Comment: Speaking of sovereignty – US interest in the Maldives

This article first appeared on Dhivehi Sitee. Republished with permission.

It is misguided to focus the current Maldivian sovereignty debate on possible military intervention by a foreign power. The Maldives is a long way away from the kind of humanitarian disaster that today qualifies for foreign military intervention and such talk serves no other purpose than provide politically inflammatory rhetoric to be used in the current political crisis. If we are to discuss threats to sovereignty, it would be more fruitful to talk about the role that non-military foreign relations play in shaping Maldivian domestic affairs.

For the better part of the twentieth century, Maldives held little interest for global, and even regional, powers. This status-quo of Maldives as inconsequential in international affairs changed shortly after the beginning of this century, not from its own doing, but due to two major changes in global politics: the dramatic change of world order in which several developing states—among them India and China—have risen to challenge the United States’ post-Cold War only-superpower status; and the United States-led global War on Terror.

Both matters made the Maldives, for the first time in its history, a country of interest to the United States, signalling an end to the days in which it could remain sheltered from the threat of becoming a pawn in global power games.

The rise of China: United States, India and the Maldives

China will overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy in 2016, according to a recent report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). India, too, is no longer just the strongest regional power, but is rapidly becoming a global force to be reckoned with.

US relations with India has been dictated by its own interests almost from the time of India’s independence. Throughout the Cold War, when India doggedly stuck to its non-aligned stance, US foreign policy vacillated wildly between favouring India and favouring Pakistan as best suited its fight with Soviet Russia. Once George W Bush’s declared the War on Terror and invaded Afghanistan, Pakistan once again became a premier ally, while India was made to take a backseat until US relations with Pakistan soured once again, and George W Bush signed a nuclear treaty with India in 2005. Today, as India’s foreign policy has gone from one of determined non-alignment to the formation of a strategic alliance with the US, America has begun to view India as ‘a swing state’ in Asia’s balance of power.

Control of the Indian Ocean, which connects West Asia, Africa and East Asia with Europe and the Americas is important to not just India and the US but also for China as it  rises to global preeminence. Maldives is strategically located 450 miles off the south-western tip of India, making it of significant strategic interest to all those fighting to maintain a dominant presence in the region.

Recent analyses predict that China will become the world’s largest importer of oil by 2017, and 80 percent of this oil is transported through the Indian Ocean (Kumar 2012). Given the long-existing US dominance in the Indian Ocean, China—not surprisingly—is keen to ensure that its vital energy routes remain open and have strengthened its military presence in the region. This is where China’s interest in the Maldives lies.

Countering China is thus one of the main reasons for United States increased interest in the Maldives and its expressed desire for a military presence in the country, even if it is not the boots on the ground as outlined in the draft SOFA as discussed here. The United States may have denied the draft SOFA and a possible military base, but it did not deny that negotiations for some sort of an arrangement — whether a lily pad or whatever other name it is called — is underway.

The geo-strategic alliance between the US and India helps both countries counter China’s expanding ambitions. The US has long been the dominant player in the Indian Ocean and will fight to maintain this at whatever cost. It will be US’ strongest card to play in stalling the unbridled rise of China if and when it needs to do so. Thus the increased maritime activity in the Indian Ocean region in general and, more specifically, the so-called Asia Pivotin US foreign policy.

With US as a strategic ally, China is less likely to confront India over the many disputes that exist between the two countries such as those over the borders of Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh and the continuing Chinese financial and military assistance to arch enemy Pakistan.The importance of India’s new alliance with the US is apparent from the fact that since 2005 India, which from 1995-2005 opposed the US in the UN in 80 percent of all its votes, has voted with them on sanctions against Iran, opposition to a Small Arms and Light Weapons Treaty and on the Kyoto Protocol (Chenoy & Chenoy :2007).

It should come as no surprise then that India and the US supported each other in the rapid recognition of Waheed’s presidency of the Maldives as legitimate.

The War on Terror: United States and the Maldives

When the US launched its global War on Terror, it force-created another bi-polar world: those with the United States and those against it. The Maldives, led by President Gayoom, was firmly ‘with the US,’ despite the War’s decidedly anti-Islamic overtones. This status of the Maldives—as an Islamic state willing to co-operate with the US in the War on Terror is how the Maldives first appeared in the American consciousness. Unfortunately for the Maldives, this is still her primary (and often only) identity as far as the United States is concerned. Unlike India, and even Britain, the US has no experience or knowledge of Maldivian culture and its long relationship with Islam that is so vastly different from the radical Islam that dominates its society identity today. Nor did it, until very recently, have any tourism or travel related interests in the Maldives, unlike other Western states.

If the United States was honestly interested in tackling the rapid radicalisation of the Maldivian society instead of its own counter-terrorism efforts in the region, it would have taken steps to understand the root causes and nature of extremism in the Maldives. Very little is known about how and why Maldivians have succumbed so easily to radical Islamist ideology. Neither is it known whether the people who outwardly show signs of radicalisation—change of religious practices, clothing, general behaviour— in fact have anything to do with the adoption of an ideology. Serious intent of curbing radicalistion would involve attempts to understand it, followed by a counter-radicalisation strategy custom-designed to solve the problems so identified.

The United States has a vast budget and plan for counter-radicalisation efforts that go beyond its borders, but it has not initiated or supported any research in the radicalised Maldivian community. Instead, it sends dubious US ‘terrorism experts’ to teach Maldivians about tackling radicalisation, according to what the Americans know and has defined radicalisation to be. Rather than tap into the vast potential for building a knowledge base on how an entire population can embrace radical Islamist ideologies after remaining far removed from them for centuries, the US tells Maldivians what their society is about, and implement actions governed not by what is at stake for Maldivians, but by a generic idea of what the US perceives should be done in a ‘rapidly radicalising Islamist society’.

This lack of knowledge and cultural disinterest has meant US foreign policy towards the Maldives is entirely governed by its own realist interests, which has had a largely negative impact on Maldivian attempts to consolidate democracy. These detrimental effects have been created by, and are manifest in, several characteristics of US engagement with the Maldives.

American view of the Maldives as a backward Islamic state which is a breeding ground for Islamist radicals and Jihadhis was made obvious, for instance, by its push to have the PISCES border control system installed in the Maldives. The PISCES, as explained here, is not a border control system but a system designed and installed in various countries designated by the United States as ‘terrorist hotbeds’.

That the Maldives would willingly participate in the invasion of privacy of its own people and millions of visitors without consultation or debate is bad enough; what is even worse is that the system has been installed ‘for free’, at the cost of Maldives’ authority and ability to control its own borders.

Attempts to implement the PISCES in the Maldives met with intense opposition from almost all senior local immigration officials. Their objections do not stem from corruption and bias towards Nexbiz [the Malaysian company originally contracted with designing and implementing a sophisticated border control system for the Maldives] as was widely portrayed in the media, but from what the PISCES does not do.

The system is so basic that Immigration officials who attended the training programme had a module on ‘how to use a keyboard.’ Anyone familiar with Maldivian culture would know the Maldives is also one of the most Internet and technology savvy countries in the region. Computer literacy among the youth must be close to a 100 percent, not to mention the complete saturation of the Maldivian market with smart phones and all other modern technological gadgets. For Maldivian immigration officials, used to operating the most advanced immigration control system in the region for years, the ‘Computers for Dummies’ class was an affront.

If only things stopped at imperial condescension.

The PISCES is unable to do even the most basic of border control work—it cannot, for instance, keep track of the number of tourists coming to the Maldives. There is no Drop-Down Menu to automatically select which resort a tourist is staying in. There is no way to automatically feed and calculate the number of days a tourist will be staying in the country by inputting dates. Now it is essential for immigration officials to keep pen and paper as well as a calculator beside them when manning the Immigration counters at various ports across the country. In addition, immigration officers need to have two other systems running simultaneously to the PISCES if they are to check visas and monitor the arrival and departure of expatriates for PISCES can do neither. Not only is this causing great frustration among officials highly trained in maintaining a sophisticated border control system, it is also leading to negligence of some of their most important responsibilities.

The most important thing for us is to compare the person standing at the counter and the passport that s/he presents to the official. Is it the right person? We can’t do that now because we are so busy punching the buttons on our calculators or manually typing in the person’s address in the Maldives. Of course, mistakes are being made (A senior immigration official, September 2013).

To circumvent  immigration officials’ resistance to PISCES, the Minister of Defence Mohamed Nazim—with whom the United States has been negotiating to have the PISCES installed in the Maldives—handed over their work to staff at the National Centre for Information Technology (NCIT). When Immigration officials resisted this handover, their senior IT personnel were summoned to the Defence Ministry, sat down with large numbers of uniformed military personal in a highly intimidating atmosphere, and told to agree to the new arrangement, or else.

One of the main problems that modern Maldives has to confront, flagged by the United States itself, is the issue of human trafficking. Tens of thousands of Bangladeshi labourers are in the Maldives illegally. They are heavily exploited by ‘employers’  who make them work for little or no money, and regularly treat them inhumanely. The PISCES does not have the capacity to trace the movement of any foreigner in the Maldives—be they expatriate workers or tourists. The Nexbis system included the introduction of an ID card with a 3-D Bar Code that, even a photocopy kept by an expatriate, would allow immigration officials to trace their whereabouts, greatly reducing the opportunities for them remaining in the Maldives illegally and/or their exploitation by those running the slave labour trade in the country.

With PISCES, nobody knows where anyone is—it just counts the number of Mohameds and Ahmeds and other passengers with Muslim names [terrorists by default] who enter and leave from the geo-strategically important Maldives so that US’ Terrorist Database is kept up to date. There is huge corruption involved in the ousting of Nexbis and the Maldives’ agreement to accept the PISCES as our ‘border control system’, but that is for another day’s discussion. The relevant point here is that the US—which, by the way, does not consider PISCES to be a good enough system for monitoring its own borders—is quite happy for the Maldives to totally lose control over its own borders and become wholly inept at handling the human trafficking crisis that it confronts. What matters to the US is having an additional weapon in its ‘crusade’ against radical Islamists.

What governs US foreign policy in the Maldives?

Discussed above are two examples of how US has ridden roughshod over Maldivian domestic affairs and interests since it noticed the Maldives as important to its power play in the region. Common to both matters is the imperialist neo-colonial attitude with which the US conducts its business with the Maldives. These interests, and this attitude, very much contributed to the role that the United States has played in bringing the Maldivian democracy to its current crisis.

The US was the second, after India, to rapidly recognise the incidents of 7 February 2012 as a ‘legitimate transfer of power.’ Just as the United States designated the Maldives as a backward Islamic terrorist state without knowledge of the characteristics and nature of its radicalisation issues, it began meddling in the Maldivian democracy without a clue about Maldivian culture and traditions. Instead of attempting to find out, it brought into play its own preconceived notions of what a democracy, and what a leader of a democracy, should be.

Mohamed Nasheed, according to a view widely propagated by US Embassy officials, and almost as widely accepted among the diplomatic community, is that he is ‘not a statesman’. Waheed, on the other hand, educated in Stanford, San Francisco, and by all likelihoods the holder of a US green card and the father of children who are US citizens, is the embodiment of what counts as a statesman for the US. It does not matter that it is precisely the non-statesman like behaviour of Nasheed that has appealed to a majority of the Maldivian population. It is Nasheed’s willingness to get out of a suit more than his eagerness to get into one, his ordinary language, his fluency with Dhivehi vernacular and history, and his ease with people of every age that inspires people of all ages to unite behind him for democratic reform in the Maldives. For thirty years Maldivians had a leader who fit the international community’s idea of a statesman—he did nothing to empower the people. Why should they want another ‘statesman’?

But, US embassy officials—who swan into the country on a brief visit from their ‘Virtual Presence Post’ in Colombo, usually stay in the swanky five-star Traders Hotel where a room costs over US$300 a night [the monthly salary of an average Maldivian worker] for one or two working days, then speed off to a resort island for the weekend to sip cocktails and unwind before returning to their lives in Colombo—are adamant that what the Maldivian democracy really deserves is a ‘statesman’. They have no idea what a majority of Maldivians think of Nasheed. None of them stay long enough to watch the rallies, the street demonstrations, the Door to Door campaigns, and the hard graft of the grassroots based community efforts that have enabled Nasheed to wake a majority of Maldivians to dream of democracy.

So US ‘virtual’ staff in the Maldives quickly moved to have Dr Waheed [now widely known as Doctor Five Percent after gaining only that much of the vote in the elections held on 7 September] installed as the legitimate president. Ironically, US attitude towards Nasheed—enthusiastically endorsed by the current Obama government—is one that most closely resembles the Republican Tea Party attitude towards Obama with the mad Birthers and whatnot. It is totally ridiculous and out of touch with how a majority of domestic and international populations think of the leader in question.

Just as influential in shaping US policy towards the Maldives as its Orientalist condescension are the realist national security interests of the US discussed above. The US did not just stop at saddling the Maldives with an incompetent statesman, it capitalised hugely on Waheed’s presence to push its interests in the Maldives as rapidly as possible. Negotiations regarding the PISCES were initiated by Waheed who became the chief procuring agent of the PISCES system, having opened discussions about Maldivian border control problems with the US during a visit to New York in 2009.

Once Waheed ‘rose to the presidency’, he appointed the dishonourably discharged former army general [Baaghee] Nazim as the primary go-between the US and the Maldivian government. Despite Nazim’s very public role in the forcible removal of Nasheed from presidency, he was quickly adopted as a darling of the US diplomatic community.[Dubious generals, it seems, are quick to win favour with Washington.]  Nazim is the main mover and shaker not just in having the PISCES implemented but also in securing a SOFA with the Maldives for the United States. Until the current political crisis, Nazim’s main preoccupation since early this year was to put pressure on all immigration staff to have the entire PISCES system up and running everywhere in the Maldives by a specific date—October 20th—for unspecified reasons.

It is not just the PISCES or the SOFA that have been pushed on the Maldives since the US, with its strategic ally India, helped Waheed the statesman and Nazim the General into top positions in government. US state department officials have since been given access to certain areas of the Maldives to conduct an ‘economic and social survey’, a US company—Blackstone—has bought out the entire seaplane industry of the Maldives, and it is also to a US company that the MNDF training island of Thanburudhoo, complete with a popular national surfing spot, has been sold. It is makes one neither an alarmist nor a conspiracy theorist to suspect there is a lot more we do not know about.

Since authoritarians began conspiring to disenfrachise Maldivians by cancelling the second ever democratic presidential election in the Maldives, most of the international community seems to have moved away from, if not officially revised, their assessment of the 7 February 2012 events as ‘a legitimate transfer of power’. Where a majority of the international community reacted with concern over the indefinitely postponed election, the United States’ first response was this statement.

We note the Maldivian Supreme Court’s ruling to delay the second round of presidential elections, scheduled for September 28, as Justices continue to hear arguments. While this judicial process moves forward, we encourage all political parties to work together peacefully and ensure that the democratic process can continue in a way that respects the rule of law and that represents the will of the people.

To describe the current farce in the Maldivian Supreme Court as ‘the judicial process’ and the ridiculous claims of opposition parties challenging the election results as ‘the democratic process’ is to know nothing—and/or to care nothing—about the current state of the Maldives and its fight for democracy. Despite a flurry of statements expressing concern over the Supreme Court behaviour from various other members of the international community, the second US statement was not much better than the first.

It is states like the US, and their realist national security interests that threaten Maldivian sovereignty today more than direct foreign military intervention. It is such interference that in the long run takes away from the power of the Maldivian people to have an independent country led by a leader of their choice in a government of their own. We are better off preparing for resisting such invasions of our identity and ‘sovereignty’ by foreign powers than inviting or contemplating the repercussions of armed military intervention. When ‘soft power’ is packed with so many dangerous explosives, who needs guns or boots on the ground?

Dr Azra Naseem has a PhD in International Relations

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 [email protected]


12 thoughts on “Comment: Speaking of sovereignty – US interest in the Maldives”

  1. 30 years of statesman had created large number of highly educated people also.

    Nasheed is not the man who had promoted democracy in Maldives and it was time and globalization that had promoted the democracy and its people.

    Evan Naseem death had triggered the event and Nasheed was hiding in UK at this time and the people who had fought on that day are the true leaders who had help to bring the democracy to this country.

    This was the day that we had a litmus test for democracy .

  2. Interesting how Dr. Azra is Insulting Americans and their border control system.

    So you think Indians have better technology !!! You may want to argue that India has better human rights too and ofcourse less rape..

    LOL 🙂

  3. Excellent article from start to finish. Thankfully, an increasing number of people are aware of exactly how the USA views the World..a store of natural resources placed there by God for the sole use of the USA.

  4. The USA has a lot of bitter pills swallowed from backing this or that presumed better candidate or leader or using various influence to try to force an outcome favorable to the USA. The issues in front of the Maldives are primarily for Maldivians to solve. To depend on foreign powers to determine the legitimacy of this or that political change is asking a lot. I appreciate Dr. Azra's studies in international relations, but I think she's stretching just a bit on connecting all her dots. Despite Azra's belief that something coordinated and very strategic is going on by the USA, the truth is likely less organized. America believes in building strong institutions, to be sure, and I think any of those Colombo based diplomats she derides so much would be quick to acknowledge that the judiciary has issues, but as an international player, is it really the place of the USA to determine if one or another branch of government or a particular group of judges is competent to make the "right" decision? If the judicial system is such a burden on the country, then it should be restructured by due process of the legislature, and if the legislature is unable to do so, then perhaps via constitutional convention.

    That being said, I believe that if Dr. Asra's points drive a better understanding of the Maldives issues in the international community - and USA specifically - then that is a good thing. She's right that they are not all on the ground all the time with local level understanding. But that doesn't mean they are not listening, learning, and reacting to the current situation. And she should be cautious about assuming a grand strategy is in place by these foreign powers. More likely it is evolving. Witness India, which has seemingly come full circle on its position vis-a-vis the transfer of power and so on.

  5. The United States has every right to be highly concerned about elements in Maldivian society. It's not a coincidence that this tiny spec of a banana republic contributed an inmate to Guantanamo Bay! By all accounts that guy should still be locked up and should never have been freed.

    Just take a good look at the personalities involved in the recent "Al Andhalus" speech. The last guy who ranted about Al-Andhalus, i.e. Osama Bin Laden, was sent to a watery grave by the United States. Clearly his ideology is being kept alive, by some, here in the Maldives.

    The United States as well as others have a right to be concerned about this as it directly affects their quality of life.

  6. @facts on Sat, 5th Oct 2013 12:21 PM

    "30 years of statesman had created large number of highly educated people also."

    So, what happened to you? Got left out by the "statesman"?

  7. The sad fact is that America,'the land of the free' does sweet buggar all to free others or to improve democratic principles around the world. It has always been motivated by self interest and their undying belief that they have a right to be the greatest power on earth.
    Azra is right. Their little games in the Maldives is a continuation of their way of doing things. Their American Dream (unattainable as it is for the majority of its own people) is a global nightmare.
    Obama, Bush, Clinton. Different leaders, supposedly from different political backgrounds. But they all dream the same dream.
    'Give me your tired, Your poor, Your huddled masses..." Complete and utter lies!

  8. The single thing the US should be concerned is about returning to power of those whom, very irresponsibly, gave a political voice to extremists in the first time in Maldives history- it was done in the guise of promoting democracy

    But lightening strikes more than once and that's why US is looking beyond the thick rhetoric of MDP. MDP too wobbly to be predictable. And who knows in an MDP Government, decesions would not be made by Chamber of Tamil Nadu state

  9. @Addu:

    The guy we contributed to Guantanamo Bay is Ibrahim Fauzee who is;

    1. A member of the MDP.

    2. A founding member and in charge of operating the Islamic Foundation of Maldives which leans towards the MDP and operates a television channel by the name of MVTV with the help of businesses associated with the MDP.

    3. Was seen front and center at a religious-conservative sermon held by Jamiat-Al-Sidqee and aired live on RaajjeTV at the end of last week. The sermon has been linked to MDP with its MPs and close affiliates seen filling the front row.

    Also, PPM has recently begun favoring Jamiyyat Salaf - an organization which advocates against democracy and calls for the establishment of a theocracy where the powers of the State would be concentrated in the hands of a religiously-ordained leader.

    MDP proposed as its running mate, Dr. Abdulmajeed Abdulbaaree who is a former head of the religious-conservative Adalat Party. Dr. Abdulbaaree has openly advocated theocratic controls over the legislative process and government along similar lines with Jamiyyat Salaf.

    Meanwhile Qasim Ibrahim's JP now accommodates as a coalition partner, the same Adalat headed by figures no less opposed to democracy in the form that a lot of us had endorsed in 2008.

    I think the issue is larger than the Al-Andhalus sermon. I think political parties and figures across the board are cynically employing religious-fundamentalists to gather grassroots support among poverty-stricken populations such as Kulhudhuffushi in the North whose less-fortunate masses have bought into the fundamentalist message hook line and sinker. These same political parties point out the religious-conservatives in the employ of their rivals as a threat to Western interests in the Maldives every time they have a meeting with a diplomat. What we need is less hypocrisy and sincere efforts by the major political parties and influential political figures to reduce the use of this tactic and refuse to award religious-conservatives influential posts within the education system as a reward for their services. Let me provide some proof.

    1. Leading members of Jamiyyat Salaf have considerable influence in the Maldives National University with their leaders serving in managerial and academic posts.

    2. Leading religious-fundamentalists with links to MDP occupy policy-level posts within Maldives National University thereby influencing the entire direction of the institution.

    3. During the Nasheed-administration religious-fundamentalists secured control of the Education Development Center which designs the national school curriculum.

    4. After 2008, successive governments have allowed religious-fundamentalists to establish pre-schools across the Maldives where young children are being indoctrinated every day.

    5. Religious-fundamentalists and career politicians with links to them control the Teacher's Association, Civil Servant's Association as well as the student body of the Faculty of Education within the MNU.

    Need I really say more? Successive governments have either turned a blind eye to this issue or said they were unable to take action at the moment.

  10. I think the Maldivians greatly exaggerate their importance in the area. I notice people at the Maldives make rumors and believe some political parties make alliance with other nations, and that this nations want to take over Maldives. It’s a scare rumors and nonsense probably by manipulators. But it is easy to make an isolated population like the Maldivians to believe any ting. Regarding any army base there, the British has a base at British territory Indian Ocean only south of Maldives. It’s the Aldabra Island, Farquhar Island and Des Roches-islands and I am shore that is more than sufficient. USA has contracts to stay there out 2016. I am shore they can make an agreement to stay there longer. It’s imprudent to think other nations are interested to have army bases at the Maldives to control Chinese oil transport. (Nonsense) But I think is naturally to have an alliance with India that is next door. They have experience with Lakshdweep Islands (Indian) only north of Maldives, they are inhabited with Sunny Muslim fishermen. It probably had been better and more peacefully if Maldivians also stuck to fishing. (Closed all tourist resorts’) At the moment a large portion of the population can see wizards and bad people behind every corner. It Sims like a large portion of the population suffers with schizophrenia and persecution sensation.

  11. Unfortunately the days of blaming the US for all ills in the world are transitioning to a new chapter. Maldivians are too incitable and ready believe that the US has a big red "X" over Maldives. Considering the US doesn't really give much more than a nod of recognition to the Maldives' mere existence, I would be much more worried about the Chinese threatening Maldivian sovergniety. Talk about manipulation through regional strongarm.


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