Members of parliament have expressed concern over recent remarks against Indian High Commissioner to the Maldives, D M Mulay, by President’s Office Spokesperson Abbas Adil Riza.
MPs debated the matter on Tuesday after a motion submitted by MDP MP Ibrahim ‘Bondey’ Rasheed, condemning government’s failure to take action against the spokesperson’s remarks.
Following criticism from the High Commission and the Indian government, the President’s Office published a statement distancing the government from Riza’s remarks.
During a rally organised by parties of the ruling coalition calling for the seizure and nationalisation of Ibrahim Nasir International Airport (INIA) from Indian infrastructure giant GMR, Riza described Mulay as a “traitor and enemy of the Maldives and the Maldivian people”, accusing him of taking bribes and threatening the government.
During the debate, MPs of the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) condemned the remarks claiming they were made against diplomatic protocol and could affect bilateral relations with India.
Presenting the motion, MP Rasheed highlighted that GMR operates airports in New Delhi, Hyderabad and in Turkey. He added that Turkey also has a strong Muslim majority but the people there do not go out on to the streets calling to take back the airport in the name of protecting Islam.
Rasheed added that tourists would obviously see protesters hollering around the airport on boats, and that this could potentially harm foreign investment in the country.
He also added that after talking “nonsense” in front of the general public, a president’s spokesperson cannot later claim that he was expressing his “personal opinions”, and that a repeat of such actions could inflict irreparable damage to the economy.
“Act of terrorism”
Speaking on the motion, Deputy Parliamentary Group Leader of MDP MP Ali Waheed described the anti-GMR armada as an “act of terrorism”.
“What we saw yesterday was an act of terrorism. If the government wishes to terminate the contract with GMR that was entered into during the former government, then do it, instead of nonsense like this,” Waheed said.
He further added that Spokesperson Riza had made a huge blunder by speaking “so lowly” of the high commissioner, and the best thing for him to do was apologise or resign from his position as spokesperson.
Deputy leader of the government-aligned Jumhoree Party (JP) MP Abdulla Jabir echoed similar sentiments during the debate.
“What I saw was a group of terrorists who went to stop the businesses of this country and to take over those businesses in the international airport illegitimately. I condemn these actions and this is not something that should be repeated in this country ever again,” said Jabir.
MDP Spokesperson and MP Hamid Abdul Ghafoor said that during the MDP’s three year democratic government, the country saw a large number of foreign investors investing in the Maldives because of the trust those investors had in the government.
He added that India alone had contributed nearly a billion dollars to the Maldivian economy, and that GMR was one of the many that came through a transparent international bidding process with the technical assistance of International Finance Corporation (IFC), a group under the World Bank.
He expressed concern that if similar blunders were seen from the government, the Maldives risked losing the investor confidence gained over the last three years.
Meanwhile, MDP MP Eva Abdulla alleged that the remarks made by Riza were not those of his own but were rather under “direct orders” from President Mohamed Waheed Hassan.
“Indian government is involved in this conspiracy”: DQP MP Riyaz Rasheed
During the debate, the majority of former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) MPs attempted to defend Riza, and tried to switch the focus on to High Commissioner Mulay.
In an apparent contradiction to its comments in parliament, the PPM on November 12 issued a statement dissociating the the party from the “slanderous” allegations made against Mulay.
Deputy leader and the only MP from the government-aligned Dhivehi Qaumee Party (DQP), MP Riyaz Rasheed made strong allegations against the Indian government, repeating Riza’s allegations against Mulay.
“[Mulay] is trying to declare the airport a property of the Indian government or the GMR group, and it is a fact that the Indian government working on the agenda as well,” he claimed.
Riyaz alleged that GMR and the Indian government were “eyeing” the MPs who spoke against them and that if those MPs travelled to India, he had information that GMR was “intending to plant drugs in their baggage.”
He also said it was saddening to see that a High Commissioner from the world’s largest democracy could not digest remarks made by the spokesperson, and added that there was a great difference between speaking in an official capacity and in an individual capacity.
Meanwhile, PPM MP Abdul Azeez Jamaal Aboobakr defended Riza, stating that a person’s freedom cannot be limited because of his employment, and that Riza too had his freedom of speech.
Aboobakr also highlighted that Riza had at the beginning of Friday’s speech said that he was going to make the remarks not in his official capacity as the spokesperson, but in an individual capacity.
Another PPM MP, Ahmed Mahloof, said the current government of President Waheed had all the needed powers to terminate the GMR agreement.
“This is something that could be done even sitting inside a luxurious air-conditioned room. All President Waheed has to do is decide on the matter,” Mahloof said.
He added that it was unnecessary to make a fuss out of the issue, referring to the anti-GMR boat armada, and that those who really wanted to terminate the GMR contract should have protested in front of the president’s office.
He also admitted that he could be subjected to allegations of taking bribes from his fellow MPs after making a remark in favour of GMR.
During the debate, MPs from the second largest political party Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) followed the opposition MDP in condemning the remarks made by Riza.
DRP MP Ahmed Mohamed during the debate stated that he condemned the remarks made by Riza and Deputy Home Minister Ahmed ‘Boafan’ Abdulla during Friday’s rally.
“I call upon the government to settle this issue as soon as possible. I urge the government to finish the this issue before the political figures of this country begin to take advantage and politicise it,” he warned.
DRP MP Hussain Mohamed stated that the local party to the agreement was a 100 percent government owned company and therefore it was up to the government to make a decision.
Hussain Mohamed added that it was “utter nonsense” for political parties in government to come out and protest against the government.
Indian High Commissioner “traitor and enemy of the Maldives and the Maldivian people”: Riza
The debate stirred up in parliament followed remarks made by Riza during an anti-GMR rally held on Friday, calling the government to terminate the agreement with GMR – a 25-year concession agreement to develop and manage the airport, and overhaul the existing terminal while a new one is constructed on the other side of the island. The agreement represents the largest case of foreign investment in the Maldives.
“Trade between the Maldives and India reaches billions. Indian tycoons have the biggest share in Maldives tourism. Indian people are deepest in Maldivian business. We have to protect the businesses of those who import and sell potatoes and onions from India. We also have to protect the businesses of those who import gravel and sand from India. It should not be GMR that [Mulay] should take into account,” Riza declared during the rally.
“Today, like someone who has chilli smoke on his eyes, like someone who has ants at his feet who is threatening us Maldivians, the Indian ambassador here has forgotten what his job here in Maldives is. We are not in the mood to allow him to commit the crimes he is committing in our country,” he told as the crowd roared in support.
“A diplomat’s job is to work for his country and people and not to protect the interests of one private company… He is a traitor and enemy of Maldives and Maldivian people. We don’t want these kind of diplomats on our soil,
“Today we are also calling on for something else. On the day when we get GMR out of the Maldives, Mulay must also get out of here!” Riza said.
Riza’s comments were widely reported in Indian media.
Television channel Times Now described the “vicious targeting of the Indian envoy as leaving “a bitter taste”, and sparking a “huge diplomatic row”. The story had also been picked up by the Hindu and the Indian Express.
The remarks were quickly met with concern and condemnation by the Indian High Commission, which issued a statement dismissing the Presidential spokesperson’s allegations as being “against the diplomatic protocol”.
“We have told the government of Maldives that settling issues of huge mutual interest cannot be done on public space or on stage. This has to be done through discussion,” the High Commission said in a statement.
The Indian High Commission also made it clear that India would safeguard its interests including the investments of Indian companies.
On Monday afternoon, three days following Riza’s remarks, the anti-GMR campaign took to the seas in an effort to increase pressure on the government to “reclaim” INIA from the Indian infrastructure giant.
A seaborne armada of about 15 dhonis carrying flags and banners circled the airport as part of an ongoing campaign to annul the contract signed between the former government and GMR to manage and develop a new terminal at INIA.
Deputy Home Minister Abdulla told Haveeru that 50,000 people have signed the petition put together by a group of NGOs seeking to annul the agreement and nationalise the airport.
In response to the large number of boats circling the airport, the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) increased its seaborne presence to counter the rally, using coastguard vessels to block the entrance to the airport harbour.
MNDF Colonel Abdul Raheem told Minivan News: We had no major concern yesterday, we did not increase our military presence at the airport itself, instead we wanted to make sure that no one [from the protest] could enter the airport area from the sea.”
Adhaalath Party President Sheikh Imran Abdulla told Haveeru the protesters had no intention of disembarking at the airport and that the purpose of the rally was to “observe airport operations in the area”.
Last week Sheikh Imran gave the government a six-day ultimatum to annul the GMR agreement (by November 15).
Former President Mohamed Nasheed, whose government approved the deal in 2010, this month slammed statements over the “reclaiming” of the airport from GMR. Nasheed claimed such comments were “highly irresponsible”, stating that such words from the government could cause irreparable damage to the country.
The present government has continued to press to “re-nationalise” the airport, with the country’s Deputy Tourism Minister confirming to Indian media in September that the administration would not “rule out the possibility of cancelling the award [to GMR]”.