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Rediff.com  » News » What will Yameen do next? And how must India respond?

What will Yameen do next? And how must India respond?

February 28, 2018 08:34 IST

'As of now, it may be best for India to insist that Yameen honours the supreme court rulings and ensures that the next election is free and fair,' says Brigadier S K Chatterji (retd).

Then Progressive Party of Maldives presidential candidate Abdulla Yameen speaks to the media after casting his vote during the presidential election in Male, November 9, 2013. Yameen is now the Maldives' president and it is uncertain if he will permit a free and fair election this November, given his recent refusal to adhere to democratic convention and honour supreme court rulings. Photograph: Waheed Mohamed/Reuters
IMAGE: Then Progressive Party of Maldives presidential candidate Abdulla Yameen speaks to the media after casting his vote during the presidential election in Male, November 9, 2013.
Yameen is now the Maldives' president and it is uncertain if he will permit a free and fair election this November, given his recent refusal to adhere to democratic convention and honour supreme court rulings. Photograph: Waheed Mohamed/Reuters

The Maldives problem gets murkier by the day.

The Maldivian president's move to extend the state of emergency on the islands by another 30 days has run into rough waters.

With the entire Opposition walking out, the requirement of 50 percent lawmakers being present in the House could not be fulfilled.

Reports of protests have started to appear in the Maldivian press. Instead of finding a way out of the impasse, the Maldivian president has remained uncompromising. The path he will take hereafter remains unclear.

Perhaps, President Abdulla Yameen has bitten more than he can chew.

The arrests of the chief justice and another judge, half a dozen parliamentarians and reporters, the detention of former President Gayoom and the declaration of an emergency was definitely stretching it too far.

The actions taken against the judges is bound to be viewed by Maldivians as an attempt to subjugate the judiciary and extend the president's control over an institution considered off-limits by all democratic nations.

The Maldivian armed forces have so far been neutral -- as they ought to be -- and are only executing orders emanating from Male, the capital. However, should unrest on the streets continue, the current status may be stressed even further. Two senior police officers have already been shunted out.

 

Yameen seems to count on the support of at least three countries as he tries to clear the deck of Opposition heavyweights before the general election later this year.

His envoys visited China, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan immediately after his declaration of a state of emergency. India refused to host Yameen's envoy.

The envoys didn't come back empty handed. Saudi Arabia and Yemen promised the Maldives $16 million to develop Male airport and fisheries.

Though the Chinese have not yet displayed any signs of intended intervention, Beijing has unequivocally warned against outside intervention. This warning is undoubtedly directed at India, the Maldives' most proximate major power that has the capability of using hard power on the islands.

The Indian position thus far has been limited to the clear enunciation of what it expects the Maldives to do.

Among the Indian requirements are that Yameen respect and abide by the supreme court ruling that calls for the release of nine political prisoners. Amongst the prisoners is former president Mohammed Nasheed, currently living in exile in Sri Lanka.

The supreme court also reinstated 12 MPs who had defected to the Opposition. Effectively, the opposition will enjoy a majority in the 85 member House should these members be permitted to adorn parliament's benches once again.

India also insists on the release of the chief justice and the supreme court judge.

The cracks in the India-Maldives relationship have been widening for quite some time now. The differences were more than apparent when the Male airport development contract being executed by the Indian infrastructure company GMR was terminated in 2012 and thereafter given to a Chinese firm in 2014.

In 2016, India and Maldives signed a defence action plan during Yameen's visit to New Delhi. However, the Maldives' 'India First' policy -- touted by Yameen during his visit -- has been replaced by a 'China First' approach.

The Indian establishment has been unable to gain adequate influence in Male, notwithstanding visits by Minister of State for External Affairs M J Akbar and the previous foreign secretary, Dr S Jaishankar.

Notwithstanding the situation as it exists now, there is a need to deny more space to China in the Maldives.

Yameen had amended the Maldivian constitution in 2015 allowing foreigners to own land in the Maldives. He followed this up by leasing Feydhoo Finolhu, an uninhabited island barely 5 km from Male, to the Chinese for 40 years. The island is barely 75 km away from India's exclusive economic zone.

The Maldives has listed close to a dozen islands and three lagoons for leasing. Like Finolhu, these are also to be developed as tourist resorts. However, should the Chinese establish a radar station on Finolhu, they can monitor India's entire western coast.

The Chinese are also keen to establish a base near the One and Half Degree Channel. During the current crisis, Yameen did try to open the doors for the Chinese to send in troops when he stated that China could move in its military personnel to protect Chinese assets.

The Chinese declined, knowing only too well that such an act would lead to India moving its forces.

The threat of Chinese dominance of Male is not the only discordant note.

Radicalisation of Maldivian youth needs to be addressed urgently.

A substantial number of young Maldivians joined ISIS. Their return, after the reverses ISIS suffered in Iraq and Syria, is bound to give an impetus to radicalisation on the islands, if it is not addressed immediately.

According to some estimates, over 200 Maldivians joined ISIS. In per capita terms, the Maldives is amongst the top manpower contributors to ISIS.

As of now, it may be best for India to insist that Yameen honours the supreme court rulings and ensures that the next election is free and fair.

The Maldivian Opposition will surely ask for outside supervision of the November election and that is perhaps essential keeping in view Yameen's ham-handed ways.

Yameen did wave an olive branch when the Maldives announced the extension of the emergency. He offered talks with the Opposition. It is an opportunity that the Opposition should accept conditionally, and the conditions should include the release of political prisoners and United Nations representation.

India needs to establish a more tangible military relationship with the Maldives once the current crisis is resolved.

Such a relationship could start with positioning a military team in the Maldives to train the islands' defence forces to fight terrorism.

India must also provide additional economic assistance to the Maldives to counter the Chinese ingress.

By itself, India may be unable to match the Chinese offers, keeping in view its other contesting overseas priorities.

However, the Quad -- India, the US, Australia and Japan that needs to transform into a more dynamic partnership -- could coordinate its actions and address both the Maldives and other vulnerabilities in the Indo-Pacific.

Brigadier S K Chatterji (retd)