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Cover Story: Maldives

The Maldives: Storm warning

Print edition : May 06, 2022 T+T-
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Abdulla Yameen, chief of the Progressive Party of Maldives, meets his supporters during an ‘India Out’ protest rally in Naifaru, Maldives, on March 19.

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Tourists walk on reclaimed land in Guraidhoo, Maldives. One of the world’s lowest-lying countries, it is extremely vulnerable to climate change.

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S. Jaishankar, External Affairs Minister, Maldives President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih in Addu City in the Maldives on March 27.

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Mohamed Nasheed, former President.

With the presidential election just a year away, the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party faces a number of challenges, including internal troubles, climate change and religious fundamentalism. There is also a lot at stake for Indian influence in the country.

A divided, pro-India Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP, the ruling party), a concerted anti-India campaign by the main opposition Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), which is pro-China, and citizen concern over the growing hate speeches directed against Muslims in India combine to form a heady cocktail aimed at impeding Indian influence in the Maldives as the country approaches an election year.

The deep division in the MDP is because once childhood friends Mohamed Nasheed, the party’s icon and Majlis [parliament] Speaker, and Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, the compromise candidate for presidency ahead of the 2018 election, do not agree on how the fragile country of 1,200 islands, ravaged by nature and to some extent religion (fundamentalism) should march forward.

While the climate change issue is up for discussion almost every day, what is lesser known about the Maldives is that it supplies the largest number of foreign fighters per capita in the world. A recent report by the European Foundation for South Asian Studies noted that there could be about 1,400 extremists in the Maldives (as of December 2019) who align or identify themselves with the Islamic State (IS) and that 423 had attempted to travel to war zones in Iraq and Syria. As many as 173 Maldivians reached one of the two countries. The Maldives has a population of 5.6 lakh.

Also read: A new chapter

As Ramzan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, progresses, there is a surreal calm in the Maldives compared with Sri Lanka or Pakistan. In the entirely Sunni Muslim country, there is almost no activity through the month of fasting and penance.

But action will pick up soon after Ramzan as the MDP will be in its final year in office ahead of the 2023 presidential election. In 2018, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, managed to defeat President Abdulla Yameen even though the entire system was stacked against the combined opposition.

MDP’s challenges

The MDP faces questions as to why it had failed to deliver on the promises made ahead of the 2018 election. In fact, even the probe into the plot to assassinate Nasheed on May 6, 2021, has only reached the trial stage. Nasheed was seriously injured in the attack and was later flown abroad for medical treatment.

Abbas Faiz, the government’s special envoy to monitor the investigation, prosecution and trial of the terrorist attack against Nasheed, expressed his frustration thus: “The current delay in the trial of the accused in the May 6 attack is of serious concern. Months have passed since the charges were framed. Only one case received a trial. Others are only in pre-trial stage. Unclear of whether trials will be batched together to avoid unnecessary delays.” Nasheed, too, is exasperated by this delay.

His supporters point out that three attempts were made on Nasheed’s life. The May 6 incident was the third. To date, no one knows who is behind these attempts.

Also read: Shaky start

The average Maldivian also wants to know what happened to the judicial reforms that President Solih had promised. This crucial reform, which cannot be accomplished in the time left, has, in the past, meant a series of miscarriages of justice by barely literate judges across the judicial system in the archipelago.

An April 14 report released by Human Rights Watch, ‘I Could Have Been Next: Stymied Reforms in the Maldives,’ accuses the Solih government of neglect in carrying out essential judicial reforms. Threats to freedom of expression from extremist elements remain ominous. Capacity building of the police force to conduct serious investigations too has not taken place.

‘India Out’ campaign

The second issue relates to the fallout of former President Yameen’s ‘India Out’ and ‘Indian Military Out’ campaigns. “There is a big social media noise around the India Out campaign. But on the ground there are barely a few people in each of the protests,” said a Maldivian, who has been living in Male for over a decade. “But it creates a latent anti-India sentiment, which is difficult to miss,” he added. Yameen’s party, the PPM, organises, from time to time, rallies and public meetings on the theme, and it has galvanised the party like never before.

The India Out and Indian Military Out campaigns are Yameen’s comeback vehicle. The catchy phrase was coined two years ago. The central theme of the campaign is that the MDP government has sold itself to “anti-Muslim India” and that it is only a matter of time before the Indian military overruns the country. The campaign received a fillip after Yameen was released from house arrest in December 2021.

Though the anti-India sentiment does not have too much traction, it manifests itself in many ways. In one instance in February, an Indian doctor was thrown out of a taxi for no apparent reason. This incident was played up on social media and the driver was hailed for his “bravery”.

Also read: Former President Yameen’s campaign to get India out of Maldives

Economic Development Minister Fayyaz Ismail told the media thus about India's concern over the possibility on violence against Indian nationals in the Maldives: “Recently, an Indian doctor has also been removed from a taxi. There will be a lot of danger from the conflict that is being taken from 200 protesters in the islands.” Fayyaz clarified that there were no Indian military personnel in the Maldives other than those who were brought in during Yameen’s administration.

In another incident, following a minor accident involving an Indian riding a motorcycle in Male, social media was abuzz with rumours that the Indian national was under the influence of alcohol. Stocking or consuming alcohol in the inhabited islands in the Maldives is a crime. But since this individual was not prosecuted, multiple messages were put out across social media that Indians could “do anything and get away with it”. (Maldives customs department officials seize any alcohol that is carried into the country and destroy it. Consuming alcohol is permitted in the tourist islands).

The anti-India sentiment is also fuelled by reports of targeted attacks on Muslims in India. Every such attack, small or big, becomes a video, blog, meme or message, and they are spread across the country’s fully mobile-owning citizens. In a country where social media is virtually the only omnipresent media, the impact on the ground has to be seen to be believed. Almost every citizen in an urban setting is aware of even the smallest of transgressions against the Muslim community in India.

The third problem as the Maldives enters an election year is that the pro-India MDP is a divided house. Internal elections to crucial party positions will be held soon after Ramzan, in May. It is unlikely that Hassan Latheef, the current MDP chairperson and Member of Parliament, will want to be caught in the Nasheed-Solih rivalry.

In this case, the fight will be between a die-hard Nasheed supporter and possibly Fayyaz Ismail, the person who is known to run things in the government. Fayyaz is popular and has the ability, by virtue of his government position, to dole out favours. In this fight, where commerce triumphs idealism, Fayyaz is expected to emerge victorious.

Such a result is likely push Nasheed’s patience over the brink. It is still clear that Nasheed is the most popular person in the MDP and that he brings in the largest chunk of supporters. But if he is sidelined again (he had, in 2018, agreed to not contest for the presidency), Nasheed will have to take a tough call, leaving the MDP a much weaker party than it already is.

Apart from Nasheed, the other popular MDP face is Abdulla Shahid, the Foreign Minister, who was elected president of the 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly on June 7, 2021.

Also read: ‘We need to put aside past hurts’

Between 2013 and 2018, the Yameen administration systematically cut India out. China replaced India in almost all infrastructure projects. By the end of his term, despite huge debts, the Maldives had built a bridge between the airport island of Hulhumale and the capital island of Male; a massive Saudi-funded mosque; a township in the man-made island of Hulhumale; and begun work on a secondary runway at the country’s main airport, the Velana International Airport. The new runway will be operational by September, according to reports.

The India-China balance was restored after the MDP took over power and won a brute majority in the Majlis election. Although the government insisted that it was following an ‘India first’ policy, Indian officials were not pleased; they had expected an ‘India only’ policy just as Yameen had nearly aimed at a ‘China only’ policy.

Apart from the budgetary support provided by India, the Indian government also executes projects in consultation with the Maldives. In April, the High Commission of India in the Maldives announced $1.8 million worth seven new projects in health, youth development and heritage conservation to be implemented in the Maldives. In all, as many as 27 projects worth $10 million in ecotourism, sustainable development, agriculture, heritage and culture, health, island infrastructure, and education have been taken up under this special Indian scheme.

India appears well aware of the challenges. Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar’s visit to the Maldives in late March, ahead of the BIMSTEC (The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) summit, is to be viewed in this context. Earlier, in the same month, India’s National Security Adviser Ajit Doval participated in the fifth NSA-level meeting of the Colombo Security Council held in Male. The outgoing Foreign Secretary, Harsh Vardhan Shringla, who was in charge of the region when he was Joint Secretary, completes the picture where South Block is well aware of the intricacies of the families that control the Maldives. In all, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs has been conducting a holding operation in the Maldives. If the current trend of anti-Muslim attacks in India continues, and if the schisms in the MDP grow, India will have to prepare for yet another hostile regime in the Maldives.

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