Maldives Ushers In Change

Source: The Hitavada      Date: 26 Sep 2018 10:19:45

By Barun Das Gupta,


Ibrahim Mohamed Solih of the Opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) is known to be very close to the former President Mohamed Nasheed who was ousted from power by an Army coup in February, 2014

DEMOCRACY returned to the Maldives after the people decisively defeated the autocratic regime of President Abdulla Yameen in Sunday’s elections. They voted overwhelmingly for Ibrahim Mohamed Solih of the Opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP).
Solih is known to be very close to the former President Mohamed Nasheed who was ousted from power by an Army coup in February, 2014. Later he went to the UK for medical treatment where he was given political asylum.

For five long years the people of the Maldives were groaning under the iron heels of a ruthless dictatorship wearing the mask of democracy. Yameen had declared a national emergency, flung all Opposition leaders behind bars, imprisoned some judges and virtually made the judiciary ineffective and impotent.
He also gagged the Press. Reporting on Sunday’s election, a foreign correspondent wrote: “Mr. Solih had the backing of a united Opposition trying to oust Mr. Yameen, but struggled for visibility with the electorate.”

Yameen regime was marked by a growing proximity to China and its sequel, alienating India from the Maldives and pursuing a hostile anti-India policy. Given the first chance to express their preference, the people emphatically voted against the oppressor and voted in the MDP. The people and the Press in the Maldives now can breathe freely and easily. The joy of the Press was instant and spontaneous.
As the Maldives Times reported: “Voters in the Maldives have thrown out the incumbent President, Abdulla Yameen, in an extraordinary rebuke to a leader who jailed political opponents and judges and drew his country closer to China during a tumultuous five-year term.”

The newspaper called the Sunday voting as “a referendum on democracy”.  This is a huge and embarrassing defeat for China. According to the Opposition, China is estimated to have invested over $2 billion in various infrastructure projects in the tiny island nation in the Indian Ocean and the country was well on the way to becoming a Chinese colony. Though the poll result is out, Yameen will be in office till November 17, when Solih will be sworn in as the next President. The next few weeks are, therefore, expected to see an invisible but intense diplomatic war between Beijing and New Delhi over the Maldives.

Yameen had been insisting that India take back the two helicopters it had given to the Maldives. Solih has said that he will keep the Indian choppers. He has also promised to initiate inquiries into the ‘disappearance’ of newsman Ahmed Rilwan and the dissident blog writer Yameen Rashid. The journalist fraternity in the Maldives is eagerly looking forward to the restoration of press freedom.

In a way, the defeat of the pro-Chinese Yameen is reminiscent of the defeat of former President Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka who was also coming too close to China to be comfortable for India. Allowing two Chinese submarines secretly to dock in the Colombo port without the knowledge of India naturally raised New Delhi’s hackles. The people of Sri Lanka voted out Rajapaksa. His successor, Maithripala Sirisena, corrected Rajapaksa’s pro-Chinese ‘tilt’ and restored a balance in Sri Lanka’s relationship with China and India.

The location of the Maldives makes it strategically very important for India. China has long been trying to set up a naval base in the Maldives as part of its far larger aim of building “eighteen bases in the Indian Ocean Region”. This was first reported by the China Daily way back in 2014. But the furore that the publication of the report caused forced the newspaper to withdraw it hastily. Implicit in the rapid expansion of the PLA Navy (PLAN) is the ambition to set up naval bases in other countries of the IOR to checkmate the growing strength of the Indian Navy.

Economically also, Maldives are becoming increasingly dependent on China. Last year it signed a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with China. The island nation’s imports from China far exceed its imports from India. Beijing has also become the island’s biggest lender. The change of Government in Male will not, ipso facto, change this reality. China will try to retain its control over the Maldives and India will have to craft its diplomatic response to the Chinese machinations with care, caution and finesse.

Yameen may have lost power but still remains a powerful actor in the political life of the nation. New Delhi needs to assure Maldives that India has no intention of interfering in her domestic politics. But India has to come to the assistance of Maldives in the economic development of the island nation to foil what many in the Maldives opposition call China’s “debt trap policy.”

The way Mohamed Nasheed was deposed by the army underlines the need for protecting the just restored democracy in the Maldives against any possible military misadventure in future with possible foreign help.. Few in the Maldives have forgotten the way Nasheed was physically beaten up by the army while producing him before a court after he was ousted from power and arrested.

The sapling of democracy which has just sprouted from the soil of the Maldives has to be protected and India should do all it can to strengthen and stabilise the Solih Government. The people are behind Solih and they are expecting their exiled leader Mohamed Nasheed to return to his country before long. (IPA)