Senior US diplomat Robert Blake to meet top government, opposition figures in Male’

US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Robert Blake will be meeting senior government and opposition figures during a visit to the Maldives on Wednesday (September 12).

Blake’s visit, part of a wider tour of South Asia that includes visits to Nepal and Sri Lanka, will include meetings with President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan and former President Mohamed Naseed, according to a state department release.

A “round-table” will also be held with a number of civil society leaders, while Blake will conclude his visit with a press conference at the American Corner in the capital’s National Library building.

“[Assistant Secretary Blake] will express US support for all Maldivian parties charting a way forward that respects Maldivian democratic institutions, the rule of law, and the will of the Maldivian people,” added the state department in its release.


“Sword of Damocles” hangs above Nasheed: European parliamentary delegation

The European Parliament’s Delegation for relations with South Asia has expressed “deep concern” at the deterioration of the situation in the Maldives.

“The European Union had deployed a team of experts to observe the first democratic Presidential elections held in the country in 2008; a sword of Damocles now hangs above the winner of these elections, with his arrest warrant already issued on unspecified grounds,” said a statement from delegation chair Jean Lambert.

“We understand a number of MPs and local councillors have also been detained or are in hospital following continued police violence,” Lambert added, further noting that several EU countries have issued travel advisories for the Maldives as “public resentment and violence are now spreading well beyond the capital.”

Urging Maldivian security forces to act according to their position and the law, the Lambert regretted that “credible signs [of establishing a National Unity Government] have yet to be witnessed.”

The situation in the Maldives has also turned up in the Australian parliament, in reference to Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s own assumption of power from Kevin Rudd. Gillard’s office had prepared an acceptance speech two weeks before Rudd was deposed as leader of the party.

“While the new leader of the Maldives says he did not bring about the coup, reports have surfaced that he was involved in coup preparations that began weeks earlier,” said opposition foreign affairs spokeswoman Julie Bishop.

“Does the foreign minister agree that the new leader should tell the full truth about his involvement in the coup?”
Rudd, who is now foreign minister and participated in the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAGS)’s urgent teleconference on the Maldives’ situation, reminded parliamentarians that “much is at stake” in the Maldives.

“Those opposite seem to think that this is a trivial matter, when hundreds of people are being beaten in the streets,” the foreign minister said.

“Those opposite trivialise the fact that hundreds of people have been arrested, that hundreds of people have been subjected to violence in the streets of the capital city of Male and on top of that, that we are likely to have seen the forced removal – under threat of armed violence with guns – of a democratically elected head of state.”

Rudd said he had spoken to the former president of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, three nights ago and had been involved in moves to send a Commonwealth mission to Male to establish whether the coup occurred through violent means.

“If so, the necessary course of action would be suspension from the Commonwealth. We take these matters seriously,” Rudd said. “As foreign minister of Australia I do not regard them as trivial.”

In recent days the UK and Germany have also indicated that an independent investigation into the nature of the power transfer would be necessary to “consolidate [the new government’s] legitimacy.”

The EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs has said it remains “too early” to judge what conclusions its Heads of Missions (HoMs) will draw from their visit to the politically turbulent Maldives.

Amidst calls from member states like the UK and Germany to hold an “independent inquiry” into the circumstances that saw President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik come to power last week in an alleged “coup d’etat”, the EU said it has not reached a decision on the current government’s legitimacy.

“The EU has not taken a definitive position on the events leading to the transfer of power, so we would wait for the conclusions of the investigation,” said a spokesperson for the Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Catherine Ashton.

“In the meantime, we look forward to the establishment of a unity government, to dialogue among all political forces and for all parties to refrain from violence.”

In an interview with AFP news agency President Waheed gave assurances that he would welcome the visit of a nine-member Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) to ascertain details of the transfer of power in the country.

Several international human rights groups have nonetheless questioned the legitimacy of President Waheed’s government, which has faced widespread civil unrest and allegations of supporting violent crackdowns on members and supporters of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) by security forces tasked with securing the public.

Yet in an interview with The Australian newspaper this week, President Waheed called for Australia to support the legitimacy of his government amidst “untrue” claims he had come to power in a “coup”. He also pledged to push ahead with attempts at further democratic reform.

EU fact finding

According to the spokesperson for High Representative Ashton, last weekend’s visit of the HoMs was planned before the presidential turnover.

“However, in the current circumstances, the main focus of the mission is to assess the situation and meet with all major political parties, civil society and key institutions,” they stated. “It is yet too early to judge what the final findings of this HoMs fact-finding mission will be.”

When asked about allegations and reports emerging from across the country about violent crackdowns by some security forces and figures posing as police in areas like Addu Atoll, the EU said it would again be awaiting findings from the Maldives’ Human Rights Commission before making any statements.

“We welcome the role of the Human Rights Commission and other mandated bodies to investigate any possible wrongdoings by the government institutions,” added the bloc spokesperson.

Amongst criticism from a number of human rights organisations regarding the nature of the change in power, the UK Conservative Party’s Human Rights Commission insists that establishing the legitimacy of the Maldives new government is not just relevant, but crucial to any resolution of the current unrest.

Commission Deputy Chair Ben Rogers said that any government hoping to be recognised as legitimate ultimately requires a people’s mandate.

“I believe Dr Waheed should hand over power to the Speaker and an interim government, and then fresh elections, with international monitors, should be held in three months,” he said. “In the meantime he should guarantee Mohamed Nasheed’s security and liberty, and the safety and freedom of other MDP members.”

US talks, IPU walks

Foreign diplomats have so far backed the plans forwarded by Waheed, who claims he is trying to form a national unity government ahead of the 2013 presidential elections.

On a visit to Male’ over the weekend, United States’ Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake encouraged the coalition of “former opposition” political parties affiliated with the new government to “work with all parties to reform and improve the capacity of the judiciary, the police and the election commission to maintain a democratic transition.

Nasheed’s supporters have rejected Waheed’s government as a legitimate ruling body and have refused to participate in its administration.

Challenged by a foreign journalist over the legality of the transition, Blake stated that America’s commitment was to the new government of the Maldives.

“The United states remains committed to working with all Maldivian people to ensure a democratic and prosperous future for this important friend of the United States,” Blake said.

However, he added that there were “some questions regarding the transfer of power” and suggested that an independent Maldivian commission be formed to investigate the issue, before arriving at conclusions.

In a more aggressive move, the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), a close affiliate of the United Nations, is sending an urgent mission to the Maldives to address concerns over the reported beating and detention of lawmakers.

“I am very worried about recent news alleging harassment and beatings of members of parliament and the continued detention of one of them,” said IPU President Abdulwahad Radi in a statement yesterday.

MDP Parliamentary Group yesterday released a statement categorically describing the beatings and in some cases detention of 10 MPs by security forces on capital Male’. Accompanying photos lend credibility to the claims.

Urging authorities to exercise “restraint”, Radi advised that “inclusive political dialogue” was the only solution to the current crisis. “It is essential that an atmosphere of non-violence, restraint and stability be established,” he said.

Radi further requested Maldivian officials to respect their parliament’s mandate while assuring that the IPU mission would meet with “all political actors concerned” with the country’s crisis.

The IPU, a conglomeration of 159 member countries founded in 1899, connects elected representatives from different nations and regions.


Thousands rally as diplomats meet with press

United States’ Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake has encouraged the coalition of “former opposition” political parties affiliated with the new government to “work with all parties to reform and improve the capacity of the judiciary, the police and the election commission to ensure the election can be held in an orderly and peaceful manner.”

Large crowds gathered at MDP rally

Meeting the press this afternoon in the National Art Gallery, Blake said that “a number of good ideas” were being explored to “try and bring former President Mohamed Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) into the national unity government.”

Blake’s suggestion follows that of new President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan, who said on Saturday morning that he hoped some cabinet posts would be taken by the MDP: “I hope MDP will be part of my cabinet, and I will keep posts vacant for them.”

Nasheed’s supporters have criticised the legitimacy of Dr Waheed’s government and have refused to participate in his proposed ‘national unity’ government.

Challenged by a foreign journalist as to the legality of the transition, Blake said that US commitment was to the new government of the Maldives.

““The United states remains committed to working with all Maldivian people to ensure democratic and prosperous future for this important friend of the United States,” Blake said.

However he added said that there were “some questions regarding the transfer of power” and suggested that some sort of independent Maldivian commission be formed to investigate the issue, before arriving at conclusions.

As per the constitution, the Vice President is next in line for the presidency and the speaker of the parliament “has already said that the transfer of the power was constitutional.”

“Some people say it was a coup, some people say it was a peaceful and constitutional transfer of. power. That not for the US to decide, that is for Maldivians,” Blake said.

He did express concern over the “anti-semetic commentary” and strongly condemned it, and also praised Nasheed’s government “for working to improve [the country’s] relationship with Israel and show themselves as a modern and progressive government.”

Nasheed and his party supporters gathered in their thousands at the Artificial Beach in Male’, where they were shown a chronology of videos leading up the change of government. Crowd control police or military were nowhere to be seen, and the crowd eventually dispersed peacefully.


Comment: US needs to strengthen ties with South Asia

Last week, the United States and India concluded the fourth strategic dialogue on Asia-Pacific regional affairs, illustrating the importance that Washington places on its relationship with New Delhi. India’s surging economy has deepened interest among US policymakers eager to advance bilateral ties with a large country in the region that shares a democratic identity. Factors contributing to this shift include China’s ascent as an economic and strategic power and the possibility that the US military may favor an offshore strategy in the future.

However, India should not be the sole hope on which US security strategy rests in South Asia. US relations with this new strategic partner are guaranteed to experience bumps, as evidenced by the recent rejection of US firms in the Indian Air Force’s Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) competition. Moreover, India has long maintained a strong non-aligned foreign policy tradition, enforced by policymakers who face continual domestic political pressures not to appear too pro-American. This is not to say that the US-India strategic partnership appears ready to fail. Still, one possible scenario could find relations with India not progressing as quickly as desired, while relations with Pakistan and Afghanistan remain in tatters, leaving minimal US relations with other South Asian states. Even if this scenario does not occur, the United States cannot afford to ignore the need to forge deeper strategic relationships with the smaller countries in the region.

Relations with Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Nepal hold many unexplored possibilities and reasons for expansion.

First, as Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, Robert Blake pointed out in Congressional testimony earlier this year, all these countries are governed by democratically elected leaders. As with the “shared values” discourse supporting greater relations with democratic India, the United States has a similar foundation for fostering ties with these nations.

Second, three of these countries are maritime states. Given the importance of securing Indian Ocean sea lanes, through which 50 percent of the world’s container traffic and 70 percent of the world’s crude and oil products transit, it is in US interests to promote maritime security cooperation among South Asian countries and deepen defense ties with these navies as a form of burden-sharing in the Indian Ocean.

Further, smaller countries provide better test cases for realizing new strategic visions and more permissive environments in which to experiment than do the larger states of India and Pakistan, where constraints are omnipresent and the stakes are much higher. In the Harvard International Review, Doug Lieb has discussed the importance of analyzing international relations in “marginal states” that are often overlooked in a structural realist worldview that privileges the study of large countries. The smaller countries of South Asia could be easy wins for the United States, especially in the face of increasing Chinese dealings there.

US ties are probably the strongest with Bangladesh, a Muslim-majority and democratic nation. Given the country’s vulnerability to nontraditional security threats such as cyclones and earthquakes, the Bangladeshi military would appreciate increased help with weather forecasting technologies and cooperation on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief issues. Before the next environmentally related cataclysm occurs, the United States should further develop security relations with Bangladesh.

The Maldives, like Bangladesh, is a relatively pro-American Muslim democracy. It faces the challenge of countering Somali pirates and Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists from Pakistan seeking harbor on any one of its 26 atolls. The Maldives National Defense Forces would likely not be equipped to handle a potential Mumbai-style attack on its tourism industry and could benefit from US counter-terrorism assistance.

US relations with Sri Lanka have been strained due to charges of human rights violations during its defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009. Yet as Sri Lanka’s economic and diplomatic ties with China grow, the United States must try not to alienate Sri Lanka given its strategic location in the Indian Ocean. In fact, the US Navy could benefit from exchanges with the Sri Lankan military. For example, learning the swarm attack tactics that were employed during the country’s civil war could help the United States prepare for the threat it may face from Iran in the Strait of Hormuz. In addition, the Sri Lankan navy could benefit from US assistance in transitioning its patrols from the north to the south, where roughly 300 ships pass the tip of the island daily.

Regarding Nepal as it draws down its forces and integrates Maoist rebels into the military as part of its peace process, US security cooperation and expertise could be critical in this operation.

Finally, judicial capacity-building would be another low-cost way to advance US ties with all these countries.

By comparison, China has been strengthening its ties to South Asian countries, especially in the form of infrastructure development. Chinese port construction in Chittagong, Bangladesh; Hambantota, Sri Lanka; Gwadar, Pakistan; and Kyaukpyu, Burma have all been cited as prominent examples of a supposed “string of pearls” that China may be seeking to build in an area outside its traditional sphere of influence. Regardless of actual Chinese intentions in South Asia, Indian analysts have voiced concern about being “encircled” by China’s economic, military, and diplomatic inroads with these countries, including Nepal.

In recognition of the growing challenges South Asia presents to the United States, experts are beginning to discuss ways of reorganizing the US government’s bureaucracy to address the region’s new realities. Bruce Riedel and Stephen Cohen have proposed the creation of a “South Asia Command” (SACOM) to overcome the seam issues posed by Pacific Command (PACOM) and Central Command (CENTCOM) separating India and Pakistan in US defense policy. Others have suggested an Indian Ocean Region Command (IORCOM). With such talk and broader discussions about a realignment of US force posture in Asia, now is the time to also examine relations with the smaller countries in South Asia and the prospects for building partner capacities in the region.

As the United States winds down its commitment in Afghanistan, while confronting unbounded uncertainty in its relationship with Pakistan, it can look to the promise of partnership with India only to a certain extent. If disappointments such as the MMRCA rejection happen too often, or if India tests nuclear weapons again and Washington re-imposes sanctions, the United States would be left without strong security partners in the region. For too long, the United States has ignored the potential benefits of fostering relations with the smaller countries in South Asia. Prospects for advancing US security ties with Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Nepal deserve serious examination.

Nilanthi Samaranayake is an analyst in the Strategic Studies division at the Center for Naval Analyses in Alexandria, Virginia.

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]


US Assistant Secretary of State urges opposition and government to cooperate on solving economic challenges

The US Assistant Secretary of State covering South Asia, Robert Blake, visited the Maldives yesterday during a tour of the region, and urged the government and the opposition to cooperate in finding a solution to the country’s economic challenges.

“As in many young democracies, the transition to a functioning system of checks and balances between different branches of government is very challenging,” Blake said.

Blake said that he had discussed with President Mohamed Nasheed the steps the Maldives was taking to try and stabilise the economy and reduce the budget deficit, and urged the opposition to involve itself in finding a solution.

“It is very important for them to come together and for [the opposition] to come up with an alternative – if they have an alternative – and negotiate an agreed plan. It is most important to continue momentum, reduce the deficit and put the economy on a firmer financial footing, while at the same time continuing the process of strengthening democracy.

“I encourage the government and opposition to work to together to try and tackle the prblems the Maldives is facing. Even in an older and more established democracy such as our own, politicians can find it difficult to work together across party lines in a spirit of fairness and bipartisanship, for the sake of governing well. But when they do, everybody benefits.”

Blake said he was encouraged during his meeting with the President that Nasheed had “reaffirmed his commitment to freedom of assembly”, and noted that despite the country’s political “growing pains”, “the Maldives’ international influence far exceeds its size, particularly in multilateral organisations such as the UN and its human rights council.”

He thanked Nasheed for the Maldives’ votes concerning Syria, Libya and Iran, and noted that he had “become one of he world’s leading climate change advocates, with a flair for drawing attention to the critical impact climate change is having on island nations.”

US-Maldives cooperation extended to visits by figures from the US legislature, student exchange programs, visiting American Muslim speakers, and military collaboration on security and training, he noted. Blake suggested further cooperation with the new Maldives National University, with faculty visiting from US universities.

Blake also spoke briefly on the successful US assassination of Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan, explaining the State Department’s decision to issue a worldwide caution for American citizens.

“I think difficult to predict [the reaction],” he said. “It is reasonable to assume that Al-Qaeda will try to retaliate for the loss of its leader, and we wanted to make sure people were aware of this development, especially in areas where there is already anti-American sentiment.”

Blake left for Sri Lanka last night, visiting USAID-supported programs and meeting with local leaders in Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu.


Osama bin Laden killed in Pakistan by US forces, says Obama

US President Barack Obama has declared the death of Osama bin Laden at the hands of US forces.

In a live broadcast to the US on Sunday night, Obama claimed that an intelligence lead in August 2010 had culminated in the tracking of bin Laden to Abbottabad, a town north of Islamabad in Pakistan far from the tribal belt where the US has been searching for the fugitive.

“It was far from certain, and it took many months to run this thread to ground. I met repeatedly with my national security team as we developed more information about the possibility that we had located bin Laden hiding within a compound deep inside of Pakistan. And finally, last week, I determined that we had enough intelligence to take action, and authorised an operation to get Osama bin Laden and bring him to justice,” Obama said.

“A small team of Americans” engaged bin Laden in a firefight, killing him. No US or civilian casualties were reported, and bin Laden’s body was recovered.

A US official told Associated Press that “We are assuring [his body] is handled in accordance with Islamic practice and tradition.”

Counter-terrorism cooperation with Pakistan “help lead us to bin Laden and the compound where he was hiding,” Obama said.

“We must also reaffirm that the United States is not – and never will be – at war with Islam,” he added. “Bin Laden was not a Muslim leader; he was a mass murderer of Muslims.  Indeed, al Qaeda has slaughtered scores of Muslims in many countries, including our own.  His demise should be welcomed by all who believe in peace and human dignity.”


Crowds immediately gathered outside the gates of the White House singing the country’s national anthem, while news networks reported a “party atmosphere” spreading throughout the country.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said that confirmation of bin Laden’s death should  “bring great relief to people across the world”.

“Osama Bin Laden was responsible for the worst terrorist atrocities the world has seen – for 9/11 and for so many attacks, which have cost thousands of lives, many of them British,” the PM said.

A Western diplomat based in Islamabad told the UK’s Guardian newspaper that bin Laden’s death was a “game changer” for US foreign policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“I’m overjoyed, but what this exactly means is really not clear,” the diplomat said.

A number of analysts speculated that while bin Laden’s death was a significant symbolic victory for the US, it was unlikely to hamper al Qaeda’s operations as bin Laden was no longer involved in the day-to-day functioning of the terrorist organisation.

The US State Department meanwhile issued a travel alert to all US citizens warning of an outbreak of anti-American violence in the wake of bin Laden’s death.

“Given the uncertainty and volatility of the current situation, US citizens in areas where recent events could cause anti-American violence are strongly urged to limit their travel outside of their homes and hotels and avoid mass gatherings and demonstrations,” the State Department said.

US Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, Robert Blake, is currently in Male’ for meetings with political leaders and civil society.