Maldives is back on the boil. The Maldives Supreme Court in a judgement ordered the release of political prisoners and demanded their retrial. The release order included that of former Vice President Ahmed Adheeb Ghafoor, former Prime Minister Mohamed Nasheed (presently in exile) and reinstating 12 members of parliament, thus giving the opposition a majority in the country’s assembly. Post this judgement,the President Abdulla Yameendeclared a fifteen-day emergency and arrested all opposing him, including ex-President Gayoom and the Chief Justice Abdulla Saeed, who had passed the order. His predecessor, Mohamed Nasheed, has requested India, from his exiled location of Columbo, to despatch an envoy backed by military force to restore democracy in the nation.
Many western nations, including the US and UK as also the UN have criticized the emergency alongside India and demanded its roll back as also implementing the Supreme Court judgement. The fact remains, if this order is implemented, the opposition would gain majority and could impeach the President. India, as the big brother has maintained an official studied silence and only expressed dismay at the imposition of the emergency.
Strategically Maldives remains important to India. The Maldives archipelago comprises of 1200 coral islands and sits astride major shipping routes. It gained its independence in 1965 and India established its mission there in 1972. There are about 25,000 Indian residents there and India is a chosen location for Maldivians for education and health care. Indian tourists form about 6% of the tourists visiting the country. In 1984, when an LTTE breakaway faction had attempted to take over the country, India launched an operation involving the parachute brigade to rescue the nation. Maldives is also a member of the SAARC.
Since President Yameen assumed office, India-Maldives ties have been frosty, with the nation moving closer to China. The nation signed a free trade agreement with China, thus openly snubbing India. It subsequently did offer India a similar deal and commenced discussing granting India permission to develop an atoll as a naval facility. However, discussions have been deliberately progressing slowly.
In the present crises, India rejected the Maldivian offer of receiving a special envoy to place before the Indian government the state version of why it resorted to its present actions. The envoy did visit Beijing, Islamabad and Riyad. It was Maldives alone which hesitated to stand by India when it indicated its unwillingness to attend the SAARC summit in Islamabad claiming Pak’s support to terror groups. Thus, there is a cold distance between the two countries.
There have been press reports that India has kept ready a military force to intervene in Male if the need does arise, however has no plans for the same at present. China, aware of Indian concerns and its own direct involvement,has been warning India against taking any unilateral military action claiming that the present being an internal crisis should be allowed to be resolved inhouse. Clearly, geo-political battles are emerging at India’s doorstep.
Though not officially clear, yet all actions taken by the present Maldivian Government would have had Chinese backing. Chinese investments and loans are slowly pushing Maldives deep into the Chinese camp. It is unlikely to be able to repay China, hence China akin to Shylock, would begin demanding its pound of flesh. It is almost a replay of Zimbabwe, where Chinese concurrence was taken before a coup was launched against Mugabe.
Militarily, any action by India would be unjustified in the international environment and send a wrong signal to the rest of the South Asian region. It would reduce India’s standing as a supportive big brother. Economic and diplomatic actions are being seriously considered as an alternative to military option. Such actions may be supported by the international community, as most nations including the UN have condemned the emergency. However, the stronger the economic and diplomatic action, the deeper would it push Maldives into the Chinese camp, as it would be compelled to bank on China for support.
For China, its own national interests and economic investments come first and hence in many cases, it has openly supported dictators, provided they remain pro-China. Zimbabwe and the Myanmar military regime are examples. Thus, it would continue to support the present government. India would not be keen to open another confrontation front with China in Maldives. Thus, it would not contemplate direct military intervention at this stage, unless the internal situation worsens and threatens the stability of the nation.
Hence, despite multiple calls for Indian intervention, it has not commented. However, it cannot remain a mute spectator too in the current environment. If it does, then again it would lose its importance in the region. Therefore, it would need to act in some form. Militarily, while it may not intervene, it should move its naval vessels close to Male, indicating a show of force and a willingness too act, in case the government begins to lose control. This show of force may be condemned by China but clearly is essential to indicate Indian interests in its immediate backyard.
Diplomatically, it should continue to exert pressure including through the UN, alongside likeminded western powers including the US. Its actions to push the UN to send a representative to Male is a step in the right direction. Its decision to not receive the special envoy was conveying a message of Indian anger on this action.
In the ultimate analysis, the Indian government may apply as much pressure as it desires, however some facts must be accepted. Yameen battling to maintain control over his island nation would never accept the court order as it would tantamount to him being overthrown. His previous actions would then be scrutinized and akin to his decision on his predecessors, he too may be compelled into exile or be jailed. Power has forced him to challenge everyone who questions him or even appears a threat on the horizon, hence he would do anything to remain in power.
Support from China would ensure that his government cannot be criticized internationally. The only way he would be overthrown would be by a mass uprising. Can this be engineered by Nasheed and his supporters remains a mute question?
(The author is a retired Major General of the Indian Army)