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

“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.


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 [email protected]


No US base says Blake, as US, UN diplomats visit Male

The US has reiterated that it has no intention to establish a base or military presence in the Maldives, after a leaked Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) between the two countries’ militaries sparked local speculation in April.

Former US Ambassador to Sri Lanka and the Maldives, now Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Robert Blake, told the Press Trust of India that the agreement referred to joint military exercises and not a future base-building endeavor.

“We do not have any plans to have a military presence in Maldives,” Blake said, echoing an earlier statement from the US Embassy in Colombo.

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

“I want to reassure everybody that this SOFA does not imply some new uptick in military co-operation or certainly does not apply any new military presence. It would just be to support our ongoing activities,” he said.

A recently leaked draft of the SOFA, obtained by Maldivian current affairs blog DhivehiSitee, extensively outlines  provisions and immunities for US personnel and contractors in the Maldives, and mentions both ‘Agreed Facilities and Areas’ – detailed in a separate and unreleased ‘annex A’ – and all rights “that are necessary for their use, operation, defense or control, including the right to undertake new construction works and make alterations and improvements.”

However Blake and the US Embassy in Colombo maintained that the SOFA was a standard agreement for joint military exercises of which the US had signed more than 100 with countries around the world.

“I haven’t seen the draft agreement. So I can’t comment. But we are in the process of negotiating one now. These are standard text round the world, nothing very secret about them,” Blake told PTI.

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,” he said.

“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. 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 US-Maldivian military co-operation. It’s simply more of a framework to provide for [ongoing] co-operation,” Blake said.

He also revealed the US would be announcing a “quite substantial program” to help provide for free and fair elections in September.

“For example, we will be implementing civic and broader education program in several of the voter areas, we would helping with the dispute resolution, training for community leaders, we would be training staff at the election complaint bureaus, we will be doing training on social media and how to do social media to encourage voter registration,” Blake said.
“We would be doing some training for the Maldivian police service on election law and we would be doing capacity building for community based organizations, particularly about voter education and voter registration,” he added.

US, UN diplomats visit Male

US Ambassador Michele Sison and UN Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs Oscar Fernandez Taranco are currently visiting the Maldives and have met with key political and civil society leaders ahead of the September 7 elections.

Speaking at an opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) rally, former President Mohamed Nasheed declared that he had met with both, who “agreed that foregoing an investigation of the senior officers among the police and military who were involved in the events of February 7, 2012 would not be a good thing either for Maldivian democracy, rule of law or the upcoming election,” Nasheed told the crowd of MDP supporters.

He added that progress towards stability and fair elections would be forestalled by the lack of such an investigation.

“We are not asking for an investigation of all police and army officers. We are talking about a few people. About 10 or 12 people,” he said.

Nasheed expressed confidence that “criminal investigations” would take place into unlawful acts or criminal offences committed by mutinying police and military officers on February 7, 2012.

A US Embassy Spokesperson confirmed to Minivan News that Ambassador Sison was visit the Maldives and had met with Nasheed “as part of our normal bilateral relationship, to meet with government and civil society leaders as well as visit US Embassy initiatives such as our Access English language microscholarship program. She arrived yesterday and will depart today.”

During her meeting with Nasheed, “Ambassador Sison reiterated her support for the implementation of the Commission of National Inquiry (CNI) report and its recommendations, including investigations into allegations of abuse.”

Nasheed informed a previous US delegation on January 31, consisting of Deputy Assistant Secretary of State James Moore, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Vikram Singh and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Jane Zimmerman, that the government had made no move towards acting on the recommendations made in the report, which included holding police accountable for widely videoed brutality surrounding what it termed a legitimate transfer of power in February 2012.

Meanwhile yesterday (May 8, 2013) the Prosecutor General filed the first charges against two police officers for allegedly assaulting MDP MPs ‘Reeko’ Moosa Manik and Mariya Ahmed Didi on February 8, 2012 during the brutal police crackdown.

Local media identified the accused as Mohamed Waheed from the island of Thinadhoo in Gaafu Dhaalu Atoll and Ibrahim Faisal from Machangolhi Rausha of Male’.


Leaked draft agreement opens possibility for US base in Maldives

The United States has confirmed it is in discussion with the Maldivian government over the signing of a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), an unauthenticated draft version of which outlines conditions for the potential establishment of a US military base in the country.

The draft agreement, obtained by Maldivian current affairs blog DhivehiSitee, “incorporates the principal provisions and necessary authorisations for the temporary presence and activities of United States forces in the Republic of Maldives and, in the specific situations indicated herein, the presence and activities of United States contractors in the Republic of Maldives.”

A spokesperson for the US Embassy in Colombo was unable to verify the authenticity of the leaked draft, “as the agreement has not been finalised.”

“There are no plans for a permanent US military presence in Maldives,” the spokesperson stated.

“SOFAs are normal practice wherever the Unites States cooperates closely with a country’s national security forces. SOFAs generally establish the framework under which US personnel operate in a country when supporting security-related activities and the United States is currently party to more than 100 agreements that may be considered a SOFA,” the spokesperson added.

Senior Maldivian government officials were meanwhile recently invited aboard a United States aircraft carrier (March 27) as it passed by the Maldives.

Tourism Minister Ahmed Adheeb, Defence Minister Mohamed Nazim, Home Minister Mohamed Jameel Ahmed, Police Commissioner Abdulla Riyaz and Vice President Mohamed Waheed Deen were flown to the USS John C Stennis aircraft carrier as part of an arrangement between the US embassy and Maldives Defence Ministry.

The visit was followed by the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the Maldives and the US government to install a free border control system.

President’s Office Spokesperson Masood Imad said today that he had texted President Dr Mohamed Waheed who had no knowledge of any agreement. The Defence Ministry also had no information on the matter, he said.

Imad would not comment on whether the government would be open to such a proposal.

Spokesperson for the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), MP Hamid Abdul Ghafoor, said the party 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.

The party’s parliamentary group leader, MP Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, said he had heard about the proposal “a few days ago”, and believed the matter would eventually be taken to parliament’s national security committee.

Draft proposal

Under the proposed 10 year agreement outlined in the draft, the Maldives would “furnish, without charge” to the United States unspecified “Agreed Facilities and Areas”, and “such other facilities and areas in the territory and territorial seas of the Republic of Maldives as may be provided by the Republic of Maldives in the future.”

“The Republic of the Maldives authorizes United States forces to exercise all rights and authorities with Agreed Facilities and Areas that are necessary for their use, operation, defense or control, including the right to undertake new construction works and make alterations and improvements,” the document states.

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 to the United States”.

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, refueling of aircraft, maintenance of vessels, aircraft, vehicles and equipment, accommodation of personnel, communications, ship visits, training, exercises, humanitarian activities.”

US personnel would be be authorised 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 United States.

US personnel and contractors would moreover be permitted to import and export personal property, equipment, supplies and technology without license, restriction or inspection, or the payment of any taxes, charges or customs duties.

Vessels and vehicles operated by, and for, US forces would be permitted to enter and move freely within the territorial seas of the Maldives, free from boarding, inspection or the payment of landing, parking, port or harbour fees.

Disputes would be resolved without recourse to “any national or international court, tribunal or similar body, or to a third party for settlement, unless otherwise mutually agreed.”

At the conclusion of the lease, “the parties shall consult regarding the terms of return of any Agreed Facility and Area, including possible compensation for improvements or construction.”

Each party would furthermore waive claims (other than contractual) concerning “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 he performance of their official duties in connection with activities under this agreement.”

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.

Diego Garcia and the 2016 lease extension

The US Navy currently operates one of its largest bases outside the US at Diego Garcia, approximately 740 kilometres south of Addu Atoll, the lease for which is due to expire in 2016.

The site includes multiple landing strips for heavy bombers, pier and port facilities for the largest vessels in both the US and UK fleets, and accommodation for thousands of navy personnel.

Part of the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), the site was leased to the US by the UK following its forcible eviction of the local inhabitants – the Chagos – after its purchase from Mauritius for UK£3 million at the time in 1965. Then-Mauritian Prime Minister, Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, received a knighthood from the Queen the same year.

In 1966, the UK granted the US a 50-year lease of the archipelago in exchange for favours including a US$14 million discount on submarine-launched Polaris missiles.

The lease is due to expire in 2016 with both parties required to end, modify or extend it by December 2014. However, the feasibility of an extension is uncertain as the UK has been engaged in a series of long-running and politically embarrassing court battles with Chagos islanders seeking to return to the archipelago.

The Chagos won a high court victory in the UK in 2000 enabling them to return, but the decision was extraordinarily overruled by the Queen’s royal prerogative. In 2008, the House of Lords overturned the high court verdict, forcing the Chagos to appeal in the European court of human rights.

In April 2010, the UK declared the Chagos Archipelago a marine reserve – theoretically making it the world’s largest marine protected area (MPA). Funds to manage the MPA for the next five years were provided by Swiss-Italian billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli.

A leaked US embassy cable dated May 5, 2009 and marked ‘NOFORN’, or ‘No foreigners’, subsequently suggested the marine park was a calculated attempt by the UK Foreign Office to scuttle the resettlement claims of the 3,000 Chagos islanders.

In the leaked US cable, Colin Roberts, the then UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s (FCO) Director of Overseas Territories, is quoted as saying that the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) has “served its role very well”.

“‘We do not regret the removal of the population,’ since removal was necessary for the BIOT to fulfill its strategic purpose,’ he said. Removal of the population is the reason that the BIOT’s uninhabited islands and the surrounding waters are in ‘pristine’ condition,” the cable read.

“Establishing a marine reserve might, indeed, as the FCO’s Roberts stated, be the most effective long-term way to prevent any of the Chagos Islands’ former inhabitants or their descendants from resettling in the BIOT,” it adds.

In the cable, Roberts emphasised that the establishment of the marine park would ensure it was reserved for military use and “would have no impact on how Diego Garcia is administered as a base.”

“[Roberts] noted that the establishment of a marine reserve would require permitting scientists to visit BIOT, but that creating a park would help restrict access for non-scientific purposes. For example, he continued, the rules governing the park could strictly limit access to BIOT by yachts, which Roberts referred to as ‘sea gypsies’.”

As a result of the British government’s “current thinking” on the reserve, there would be “no human footprints” or “Man Fridays” on the uninhabited islands of the archipelago, Roberts stated in the cable.

In response to concerns from US Political Counsellor Richard Mills that advocates of Chagossian resettlement might continue “to vigorously press their case”, Roberts replied that the UK’s “environmental lobby is far more powerful than the Chagossians’ advocates.”

However, the escalating Chagos case in the UK suffered a setback as recently as last week – April 18, 2013 – after a UK court ruled that the leaked cable was inadmissible as evidence.