The beautiful sun-kissed islands are in the throes of political turmoil again, with troops surrounding Parliament on the orders of President Abdulla Yameen. Once again, the world is watching the situation develop in South Asia’s tiniest state, with a population of 400,000 people
As the Maldives celebrates its 52nd anniversary, at which Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is the chief guest, President Abdulla Yameen ordered troops to barricade Parliament. For the second day on Tuesday, troops shoved MPs belonging to the unified opposition, including the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) and prevented them from entering.
The unified Opposition had given notice for a no-confidence vote on Monday, July 24 and hoped to impeach the Speaker Abdulla Maseeh, as several MPs belonging to the ruling party crossed the floor and joined it. The Opposition now claims the support of 45 MPs in a Parliament (Majlis) of 85 MPs. Impeaching the Speaker wont dislodge Yameen, because the Maldives follows a presidential form of government, but will weaken him considerably ahead of presidential polls slated for 2018.
Who is the Opposition?
The unified Opposition, once political rivals, came together a few months ago in the belief that if they didn’t swim together they would sink. The coalition is led by the MDP, whose leader is former president Mohamed Nasheed; the Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM) led by Abdul Maumoon Gayoom, who ran the Maldives with an iron hand for 30 years before and after he was bailed out by Rajiv Gandhi in an attempted coup in 1988 and until he was defeated by Nasheed in Maldives first democratic election in 2008; the Jumhooree Party is led by the very wealthy Gasim Ibrahim, owner of several high-end resorts in the Maldives; and the pro-Islamist Adhaalath party, the self-proclaimed branch of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Maldives, one of whose leaders, the eye-surgeon Mauroof Hussain was trained in India.
What’s going on with Gayoom?
Gayoom, who is half-brother to the current president Abdulla Yameen, was very much part of the government when Yameen defeated Nasheed in a controversial run-off election in 2013 – which took place after Nasheed was overthrown in a coup in 2012 – but has since fallen out with Yameen. Until last year, Gayoom’s daughter Dunya was foreign minister of the Maldives. The falling out between Gayoom and Yameen came to a head in March 2017 when Gayoom joined the unified coalition launched by Nasheed. Last week, Yameen arrested Gayoom’s son Faris and threw him into jail.
Then what happened?
Faris Gayoom’s arrest was the trigger that has led to this current crisis. It led to several top Western diplomats expressing concern at the growing authoritarianism in the coral islands.
US ambassador to Sri Lanka and the Maldives, who is based on Colombo, said on June 18 : “Arrests and intimidation of elected legislators including @farismaumoon impedes the normal function of Parliament & #democracy in #Maldives”
His British colleague, James Dauris followed up on the same day. “Concerning that MP @afarismaumoon arrested in #Maldives today. Freedom to hold government to account is a fundamental element of democracy,” he tweeted.
MoreArrests & intimidatioJulyn of elected legislators including @afarismaumoon impedes the normal function of Parliament & #democracy in #MaldivesConcerning that MP @afarismaumoon arrested in #Maldives today. Freedom to hold government to account is a fundamental element of democracy.
While Shelley Whiting of Canada posted : “Concerned by ongoing harassment & intimadtion of #Maldives opposition MPs. Democracies allow free expression of different political views.”
What is India saying?
India is not saying a word, even though it is in touch with all sides, including Yameen. Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar was in the capital, Male, in April 2017, to assess the growing relationship between the Maldives and China. Last year, in April 2016, Yameen visited India. But prime minister Narendra Modi cancelled a scheduled visit to the Maldives in early 2015, an indication of displeasure at the growing tumult in the Maldives.
India’s relationship with the Maldives is a complex one, especially as India believes it is responsible for the security and stability of the Indian Ocean. India bailed out Gayoom in 1988, with Rajiv Gandhi sending troops to avert an attempted coup, although Gayoom did not hide his authoritarian ways by throwing opposition leaders into solitary confinement and subjecting them to severe torture.
In 2012, soon after Nasheed was deposed in a coup, he took refuge in the Indian embassy in the Maldives, much to India’s irritation. Even with this current crisis, Indian officials have made no statement at all so far. They are watching the crisis, carefully.
Does India have a troubled relationship with Nasheed?
Yes. India isn’t comfortable with Nasheed’s outspoken behavior. They believe he cannot be fully trusted. They welcomed his democratic victory in 2008, but thought that he was moving closer to the Chinese in the years that followed. For example, Nasheed inaugurated the Chinese embassy on the day former prime minister Dr Manmohan Singh landed in the Maldives for the 2011 SAARC summit. Nasheed also sought to play the role of an honest broker between India and Pakistan during the summit, much to India’s irritation.
Is India concerned about China’s role in the Maldives?
Yes. Even before Chinese president Xi Jinping visited the Maldives in September 2014, en route to his India visit, New Delhi has been apprehensive about China’s growing role in the Indian Ocean. During Xi’s visit, Yameen agreed to make Maldives a key link in China’s unfolding Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), an integral part of its Maritime Silk Route. The geostrategic location of the Maldives, at the entrance to the One And A Half Degree Channel, which is a major shipping and communications passage, is what enhances the importance of these sun-kissed islands. Under pressure from the Chinese, Yameen also cancelled the airport project being developed by GMR (although GMR got its money back in arbitration proceedings later) and gave it to a Chinese company. Chinese tourists throng the Maldives in a big way, as it is on the list of approved holiday destinations for the Chinese.
So, what’s the latest?
On Tuesday night, July 25, the embassies of the US, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland, the UK and the European Union delegation to Sri Lanka and the Maldives issued a statement saying they were alarmed by the recent actions of the Maldivian government “which seriously damage and undermine democracy and run counter to the Maldives’ Constitution and the country’s international human rights obligations.”
The statement referred to the forcible closure of the Majlis, to security forces surrounding and entering Parliament and harassment and intimidation and arrest of elected MPs. “Legitimate opposition remains a vital component of any healthy democracy and it is essential that freedoms of assembly and expression are upheld for all,” the statement added.