Televised allegations by President spokeperson against Indian High Commissioner spark diplomatic incident

Additional reporting by Mohamed Naahii and Mariyath Mohamed.

The government has distanced itself from comments made at a rally on Friday by President’s Office Spokesperson Abbas Adil Riza, after his attacks against Indian High Commissioner D M Mulay were picked up and widely reported in Indian media.

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.

“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.

Riza alleged that Mulay had been using his influence as the High Commissioner to threaten the Maldivian government, following the calls against GMR.

“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 to crowd.

“I saw two folks who work in the Indian embassy go out of [this gathering] talking to a Bangladeshi. They asked him to take photos of the gathering. When this Bangladeshi was here taking photos, I confronted him and asked who are you to take photos? He then said his name was Aboobakr. I told him to leave immediately, just the way I am saying GMR must also leave immediately,” Riza said.

Riza added that the Maldives and India will always remain “good friends” and that the people of Maldives are so interconnected with Indians, but the “problem is that there are a few Indian traitors who take bribes”.

“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,” Riza said.

“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!”

Following several nights of poorly-attended rallies at the artificial beach, Minivan News observed more than a thousand present on Friday.

Noticing an expatriate in attendance reading a copy of local Dhivehi newspaper Haveeru, Minivan News asked what he was doing: “Boss asked me to look Maldivian,” the expatriate replied.

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”.

At time of press the story had also been picked up by the Hindu and the Indian Express.

Indian response

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.

“Similarly, all agreements signed by the previous governments will also be safeguarded and as such we have expressed our concern in very strong words to the government of Maldives. And we have also conveyed that India would safeguard the country’s interest, including these related to our investment,” it added.

The statement noted that the government’s issues with GMR were now the subject of arbitration in Singapore.

“If arbitration fails they (GMR and the government of Maldives) could find mutually accepted recourse either by going to the court of law or may be finding other mechanism available,” the High Commission stated, noting that President Waheed had personally given assurances to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that all the Indian investments, including GMR, would be protected and safeguarded.

“Our relations have been very strong and lot of goodwill have been invested in it. India is the Maldives’ largest investment partner, India is the largest technical and capacity building partner. India’s trade, aid and development partnership is also the biggest one,” the statement concluded.

Maldivian government retreats

Following complaints from the Indian government, the Maldivian government issued a statement on Saturday dissociating itself from comments made by Riza “and some other government officials, at a gathering held last evening against the involvement of GMR in the Ibrahim Nasir International Airport.”

“The gathering was organised by certain political parties including some members of the public. The views expressed at the gathering by Mr Abbas Adil Riza, though his own views, are regrettable, and do not reflect the views of the Government of Maldives, particularly those made against the Indian High Commissioner to the Maldives Mr D. M. Mulay,” the statement added.

Media Secretary of President’s Office, Masood Imad, told local newspaper Haveeru that Riza could have made the statements in a more “diplomatic way” and added that the Ministry of Foreign affairs has begun looking into Riza’s statements.

Political parties on both sides of the political divide, including the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) and even Riza’s own Jumhoree Party (JP), condemned his remarks.

The DRP in a statement claimed that party was of the view that the government and President Waheed should both apologise to Mulay and that such concerns should be raised in a more “ethical” and “diplomatic” manner.

JP Leader Gasim Ibrahim stated that Riza’s comments “go against the international standards of diplomacy, we are saddened by it and condemn it.”

The MDP also released a statement condemning Riza’s remarks, adding that the “baseless criminal accusations” were “highly concerning”.

“These undiplomatic, irresponsible, vulgar statements made towards a high-ranking diplomat of a neighbouring nation were initiated by the President’s spokesperson at a public gathering that was televised nationwide. MDP further condemns in the strongest terms, the similar public statements made by the president of a political party and by other political leaders at the gathering,” the party said.

However the MDP also has a track record of making accusations against Mulay.

MDP Chairperson ‘Reeko’ Moosa Manik and former Former National Security Advisor Ameen Faisal in May alleged that Mulay had played down the tumultuous political turmoil and change of government on February 7 as an “internal matter”, despite being able to “see what was happening from his window. The whole coup was being telecast live. As a diplomat, he should’ve known that the whole country was in chaos.”

“[Mulay] became so powerful that he started behaving like the prime minister and not a high commissioner,” said Manik.

“In early 2011, we felt that Mulay was drifting away from the MDP. He wanted to meet leaders of opposition parties. He wanted to be invited to all official functions that took place in Maldives. He was invited to many government functions, but not all. We found that a lot of companies were coming [to the country] for business through Mulay. We were floating tenders for big projects. He would act like a middleman,” Manik alleged to Open magazine.

“Mulay would visit various [Maldivian] islands with his Indian friends, many of them businessmen. The government did not know who they were. Mulay has good connections with opposition parties, particularly Gayoom’s party,” he further claimed.

India’s Ministry of External Affairs responded at the time: “We do not think it is appropriate to bring our High Commissioner into the discourse. He enjoys our full confidence,” while Mulay himself at dismissed the allegations as “completely baseless, a flight of fancy.”

Cash-strapped Maldives turns to India

Friday’s diplomatic incident follows urgent warnings from Finance Minister Abdulla Jihad in late October that the Maldives would be unable to pay state salaries for the rest of the year without a further US$25 million loan from the Indian government.

The US$25 million was agreed upon in September as part of the $US100 million standby credit facility signed with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in November 2011.

Jihad told local media at the time that he believed the loan was being delayed due to the ongoing controversy over GMR’s development of INIA.

Since coming to power Waheed’s government has committed to reimbursing civil servants for wage reductions made during the austerity measures of the previous government, amounting to Rf443.7 million (US$28.8 million), to be disbursed in monthly instalments over 12 months from July.

The overall deficit for government expenditure has already reached over MVR 2billion (US$129 million). Jihad told the Majlis’ Finance Committee that he expected this figure to rise to MVR 6 billion (US$387million) by year’s end – 28 percent of GDP – alleging that the previous government left unpaid bills equal to over one third of this anticipated deficit.

Former Minister of Economic Development Mahmood Razee told Minivan News that this increased expenditure in the face of a pre-existing deficit represented the government “ignoring reality.”

Foreign investment concern

GMR is not the only Indian company to have expressed concern over political interference derailing their substantial investments in the country, according to a recent report in India’s Business Standard publication.

Officials involved in the Apex Realty housing development project – a joint venture between developers SG18 and Indian super-conglomerate TATA – told the Standard that the government was attempting to take over the site in Male’ given to the company, with the intention of building a new Supreme Court.

“A recent meeting held with the Maldivian Housing Minister is said to have ended abruptly with officials from the firm and the Indian High Commission being asked to leave,” the Standard reported.

GMR has meanwhile been forced to halt construction of the new terminal by the new government. Assorted parties now in the ruling coalition had opposed the handling of its concession agreement to manage and develop INIA while in opposition.

The company has previously sought to downplay its issues with the government in the media, however “public statements and press conferences of some government ministers and coalition party leaders are clearly aimed at arousing public sentiments against GMR and creating undue challenges for us,” the company told the Standard.

“To gain political advantage, some elements of the government itself have started hampering the smooth functioning and development of the airport,” the company added.

The comments follow a US$2.2 million bill handed to the government’s side of the airport contract – the Maldives Airports Company Limited (MACL) – following a third quarter in which the airport developer deducted the airport development charge (ADC) stipulated in its contract from concession fees due the state – the consequence of a Civil Court ruling in September won by the Dhivehi Qaumee Party (DQP) while in opposition.

In the first quarter of 2012 the government received US$525,355 of an expected US$8.7 million, after the deduction of the ADC. That was followed by a US$1.5 million bill for the second quarter, after the ADC payable eclipsed the revenue due the government.

Combined with the third quarter payment due, the government now owes the airport developer US$3.7 million.