Gathering storm

Print edition : March 02, 2018

President Yameen Abdul Gayoom, surrounded by bodyguards, in Male on February 3. Photo: MOHAMED SHARUHAAN/AP

A state of emergency has been declared in the Maldives, which is now the focus of new superpower rivalry in the Indian Ocean region.

ON the morning of February 1, when the Chief Justice of the Maldives Supreme Court handed out a completely out-of-character judgment that went against President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom, he would perhaps have expected trouble. But he certainly would not have imagined setting off a geopolitical tug of war involving China.

Apart from nullifying an order that disqualified Members of Parliament, the Supreme Court ordered the convening of the parliament, Majlis, and took over the power to have the final say in the appointment of judges to the court. More importantly, it ordered the release of political prisoners, including former President Mohamed Nasheed, who is in Colombo, and Ahmed Adeeb, former Vice President, who is in jail.

The Supreme Court said: “Criminal proceedings were conducted based on political motivations; and in violation of the Constitution and the international human rights covenants acceded to by the Maldives; and the rulings were given subject to undue influence over judiciary and the prosecutor; and contrary to due process; the court finds these cases require retrials and judgments pursuant to the law and until a final verdict is reached, the court orders the immediate release of 1-Mohamed Nasheed of G. Kenereege’, 2-Mohamed Nazim of M. Seenukarankaage’, 3-Imran Abdulla of Mal’haaru, Meemu Kolhufushi, 4-Ahmed Adeeb Abdul Gafoor of H. Saamaraa, 5-Muhuthaz Muhsin of Raiymasge’ Gaafu Alifu Maamendhoo, 6-Gasim Ibrahim of M. Maafannu Villa, 7-Ahmed Faris Maumoon of Ma. Kin’bigasdhoshuge’, 8-Ahmed Nihan of Venus Gaafu Alifu Maamendhoo, 9- Hamid Ismail of M. Shuraa Manzil for the provision of investigations and prosecutions in accordance with the Constitution and the laws.”

The President, who barely ventures out of the country, was furious; the opposition, mostly in exile in Colombo, was delighted; the Supreme Court judges were elated over the service they had done to the nation, for once; the Police Commissioner blinked—and was dismissed; and the Attorney General searched for words to describe the order without offending his boss and the judiciary. After some attempts to make the Chief Justice “see reason”, the gloves came off. At around 10 p.m. on February 5, the Maldives National Defence Force, led by a commander who was trained in India, forced its way into the Supreme Court and arrested the Chief Justice and another judge. A state of emergency was declared, people were forced out on the streets, and a day later, the judgments were reversed: the Supreme Court announced that it was back in business in the familiar role of helping the oligarchs.

Almost all opposition politicians, including Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the man who had ruled the nation of 1,200 islands with an iron hand for about three decades, were arrested. Gayoom, who was responsible for the transition of the Maldives from a farcical democracy to a vibrant multiparty democracy with the changes he initiated in 2006, was also one of the main actors responsible for Abdulla Yameen, his half-brother, becoming President in 2013. The first multiparty elections threw up a new President in Mohamed Nasheed in 2008, but he could barely rule because Gayoom loyalists were firmly entrenched in the power structure. In some ways, ironically, democracy also ushered in a period of political instability in the Maldives. To make matters worse, an impatient Nasheed tried to make too many changes, leading to anxious moments for the leaders. As part of the deal-making at that time, judges were legislated to serve for life even though over 50 per cent of them—mostly appointed by Gayoom—had not even set foot in a high school.

This year, the Maldives goes to the polls to elect a President, for a third time. Until January end, Yameen was sitting pretty with the thought that Nasheed, a fugitive from law, could not contest, and the next two popular names on the archipelago nation—Maumoon and former presidential contender Qasim Ibrahim—were over the specified age limit (“One-horse race,” Frontline, February 6, 2018).

The Supreme Court’s move upset Yameen’s calculations. For the first time, the happenings prompted India to put out its sharpest statement yet on the situation in the Maldives, on February 2: “We have seen last night’s order of the Supreme Court of Maldives releasing all political prisoners. In the spirit of democracy and rule of law, it is imperative for all organs of the Government of Maldives to respect and abide by the order of the apex court. We also hope that the safety and security of the Indian expatriates in the Maldives will be ensured by the Maldivian authorities under all circumstances. As a close and friendly neighbour, India wishes to see a stable, peaceful and prosperous Maldives. We are closely monitoring the evolving situation.”

After the arrest of the Chief Justice, who had appealed for Indian intervention to save democracy in the Maldives, the External Affairs Ministry statement of February 6 said: “We are disturbed by the declaration of a State of Emergency in the Maldives following the refusal of the Government to abide by the unanimous ruling of the full bench of the Supreme Court on 1 February, and also by the suspension of Constitutional rights of the people of Maldives. The arrest of the Supreme Court Chief Justice and political figures are also reasons for concern. Government continues to carefully monitor the situation.” In fact, many leaders, including the Maldivian Democratic Party’s Nasheed requested an Indian military intervention. India had intervened once when the country was in danger in 1988 via Operation Cactus when some militants had landed in Male, and this was a similar situation when one person had usurped the powers of the people, the argument of those in favour of an Indian military intervention went. But India, which is as deeply entrenched in the Maldives as it is in Sri Lanka, prefers working with the system rather than direct action.

Global response

The United Nations, the European Union, the United States, Japan, the United Kingdom, India and Sri Lanka are on the same page on the happenings in the Maldives. In fact, a visiting delegation of Ambassadors from Colombo-based German, U.K. and E.U. missions that flew to Male was snubbed by Yameen on February 8. “Sadly the Maldivian Govt. refuses dialogue: today with my U.K./EU colleagues we requested to meet the President/Cabinet ministers and Speaker of Majlis to discuss our concerns on the current situation. Our requests were unfortunately refused. That is surely not the way forward,” a tweet from the German Embassy in Sri Lanka said. The Maldives situation also figured in a phone call between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and U.S. President Donald Trump on February 8. A White House press release said that “both leaders expressed concern about the political crisis in Maldives and the importance of respect for democratic institutions and rule of law”.

Amid these developments, the Maldives government took to social media platforms to explain its actions and put out a press release on the illegality of the order issued by the Chief Justice: “The Supreme Court… attempted to subvert the Government and hold hostage the work of the Government by obstructing the work of the executive in carrying out its constitutional mandates and legal duties, and perverted the course of justice by quashing Court Orders issued by the Criminal Court in corruption investigations which implicated some of its members, by rejecting submissions made by State lawyers, the Attorney General and the Prosecutor General, and by refusing the communicate with the executive offices, constitutionally established independent bodies, and with the President of the Republic of the Maldives after repeated attempts to resolve the matters.”

The government also despatched special envoys to friendly countries. As India refused to receive an envoy, Yameen sent his Foreign Minister, Mohamed Asim, to Islamabad. Beijing and Riyadh were both on the list of halts for Yameen’s envoy.

The government invited all political parties for talks on February 8. “In view of the existing situation in the country, and the importance of all-party talks for the welfare of the people of the Maldives, the government has decided to reconvene all-party talks, and has issued invitations to all parties to engage in dialogue with the government,” a statement from the President’s office said.

The opposition has rejected the offer for talks. Meanwhile, China, which has invested heavily in the archipelago, while rejecting any U.N. role, has offered to mediate. In short, every major power in the world is in some way involved in the emerging drama in the Maldives.

For now, Yameen has dug in his heels, and the opposition is desperate to up the pressure with more international focus on the Maldives. In a perfect world, the game would end with the triumph of the will of the people. But as China’s presence grows in India’s backyard, and as the U.S. seeks to reassert its supremacy in the region, one more instance of superpower rivalry will come into play in the Indian Ocean region in the coming weeks.