Majlis approves foreign freeholds in second amendment to constitution

The parliament has amended the constitution to authorise foreign ownership of land or freeholds in the Maldives with overwhelming support of 70 votes in favour, a day after the amendments were introduced to the People’s Majlis.

Ten MPs of the main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) and nine MPs of the Jumhooree Party (JP) also voted in favour of the unprecedented changes. Some 14 MPs voted No.

MPs opposed to the move expressed concern over possible Chinese military expansion in the Maldives, and the lack of time to review the amendments. The bill was submitted on Monday, debated and sent to committee for review at an extraordinary sitting last night, and put to a vote today.

The opposition MPs’ backing was necessary as a three-quarters majority or 64 votes was required to amend the constitution. The ruling Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM) and coalition partner Maldives Development Alliance (MDA) controls 48 seats in the 85-member house.

Shortly before the vote was called, former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, leader of the PPM and half-brother of President Abdulla Yameen, urged the president to seek public opinion before ratifying the amendments. This is the first time Gayoom has publicly opposed president Yameen’s actions.

The amendments will allow foreigners who invest more than US$1 billion to purchase land within the project site. At least 70 percent of the area when the project is completed must also be reclaimed land. The constitution previously prohibited foreign ownership of any part of Maldivian territory, but allowed leasing of land for up to 99 years.

New Cold War

Speaking during the final debate on the amendments today, MDP MP Eva Abdulla said that a Chinese Yuan class 335 submarine passed through Maldivian waters and docked at the Karachi port on May 22, adding that Indian media called it “China’s deadliest attack submarine.”

Maldivian foreign and domestic policies should be based on ensuring Indian Ocean regional security as “Maldives is not in the South China Sea,” she said.

The Maldives is “a front line state” in the new Cold War and should not be a catalyst for conflict, the MP for Galolhu North added.

The MDP as a “centre-right party” supports free market policies and the principle of private land ownership, but could not support “selling land for China to build military bases” in the Maldives.

Eva said the MDP could support foreign ownership of land in the Maldives under a more transparent government and independent judiciary.

PPM MP Ali Arif conceded that the Maldives as a small nation is always vulnerable to influence from powerful nations. He said the committee addressed the concerns over sovereignty during its review process and added a clause to the bill stating that the Maldivian state will exercise complete authority over the territory designated for projects.

He added that 80 or 90 percent of the Maldives’ 112 luxury resorts are operated by foreign businesses and multinational hotel chains have invested millions of dollars in the lucrative tourism industry.

Majority leader Ahmed Nihan, who had submitted the bill, meanwhile assured the public that the ruling party would not compromise Islam or Maldivian traditions and sovereignty. He stressed that the amendments only apply to newly reclaimed land and that the government was not planning to sell existing natural islands or reclaimed land.

No public debate

Adhaalath Party MP Anara Naeem said she had proposed amending the bill to allow lease of Maldivian territory for up to 150 years, but the parliament secretariat did not accept her amendment as it was submitted after 12pm.

Anara said a single day was too short a period to approve such changes to the constitution without consulting stakeholders or experts.

Gayoom raised the same issue in a letter sent to President Yameen and shared with the media by the former president’s office. He urged his brother to hold a public referendum on the issue, noting the amendments were proposed without public debate.

Gayoom also stated that previous governments did not sell any part of Maldivian territory to prevent foreign influence over the country’s independence, sovereignty, and resources.

MDP MP Ahmed ‘ADK’ Nashid also expressed concern with passing the amendments without a debate among the public or an assessment of the pros and cons of the proposed changes.

Despite the economic benefits of attracting foreign investors, Nashid warned that the amendments could pose dangers to Maldivian sovereignty with foreign powers encouraging secessionist movements in a situation similar to Crimea breaking away from the Ukraine.

MPs Eva, Nashid, and Anara were among those who cast dissenting votes along with MDP MPs Rozaina Adam, Mohamed Rasheed Hussain, Mohamed Falah, Mohamed Aslam, Mariya Ahmed Didi, Imthiyaz Fahmy, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, and Fayyaz Ismail.

JP MPs Ali Hussain, Abdulla Riyaz, and Independent MP Ahmed Mahloof also voted against the proposed changes.

MDP MPs Abdul Bari Abdulla, Abdul Ghafoor Moosa, Abdulla Shahid, Ahmed Marzooq, Ali Azim, Ali Nizar, Ibrahim Shareef, Ibrahim Naseer, Mohamed Nazim, and Mohamed Abdul Kareem voted in favour of the bill along with nine JP MPs and Independent MP Hussain Areef.

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Amendments raise fear of Chinese military expansion in the Maldives

Proposed constitutional amendments to allow foreign ownership of land in the Maldives will allow China to establish military facilities in the Maldives and destabilise the Indian Ocean, a source within the main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) has said.

The amendments will allow foreigners who invest in a project worth more than US$1 billion to purchase land, meaning it can facilitate “foreign non-commercial logistical facilities” on such plots.

Since the ruling Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM) holds a majority in the parliament, the government can allow and regulate military activity on such land through other legislation, the source who wished to remain anonymous said.

In a more carefully worded statement shared with the media, the MDP said: “Being a center right political party, the Maldivian Democratic Party in principle believes in free ownership of land and property. Nevertheless, the amendments can facilitate foreign non-commercial logistical installations in the Maldives.

“The MDP Parliamentary Group Leader Hon. Ibrahim Mohamed Solih speaking on the bill on Tuesday night reiterated MDP’s call to guarantee national security, safeguard stability, peace and security of the Indian Ocean. This therefore forms the MDP position.”

The amendment will be put up for a vote today.

A three-fourths majority or 64 votes is required to amend the constitution. A total of 62 MPs voted to accept the amendment at midnight on Tuesday at an extraordinary parliamentary session. Parliamentary standing orders have been amended to fast-track the process of passing a bill into law.

PPM MPs were not responding to calls at the time of going to press.

Majority leader Ahmed Nihan said last night that the amendments will not affect the Maldives’ sovereignty, while MP Ali Arif said no land will be given for military purposes. The ruling party says the amendment would increase economic growth and facilitate sustainable investment in the Maldives.

President Abdulla Yameen has declared a foreign policy shift to the East last year. Chinese president Xi Jingping was the first head of state since Yameen assumed power and the first Chinese president to visit the Maldives.

During the visit, the Maldives agreed to become a partner in China’s maritime silk route, a trade route from China’s Fujian province to the Mediterranean Sea via South Asia and East Africa.

China is providing grant and loan assistance to the Maldives to build a bridge between the capital and the airport. Chinese companies are involved in airport development and have now been handed islands for resort development.

In January, the MDP alleged the government was making plans to award parts of south central Laamu Atoll to China for a military base. The Chinese embassy promptly dismissed the allegations as “completely false.”

“It is a common knowledge that China pursues a national defense policy that is defensive in nature,” read the press release. “China does not maintain any military in any foreign country.”

Several independent and opposition MPs voted against the amendment last night, contending it will allow the government to sell the Maldives off as it gives unprecedented access to foreign parties to operate in the Maldives, especially with the enactment of the Special Economic Zones (SEZ) Act last year.

The SEZ Act gives investors and developers major tax breaks and exemption from regulatory provisions in financial, environmental and labour laws.

At the time, the opposition contended that the SEZ law would pave the way for money laundering and other criminal enterprises, undermine the decentralisation system and authorise a board formed by the president to openly sell off the country without parliamentary oversight.

The government and the MDP are currently negotiating for the release of opposition leader Mohamed Nasheed and other jailed politicians.

The opposition has backed several government proposals including the impeachment of vice president Dr Mohamed Jameel Ahmed on Tuesday and a constitutional amendment setting new age limits of 30-65 years for the presidency.

President Abdulla Yameen has now appointed the influential tourism minister Ahmed Adeeb as the new vice president. His nomination will be approved by the People’s Majlis today.

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Majlis votes overwhelming ‘Yes’ to Adeeb

Ahmed Adeeb, the influential tourism minister, has been sworn in as the Maldives’ new vice president at a ceremony at the President’s Office this afternoon. The People’s Majlis has approved his nomination with 70 votes in favor.

Chief Justice Abdulla Saeed administered the oath of office before the Majlis vote.

The new vice president thanked President Abdulla Yameen for his nomination.

He told local media he will only take half of his MVR75,000 salary and will reside at his home instead of the official vice presidential palace.

Adeeb will continue to handle the cabinet portfolio on tourism.

The seven No votes include opposition MPs Eva Abdulla, Mariya Ahmed Didi, Imthiyaz Mohamed Falah, Mohamed Aslam, Rozaina Adam, and Ahmed Mahloof.

The minority leader Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, MDP MP Fayyaz Ismail, Jumhooree Party’s Ali Hussein, and Adhaalath Party’s Anara Naeem abstained from the vote.

Adeeb’s appointment comes after the parliament impeached Vice President Dr Mohamed Jameel with multi-party support yesterday.

The impeachment process was initiated by the PPM-MDA coalition. Pro-government MPs accused Jameel of incompetence, dereliction of duty, links with the opposition, failure to defend the government, and excessive expenditure from the state budget.

Last week, the parliament also approved changes to its standing orders to fast-track the process of voting on a president’s nominee to fill a vacancy in the vice president’s post. The rules were changed to allow the speaker to call for a vote on the day a committee’s evaluation report is sent to MPs. Items are normally tabled in the agenda three days after the committee report is sent out.

In late June, the parliament approved a first amendment to the constitution to set age limits of 30 to 65 years for the presidency and vice presidency. Adeeb is 33 years old and was previously ineligible for the post as the constitution required candidates to be above 35 years of age.

Opposition MPs’ backing for the amendment was widely perceived as part of a deal in exchange for transferring imprisoned former President Mohamed Nasheed to house arrest.

The main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) is currently engaged in talks with the government and has expressed hope that the opposition leader could be freed ahead of July 26 when the Maldives marks 50 years of independence.

Adeeb’s supporters meanwhile launched a social media campaign backing Adeeb for the vice presidency whilst rumours spread about former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s opposition to appointing the tourism minister to the post.

However, the PPM leader has repeatedly denied favouring a particular candidate, stating that the appointment of a deputy is the sole prerogative of the president.

Minivan News understands that senior members of the ruling party were split over Adeeb’s appointment. Several PPM MPs had, however, publicly declared that Adeeb would be sworn in before July 26.

Shortly after the constitutional amendment lowering the age limit for the vice presidency was passed, the tourism minister reprimanded Gayoom’s son, newly elected MP Ahmed Faris, for his absence from the vote.

Accusing Faris of letting Yameen down, Adeeb said in a text message in English: “You cannot differentiate youth or any segment with educated, non educated, poor and rich, beyfulhu [aristocrat] or non beyfulhu [non-aristocrat] etc.”

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Second amendment on foreign land ownership likely to pass

Key opposition MPs have expressed support for a ruling Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) proposed constitutional amendment to authorise foreign ownership of land or freeholds in the Maldives. Some 62 MPs voted to consider the amendment and have sent it to a special committee for review.

A three-quarters majority or 64 votes will be needed to amend the constitution. The ruling coalition only controls 48 seats in the 85-member house.

With 62 MPs voting to consider the bill, it is likely to pass into law. The final vote is expected on Wednesday afternoon.

Speaking at tonight’s extraordinary sitting of parliament, MP Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, the parliamentary group leader of the main opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), expressed support for the amendment, but said the government must consider Indian Ocean security in awarding plots of land to foreign parties.

The bill comes amidst increased attempts by the government to woo Chinese and Middle-eastern investors.

The constitution currently prohibits foreign ownership of any part of Maldivian territory, but allows leasing of land for up to 99 years.

The proposed amendments will allow foreigners who invest in a project worth more than US$1 billion to purchase land. At least 70 percent of the area when the project is completed must also be reclaimed land.

Jumhooree Party (JP) leader Gasim Ibrahim said the amendment was needed in an interconnected world. Land ownership by foreigners on a freehold basis was allowed in developed countries, he added.

The minimum threshold of US$1 billion worth investment will enable the government to develop the education and health sectors, he continued, and thanked President Abdulla Yameen for his “wisdom.”

Tonight’s sitting was scheduled after changes to the standing orders to fast-track the process of passing a bill into law was approved at this morning’s sitting. The legislative process includes three main stages and usually takes weeks or months. But under the new rules, a bill can be debated and passed into law on the same day.

The amendment comes amidst negotiations between the government and the MDP. The opposition has so far backed several unprecedented measures proposed by the government in hope of freedom for jailed opposition leader Mohamed Nasheed and other politicians.

The bill is the second amendment proposed to the constitution since it was ratified in 2008. MPs in June passed the first amendment to the constitution to set new age limits of 30-65 years for the presidency. Subsequently, vice president Dr Mohamed Jameel Ahmed was impeached today.

Coerced

PPM MP Ahmed Nihan – who submitted the amendments (Dhivehi) on behalf of the government today –  said contrary to “misleading” media reports, the amendments would not allow the government to sell large islands or lose sovereignty over Maldivian territory.

The PPM parliamentary group leader said the purpose of the amendment is to attract “extremely large” foreign investment and spur economic growth and infrastructure development. Nihan said Singapore developed despite the lack of natural resources because the small island state “opened up” to foreign investment.

PPM MP Ali Arif emphatically stressed no land will be given for military purposes.

MP Abdul Ghafoor Moosa backed the bill saying that the MDP’s policy is to create a real estate market and encourage home ownership. “We are very happy the ruling party now accepts our development policies. I know the government has an investor willing to invest US$1 billion. We must make use of that opportunity.”

Independent MP Ahmed Mahloof reminded ruling party MPs of their campaign to evict Indian airport developer GMR and said: “This bill amounts to selling off our land. If things continue like this, we might sell off our wives, children and the boxers we are wearing. As we celebrate 50 years of independence, our land must remain ours.”

The former ruling party MP suggested the JP and MDP had been coerced to support the amendment in exchange for freedom for Nasheed and a removal of a freeze on Gasim’s tourism companies.

Meanwhile, JP MP Ali Hussein said that Maldivians wanted clean water and sanitation instead of “mega projects.”

“They are worried about corruption. They want to divert funds wasted on corruption to development. They want tertiary hospitals,” he said. He said that the PPM wanted to award freeholds because it had failed to attract investment through the government’s flagship special economic zones (SEZ) legislation, which was passed in August last year. It gives investors tax breaks and relaxed laws.

He further warned of unchecked corruption and undue influence of large corporations if the amendment passed due to weak oversight institutions and lack of accountability.

Opposing the amendment, MDP MP Rozaina Adam said the government had failed to attract foreign investors because of a weak and politicized judiciary. MDP MP Fayyaz Ismail meanwhile said he supported the amendment in principle, but said extensive public consultations were necessary before he could back the bill.

Special economic zones

In April 2014, President Abdulla Yameen said he the SEZ law would enable investors to have “freeholds” in the country and allow investors “to engage in really, really long gestative projects.”

The opposition contended that the SEZ law would pave the way for money laundering and other criminal enterprises, undermine the decentralisation system, and authorise a board formed by the president to “openly sell off the country” without parliamentary oversight.

But the government maintained that the law was necessary to attract large-scale foreign investments and to launch ‘mega projects,’ which President Yameen has said would “transform” the economy through diversification and mitigate the reliance on the tourism industry.

The mega projects include the construction of a bridge connecting Malé to Hulhumalé and the development of a ‘Youth City’ in the reclaimed artificial island.

In January, President Yameen said 75 percent of the country’s population could be resettled in Hulhumalé and urged residents of islands with small populations to migrate to the new city. According to the 2014 census, the population of the Maldives stands at 341,256, of which 133,019 people resides in Malé.

Other mega projects envisioned by the government includes the development of a transhipment port in the Maldives’ northernmost atoll. The Ihavandhippolhu Integrated Development Project (iHavan) also involves the development of an airport, offshore docking and bunkering facilities, an export processing zone, real estate businesses, and tourism facilities.

In June, a group of Saudi Arabian investors reportedly visited Ihavandhippolhu. The Saudi Arabian government has also provided US$1 million as grant aid to finance the feasibility project.

Additional reporting and writing by Zaheena Rasheed. 

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