Guard.

A press release from Amnesty International shortly after the incident raised concerns that the government was suppressing freedom of expression and assembly.

Investigating the Namoona Dhoni incident, Amnesty said: “A gunship reportedly came within several metres of the passenger boat causing big waves, which rocked the boat violently.”

“The gunship followed the boat and reportedly forced it to anchor near an uninhabited island.

According to reports, for a period of about eight hours the gunboat deliberately prevented the boat from reaching habitable islands to replenish its food supplies, which had run out. The passengers were then taken into custody.”

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“Right now decentralisation in this country is just for show”: Addu City mayor

Mayor of Addu City Abdulla Sodig has suggested the financial difficulties facing his council are a result of the failure to implement the decentralisation act properly.

“Right now decentralisation in this country is just for show,” Sodig told Minivan News.

“The government and Majlis need to resolve these issues if the citizens are to benefit from decentralisation in a meaningful way.”

Addu City will be hit hard by the government’s proposed budget cuts, said Sodig, expressing concerns that the proposed budget for the city is insufficient to adequately provide essential services.

From the MVR421.4million budget requested by the council for 2014, only MVR45.6million was allocated in the budget proposed by Ministry of Finance to the People’s Majlis.

According to the mayor, the initial amount proposed in July 2013 was MVR54.8 million, in response to which the council informed the ministry that MVR123.1 million would be required for recurrent and capital expenditure – excluding Public Sector Investment Programmes (PSIPs).

When the council again requested a minimum of MVR85 million, the ministry proposed a reduced amount of MVR45.6 million. Of this amount, MVR35.2 million was allocated for salaries, MVR5.7 million for pre-schools, and MVR3.7 million for council office administrative costs.

Sodig says this amount would not cover the expenses of repairing mosques and roads.

“Addu City roads are badly in need of repair, whenever it rains most roads are flooded” he said. No funds were allocated for road reconstruction and repair in 2012 or 2013, he added.

Funds for some services in the council’s mandate, such as maintenance of roads and mosques, are included in the budgets of the relevant state departments, Sodig noted.

“It is very difficult, time consuming and costly to carry out our obligations like this.”

The MVR45.6 million budget currently proposed by the ministry does not include any additional projects, for which the council had requested MVR291.9 million.

“The amount we requested includes money needed for land reclamation projects in Hithadhoo, Maradhoo, Maradhoo-Feydhoo and Feydhoo. It was initially included in the budget, but has been removed now” Sodig explained.

In 2013 MVR6 million was proposed for PSIP projects, but the council received no money when the budget was finalised. The land reclamation projects were first proposed in 2008 but have been repeatedly delayed.

The actual budget allocation for the council in 2013 was MVR33.7 million, though it reached MVR55 million by the end of the year. The council still has pending electricity bills and up to MVR3 million and MVR186,000 in phone bills.

“At the budget committee we requested at least MVR25 million to pay our pending bills and for other existing contracts such as security and legal services, and they said anything that is absolutely essential will be included” Sodig said.

In 2014 the Council will earn an estimated MVR12.9 million in land lease payments and other fees collected for services provided by the council. A number of issues with financial independence of local councils, however, makes it difficult for the money to be properly utilised.

In 2012, the Finance Ministry requested all local councils to deposit all their revenues with Maldives Inland Revenue Authority (MIRA) – a decision which Sodiq believes has discouraged local councils from investing in income generating programmes. Fees collected for public services provided with the council’s own resources are also collected by the central ministries.

Sodig blamed laws contravening the ‘Decentralisation Act’ as a primary cause for these issues.

Article 81 of the act requires national authorities to allocate an amount (decided by Ministry of Finance) from state facilities in which the council does not have any participation but are within it’s administrative area.

The mayor noted that no such payments have been made so far, and that some of the natural resources currently utilised by the state were sources of income for locals through traditional economic activity prior to their development for other purposes.

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Cabinet’s convention centre re-zoning “for political gain”: Addu City Mayor

The Cabinet has advised President Mohamed Waheed Hassan to overturn the previous government’s decision to make the Addu Equatorial Convention Center (ECC) zone an ‘uninhabited area’, potentially allowing the sale of prohibited commodities such as liquor, as practiced for resorts.

The area was designated ‘uninhabited’ on November 19, 2011 by former president and current presidential candidate Mohamed Nasheed.

Yesterday’s recommendation originated in the Finance Ministry, which submitted a paper on the subject during Monday’s cabinet meeting, the president’s office reports.

Spokespersons at the President’s Office said they could not provide details on the recommendation; Addu City Mayor Abdullah Sodig reports that the council was not consulted on or informed of the Cabinet’s recommendation, and claims that it was made for political gain in the face of this Saturday’s presidential elections.

“The Cabinet recommendation opposes Nasheed’s [tourism development] policy, and they want to show the public that they are trying to give land to people who need it. But it’s really just political gain,” Sodig said. “Three days before elections, I don’t think it’s about giving people land.”

Zoning laws in the Maldives determine which islands and areas may be developed for tourism and therefore exempted from national laws prohibiting the sale of alcohol and pork and enforcing compliance with cultural dress codes. Maldives’ southern atolls, including Addu and nearby Gnaviyani atoll, have historically benefited the least from the country’s tourism economy.

President Nasheed decreed the ECC zone uninhabited prior to the 2011 SAARC summit in Addu, effectively laying a foundation for resort, guest house and other tourism-oriented development activities.

Nearly two years since this decree the mood has shifted dramatically. Bids to develop the convention center and surrounding area were interrupted by the February 7, 2012 transfer of power, after which the new administration retained the building as a “national asset”.

Formerly enthusiastic about Addu’s growth potential, Sodig today expressed deep frustration with the government’s inaction.

“[The Convention Center] is never dusted, the toilets are never cleaned, the floors never polished,” he said, adding that the facility has only been used for a few wedding parties and political rallies since it opened in November 2011.

Sodig claimed that his repeated requests for maintenance funds and development activity had received minimal response from President Waheed’s government.

“I took the State Minister of Housing to the building and asked him to look into maintenance. I even met with the Attorney General, Azima Shukoor, for the same purpose in Male,” said Sodig. “She said she would think about it. But until now they have done nothing.”

Sodig reports that without tourism development the ECC, which as of January was mired in MVR 4 million ($260,078) of unpaid electricity bills, “would end up as a liability”. As of June, the Maldivian government owed State Electricity Company (STELCO) MVR 543 million ($35.2) in unpaid electricity bills.

The Cabinet’s sudden action this week suggests that the ECC zone is now being treated as a pawn in the housing debate for the presidential elections. Addu Atoll is home to a significant percentage of the population, and has historically supported President Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP).

In 2002, 700 ECC-zone land plots were allocated to Adouin families. According to the mayor, only 150 plots have been officially registered as ‘in use’. In an atoll where the average household income is MVR 60,000 ($3,900) per year, the approximate cost of building a two-bedroom home is MVR300,000 ($19,500).

While Adduans who received land in the ECC zone objected to President Nasheed’s zoning decree in 2011, they were content with the island council’s compensatory proposal, Sodig said. He added that he was not aware of any recent complaints that might have triggered the Cabinet to recommend zoning reversal.

The ministries of Finance and Housing had not responded to calls at time of press.

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Comment: Decision on US base may have to wait

Notwithstanding the recent media leaks on a ‘US military base’ in Maldives, a decision on whatever that facility be, may have to wait until after the parliamentary polls of May 2014, not stopping with the presidential elections due in September this year.

In effect, this could mean that a national debate, and more importantly a parliamentary vote, will be required before any government in Male – this one or the next – takes a decision, though none is now in the air even a month after a section of the local web media went to town on the ‘leak’ and subsequent reports in the matter.

For starters, it may be too premature, if not outright improper, to dub the emerging relations as ending in a military base for the US in the Indian Ocean Archipelago.

The two governments have stuck to the position that the ‘Status of Forces Agreement’ (SOFA), with the US claiming it to be a general agreement for extending training facilities by the American armed forces. According to the US, similar agreements already exist with over 100 countries.

Maldives Defence Minister, Col Ahmed Nazim (retd), too has said that they were not contemplating any military facility for the US but only for the latter extending training to his nation’s personnel.

He has since gone to town, declaring that the leaked document was ‘not genuine’ and that they had shared the original one with the President’s Office, the Attorney-General’s office and the Maldivian customs – and would do so only with the Security Services Committee, not Parliament’s Government Oversights Committee, where the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) incidentally is in a majority.

Bringing parliament into the picture

For now, the lid has been placed on the issue after Attorney-General Aishath Bisham clarified that handing over any region in the Maldives for the setting up of a foreign military facility of whatever kind would require parliamentary clearance with a simple majority.

In doing so, the Attorney-General cited the advice given to the incumbent government of President Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik, by her predecessor Aishath Azima. According to her, Azima had advised the Defence Ministry as early as March 21 that parliamentary approval would be required for any agreement of the kind with the US. Bisham said she stood by her predecessor’s position in the matter. The media leaks appeared a month later.

As may be recalled, the law providing for prior parliamentary clearance for agreements of the nature came into being when Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) leader Mohamed Nasheed was President in 2010. That was when the Nasheed government was keen on signing a construction-cum-concession contract for the Male international airport with India-based infrastructure developer, GMR Group.

The deed was done, but not without high drama and controversy both inside and outside parliament.

Between the executive and the legislature in a democracy, both sides blamed each other for ‘colourable exercise’ of respective powers in the ‘GMR deal’ but none questioned the subsequent application of the new law to new agreements of the kind.

The US-SOFA deal cannot be exempted either, unless parliament were to do so. However, given the present political calculus and electoral calculations, no political party or leader may have the will to move forward in the matter, inside parliament or otherwise,.

As may also be recalled, after much drama and bilateral tensions, the succeeding government of President Waheed cancelled the GMR contract. The decision has since been upheld by the mutually agreed-upon arbitration court in Singapore, which is also looking into the compensation claims of GMR. The Maldivian government argues that the contract was ab initio void, and has cited the existence of the law requiring previous clearance for transferring possession of a ‘national asset’ to foreign parties, as among the reasons.

The law came about at a critical juncture at the birth of the GMR contract. A day after the Nasheed government announced the formal decision in the matter the opposition-majority parliament hurriedly passed the law, pending the unanticipated reconstitution of the board of the Male Airport Company Ltd (MACL), after the existing one was unwilling to sign on the dotted line.

President Nasheed returned the bill to parliament promptly, under the existing provision. Left with no option but to assent the bill after parliament had passed it a second time, with equal hurry and vehemence.

As is the wont in many other countries, the Constitution provides for any bill passed by parliament a second time becoming law automatically, if within a stipulated period the President does not give his assent. In the Maldives it is a 15-day window. However, the MDP government got the GMR contract through before the lapse of the 15-day period, and President Nasheed too gave his assent to the said bill within the stipulated time, if only to avoid arguments about the untenable nature of his continuance in office under controversial circumstances of the kind.

From ACSA to SOFA…

Apart from SOFA, the US has signed another 10-year agreement, titled the ‘Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement’ (ACSA), which it claimed had been done similarly with over 100 countries. The ACSA, signed ‘on a bilateral basis with allies or coalition partners that allow US forces to exchange most common types of support, including food, fuel, transportation, ammunition, and equipment.

The agreement does not, in any way, commit a country to any military action. Some would argue that SOFA is an extension of ACSA, but some others also point out that not all countries that have signed ACSA are targeted by the US for signing SOFA.

In the case of Maldives, in 2009, when MDP’s Nasheed was the Maldivian President, his Defence Minister of the day, Ameen Faisal was said to have discussed an ACSA with visiting US Ambassador Patricia A Butenis.

According to Wikileaks, sourced to US Embassy message of October 7, 2009, “He also reiterated the Maldives’ interest in establishing a USN (US Navy) facility in the southernmost atoll. He thanked the Ambassador for US security assistance…”

In the present case, Maldivian media reports, claiming access to unauthenticated draft of SOFA, said that the agreement outlined “conditions for the potential establishment of a US military base in the country”. The draft, obtained by Maldivian current affairs blog DhivehiSitee, “incorporates the principal provisions and necessary authorisations for the temporary presence and activities of the US forces in the Republic of Maldives and, in the specific situations indicated herein, the presence and activities of the US contractors in the Republic of Maldives”, the Minivan News web-journal said in the last week of April.

Under the proposed 10-year agreement outlined in the leaked draft, Maldives would “furnish, without charge” to the US unspecified “Agreed Facilities and Areas”, and “such other facilities and areas in the territory and territorial seas? and authorize the US forces to exercise all rights that are necessary for their use, operation, defence or control, including the right to undertake new construction works and make alterations and improvements”.

The draft also says that the US would be authorised to “control entry” to areas provided for its “exclusive use”, and would be permitted to operate its own telecommunications system and use the radio spectrum “free of cost”.

Furthermore, the US would also be granted access to and use of “aerial ports, sea ports and agreed facilities for transit, support and related activities, bunkering of ships, refuelling of aircraft, maintenance of vessels, aircraft, vehicles and equipment, accommodation of personnel, communications, ship visits, training, exercises, humanitarian activities”.

The contents of the leaked draft has remained uncontested – maybe because it is an American template that has been leaked – and provides for US personnel to wear uniforms while performing official duties “and to carry arms while on duty if authorised to do so by their orders”. US personnel (and civilian staff) would furthermore “be accorded the privileges, exemptions and immunities equivalent to those accorded to the administrative and technical staff of a diplomatic mission under the Vienna Convention”, and be subject to the criminal jurisdiction of the US – and not the Maldivian laws, with a preponderance of Islamic Sharia practices.

The draft exempts US vessels from entry fee in ports and airports, and personnel from payment of duties even for their personnel effects brought into Maldives.

The draft also stipulates that neither party could approach “any national or international court, tribunal or similar body, or to a third party for settlement, unless otherwise mutually agreed” over matters of bilateral dispute flowing from the agreement. This would obviously cover “damage to, loss of, or destruction of its property or injury or death to personnel of either party’s armed forces or their civilian personnel arising out the performance of their official duties in connection with activities under this agreement”.

Sri Lankan precedent on ACSA

In recent years, ACSA became news in neighbouring Sri Lanka at the height of ‘Eelam War IV’, when the government of President Mahinda Rajapaklsa signed one with the US in seeming hurry. President Rajapaksa was away in China when his brother and Defence Secretary Gothabaya Rajapaksa signed the ACSA at Colombo in March 2007, with Robert Blake, who was the US Ambassador to Sri Lanka and Maldives at the time.

It is believed that the US intelligence-sharing, helping Sri Lanka to vanquish the dreaded LTTE terror-group, particularly the ‘Sea Tigers’ wing, followed the ACSA.

At present, questions are being asked within Sri Lanka if the current US ‘over-drive’ over ‘war crimes and accountability issues’ relating to Colombo at UNHRC may have anything to do with Washington’s possible desire to sign up for SOFA or such other agreements.

However, there is nothing whatsoever to suggest that such may have even be the case. It is however to be presumed that the US may not be exactly happy over Sri Lanka getting increasingly involved in China’s sphere of influence, what with President Rajapaksa visiting Beijing almost every other year, and signing bilateral agreements in a wide-range of sectors, as he has done less than a fortnight back.

A section of the Sri Lankan media in the immediate neighbourhood has since claimed that MDP’s Nasheed would take up the issue with Colombo and New Delhi. Otherwise, President Rajapaksa’s ruling front partner, Minister Wimal Weerawansa, head of the National Freedom Front (NFF), a shriller breakaway faction of the one-time Left militant, now ‘Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist’ Janatha Vimukthi Peramana (JVP), is alone in his condemnation of the US move in Maldives. The Sri Lankan Government and polity otherwise have refrained from any reaction – so have their counterparts in India.

Politics of silence?

If partners in the Maldivian government and also the opposition MDP seem to be maintaining relative but calculated indifference to the leaked document, it may not be without reason. The Wikileaks’ indication of the predecessor Nasheed government’s willingness to sign ACSA with the US and then Minister Faisal’s interest in the ‘US setting up a military facility in the southernmost atoll’ may have silenced the party to some extent.

The Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), which in its earlier, undivided avatar as the Dhivehi Progressive Party (DRP), put Maldivian sovereignty and national security as among the major causes for its opposition to the Male airport contract with the GMR.

Post-leak, media reports have quoted second-line MDP leaders in the matter. The party’s international spokesperson, Hamid Abdul Ghafoor, said that the MDP had heard of the proposal – supposedly concerning Laamu Atoll and the site of the former British airbase on Seenu Gan in the south of the country.

“We are wondering what our other international partners – India, Australia, etc – think of this idea,” Ghafoor said.

Other party leaders too have reacted cautiously, linking their undeclared future decision in the matter to the views of the Indian neighbour and regional power, whose security interests too are involved.

It is not only the opposition in the Maldives that has maintained silence over the proposed agreement with the US.

Ruling front partners who prop up the Waheed government inside the Cabinet and more so in Parliament have also avoided direct reference to the US proposal, at least in public. The president is not known to have commented on the subject, as yet. When the SOFA leak appeared in April, President’s Office Spokesperson Masood Imad said that he had texted President Waheed, who had no knowledge of any agreement.

The Defence Ministry also had no information on the matter, he said. At the time, Imad would not comment on whether the government would be open to such a proposal.

Subsequently, Defence Minister Nazim clarified that no decision had been taken in the matter. There thus seemed to be an attempt to show up the SOFA initiative, if there was any on the Maldivian side, as that of the Defence Ministry.

It is not a new process in the Maldivian context, as in most other nations, specific initiatives of such kinds are often moved only through the departments or ministries concerned, and the rest of the government is involved, at times in stages.

The Nasheed government’s certain initiatives in similar matters too had followed this route, in relations to China, it is said. In this background, Defence Minister Nazim’s delayed clarification that the Government had shared the official document with the relevant authorities and that the “leaked agreement was altered and shared on the social media” should set some of the concerns on this score to rest – at least for the present.

However, as the SOFA leak says, “The proposed agreement would supersede an earlier agreement between the US and Maldives regarding “Military and Department of Defense Civilian Personnel”, effected on December 31, 2004.

PPM’s founder, who had also founded the DRP, was Maldivian President in 2004. Hence possibly the reluctance of the PPM to keep the ‘US issue alive’, over which the Gayoom leadership had taken on the Nasheed government, on the ‘Guantanamo prisoner’ issue, for instance.

The issue involved the transfer of a Chinese prisoner of the US from the infamous Guantanamo Bay facility in Cuba, to Maldives, but domestic opposition flowing from the nation’s Islamic identity (however moderate) stalled the process.

After Diego Garcia…

A SOFA agreement for the US with Maldives acquires greater significance in the current context of the nation having to possibly the vacate the better-known yet even more controversial Diego Garcia military base in the Chagos Archipelago, less than 750 km from southern Maldives’ Addu Atoll with the Gan air-base.

The 50-year lease agreement for Diego Garcia, which the British partner of the US in the NATO purchased from Mauritius in 1965 for three-million pound-sterling a year earlier, ends in 2016.

The controversy over the forcible eviction of the local population to facilitate the lease has not died down in the UK, and there are strong doubts about the likelihood of its extension, owing to a British High Court verdict, which restored residency rights to the original Chagos inhabitants as far back as 2000.

Though a subsequent 2008 House of Lords ruling has over-turned the court verdict, the Chagos have appealed to the European Court of Human Rights, where embarrassment might await both the UK and the US. Whether or not the Chagos can return to their home, a 2010 British decision to declare the Archipelago as the world’s largest marine reserve and protected area could well mean that no military activity could occur thereabouts.

The controversies have not rested there, and continue to rage in court-room battles, and could become a cause for the civil society in the UK and rest of Europe. It is in this context, any SOFA agreement would trigger an interest and/or concerns in neighbouring Sri Lanka and India – not necessarily in that order – as also other international users of the abutting Indian Ocean sea-lines, which Diego Garcia and Maldives, not to leave out Sri Lanka’s southern Hambantota port, built in turn by China.

Neighbourhood concerns

Thus, US Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake’s assertion after the SOFA draft leaked to the Maldivian media that Washington did “not have any plans to have a military presence in Maldives” has not convinced many.

“We have exercise programs very frequently (with Maldives) and we anticipate that those would continue. But we do not anticipate any permanent military presence. Absolutely no bases of any kind,” Blake said.

However, considering the content of the leaked SOFA draft, and/or the motive behind the leak and its timing, there are apprehensions that before long the US might demand – and possibly obtain – Maldivian real estate for its military purposes, one way or the other, and will also have protection from local court interference.

In this, the interest and concerns of Sri Lanka and India are real. Ever since the US took a keener interest in the ‘war crimes’ and ‘accountability’ issues haunting the Sri Lankan state, political establishment and the armed forces almost as a whole, Colombo has been askance about the ‘real motives’ behind Washington’s drive at the UNHRC, Geneva, for two years in a row.

The European allies of the US too are reported to have been perplexed by the American move, which they seem to feel should stop with the attainment of political rights for the minority Tamils in Sri Lanka, and not chase a mirage, which could have unwelcome and unpredictable consequences, all-round.

For India, after the Chinese ‘commercial and developmental presence’ at Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port and Mattale airport, any extra-territorial power’s military presence in the neighbourhood should make it uncomfortable. It would have to be so even it was the US, with which New Delhi signed a defence cooperation agreement in 2005.

Before Washington now, Beijing was said to have eyed real estate in Maldives, and was believed to have submitted grandeur plans to develop a whole atoll into a large-scale resort facility for an anticipated tens of thousands of Chinese tourists.

Around the time, China reportedly submitted its plans, news reports had suggested that Chinese tourists, who had propped up the Maldivian economy at the height of the global economic meltdown of 2008, felt unwelcome in the existing resorts, where they would like to cook their own packed meal brought from home – cutting into the hoteliers’ profit-margin in a big way.

While China now accounts for the highest number of tourists arriving in Maldives, it does not translate into the highest-spending by tourists from any country or region. This owes to the spending styles of the Chinese and other South Asians, including Indians, compared to their European and American counterparts.

India as ‘net provider of security’

Media reports have also quoted US officials that they would take Indian into confidence before proceeding in the matter. If they have done so already, it does not seem to have been in ways and at levels requiring an Indian reaction in public.

Alternatively, the US may not have as yet found the levels of negotiations/agreement with Maldives that may require it to take the Indian partner into such confidence. This could imply that the US is still on a ‘fishing expedition’ on the Maldivian SOFA. It is another matter that at no stage in its recent engagements with India’s South Asian neighbours, Washington seemed to have taken New Delhi into confidence at the comforting levels that the latter had been used to with the erstwhile Soviet Union during the ‘Cold War’ era.

Whatever the truth and level of such ‘confidence’ on the American side, an existing bilateral agreement provides for Maldives tasking India into confidence over ay third-nation security and defence cooperation agreements that it may enter into.

As may be recalled, India rushed its military forces to Maldives in double-quick time under ‘Operation Cactus’ in 1988, after Sri Lankan Tamil mercenaries targeted the country, and then President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom sought New Delhi’s military intervention.

Bilateral security relations have been strengthened since, with the Coast Guards of the two countries exercising every two years together, with Sri Lanka being included in ‘Dhosti 11′ for the first time in March 2012.

However, considering the purported American vehemence on the Sri Lanka front, and Washington making successive forays into India’s immediate neighbouring nations, one after the other, questions are beginning to be asked in New Delhi’s strategic circles if they had seen it all, or was there more to follow. As is now beginning to be acknowledged, in countries such as Bangladesh, Myanmar and Nepal, where the Indian concerns had neutralised Chinese presence to some extent, the US is being seen as a new player on its own.

In the bygone ‘Cold War’ era, the erstwhile Soviet Union was not known to have made forays – political or otherwise -into South Asia without expressly discussing it with India, and deciding on it together.

Afghanistan might have been an exception. The country at the time was not seen as a part of South Asia, yet the embarrassment for India was palpable. But Maldives and the rest in the present-day context of purported American military interest seeks to side-step, if not belittle India.

Otherwise, if the choice for India is between the US and China, for an extra-territorial power in the immediate neighbourhood, it would be a clear one. But if that choice were to lead to an ‘arms race’ between extra-territorial powers that India and the rest of the region cannot match for a long time to come, it would be a different case altogether.

It could also lead to greater estrangement of India and some of its neighbours, who would find relative comfort in China, compared to the US, whatever the reason. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s recent assertion that India was in a position to be a ‘net provider of security’ in the South Asian region needs to be contextualised thus.

In this context, Maldivian Attorney-General Bisham’s assertion that any agreement of the SOFA kind with the US would have to clear Parliament assumes significance.

However, considering the general American tactic that involves economic carrot and politico-diplomatic stick at the same time, it is not unlikely that the current phase on the SOFA front may have been only a testing of the Maldivian political waters, when the nation is otherwise caught in the run-up to the presidential polls, to be followed by parliamentary elections. By then, it is likely the issues would have also sunk in on the domestic front in Maldives, for the US to take up the issue with a future government in Male.

All this will make sense in the interim if, and only if, the US is keen on proceeding with the Maldivian SOFA.

To the extent that Defence Minister Nazim has said that Maldives was only considering what possibly may be a unilateral US proposal, he may be saying the truth – and his government may not have moved forward on this score.

With most political parties in the country, then in the opposition, flagged ‘sovereignty’ and ‘national pride’ while challenging the GMR contract, inside parliament and outside, it is likely that any precipitate initiative at the time of twin-elections now could trigger the kind of ‘religion-centric reaction’ that cost President Nasheed his office in February 2012.

For now, Islamic Minister Sheikh Shaheem Ali Saeed, representing the religion-centric Adhaalath Party, which spearheaded the anti-Nasheed protests leading to the latter’s exit, has served notice. The party will not allow the Government to sign SOFA with the US, he has said.

Considering that President Waheed has bent heavily on the Adhaalath Party for support and campaign cadres in his election-bid of September this year, it is likely that SOFA discussions with the US may not proceed for now – just as it may not form part of the electoral discourse, either for the presidency this year, or for Parliament next year.

The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to editorial@minivannewsarchive.com

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Comment: Small island state to superpower

“I would like to reassure all our friends in India, what it is and what it isn’t. We have status of forces agreements with more than 100 nations around the world. And these are basically agreements we have with partners where we have significant military activities, typically exercises.

“So for example, with Maldives we have coconut grove, which is an annual marine exercise. So the status of forces agreement helps to provides framework for those kinds of cooperative activities.

“And they are desirable things to have. But it does not in any way signify an expansion of our military presence or some major new development in the US-Maldivian military co-operation. It’s simply more of a framework to provide for (ongoing) co-operation…”

That was the US assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia, Robert Blake, speaking to the Press Trust of India (PTI) on the question of a SOFA to be signed between the US and the Maldives.

In an interview on May 7, 2013 widely reported around the world, Blake is reported to have said; “I haven’t seen the draft agreement. So I can’t comment,” before confirming that the US is “in the process of negotiating one now”.

“These are standard texts round the world, nothing very secret about them,” Blake is reported to have said, adding; “I do not foresee that this (SOFA) is going to be difficult negotiations (with Maldives). These are the things we do with partners around the world,” he said adding that it might be very well should be able to signed very soon.”

Emphasis, here is my own, to highlight a confounding sentence which appears not only in the Zee News report shared by US @StateDept with Maldivian tweeps, but is reproduced in almost all media reports. Petty as this may be, but really, what does it mean?

(a) Maldives-US SOFA might be signed very soon.
(b) Maldives-US SOFA should be signed very soon.
(c) Maldives-US SOFA might very well be signed very soon.
(d) Maldives-US SOFA might be very well.
(e) Maldives-US SOFA it might be very well should be able to signed very soon.”

It might very well be simply an editor’s miss, reproduced by all.

Of more significance to me, is the fact that Blake could not verify the authenticity of the alleged draft of the SOFA agreement published on www.dhivehisitee.com.

“I haven’t seen the draft agreement. So I can’t comment,” Blake is reported to have said. Yet, instead of stopping at that, Blake went into a detailed explanation quite outside the real questions the leaked draft raises.

The US Embassy in Colombo had earlier confirmed to Minivan News that they are in discussion with the government of Maldives to sign a SOFA, but had not confirmed or denied the leaked draft is the draft under discussion.

The Maldives government has been far more elusive, the Minister for Defence Mohamed Nazim denying it all in an interview to local daily Haveeru published after the US Embassy had confirmed discussions were ongoing. But then Defence Minister Nazim is not known for his forthrightness or honesty in the Maldives or Sandhurst, from where he is reported to have been expelled for dishonesty.

All in all, what we have learnt so far is:

(a) What a SOFA is.
(b) What a SOFA is not.
(c) That there are US plans to sign a SOFA with the Maldives “very soon”.
(d) Maldives government is not comfortable acknowledging plans to sign a SOFA with the US.

Courtesy Ahmed Abbas (@Qaumuge Mehi on Facebook)

Very little has been said on the real subject of concern – the terms and conditions in the leaked draft SOFA – that gives US absolute access and free run in the Maldives, without check or restraint. The US can place boots on the ground if, when, where and how the US deem necessary at any given time during agreement period.

No?

Does “no boots on the ground” guarantee no boots on the ground in the future? What if America fears the rise of China and the advent of the “nightmare scenario”? How would the Maldives feature in such a scenario? What opportunity does SOFA provide if the US deems it necessary for the US to “be operational” in the Maldives to “watch terrorists,” “protect waters,” ensure regional security or any other such purpose necessary for “reasons of security”?

The United States, together with India, were the first to accept the February 7, 2012 transfer of power in the Maldives. They reacted even before the people of Maldives did, shocked as the public were by the scenes of February 6 and 7, 2012 and the weeks leading up to it, they had witnessed live on local TV. By the time public reacted on February 8, 2013, and the overwhelming public support for President Nasheed became too obvious to be dismissed, the coup had been stamped legitimate by both India and the US.

To their credit, both US and India did step back a bit, but the US has not only continued its support to the government but has worked closely with the coup leaders, strengthening the coup-backing military, bringing in PISCES, the border surveillance system, and now the SOFA.

The US has no diplomatic presence or shoes on the ground in the Maldives, but has been on the ground far more than usual, with diplomats from Colombo flying in regularly and US missions on the ground almost monthly.

So, what could be Dr Waheed’s game plan? Given that it is undeniable that Mohamed Nasheed would win the public vote and there are less than a 100 days to voting, why is Dr Waheed sitting so comfortable? What could be Waheed’s surprise manifesto?

The only thing left now for Dr Waheed to come up with is Green Cards for all!

Dr Waheed, who is himself said to be a US permanent resident or Green Card holder, might very well be planning a bigger surprise with his ‘Forward with the Nation” campaign; taking the Maldives all the way from a small-island-state to a superpower, in less than five years.

A novel strategic pivot for the US as it stands to gain not only the SOFA and retain Coconut Grove, but gets to have its very own 100 percent Islamic State within the United States which would no doubt please the Islamists in the Maldives, the US itself, and outside.

The greening of Male’ initiated just this week by the Maldives Police Services too, all suggest Dr Waheed may go green, and issue Green Cards for all.

Would the people of Maldives vote to be the 51st State?

Aishath Velezinee (@Velezinee on twitter) is an independent democracy activist and writer. She was the Editor of Adduvas Weekly 2005-07 and served on the Maldives’ Judicial Service Commission (2009-11). She claims the Commission she sat on breached constitution in transition; and advocates for redress of Article 285, and a full overhaul of the judiciary as a necessary step for democracy consolidation.

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to editorial@minivannewsarchive.com

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