Comment: ‘Awesome’ Indian ‘readiness’ in ‘accomplished visit’

“The first day of the New Year, I am spending not with my people, I am spending with India. I have come to India at a very difficult time to the Maldivian people. Maldivian economy at this point in time is impoverished. I have come to India at a time of great need for Maldivian people. Anticipation from my visit is high. India has assisted the Maldives in times of need. India continues to assist us in all areas of development. We will be coming to India time and time again. The readiness on the part of Indian Government has been awesome. While we have had slight differences in the past, my regime is committed to resolving all of these issues. The relationship India and the Maldives has cannot be matched by the relationship that we can have with any other country. My visit to India is an accomplished visit…”

It is not always that any visiting head of state would be as candid and frank about the state, status and inherent strengths of bilateral relations with the host country as the new Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen was during his four-day visit to India.

Coinciding with President Yameen’s visit, India restored the export of sand and aggregates required by the Maldivian construction industry. Taking note of the increased fiscal pressure on the country, New Delhi also restored the US$25 million stand-by credit facility to the Indian Ocean archipelago. Visa restrictions on Maldivians wanting to undertake medical treatment in India, particularly in south Indian cities have also been eased.

Given the steep increases in global oil prices, which has further brought pressure on successive Governments in the Maldives when it comes to imports, India is now offering to export petroleum products to that country. In bilateral talks with President Yameen, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh advised Indian agencies to “offer best possible terms and arrangements” for meeting the petroleum product requirements of the Maldives.

India is the single largest aid-giver and economic partner of the Maldives, although bilateral economic relations came under some stress in the face of anti-India protests that marked the change-of-power. President Waheed was seen not as reprimanding the kind of aides who had targeted then Indian High Commissioner, Dyaneshwar Mulay, but rather promoting them. In this background, the restoration of existing facilities that had been withdrawn augurs well for bilateral economic cooperation.

The present restorative economic measures from the Indian side may not be enough to put the Maldives’ on the recovery process wholly, or fast-track future direction and growth. Yet it could be a propitious beginning, considering that as a small nation desirous of catching up with the rest of the world in terms development, the Maldives has been swinging between the extremes of possibilities and desirability.

This has been the case ever since ‘resort-tourism’ became the mainstay of the economy in the seventies, when the Maldives was still an idyllic island-nation with capital Malé still one large fishing village, with a people eager to move up the development ladder. Today, the Maldives may have reached the next stage, in which fresh foreign investments have to be accompanied by fresh ideas for using those investments for the nation’s good.

While the nation’s energies and time may have been expended in the pro-democracy struggle and democratisation process through the past years, the economic travails did not lessen during the period. Now that multi-party electoral democracy has stabilised as the nation’s politico-administrative process for the foreseeable future, it is time that greater energy and urgency are conferred on the economy.

It is here that President Yameen’s past experience as the nation’s Finance Minister under his half-brother, President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, is expected to keep him in good stead. Having identified the economy as his government’s priority area, and having acknowledged that close to half the nation’s voters did not vote for him in the presidential polls, he is well-equipped and well-placed to work towards a ‘consensus approach’ to economic reforms, which his bete noire and predecessor, President Mohammed Nasheed, had initiated.

It’s compensation for GMR?

It is in this overall context and background that the future course of the controversial construction-cum-concession contract for the Indian infrastructure major GMR Group – initiated by the Nasheed Government and annulled by the Waheed administration – needs to be viewed. There are those in the Maldives who view that many of the Indian decisions on the bilateral economic front over the past year had more to do with the GMR contract annulment than real issues. They have refused to acknowledge that it may have had more to do with domestic politics in the Maldives and that India may have been badly hurt by the unprovoked and unjustified street-sentiments.

In a nation where ‘coalition politics’ came to rule the roost with the first multi-party democratic elections in 2008, there is precious little that the Yameen leadership could be expected to do by way of restoring the GMR contract. What the Government now seems to be looking at instead are the ways and means by which it could restore investor-confidence in the future, aimed mainly at Indian investors and the Indian Government. These groups had previously shown a tremendous interest in creating non-governmental Indian initiatives for improving and stabilising the Maldivian economy and moving the balance of trade a little closer to parity.

GMR was just one of the few big-ticket Indian investments that have run into hurdles in the Maldives. Yet it was also the single largest FDI in the Maldives, and may remain so for a long time to come. Other Indian investments whose futures were put on the limbo included the Tatas, whose Taj Group has been running two resorts in the Maldives. An ‘amicable solution’ thus sought by Prime Minister Singh to the GMR issue thus covers other Indian investors in the Maldives, existing and future. Needless to say, other investors from other countries will also be looking at the ‘GMR issue’ for clues on what all may lie ahead of them for investing in the Maldives.

In talks with the Indian delegation led by Prime Minister Singh, and later at a luncheon with Indian business leaders in Delhi, President Yameen readily conceded that the ‘GMR issue’ was ‘politicised’. He was not known to have elaborated on whether he was referring to the annulment or the agreement; the Nasheed government was seen as playing a cat-and-mouse game with domestic stake-holders to have the GMR contract pushed through the governmental processes.

Given that President Yameen is still at the top of a pyramidal political coalition, and will need to maintian this alliance until after the parliamentary polls and even beyond, there can be little hope or expectation for his government to revive the GMR contract. It only needs to be recalled that the coalition had together protested the GMR contract at it conception, calling for its annulment when President Waheed was in power.

It is sad that domestic politics in the Maldives, aimed at whipping up ‘nationalist, religious’ sentiments, was allowed to make India a political, if not an electoral issue, in the country. In a televised message on the Maldivian National Day, coinciding with his India visit, President Yameen said that the “nation’s independence and sovereignty must not be compromised when facing major challenges”. He called upon all Maldivian citizens to consider protecting and upholding the Islamic faith and Maldivian nationhood as their foremost duty.

In his public statement after the bilateral talks in New Delhi, Indian Prime Minister Singh said that he had asked President Yameen to settle the airport issue ‘amicably’. Both sides acknowledged the existence of an issue, and did not shy away from the need for the Maldives to address the investor-concerns regarding possible long-term investments after future changes of government. President Yameen also told the Indian investors that his government was all for an out-of-court settlement with GMR, thus partially trying assuring that even if a contract went bad, investors’ interests would be protected to the limited/highest extent possible.

Stand-alone issue and debt-spiral

Ahead of the presidential visit, GMR Group chairman G M Rao had told the Indian media that they would be willing to operate the Malé airport, if invited by the Maldivian Government. President Yameen’s declaration since may have put an end to revived hopes on that score. Back home in Malé from the India visit, President Yameen did not lose much time in telling newsmen he was looking only at compensation for the GMR Group for monies expended on the airport project.

President Yameen also reiterated the Government’s resolve to continue operating the Malé airport through the public sector corporation, as it used to be before and after the ‘GMR saga’. In a way, it may have been aimed at silencing critics who suggested the forced exit of the GMR was paving the way for the entry of other corporates from countries not exactly friendly towards India.

If the government were to demand upfront payment from other foreign investors and seek to rotate those moneys for compensation to GMR, it would only cause a ‘debt spiral’ from which it would become difficult for future governments to escape. A nation that has continued to live off budgetary support and aid from India even when per capita income and GDP had been the highest in South Asia would have to look inward more than it is willing to do. GMR thus would have to be handled as a ‘stand-alone issue’ – not only in terms of rebuilding investor-confidence but also on the compensation front.

In the past, the compensation issue itself had proved ticklish with the Waheed government, contesting GMR’s claims both on the investments and losses at the Singapore arbitration court. Thankfully, the fact that the GMR Group had paid US$78 million upfront to the Maldivian Government of the day and had also visibly invested massive sums on the airport cannot be contested. In New Delhi, President Yameen told Indian investors that his officials were already talking to GMR representatives.

Promoting and protecting investments

The joint statement issued at the end of the official leg of President Yameen’s visit clearly spelt out the desire of the two nations to sign an investment promotion and protection agreement at the earliest. This would also mean that unlike in the case of the GMR investments, where the Government of India had encouraged the Indian private sector to invest in the Maldives to help sustain and stabilise the economy, New Delhi may have to ensure that there is no cause or circumstance for loss of investor confidence in the southern neighbour.

Independent of an ‘amicable settlement’ to the GMR dispute, Indian investors – and their counterparts elsewhere – would be looking hard at the future of such investments, even if investor-protection laws were to be put in place. Once bitten, they would be twice shy. Both sides, for starters, would be looking at the fine-print in future, and reading the political barometer in the Maldives with greater scrutiny. They would be looking at laws that would have to address conceptual and contractual issues in clear terms, going beyond political polemic of a given time and holding true for all political conditions.

For instance, the question of ‘national asset’ not applicable while leasing out resort-islands (the only tangible asset of investment of the host government) to foreign investors came to be flagged post facto in the airport issue. Procedural issues like the authorised bank guarantor from the government side to protect the investor’s interests have also come under question. ‘Political consensus’, ‘legal protection’ and ‘due diligence’ would be the phrases that could be expected to be in vogue as the government settles GMR’s claims on the one hand, and also seeks to put in place a legal and/or constitutional framework aimed at separating ‘national issues’ from economic concerns.

Peace in the Indian Ocean

Independent of the Indian media’s focus on economic matters, more abiding bilateral interests in political, diplomatic and security cooperation came to be discussed with the visiting delegation. With Maldivian Defence Minister Mohamed Nazim having met with his Indian counterpart less than a fortnight earlier in Delhi, President Yameen’s meeting with A K Antony thus was confined to a passing line in official statements. That did not in any way reduce the importance of bilateral defence and security discussions that the visitor had with Indian leaders, more so in the shared Indian Ocean context.

It was thus that both sides in the bilateral talks at different levels kept referring to mutual cooperation in the sensitive areas of diplomacy and security. President Yameen in particular highlighted India’s rushing immediately help to the Maldives, both during ‘war-like situation’ and peace-time – the 3 November coup attempt of 1988, and the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. He highlighted how the two countries had backed each other in international forums and would continue to do so.

From the Indian side, concern was expressed for ensuring peace in the shared Indian Ocean Region (IOR), which as during the ‘Cold War’ years is increasingly becoming a ‘hot-bed’ of geo-strategic competition as never before. In meeting with his Maldivian counterpart, Indian President Pranab Mukherjee said that New Delhi “wishes to work with the Maldives and other like-minded nations to ensure peace in the Indian Ocean region. India and the Maldives are natural partners in this enterprise,” he said.

President Mukherjee said that as India, like the Maldives, has had to address the challenges of piracy, smuggling, extremism and religious fundamentalism, both countries would like to see uninterrupted peace and security prevail in the Indian Ocean region. “India remains fully cognizant of the needs of the Maldives in dealing with these issues and is committed to assist in achieving the defence and security objectives of the Government of the Maldives,” a Rashtrapati Bhavan statement said, quoting President Mukherjee.

Prime Minister Singh’s opening statement at the news conference with President Yameen made the point further. Stating that the two countries have agreed on a number of initiatives to strengthen bilateral defence and security cooperation, through training, equipment supply, capacity-building, joint patrolling, aerial and maritime surveillance, Prime Minister Singh said: “We are also deepening trilateral maritime security cooperation with Sri Lanka, and look forward to expanding it to other countries in the Indian Ocean. India is ready to provide further assistance and support to the Maldives in strengthening our collective ability to address our shared security challenges.”

The reference was obviously to India and the Maldives inviting and involving Sri Lanka in the 11th edition of bilateral, bi-annual Coast Guard exercise, ‘Dhosti’ in 2012, and following it up with a trilateral maritime security cooperation agreement, addressing piracy, extremism, smuggling and environmental concerns, etc, the following year.

Whether the current initiatives would take a deeper defence and security meaning on the military side, and/or a political initiative that goes back to the ‘Cold War’ era, with a call for declaring the ‘Indian Ocean as a zone of peace’, but with demonstrable collective fire-power to back the demand remains to be seen. That security cooperation among the three nations has been robust even through the recent periods of bilateral strains between the two nations and India needs to be noted with satisfaction.

Likewise, the Indian strategic community should learn to appreciate the need for acknowledging areas of fiscal and development cooperation between neighbourhood nations and extra-territorial powers like China and the US, Russia and the EU, and Australia and Japan (the last two being extended neighbours, all the same). The commitment of the two nations not to allow their territory to be used in ways inimical to other’s security concerns would go a long way in reassuring India in particular, but the Maldives too, on issues religious and political extremism creeping in through the sides.

State visit and more

President Yameen was in India only weeks ahead of the commencement of the presidential polls in September last year, which proved to be as controversial as it later became conclusive. That was candidate Yameen coming to acquaint himself with the Indian leadership and to update one another mutually on understanding bilateral expectations and personal positions. This time, he came on a ‘State visit’ after India consciously decided that it should be one.

This meant that President Pranab Mukherjee as the Head of the Indian State received President Yameen on the forecourt of the Rashtrapati Bhavan, along with Prime Minister Singh, to the accompaniment of a tri-Services ceremonial guard-of-honour, not to be confused with such other ‘official visits’. As Prime Minister Singh later pointed out, it was appropriate that President Yameen was the first international visitor to India in the New Year.

India’s democracy experience over the past decades, including in areas of executive powers, legislative rights, and judicial activism – both in constitutional matters and others – can go a long way in the Maldives’ understanding of democracy and the role of democratic institutions in the South Asian or Third World context. As the Maldives aims at further economic reforms and investor laws, covering national interests and investment-protection, India’s experience with legislation-making could also be of help. The modern Maldives, always moderate, can also learn from India’s long experience in striking the right balance between religious codes and civil laws.

To this end already, the two nations signed an agreement during Prime Minister Singh’s bilateral visit in November 2011 (when the Addu City SAARC Summit was in greater focus) for helping with banking laws in the country. Agreements signed during the current visit of President Yameen also provide for increased cooperation in the all-important fields of education and healthcare, which are closer to the hearts of every Maldivian than is understood.

This could – but should – involve the deployment of experienced and well-equipped Indian doctors and paramedics in addition to teachers all across the Maldives, and equip Maldivian hospitals adequately. Though Indian medical and teaching professionals are already there, the Indian Government’s involvement in these peripheral areas would also go a long way toward improving people-to-people contact in a more meaningful way than already. And in a grassroots-level, electoral democracy that would also matter after a time – and at times, that alone would matter, too.

There is a long way to go in bilateral cooperation between India and the Maldives, but a lot was covered during President Yameen’s visit. Both in India and back home, President Yameen underscored the point that bilateral relations had peaked during the tenure of his half-brother and party boss, President Gayoom, indicating the scope and commitment to revive and continue on the same path, all over again. Democratisation in the Maldives, and the nation’s democratic experience and dynamism during the first five years may have identified even more areas of practical and pragmatic areas of cooperation.

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]


Indian PM asks for “amicable” settlement in GMR issue

Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh has requested President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom to “amicably” settle the GMR airport issue.

In a media statement regarding Yameen’s first state visit to India, Singh said he had  discussed ways of expanding bilateral economic relations and said that an increase in Indian investments in Maldives would contribute to expansion of bilateral economic relations.

“In this context, I requested President Yameen to amicably settle the issue of Male International Airport and address the problems that some of our investors are facing. “ Singh said.

In 2010, the GMR Male International Airport Pvt Ltd (GMIAL) – a consortium of the Indian GMR Group (77%) and the Malaysia Airports Holding Berhad (23%) — was awarded a concession contract to manage Ibrahim Nasir International Airport in Male for a period of 25 years.

However President Dr Mohamed Waheed’s government – of which President Yameen’s Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) was a coalition partner –prematurely terminated the concession agreement.

GMR later filed a compensation claim of US$1.4 billion for “wrongful termination”.

Singh said Indo-Maldives bilateral trade is worth INR 7billion (USD 112 million), but the balance is “overwhelmingly in India’s favor”. He said he would like see a more balanced growth in bilateral trade and pledged to encourage flow of Indian tourists to Maldives.

The prime minister said that India “is committed to supporting peace, stability and progress in Maldives” and that he is confident that Maldives will be able to fulfill the aspirations of its citizens under President Yameen’s leadership, and that Maldives will be able to play its due role in the region, opening a new chapter in Indo-Maldives bilateral relations.

Meanwhile local media ‘CNM‘ has reported that the Maldives government is working on an out of court settlement with GMR. Quoting Yameen as saying at a meeting with Indian businessmen, CNM says the the government and GMR are discussing to settle the issue by mutual agreement.


President to visit India on December 22

After receiving and invitation from Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, President Abdulla Yameen will make an official visit to the country on December 22.

Indian media has also reported that President Yameen will be the chief guest at the convocation of the SAARC-established South Asian University (SAU) on Dec 24.

The invitation came in reply to a letter by Yameen to the prime minister in which he assured Singh of his administration’s desire for enhanced bilateral ties and urged Singh to pay an official visit to the Maldives as soon as it was mutually convenient to do so.

Since taking office, President Yameen has stressed his desire to enhance recently-strained relations between the neighbouring countries.


Waheed secures release of additional US$25million credit during India trip

As President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan’s first visit to India nears its end, a joint press release from the two governments has summarised the trip.

“The President of Maldives conveyed appreciation for the release of an instalment of US$ 20 million from the Standby Credit Facility from India in February 2012 as well as the rollover of the US$ 50 million State Bank of India (SBI) Treasury Bonds by a year,” the statement read.

The President of the Maldives also thanked the Prime Minister of India for agreeing to an additional release of US$25 million from the Standby Credit Facility to the Government of Maldives,” it continued.

India extended a US$100million credit facility to the Maldives in November last year with the aim of increasing economic ties between the two countries.

A standby line of credit is normally forwarded to countries which have reached macroeconomic sustainability but experience short term financing issues.

The Maldivian Inland Revenue Authority (MIRA) recently reported that government income has increased 91.8 percent based on the same point in 2011. This increase, however, is expected to be offset by the reduction in customs duties after amendments were made to the import/export legislation last year.

The Majlis finance committee this month revealed that this year’s budget deficit will reach Rf9.1 billion (US$590 million), which is equivalent to 27 percent of GDP.

Today’s joint statement confirmed that all agreements made during the November 2011 visit of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s November 2011 visit to the Maldives would be upheld.

“In this context,” the statement continued, “it was agreed to expeditiously implement the projects for renovation of the Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital in Male and the establishment of the National Police Academy under grants-in aid from India.”

The release also highlighted President Waheed’s gratitude for last year’s extension of a $US40 million line of credit for the construction of 500 housing units.

Prime Minister Singh’s hopes for Indian investment in the Maldives were also mentioned in the joint statement.

“[The Prime Minister] expressed the hope that the Government of Maldives would ensure a climate conducive for the promotion of investments and that the existing projects with Indian investments, including the Male International Airport project, would proceed satisfactorily.”

President Waheed has been meeting with prominent members of the Indian business community during the trip assuring them of the government’s commitment to signed contracts, whilst in the Maldives the dispute over the details of the airport development deal between the government and GMR continues unabated.

Media offensive

Waheed’s first overseas visit since assuming office has been accompanied by extensive international media attention.

President Waheed spoke at length to New Delhi Television (NDTV) on Sunday in an interview that encapsulated all of the topics covered during his media campaign in India. These included the Commonwealth, former President Nasheed, radical Islam, investment, China, and former President Maumoon Gayoom.

Waheed told his interviewer that the fact that the Maldives was a young democracy had not been understood by some of its “international partners”.

“They assumed that Maldives has now embraced democracy and that democracy has arrived, but the early stages of democracy involve many obstacle sand many tendencies that come and haunt us from the past,” said Waheed.

When asked about the possibility of earlier elections he argued that he was willing to move them forward as far as he is able under the terms of the constitution.

“I will support that, but we had an independent elections commission appointed by the parliament. The moment I give a date the Elections Commissioner will come out and say it’s none of your business,” he responded.

Newstrack India and the Indian Express have reported Waheed as saying that no party other than Nasheed’s supported elections any earlier than July 2013.

Asked about the demands of the Commonwealth for early elections, Waheed said “the Commonwealth is not pushing for early elections as vehemently as before, as I believe they understand the situation in the Maldives a little bit better than they did.”

Regarding the Commission of National Inquiry (CNI) and the demands of the Commonwealth for its reformation, he said “we will do whatever is necessary to make everybody feel comfortable”.

“We did the best we could , at the time, to identify three very prominent people in Maldives who are apolitical, who have not been involved in any part politics for the last couple of years and who are well-qualified,” he said.

“I think it would have been proper for the Commonwealth to observe the proceedings of the commission and to understand the terms of reference better before they came to a conclusion about its integrity and impartiality.”

Asked whether he was “bothered” by the meetings between Nasheed and Indian leaders, he said: “No, he is a former president and as a former president it is proper for the Indian government to receive him.”

When the topic of rising Islamism was raised, specifically the inclusion of two Adhaalath members in the cabinet, Waheed said “we have to engage with the Islamic scholars – if we try to isolate people, the situation can get worse.”

He said he was not worried about a growing trend and that any Muslim country was bound to have small extremist elements: “I think it is manageable… people tend to get associated with extremist factions because they don’t have the economic benefits of development.”

Relations with China also came up for discussion, with Waheed offering assurances that there was “no real chance” of the Maldives moving into China’s orbit. “We have a preferential relationship [with India] as our closest neighbour and this is a concern Indians should not be worried about.”

The interviewer also asked why the visit was an official rather than a state visit, to which Waheed responded that this was not significant, saying that he thought the Maldives had requested an official visit.

Regarding the safety of Indian investment in the Maldives, Waheed said that it was common for commercial deals to encounter difficulties and that the country was committed to honouring all deals – “they will remain”, he said.

President Waheed has also claimed in Indian media that his government is a continuation of that of former President Mohamed Nasheed.

IBN-CNN today reported that Waheed had discussed with the governor and chief minister of Maharashtra state. the possibility of Indian companies assisting the Maldives’ in addressing its power deficiencies.

Waheed was asked about India’s stance on the dispute between his supporters and those supporting former president Nasheed.

“India is the world’s largest democracy. I can understand its concern for other democracies. The Maldives is a success story, it’s just that we are very early on in our path to democracy.”

He added that a new system, consisting of elements of a presidential system mixed with elements of a parliamentary democracy, will not always work as smoothly as people would like straight away and will need “refining” and “polishing”.

Asked about the comment attributed to State Minister for Foreign Affairs Dunya Maumoon regarding Indian interference in Maldivian domestic affairs, Waheed said he felt that the comment had been taken out of context.

The interviewer concluded the interview by asking for Waheed’s response to rumours that former President Maumoon Gayoom was influencing his government’s policy.

Waheed explained that Gayoom was still head of a large political party and so, as part of a political process, could not be discounted. He also explained that many parties were represented in his cabinet.

“It is not entirely fair to assume that Gayoom has too much influence in this government,” Waheed claimed.


New government a continuation of Nasheed’s: President Waheed

“My government is a continuation of the previous one under President Nasheed and there should be no doubt on this score,” President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan said during a meeting with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, reports The Times of India.

Finer details of this meeting are thin on the ground and have led to allegations of  media misinterpretation, prompting correction by State Minister of Foreign Affairs Dunya Maumoon today.

President Waheed’s comments appear at odds with a speech he gave in Kulhudhufushi a week ago, in which he described Nasheed as “a liar lacking in any sincerity”.

Waheed accused Nasheed of becoming a corrupt and authoritarian leader during his presidency who hijacked the Majlis and attempted to destroy the judiciary.

Since assuming the presidency following Nasheed’s resignation, Waheed has appointed an entirely new cabinet after the previous post-holders were asked to resign as well as creating two new ministries.

Just before leaving for India, President Waheed also vetoed three bills submitted to parliament by Nasheed’s government concerning corporate tax reform, including the Business Registration Bill, passed on 23 April 2012, the Corporate Profit Tax Bill passed on 24 April 2012, and the Sole Trader Bill passed on 25 April 2012.

According to the President’s Office, the bills were returned on the legal advice of Attorney General Azima Shukoor, previously the lawyer of former President Maumoon Gayoom.

The new government has also repealed or reviewed many of the initiatives and policies started under Nasheed, often citing poor planning or corrupt practices.

The government has sought to dispel what it considers “untrue perceptions” planted during the visit to India by former President Mohamed Nasheed last month.

However The Hindu on Friday argued that “the most important agenda will be the political issues that have been flagged by Mr Nasheed during his visit to New Delhi.”

During his trip, Nasheed spoke widely on the need for early elections as well as the potential for radical Islam to emerge within the Indian Ocean nation.

Media interpretations

With only scant details emerging from Dr Waheed’s meeting with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, media outlets have provided differing interpretations of what the most substantive issues of these talks were.

India Today chose to focus on the issues raised by Nasheed in its summary of the meeting.

“India has asked Maldivian President Mohamed Waheed to hold early elections. He was also directed to rein in fundamentalist forces gaining ground in the island nation,” said India Today.

“Waheed… was told to pay heed to all ‘shades of opinions’ and hold elections before the scheduled polls in October 2013,” the paper continued.

The Hindu said: “[Waheed] is a political lightweight, who will be unable to categorically assure New Delhi on issues that are high on the agenda.”

“The Waheed government has neither shown the urgency, nor the persistence to engage all shades of opinion to arrive an early election date,” the paper reported, noting that the possibility of an early election “appears remote”.

The paper suggested that the real powerbrokers in the Maldives were people not present with the Maldivian delegation, alleging that former President Maumoon Gayoom was one such figure, who preferred 2013 to be the election year.

Gayoom’s daughter, Dunya Maumoon, is part of the delegation, currently serving as State Minister for Foreign Affairs.

Dunya was today anxious to correct any media interpretation that the discussions included agreement on elections before 2013.

“He said that an early election will be held within what is allowed in the constitution, but that the matter is not in his hands given that the constitution stipulates a Presidential election can only be held in 2013,” Dunya told local newspaper Haveeru.

The Gulf Times coverage of the meeting noted that early elections were discussed between the two statesman, before adding that “consensus was elusive” in the Maldives in this respect.

The Indian Express said, “the assessment here is that the parties in the Maldives need to have another round of discussions on the question of early elections,” before the article detailed the constitutional amendment that early polls would require.

The meeting also received coverage in the United States, with the New York’s Daily News reporting that Waheed talked with Singh about the possibility of constitutional amendment that would facilitate early polls.

The newspaper also highlighted the inclusion in the talks of investment opportunities as Waheed told Singh of the Maldives’ desire for further Indian investment as well as assuring him of the “continued adherence” to all agreements between the two countries.

The most high profile deal involving Indian investment in the Maldives is the GMR deal, details of which the government has challenged.

The Indian infrastructure giant signed a 25 year concession agreement with former President Mohamed Nasheed’s government to upgrade and manage Ibrahim Nasir International Airport (INIA). Under the concession agreement, a US$25 charge was to be levied on all outgoing passengers to part-fund the US$400 million upgrade.

However, while in opposition the Dhivehi Qaumee Party (DQP) which today forms part of Waheed’s national unity government, led by Dr Hassan Saeed, now President Dr Mohamed Waheed’s special advisor, filed a successful case in the Civil Court in December 2011 to block the payment of the charge, on the grounds that it was effectively a tax not approved by parliament.

In a bid to try and resolve the issue last week, GMR provided several possible solutions to address concerns about the ADC, by offering exempting Maldivian passport holders from paying the charge.


President Waheed meets Indian PM during official visit

President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan continues his five-day official visit to India today upon the invitation of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

The Hindustan Times reports that the President has met with Prime Minister Singh, discussing the potential for early elections amongst other things. The same paper has also reported that Waheed will meet with President Pratibha Patil tonight.

Dr Waheed is travelling with a delegation that includes the Maldives’ Minister of Foreign Affairs Dr Abdul Samad Adbullah, Minister of Finance Dr Abdullah Jihad, and Minister of Housing and Environment Dr Mohamed Muiz, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Dhunya Maumoon, as well as the First Lady Madam Ilham Hussain.

The visit marks the first overseas trip for the President since he moved into the President’s Office on February 8. Before his departure from Ibrahim Nasir International Airport yesterday, Waheed said that the primary aim was to strengthen existing bilateral relations.

He claimed that the situation in the country was calming down after the unrest that had immediately followed the transfer of power.

The opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), however continues to conduct regular protests challenging the legitimacy of the current government and demanding fresh presidential elections.

On Friday evening Waheed met with Indian Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai and briefed him on the current political situation in the Maldives.

Reporting on this meeting, the President’s Office said: “The Foreign Secretary said that India hopes to find a ‘Maldives solution’ for the situation. He further stated that India would always hope to see a peaceful and stable Maldives, and would provide its fullest cooperation and assistance in achieving such an environment in the Maldives.”

In an interview with the Press Trust of India (PTI), reported by Daily News and Analysis, State Minister for Foreign Affairs Dunya Maumoon – and daughter of former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom – said that Waheed will work to dispel “untrue perceptions” given by former President Mohamed Nasheed, who visited India last month.

“Maldivian Presidents have always made their first trip abroad to India. And President Waheed is coming to India to… brief them directly about the political situation in Maldives,” Dunya is reported to have told PTI.

“I believe that India would respect our sovereignty and really does not play a role in the internal politics of the country which is why I find President’s Nasheed’s comments unacceptable”, she continued.

Former President Nasheed visited India last month, and also met with Prime Minister Singh. During his visit, Nasheed attempted to rally support amongst politicians, think tanks, and industry leaders, for early elections.

Nasheed told the Times of India: “We want more Indian assistance in bringing democracy back.”

Regarding the accusations of coup-conspiracy levelled against her father, former President Gayoom, Dunya said that Nasheed’s politics had always centred on attacking her father, claiming: “I believe he is using the same kind of argument to try and gain the support of his people”.

The presence of Finance Minister Jihad in the delegation was explained by President’s Spokesman Abbas Adil Riza, who told Minivan News that lobbying for the extension of long-term financial support through various aid mechanisms would form part of the group’s agenda.

The Finance Ministry this week revealed that the government’s budget deficit would reach 27 percent of GDP this year, following a 24 percent increase in government expenditure.

The International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) mission chief in the Maldives, Jonathan Dunn, recently told Minivan News that, other than cutting expenditure and boosting revenue, obtaining foreign loans would be among the few options left to avoid the far more risky option of printing money.

Representatives of Waheed’s government have already travelled to India on official visits, with both Foreign Minister Dr Samad and Defense Minister Mohamed Nazim having visited in early April.

Since the unrest began, bilateral ties appear outwardly to have been unaffected. In March, India offered to replace police vehicles that flared in the unrest following the resignation of former President Mohamed Nasheed and joint naval exercises have been conducted between the two nations, alongside Sri Lanka, in April.

The Indian Foreign Secretary Mathai played a leading role in the initiation of the ‘all party roadmap’ talks which were intended to expedite the reconciliation of opposing political factions within the Maldives.

Indian brokerage of these talks, which included a commitment to early elections, came only days after India initially recognised the new government. Former President Nasheed later told Time magazine that he had been “shocked” by the speed of this decision.

The deadline set by the Commonwealth’s human rights watchdog, the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG), by which it hopes to see improvements in the impartiality and independence of the Commission of National Inquiry (CNI) passes next week.

“Further and stronger” measures against the Maldives have been threatened if the CNI, charged with investigating the events surrounding the presidential changeover, is not adequately reformed.

India is a member of the Commonwealth but does not currently sit on the eight member CMAG board of foreign ministers.

During the meeting with Nasheed last month, the MDP reported Prime Minister Singh as having great faith that the Indian-sponsored all-party talks between Maldivian political parties were the key to a resolution.

Unfortunately, these talks have continued to stall and are currently on hold while the Elections Commission investigates the recent change in leadership within the MDP.


South Asia’s ability to shape its future never stronger: leaders address SAARC

The 17th SAARC Summit was opened this afternoon in Addu City by Prime Minister of Bhutan, Lyonchhen Thinley.

The leaders of Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan and India arrived at the purpose-built Equatorial Convention Centre in motorcades, escorted by police outriders in ceremonial uniform, dozens of bodyguards and an ambulance.

The Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF)’s Rehendi helicopter hovered overhead, while arriving heads of state emerged from their vehicles to be greeted by President of the Maldives Mohamed Nasheed and First Lady Laila Ali. They entered the convention hall to the sound of bodu beru drums and the sight of local girls waving paper garlands.

“South Asia is more powerful and prominent than any other time in its history. The future is ours to shape,” President Mohamed Nasheed said, in his inaugural address as the new Chairman of SAARC.

“Our economies are booming. Our political influence is growing. And our ability to shape the course of world affairs has never been stronger. Our populations are youthful and energetic. Our thinkers, researchers and scientists are globally renowned. Our culture is internationally acclaimed. Our private sector companies are some of the world’s largest and most profitable,” Nasheed said.

Citizens in SAARC countries had similar aspirations, he noted: “They want to live in societies based on the rule of law, in which basic freedoms are protected. They want the chance to succeed in our region’s economic miracle. They want what everyone wants: a decent life to live in dignity.”

Nasheed raised three key areas of focus: trade, transport and economic investment, security against piracy and climate change, and good governance.

However climate change, he said, was the greatest long-term threat affecting the region, “causing havoc, threatening our development and prosperity. But the solution to climate change is not cutting back. Rather, it is investing in the new, clean technologies that not only reduce pollution, but also improve energy security and provide long term economic growth.”

President Nasheed also noted the potential for a human rights mechanism in SAARC, “not to point fingers, or open historic and painful wounds, but because we have a duty to improve the lives of citizens.”

Nasheed welcomed the proposal to set up a SAARC Independent Commission on Gender, commenting that South Asian women “suffer from a wide range of disadvantages and discrimination. Women in our region have some of the world’s lowest rates of property ownership and political representation.”

He finished on an optimistic note: “The fundamentals of our region are strong. We have young, energetic populations. We live in a region of vibrant democracies, with strong civil societies.”

“As our economies race ahead, our political importance increases ever more. Let us not be held back by history or convention. Let us be the leaders our people want us to be. Let us change our region for the better. Let us change the world,” Nasheed said.

Leaders address SAARC

In his address to the SAARC delegates, Prime Minister of Nepal Baburam Bhattarai observed that SAARC nations were situated “in the cradle of human civilisation, with abundant natural and human resources. But despite this, our potential is unfulfilled. We face widespread poverty, unemployment and inequality.”

The largest number of world’s poor “live in our region”, Bhattarai said, but the “flow of growth, people and ideas has been hindered and our potential remains unfulfilled.”

Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani congratulated Nasheed on hosting the first SAARC Summit in the southern hemisphere.

In bilateral talks on Thursday morning with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the historically tense relationship between the two nuclear-armed nations lightened after the two leaders took measures to ease trade limitations. Singh even described Gilani as a “man of peace” following the meeting.

In his speech to the assembled delegates, Gilani emphasised that Economic development was linked to the availability of energy at a reasonable price, an and urged investment “in harnessing indigenous energy sources such as solar, wind, biomass and hydro power.”

President of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa, meanwhile prioritised education in his speech, stating that as leaders, “we have a sacred duty to develop our people.”

“In Sri Lanka we believe in social mobility. Education, communications and healthcare must be made available to all,” said Rajapaksa, adding that “ignorance, deceit, and poverty” were “common evils” facing SAARC nations.

“Social equality goes hand-in-hand with economic progress,” he stated, emphasising that this could only be achieved through peace and security.

President of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, also highlighted the importance of education in his address.

“Despite the progress we have made, lack of education and unemployment is a vicious cycle that is creating fertile ground for extremism,” he said.

A stable Afghanistan would enable its use as a land bridge between many countries and greatly improve trade links in the region, he said.

While terrorism was the biggest cause of suffering for the Afghan people, he said, the violence was not only limited to Afghanistan, but also affected Pakistan and India.

“We need to overcome the trust deficit that exists and learn to cooperate,” Karzai said.

He noted that Afghanistan was pursuing a strategic long term partnership with the United States, but said he wished to “reassure our neighbours that such a partnership is no threat to the region.”

The theme of education was continued slightly differently by Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina, who in her address emphasised the need for SAARC countries to promote cross-border educational cooperation by institutions such as universities. Bangladesh was interested in opening a university in the Maldives, she added.

Like the Maldives, Bangladesh was also very vulnerable to climate change, Sheikh Hasina said.

“Along with the global economic crisis, we are vulnerable to factors beyond our region,” she said. “Increases in fuel and food prices due to climate change jeopardise a sustainable way of life for our people.”

Another priority for Bangladesh was the expansion of the SAARC convention of the prevention and combat of trafficking in women and children.

“We want to ensure our migrant labour is well treated when working in other countries,” Sheikh Hasina said.

Prime Minister of Bhutan, Lyonchhen Thinley, expressed hope for “youth and dynamism” now the chairmanship of SAARC had been passed to President Mohamed Nasheed and the role of Secretary General to Fathimath Dhiyana Saeed, both the first female and youngest person to assume the role in the organisation’s history.

Despite the distance between the Maldives and Bhutan, the two countries had a surprising number of similarities, Thinley said – and not just because they were the two smallest SAARC nations.

“Rising temperature is a threat to our ecology, and while our GDP is improving, we need to diversify our economy,” he said.

As former SAARC Chairman Thinley was among the most vocal about the effectiveness of SAARC, warning against empty rhetoric and noting “that there is a feeling that cooperation should yield more concrete results.”

“There has been a failure to resolve geopolitical realities, and we have allowed ourselves to be guided by the politics of the past. Good intentions have been foiled, or remain only in documents. Progress has stalled, depriving South Asia of the opportunity to flourish as a peaceful region with people free of poverty,” he said.

Intra-region trade was not more than five percent of the total volume, and cultural interaction between countries was limited, he said.

Furthermore, antagonists such as the “mischevious media” confined goodwill to symbolic gestures.

“We have half the world’s poor. We need be bigger and bolder than those who are holding us back,” he said.

“At the same time, mankind is hurtling toward self-annihilation, and the planet’s capacity to provide for a growing population is declining day by day. We extract, sell, consume, waste and pollute, while our financial system is unravelling.

“We need to act before global order is compromised and a frightened world falls into disarray. We cannot allow natural resources to fall to a level where there is a violent struggle for control.”

GDP was adopted as an indicator of social progress 70 years ago, Thinley said, and was an ineffective measure of human happiness. Bhutan had shifted its perspective towards sustainable development and was taking a more holistic approach, he said.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was among the most direct of the leaders, reeling off initiatives India was pursuing.

He announced India’s willingness to facilitate the development of a regional telecommunications infrastructure and promote broadcasting exchanges.

Singh offered India’s scientific and technological base to assist SAARC countries in their development, “and above all our young population who will drive consumption and investment in the years ahead.”

India also proposed establishing a travelling exhibition on the ancient history of South Asia, with pieces drawn from each SAARC member country, hosted in each country’s national museum for three months.

Singh announced the doubling of scholarships offered to post-graduate courses in South Asian University, from 50 to 100, and a further 10 scholarships for doctoral studies in forestry.

“We have to learn to trust each other and to learn from each other. The security of our countries are closely interlinked,” Singh said. “None of us can prosper in isolation. We cannot afford to allow the many problems we face to stand in the way of our ambitions and dreams.”

The Summit is being observed by Australia, China, the European Union, Iran, Japan, South Korea, Mauritus, Myanmar and the United States, as well as many international institutions.

Eighty percent of Commonwealth in SAARC

Outside the convention centre following the meeting, Commonwealth Secretary General Kamalesh Sharma observed to Minivan News that 80 percent of the population of the Commonwealth live in SAARC countries.

“Five of the eight SAARC countries are in the Commonwealth,” he noted.

While acknowledging that this meant there was “a lot of overlap” between the two organisations, the Commonwealth could offer its experience in developing areas such as the rule of law.

“For me it has been very useful to meet the leaders in person. This year is pioneering – this is the first time the head of the Commonwealth has been invited to SAARC,” Sharma said.

Many of the goals of SAARC countries, expressed by their leaders during their respective addresses, boiled down to “a better deal for their people”.

“One remark that particularly stuck me was that ‘no country is working in isolation’,” Sharma said, adding that in developing as a regional body SAARC could learn from the “bitter lessons learned in Europe.”

“As for speed, you can’t change the facts on the ground. There are competing ideologies, and pace is determined by politics,” he acknowledged.

There was space within SAARC for a human rights mechanism, he said, and while many of its concerns related to trade, once the vehicle existed it could be used to talk about human rights as well.

“If SAARC wanted help with this, we would provide it,” he said.

On Friday the Heads of State will attend a Summit Retreat at the Shangri La resort, while their spouses are entertained in Fuvahmulah, before the Summit resumes in the afternoon.

Statements will be made by SAARC observer nations, and agreements will be signed. President Nasheed will present his concluding address, and the delegates will depart in the evening.