China pledged assistance for bridge project, says President Yameen

The Chinese government has pledged assistance in building a bridge connecting the capital Malé and Hulhumalé, President Abdulla Yameen told the press last night upon returning from a visit to China.

“[Chinese President Xi Jinping] said let us form an economic council or committee. So we have come after determining representatives from our side on the joint committee,” Yameen told reporters at the airport.

Once the high-level joint commission is set up, Yameen said a feasibility study would be conducted with a team of Chinese engineers due to arrive this year.

The team would study the strength of ocean currents, he explained, which was necessary to determine the “strength of the structure” of the bridge as well as an estimated cost.

“When that is completed, the Chinese government informed us during the meetings that one of the contractors [that have expressed interest] would then begin work,” he said.

“So God willing, we hope work could begin very soon.”

The Chinese ambassador is due to arrive in the Maldives in a few days with a list of Chinese representatives on the joint commission, he revealed.

Yameen also said the likelihood of the bridge project being awarded to a Chinese company was “99 percent” and that “a large portion” of the project would be financed through free or concessional aid from China.

The Chinese president was meanwhile briefed about other ‘mega projects’ the government plans to commence, Yameen said, adding that “major Chinese contractors” would undertake the projects.

The Chinese government could ensure that loan facilities sought from the Chinese EXIM bank would be provided at a very low interest rate, he explained.

Meetings also took place between the Maldivian delegation and “large Chinese civil works companies,” Yameen noted.

Based on assurances from Xi Jinping, Yameen expressed confidence of receiving significant assistance from the Chinese government for the bridge project.

The Chinese government also provided MVR250 million (US$16 million) as grant aid during the president’s trip.

Diplomatic cooperation

Discussions also focused on “important matters for China in international diplomacy,” Yameen revealed, referring to the the Chinese ‘New Silk Road’ project, which he said was intended to foster economic relations and increase trade between China and Asia-Pacific nations.

“We requested participation in the Silk Road initiative and were immediately welcomed,” he said.

Yameen said he also invited the Chinese president to visit the Maldives for next year’s 50th anniversary of independence and Xi Jinping “promptly” accepted the invitation.

“So we believe [Sino-Maldives] relations are very good and [the Chinese government] was very well-prepared for our visit,” he added.

Yameen said the Maldives would back China in the international arena as the two countries shared “the same principles on a number of issues, especially concerning the Indian Ocean region, human rights and many such matters.”

He stressed, however, that the “main focus” of the discussions was the development projects envisioned by the government.

Asked if closer ties with China would adversely impact relations with India or Japan, Yameen said Sino-Maldives economic cooperation would not affect “the very friendly, close relations with India”.

“All these projects are also open to India and we are doing a lot of diplomatic work with India,” he said, referring to his administration’s decision not to sign a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the United States as an example of cooperation.

On relations with Japan, Yameen noted that a project for the construction of a new terminal at the Ibrahim Nasir International Airport (INIA) would be jointly undertaken by the Maldives Airports Company Ltd (MACL) and two Japanese companies.

“No country has expressed concern so far and I don’t believe they will either,” he said.


World wants “no further artificial impediments” to Maldives polls, Swire tells UK parliament

The Maldivian people’s commitment to democracy has not been respected by some of their politicians, the UK’s Minister of State for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Hugo Swire, has told British parliament.

The Westminster Hall debate on the situation in the Maldives was called on Tuesday ahead of Saturday’s scheduled election by UK Conservative Party MP for Redditch, Karen Lumley.

Lumley was a political consultant with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy in 2008, and helped train Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party in political campaigning.

“What happened smacks to me of a child who cannot win a board game, so they tip over the board,” Lumley said of the Maldivian politicians’ use of the Supreme Court to annul the September 7 election result, in which Nasheed emerged the frontrunner following his controversial ousting a year and a half earlier.

Hugo Swire told the assembled MPs that politicians attempting to disrupt the elections in the Maldives had, “through various manoeuvres, including calls for military intervention, [sought] to frustrate and impede the democratic process.”

“I want to speak very explicitly and clearly, because I want to leave no one, particularly anyone in the Maldives who is listening to what I am saying or who will receive a report of it later, in doubt,” Swire told the MPs.

“The evidence is that more than 85 percent – how many of us would like to be able to cite that figure for our own constituencies? – of the electorate voted in the presidential elections on 7 September this year, demonstrating their strong commitment to the democratic process. Polls were judged by international and domestic observers to have been fair, free and credible.

“As the Maldives Elections Commission stated, the election was described by observers as ‘one of the most peaceful and best’ that they had seen. That certainly remains our view,” Swire stated.

“Following what appeared to be a weakly substantiated legal challenge from an unsuccessful presidential candidate, the Maldives Supreme Court voted to annul the election results and ordered a restart of the process,” Swire noted, before citing a recent statement from UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay in which she accused the court of “interfering excessively in the presidential elections, and in so doing is subverting the democratic process and violating the right of Maldivians to freely elect their representatives.”

“Regrettably, the controversy does not end there. On 19 October, the scheduled re-run was cancelled at the last moment, and the Maldives police service intervened to ensure that the vote could not take place. The cancellation came as a result of the refusal of two candidates to sign the electoral register – one of the 16 onerous conditions imposed by the Supreme Court. That condition in effect allows any one candidate to veto the elections, raising the possibility, as my hon. friend the Member for Redditch says, of further delays,” Swire said.

“We are frustrated and concerned, but not without hope. There are practical actions that can be taken without delay. The voter registers are due to be signed by candidates today.”

Such was the UK government’s concern at “the Maldives’ disregard for [the Commonwealth’s] values that it prompts the question – if the elections do not proceed as scheduled – of whether it is appropriate for the Maldives to be represented at the forthcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Colombo,” Swire said.

“It is imperative that the rescheduled elections go ahead as planned. Anything short of that will be unacceptable. I say again to those people listening in the Maldives: the world is watching closely and it wants democratic elections, a democratically elected president and no further impediment to that to be created artificially by anyone in that country, which deserves so much better,” he concluded.

Following a meeting between President Mohamed Waheed and the presidential candidates this morning, Gasim Ibrahim and Abdulla Yameen dropped threats to veto the election made as recently as Tuesday night, and sent representatives to sign the voter registry.

Their sudden turnaround removes a major obstacle impeding the elections, and greatly increases the likelihood of polls taking place as scheduled on Saturday.

A growing delegation of senior international officials and state representatives are meanwhile arriving in the Maldives ahead of the election.

The diplomats arriving include UN Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs Oscar Fernandez-Taranco, the Commonwealth Secretary-General’s Special Envoy Sir Don McKinnon, and a team from India including the Joint Secretary of the Ministry of External Affairs.

Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird, an outspoken proponent of the need for elections in the Maldives, has meanwhile issued a statement calling for “the will of the Maldivian people [to be] recognised through a free and fair vote.”

“The international community is watching events in the Maldives closely. Canada calls on those in the current Government, security forces and the judiciary to respect the democratic process and not act to circumvent it. As voters in the Maldives go to the polls again on Saturday, they deserve to have confidence that their voices will be heard,” Baird stated.


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 [email protected]


Comment: Gloomy outlook for CMAG

Outside Marlborough House on London’s Pall Mall yesterday, the sun shone brightly. Then the clouds rolled over bringing rain. There was a brief shower of hailstones before the skies cleared again to bring more sunshine.

Further down the street, I saw paint drying. I digress, but only to due to the fact that events outside of the 39th meeting of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) were eminently more interesting than those occurring inside.

After a short meeting, the group released a bland statement which would have disappointed both Maldivians and Sri Lankans who waited outside, urging the group to take action against their respective governments. Neither country even made it onto the ‘official agenda’ disclosed to the public, with discussions on Fiji being the only content that saw the shifting light of day.

After an allegedly dramatic meeting in New York last September, the Maldives was informed that it would be allowed to resume its current (rotating) membership of the group “in the absence of any serious concerns”.

The complete failure to mention the Maldives yesterday suggested that it had resumed its seat, a move which suggested the group was satisfied with the Maldives implementation of CoNI’s recommendations. However, the fact that the country is now placed on CMAG’s confidential ‘matters of interest’ list alongside Sri Lanka – a country facing universal condemnation for its failure to adequately investigate war crimes that have killed up to 40,000 people in 2009 – is hardly a ringing endorsement.

The secretive and often counter-intuitive nature of CMAG signifies a major dilemma as it attempts the private and painstaking art of diplomacy in the full glare of the world’s media. During Friday’s press conference, Secretary General Kamalesh Sharma batted away suggestions that the Commonwealth was out of step with the international community, whilst one disgruntled minister was reported to have commented during the meeting that they should not be held to ransom by human rights groups.

Throughout the press conference, there was a clear (but diplomatic) frustration with the media’s inability to appreciate the Commonwealth’s work.

“If anything, the Commonwealth is making a contribution to the international community because, if you look at who is making statements and who is doing the real work on the ground, you will be able to tell the difference. It is the Commonwealth who is on the ground and making a difference on those issues which most people are talking about,” bristled Sharma.

Diplomacy is by its very nature dull. It is about taking small steps, confidence building, discretion, and, above all, dialogue. The art of diplomacy and partnership is how the Commonwealth has always operated, and these are methods to which the supposedly beefed up CMAG is an anathema.

Apparent difficulties with the Maldives and Sri Lanka have made it abundantly clear that CMAG is doing the Commonwealth more harm than good. Steady (and secret) progress may well have been made in both cases, but without the ability to communicate this progress to the world, the Commonwealth’s credibility will inevitably suffer.

Sharma yesterday argued that the organisation’s “real work on the ground” was in fact increasing its credibility. This might true in the murky realms of statecraft, but any boosts to the Commonwealth’s integrity will come in spite of, rather than thanks to, the work of CMAG.

Sharma told the press that CMAG was choosing to work via his own ‘good offices’; diplomatic-speak for ‘behind closed doors’. Perhaps this is where the Commonwealth’s ‘real’ work should stay, as its attempt to be more proactive and relevant risk nullifying its strengths. Maybe the Commonwealth’s inner workings should be kept private and we could talk about the weather instead.

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]


Comment: Let them eat cake

As the world watches the escalation of violence in the Maldives, the media, both nationally and internationally, has focused on the major characters in this unfolding drama. A corrupt government headed by an aging dictator was, for a short period, defeated by a popular movement led by a relentless activist, recognised for his fearless and uncompromising struggle to change the system.

However, the old regime was returned to power by the coup on February 7, barely four years after the previous government was established through a popular democratic movement. This is the stuff of Hollywood movies, but the script is still being written…

Democracy or Oligarchy? The dictionary definitions of these conflicting ideologies do not clearly reflect the real reasons behind the political struggle and the recent coup in the Maldives. It is not primarily a drama of personalities, as some of the media interviewers have portrayed it. It is a struggle between an oligarchy doggedly maintaining its privileges and a growing number of Maldivians who refuse to be beaten or intimidated into submission. Baton clashes with belief. Power clashes with powerlessness. And most importantly, privilege for the few clashes with justice for all.

For centuries, pre-eminence in government has been synonymous with privilege in the Maldives; and the privileged few used their power to do little other than to preserve their position and lifestyle. Gayoom, who was educated in the Middle East, came to power with such promise of change, but managed only to perpetuate an Arabian Nights style of governance.

Under him, the Maldivian government continued to be inward looking. The rule of the privileged few continued to be the norm. Thirty years of exploitation and repression under Gayoom left the country economically and emotionally bankrupt. The social results of this are seen in the plethora of problems that the Maldives faces today. One outstanding example is the neglect of the atolls- the economic backbone of the country.

While members of the privileged oligarchy lived the lifestyle of the rich and famous funded by the country’s earnings and the aid that was poured into the country to assist its development, there was a deliberate neglect of the islands outside the capital Male and their need for education, health care, and employment. This neglect led directly to the beleaguered state of Male today. Thousands upon thousands of Maldivians go to live in Male, to work and educate their children. Today, Male is one of the most crowded and polluted cities in the world. Privilege, married to self- interest, leaves long, dark shadows.

Privilege also goes hand in hand with exclusiveness and a strong sense of entitlement as evidenced by Gayoom’s regime. State money that was the right of all citizens was spent on personal aggrandizement. ‘Theemuge’- Gayoom’s presidential palace- and the millions of public money spent on it, is a symbol of corruption and excess that will stay with us for many years. However, the platoon of luxury yachts and the lifestyle enjoyed by his family and friends were not seen by them as a result of embezzlement, but a reflection of what they were justifiably entitled to.

Such self-deceit went further. Just as the colonial powers and the Christian missionaries of the past justified their dealings with the indigenous people of the colonies as humanitarian and ethically sound, the regime justified its way of doing things as enlightened and for the public good. For years, the old regime has argued that the Maldives was not ready for Democracy; this became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

This style of archaic thinking assumes that change for the better can only happen when it follows a time line that suits those who are opposed to any change which threatens their privileged lifestyle. The return to that regime suggests that Gayoom is of the belief that the country will not be ready for such a change in the life time of his children either! The truth is that any major progress in human history, such as the growth of Islam in its early years, the development of the parliamentary system or the emancipation of women in the West, is achieved with pain and commitment. When the oligarchy takes the moral high ground, it asserts that the ordinary public is at a lower level of evolution- incapable of rational or intelligent behaviour. Will the regime now destroy the schools, keep economic power in the hands of the few, and then tell the many that they are too ignorant for Democracy?

“Let them eat cake” is a well-known quotation possibly misattributed to Marie Antoinette, the wife of Louis XVI, whose regime was toppled in the French Revolution. The queen, who had indulged in a lifestyle of huge affluence was told that the peasants had no bread; bread being the staple food of the French peasantry and the only food they could afford. The queen’s reply illustrates her lack of understanding of the predicament of the poverty-stricken population.

Privilege is characterised by this sheer obliviousness to the concerns and opinions of the less fortunate. Thus the February 7 coup in the Maldives is not merely the effort of an old regime to reinvent itself, but it is a deliberate and belligerent signal that the privileged regime and its supporters can do what they please regardless of what the ordinary citizen feels. It is an overwhelming show of strength: they can depose a legitimately elected president, they can beat people, including elected representatives, on the street and they can wipe the slate clean for those who have stolen from the country or committed grave crimes against the Maldivian people. It is a show of huge indifference.

There is nothing that testifies to this attitude more than the employment of Abdulla Riyaz as Police Commissioner and Hussain Waheed as his deputy. Even the least informed of the Maldivians understand that these people were the driving force behind the horrifying escalation of police brutality under Gayoom.

An oligarchy, such as the one in power in the Maldives, is unable to sustain itself on its own. Maintaining antiquated rules of behaviour and supressing the beliefs of the populace is increasingly difficult in the age of the internet and social networking. Unholy alliances have to be made and the regime under Gayoom relied on the police to stay in power.

In the minds of many Maldivians, the name Gayoom is synonymous with police brutality and torture and ill treatment of political prisoners. It is not surprising that the most committed detractors of Gayoom’s regime and its scarcely disguised puppets in the present administration are those who have been at the receiving end of the inhumane treatment. In the short period of time when Maldives was ruled by a democratically elected president, this reliance on the police to enforce compliance disappeared. It is possible, given time, it may have changed not only the way the people perceive the police, but also the way the police saw their own place in the community – perhaps as the caretakers of a more humane and compassionate society.

However, the February coup has introduced a more sinister note into this unholy alliance between those in power and those who help uphold this power through the use of fear and force. This time, the allegiance of a number of police and military has been purchased. It is not difficult to conceive of a future Maldivian police force, with shifting allegiances and well-honed negotiating powers, cutting the best deal for themselves. Less obvious, but yet more insidious, is the effect of using the police to uphold the rule of the few. T

The Maldives is a small country, and much of its social functioning is based on connectedness; the type of face to face relationships which unite and hold small communities together. Senior police officers, bribed by a handful of rich supporters of the regime, have ordered the juniors officers to beat their sisters, brothers, uncles and aunts. These are ordinary people who have little to gain by the power-play of their superiors.

Recent events in the Maldives also highlight another of the problems that privileged oligarchies have to address. No modern oligarchy has managed to completely obliterate social mobility. The ambitions of small groups of people who fight their way up the through private enterprise have to be addressed. The nouveaux riches of the Maldives have reached a stage where some of them are starting to question years of hard work which has not afforded them the privileges and influence to which they have aspired. Although oligarchies, such as the present regime, do not welcome new blood with open arms, they do manipulate it.

The coup represents an outcome of synchronicity – where the needs of the oligarchy and the aspirations of a small group of rich resort owners struck a meeting point. When in power, the Maldivian Democratic Party introduced a system of taxation that did not please some of the wealthy resort owners as well as low end tourism that would open up the industry to ordinary Maldivians. These efforts by a people’s government to improve the lot of the ordinary Maldivians were a huge threat to a small group of the rich who have enjoyed a monopoly of wealth alongside their friends in the regime.

The possibility of a law that would ensure that tourism profits in fact trickled down to the local economy by putting it through local banks, was another affront to some of the powerful resort owners. Like the members of the regime, they too have an interest in maintaining the status quo, so that both sides can continue building their own empires, be it based on power, money or influence. In aligning themselves with a cruel regime, they have tarnished their own names and become traitors to their nation.

However, oligarchic governments are also invariably threatened by a more fundamental force that is not so easily manipulated. This is the inevitable state of conflict which ensues between the power of the few and the needs of the many. Eventually, the down -trodden simply refuse to be part of the narrative and mythology perpetuated by the privileged few.

Some of the greatest upheavals of human history are testimony to this simmering sense of resentment. The French Revolution, The Russian Revolution, and the Chinese Revolution are all well documented examples of how the masses revolt against such inequalities. Inevitably the people find their voice in the figure of an individual who is prepared to be the punching bag of the powerful bureaucracies. A brown man with spindly legs wearing a dhoti makes an appearance. A black man insists that he wants his children to be judged by the strength of their character and not by the colour of their skin. An old woman refuses to sit at the back of bus and decides to break the law. An Anni appears…

Justice is a powerful threat to privileged oligarchies. Some two thousand years ago, Aristotle argued that the ordering of a society is centred on justice. No oligarchy has yet managed to convince the under-privileged majority of a nation that what is justice for the minority is also justice for the masses. And justice matters. The fundamental search of the human spirit is not, as advertisers would have us believe, to holiday on ‘the sunny side of life’. Nor is it money. It is a search for the confirmation that each individual life has meaning and each individual has a right to live in dignity. This is the point of civilised society. This is why, justice is central to the smooth functioning of any society. This is why one of the most enduring symbols of the anger against the coup of February 7 is a T-shirt that simply asks, “Where is my vote?”

This is why injustice penetrates deep into the human psyche. There is nothing that unites people more than a shared list of grievances. In more recent years, Martin Luther King Junior echoed these sentiments when he argued that, “Law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.” Indeed, we need to worry when law and order have been unable to function effectively in the Maldives for over thirty years, due to the self-interest of a small minority of people.

Democracy or Oligarchy? This is no longer a political question. Nor is it an issue about two strong individuals. It has become a moral and ethical judgment that every Maldivian has to make. We must decide whether we are brave enough to choose ‘the road less travelled ’, make mistakes, take risks and grow towards maturity as a nation, or continue to be bullied by an oligarchy which, by its very definition, is focused on its own survival at the expense of the population.

The rest of the world also has to make a decision; the well- known words of Edmund Burke are hugely relevant to the situation in the Maldives: “All that is required for evil to prosper is for good men to do nothing.”

It is time for good men and women, both nationally and internationally, to stand by the Maldivian Democratic Party and help write the script for a new and more enlightened age of Maldivian history.
The time for action is now.

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]


India backs early elections

India’s Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai has said the country will back early elections in the Maldives, and pushing for cross-party cooperation and any “necessary constitutional amendments”.

Statements from Mathai were sent to media attached to a document entitled ‘Maldives Elements of a Possible Way Forward’.

“The President [Dr Mohamed Waheed] has come out with a roadmap for an inclusive political process which provides a very good basis for the parties to resolve their differences,” Mathai said.

“Consequent to my discussions, the following formulation was agreed upon by all the parties concerned: ‘In the interests of national reconciliation and to encourage harmony between our citizens, the Government of National Unity will hold discussions with all relevant parties to conduct elections by an early date’,” he said.

“The MDP, on its part, committed itself to encouraging an atmosphere appropriate to the holding of elections. In this context, we understand that their decision to hold a rally tomorrow is being reconsidered,” he added.

“The Government of National Unity will work towards the conditions that will permit such elections to take place including the necessary constitutional amendments. Our understanding is that elections would be held as early as considered feasible by all concerned. This is to be discussed by the parties.”

Mathai said that he had met the leaders of all the main political parties, “including Mohamed Nasheed of the MDP, Abdulla Yameen of the PPM and Thasmeen Ali of the DRP. I also met the Chief Justice and the Speaker of Parliament.

“I reiterated our belief that there is need for a Maldivian-led process for reconciliation and resolving political differences through constitutional means,” he said.

The reaction to the statement from both sides was initially unclear – India’s press conference was to have been held earlier on Thursday afternoon, but was reported delayed due to “new developments”, according to one official. It was later held at 7:00pm.

Meanwhile a press conference due to be held by the MDP this evening was cancelled, while during an earlier meeting with foreign media, Dr Waheed and his newly-appointed political advisor, Dr Hassan Saeed, refrained from committing to early elections and instead reiterated the need for the “right conditions”.

However in a statement on the President’s Office website, linking to the document, Dr Waheed said the roadmap was a “victory” for Maldivians.

“I have an unswerving commitment to the principles of our constitution and a clear vision of how our country can move forward. I am by nature a man who prefers to lead by consensus. This is an opportunity for us to regain the respect of the international community but most importantly continue to build a safe, democratic and prosperous Maldives for all our people,” Dr Waheed said.

“I wish to personally thank the Indian Foreign Secretary for his good offices in facilitating this agreement which has needed all sides to put aside partisan interest for the sake of the country”.

The version of the document on the President’s Office website contained additional paragraphs, including one stating that “the Government of National Unity will ensure the creation of conditions for genuine, free and fair multi-party elections, providing the opportunity for all candidates to compete equally in the elections in 2013. It will strengthen the capacity of the Electoral Commission. It will ensure access of all registered parties and candidates to the media and other means of transmitting positions and platforms and will ensure the political neutrality of the public media. Moreover, it will invite international monitoring of the electoral preparations and the elections.”

Mathai is the second top Indian diplomat dispatched to the Maldives this week, following an earlier visit by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Special Envoy M Ganapathi.


Dr Jameel summoned for questioning again, as government goes on diplomatic offensive

Police on Wednesday evening summoned Vice President of the minority opposition Dhivehi Quamee Party (DQP), Dr Mohamed Jameel, for questioning for the fourth time in a week.

Police are investigating Dr Jameel following accusations by the government that the party was attempting to incite religious hatred.

DQP council member ‘Sandhaanu’ Ahmed Ibrahim Didi, a former Amnesty Prisoner of Conscience, had called on the public to “rise up and defend Islam”, stating that “we brought [President Mohamed] Nasheed to power by mistake. Nasheed is a madman.”

Among the “slanderous allegations”, according to the government, were claims that it was “operating under the influence of Jews and Christian priests” and had been “attempting to spread irreligious practices and principles in the country.”

The government has expressed particular alarm at a pamphlet published by the party in Dhivehi entitled “President Nasheed’s devious plot to destroy the Islamic faith of Maldivians”.

The pamphlet advises that “the Jew’s plan and way of thinking is to divide Islamic countries”, and that Maldivian government officials hold secret identities as “Christian priests”.

Monuments gifted by SAARC countries during the Addu summit in November 2011 were secretly “religious statues, depicting other Gods for praying [towards].”

The traction of such allegations is hard to judge in the Maldives. Historically a moderate country, it has recently found itself facing a rising trend of religious extremism – a stark contrast to the Western hedonism of the resorts, from which the country indirectly derives 70 percent of its income.

The DQP has defended their allegations under Article 27 of the Constitution, which guarantees freedom of expression “subject to the tenets of Islam”, and is presenting this argument to foreign embassies in Colombo this week.

The government has however claimed that the party’s remarks are “racist, bigoted and anti-Semitic”.

“Freedom of speech does not entitle you to maliciously shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre,” President Nasheed’s Press Secretary Mohamed Zuhair has said.

Leader of the DQP, former Attorney General Dr Hassan Saeed, has refused to speak to Minivan News. Dr Jameel was not responding at time of press.

Diplomatic push

In a bid to justify the continued investigation of DQP politicians – disrupted by the Criminal Court’s refusal to grant police an extension of detention, following the arrest and incarceration of Chief Judge Abdulla Mohamed on corruption charges – the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was today briefing the international community on the “recent increase in extremist religious rhetoric being used by certain opposition political figures in the Maldives.”

The Foreign Ministry said it was “extremely concerned by the increase in extremist rhetoric used by certain politicians and NGOs, which can lead to stigmatisation, stereotyping and to incitement to religious violence and hatred.”

“The government of the Maldives shares the concern of others in the international community “at instances of derogatory stereotyping, negative profiling and stigmatiation of persons based on their religion or belief, as well as programmes and agendas pursued by extremist organizations. We also condemn, in this context, any advocacy of religious hatred against individuals that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence,” the Foreign Ministry stated.

“Opposition politicians in the Maldives are using the new climate of free speech and freedom of the press to promote negative religious stereotyping, especially about Christians and Jews, and to incite religious hatred, hostility and violence,” the Ministry claimed.

“This represents a deeply worrying trend that can and will have a lasting negative impact on tolerance across Maldivian society,” it added.

A person familiar with the matter told Minivan News that the government had noted and archived statements made by senior political figures endorsing extremism during and following the opposition-sponsored ‘Defend Islam’ protest on December 23 last year, and was in the process of compiling briefing notes for interested international agencies.


Addu City Council begins taking down “idolatrous” SAARC monuments

Addu City Council has begun removing monuments gifted to the Maldives by SAARC member countries during the “Building Bridges” summit in November 2011.

Bhutan’s monument, a wooden sign, was taken down on Friday following a demand from demonstrators at the opposition-sponsored ‘Defend Islam’ protest on December 23 that all monuments be removed as they were “idolatrous”.

Councillor Hussein Hilmee told Minivan News that a small group of people had been vandalising the monuments and that police had needed to provide 24 hour security, which was unfeasible.

The leaders of Bangladesh, Pakistian, India, Bhutan, Nepal and Sri Lanka unveiled their national monuments to commemorate the Maldives’ hosting of the SAARC Summit.

The night before the unveiling of Pakistan’s monument a small group of protesters knocked it over, contending that carvings detailing the history of the Indus valley civilisation and a bust of the country’s founder Mohamed Ali Jinah were idolatrous. The monument was removed by Addu City Council and replaced on its plinth prior to the unveiling ceremony.

That evening a group of opposition MPs, including MP Ahmed Mahlouf from former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM), were arrested attempting to take down SAARC banners at the airport which they claimed featured Christian imagery.

The Pakistani monument was subsequently set ablaze by demonstrators, after the Adhaalath Party issued a statement claiming that “no Maldivian of sound mind” would allow idols or iconography of other religions to be erected in the country.

The Pakistani monument was “part of efforts by adversaries of Islam to turn the faith that Maldivians embraced 900 years ago upside down,” the party said at the time.

The fate of the monuments quickly became a political football in the wake of the SAARC Summit, as the government began to juggle the perceptions of its regional neighbours with antagonistic public sentiment triggered by opposition-led demands that the monuments be removed.

Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani unveils the contentious monument

Meanwhile, the wave of vandalism continued. The head of Sri Lanka’s lion statue monument was decapitated, and police were deployed to provide protect the surviving structures.

A month after it was unveiled Nepal’s monument, a metal plaque with a coat of arms resembling the country’s national symbol, was stolen during a police shift change.

“We regret what has happened,” Addu City Mayor Abdullah Sodig told Minivan News following the theft of the Nepalese monument. “It was not a religious monument. There is some political motive behind this theft,” he emphasised, citing “opposition party members” as likely suspects.

Islamic Minister Dr Abdul Majeed Abdul Bari subsequently requested that government authorities remove the SAARC monuments that conflicted with Islam, although he did not specify which.

State Minister for Islamic Affairs, Sheikh Hussein Rasheed, was more muted, telling Minivan News that he did not believe that the monuments contradicted Islam.

“The Pakistan monument showed how Pakistan became an Islamic country from its Buddhist origins,’’ he said, but added: ‘’Although the monument does not contradict Islam, it should not be kept there if Maldivian citizens do not want it to be there.’’

Press Secretary Mohamed Zuhair observed at the time that taking down the monuments would diplomatically be very difficult for the government, “especially where it was handed to us by another Islamic country.”

Removal of the contentious monuments was one of the five demands of the December 23 protesters, who also demanded that the government apologise for a statement to parliament by UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay concerning a moratorium on flogging for extra-maritial sex.

Today, Addu City Councillor Hilmee said the council had sent a letter to the Foreign Ministry requesting that it inform SAARC member countries that it was taking the monuments down.

Deputy Sri Lankan High Commissioner Shaanthi Sudusinghe said the Sri Lankan government had not yet been informed of any decision.

“We have requested that if [the government] is unable to preserve the monument that they hand it over to us,” she said.


Comment: India-Maldives ties moving forward

Nothing explains the width and depth of bilateral relations between India and Maldives than the speed with which the People’s Majlis passed a special legislation unanimously for the visiting Heads of State and Government to address members in a special session, only days before Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was to arrive in Male for bilateral talks with President Mohammed Nasheed.

Despite the deep divisions within the Maldivian polity, which often gets reflected in Parliament, as in other democracies, Maldives offered a near-full House when Singh became the first visiting Head of Government to address the House.

“The People’s Majlis is a testimony to the strong faith the people of Maldives have shown in democracy. As a fellow democracy, we take delight in your achievements,” the Prime Minister said.

“India will be at your side in your transition to a fully functioning democracy. We will assist the Majlis by way of training, formulation of rules and regulations, and any other assistance that you may desire,” he said, touching upon the democratic milestones achieved by this “pearl of the Indian Ocean” in a short span since 2008, when the nation adopted a new Constitution providing for multi-party democracy and elected a new President.

Singh also touched upon the formation of the India-Maldives Parliamentary Friendship Groups. The Indian Prime Minister also met with the Leader of the Opposition in the Majlis, Thaseen Ali of the Dhivehi Rayyathunge Party (DRP), setting a healthy precedent.

In a way, the Prime Minister’s references to the ushering in of democracy in Maldives and the strengthening of democratic institutions in the country were an acknowledgement of the initiatives taken by President Nasheed and his Government since his Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) began a movement for the purpose while in the opposition.

As Singh pointed out in his Majlis speech, Maldives has “undertaken the reforms necessary for the independent functioning of the judiciary and other vital organs of the State. The People’s Majlis has upheld the freedom of speech and expression of the people and the media which are the pillars of democracy,” he said.

The Prime Minister’s references to capacity-building thus included Indian assistance to all sections and sectors of Maldivian Government and democratic institutions. When put into action, it would go a long way in furthering democratic linkages, whose institutional mechanisms would go a long way in deepening and widening the ties and trust between the two Indian Ocean neighbours.


After structured talks between President Nasheed and Prime Minister Singh, the two sides signed six agreements. Topping the list was the Framework Agreement on Cooperation in Development. The agreement committed India to aiding and assisting Maldives in a series of development projects over the coming years. India is already committed to setting up the Maldivian National University in Male, for which buildings are already coming up.

Another agreement provides for New Delhi renovating the Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital in the capital, a gift from India. Prime Minister Singh said that India would also undertake a feasibility study on constructing a port in northern Kulhudhuffushi. India also contributed substantially to the development of Addu City and Atoll into the ‘convention capital’ of Maldives to help integrate the southern part into the nation at a faster pace.

Given the economic realities in which Maldives is placed, combined with some of the politically-driven decisions of the Government in the past, Indian assistance for the atoll-nation has always been substantial and readily forthcoming. Immediately after President Nasheed came to office in November 2008, India extended a US$100 million line of credit, as sought by the Maldivian Government. In 2009, India fully subscribed the $ 100-m treasury bonds floated by Maldives.

Among the agreements signed during the prime ministerial visit this time, one provided for a US$100 million standby credit facility for the country.

Sensitivity to security concerns

The second item on the list of six agreements was a ‘Memorandum of Understanding on Combating International Terrorism, Trans-national Crime, Illicit Drug Trafficking and Enhancing Bilateral Cooperation in Capacity-Building, Disaster Management and Coastal Security’.

As the long title indicates, the agreement reads all-inclusive, to cover all aspects of security, starting with human security. At the news conference held after the conclusion of the agreements and bilateral talks, both the leaders touched upon the decision to introduce ferry services between the two countries.

Considering the logistics and other issues involved, the two sides would be holding further talks in the matter, to dovetail Indian concerns, if any, and Maldivian interests, given the continuing family and cultural linkages between the peoples of the two countries in some islands.

“In furtherance of the shared recognition that the security interests of both the countries are inter-lined in the region, they (the two leaders) reiterated their assurance that each side would be sensitive to the concerns of the other on the issue and that their respective territories would not be allowed for any activity inimical to the other and by any quarter,” the Joint Statement issued at the conclusion of the visit said.

Though tugged in between commitments on fighting international terrorism, piracy and drug-trafficking, the message was clear. In this context, the joint statement said, “The two leaders agreed to strengthen cooperation enhance maritime security in the Indian Ocean Region through coordinated patrolling and aerial surveillance, exchange information, capacity-building and the development of an effective legal framework against piracy.”

India’s concerns in the shared Indian Ocean neighbourhood do not stop with terrorism, piracy and drug-trafficking, though, among them, there is always a greater concern about the first in the list. Strategic analysts in India and elsewhere have often been writing about the perceived increase in fundamentalism in Maldives. At the conclusion of the SAARC Summit, fundamentalist elements in southern Addu set fire to, and later decamped with, the monument erected by Pakistan as part of a SAARC custom. To them, the motifs at the foot of the monument depicting the artefacts of the Indus Valley Civilisation had idols of worship, which was not allowed in Islam. The reference was to motifs resembling Buddha, worshipped in some of the SAARC nations.

While the fundamentalist Adhaalath Party has gone to court, charging the Government with going against the letter and spirit of the Constitution, some leaders of the newly-formed Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), founded by former President Maumoon Gayoom, said those who destroyed the monument were ‘national heroes’. PPM and Adhaalath Party youth also held demonstrations, something that not all the senior leaders in the former reportedly relished. The strategic community reads all this in the context of the 26/11 experience, when sea-borne terrorists had attacked Mumbai, the nation’s business capital. For the Maldivian authorities, it is a concern about the increasing permissiveness and acceptance of fundamentalist elements, if not ideology. However, the dividing line, as they understand, is also thin.

India’s concerns are also directed at China, whose increasing interest in Maldives came to the fore with the opening of an embassy in Male on the eve of the SAARC Summit. India is alive to diplomatic and political realities, where the opening of an embassy by any country in any other by itself should not be a cause for concern. But New Delhi’s concerns now are because of China’s increasing military might and strategic ambitions, particularly in the immediate Indian Ocean neighbourhood. However, India draws clear distinction between China’s economic interests and investment potential in all nations in the neighbourhood and beyond, though New Delhi is not unaware of the political clout and dominance that it could facilitate over time.

While the neighbourhood countries are hungry for huge investments, Indian private sector, unlike their Chinese counterparts, if the latter could truly be called so, has not been so forthcoming. The result is that the countries are left with little choice. In this regard, the Indian Government may have to do as much at home as overseas to encourage the Indian industry to put big money in the neighbourhood, combining economic interests with a sense of national duty, and not crib that China and Chinese are everywhere and that they had no space to play out when they enter overseas markets belatedly.

The writer is a Senior Fellow at the 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 [email protected]