The political crisis in the Maldives is escalating dangerously, with President Abdulla Yameen declaring a state of political emergency in the country.
With the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) calling on neighboring India to militarily intervene to end the crisis, all eyes are on Delhi. Will India intervene militarily in the Maldives, as it did 30 years ago?
An Indian Ocean archipelago of 1,192 islands, the Maldives is a tourist paradise. It is a low-lying country that is expected to be among the first in the world to go under water as a result of climate change. While it may take a few more decades for rising sea levels to wreak havoc on the archipelago, there are more immediate and pressing problems tearing the country apart.
The Maldives’ fledgling democracy is in tatters.
Since Yameen became president in a controversial election in 2013, he has systematically crushed dissidence within his party and removed rivals from the political arena.
For instance, MDP leader and former Maldivian president Mohamed Nasheed, the archipelago’s first democratically elected leader, was convicted on terrorism charges in 2015 and sentenced to 13 years in jail. While Nasheed has been living in self-exile in Britain since 2016, several other opposition leaders, including a former defense minister in the Nasheed government, Mohamed Nazim; Yameen’s once “trusted” vice-president, Ahmed Adheeb; and leader of the opposition Adhaalath Party, Sheikh Imran Abdulla, are in jail on long prison terms.
What set off the current crisis was a Supreme Court ruling on February 1, overturning the convictions of Yameen’s rivals. In addition to ordering the government to release the nine convicted opposition leaders, the apex court called for reinstating 12 parliamentarians who were stripped of their seats last year when they left Yameen’s Progressive Party of Maldives to join the opposition.
Not only has Yameen ignored the court order, but he went on to declare an emergency and had the judges who handed out the ruling arrested.
The reason underlying Yameen’s controversial decisions is obvious: he is determined to cling to power.
Reinstating the 12 parliamentarians would reduce his government to a minority. That would enable parliament to oust him in a no-confidence vote.
Besides, Yameen seems apprehensive that allowing Nasheed to return to the Maldives and freeing the other opposition leaders would galvanize the opposition and boost mass protests against his iron-fisted rule. Presidential elections are due later this year and Yameen fears that he will be defeated by a strong opposition campaign.
With the proclamation of a state of emergency, Yameen has prevented parliament from meeting. The emergency will be in place for 15 days, during which he can be expected to pack the judiciary with loyal judges. He is likely to engineer defections from the opposition. He could extend the state of emergency as well.
Yameen has already appointed new judges, who have since annulled the court order releasing the opposition politicians. Former president and opposition leader Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who is Yameen’s half-brother, has been detained and Yameen has fired two police chiefs over three days.
With Yameen tightening his grip, Nasheed has called on India “to send an envoy, backed by its military to free the judges and the political detainees.” He has asked for India’s “physical presence” in the Maldives.
The Indian government has said it is “disturbed” by the declaration of emergency in the Maldives and “the suspension of [the Maldivian people’s] constitutional rights.” It is “carefully monitoring the situation,” it said. Earlier, its Ministry of External Affairs issued a travel advisory to its citizens traveling to Maldives.
Relations between India and the Maldives have been strong for decades; India played a major role in building the Maldives’ economy and military. It was India’s support that kept the authoritarian Gayoom in power for three decades.
However, bilateral ties have been fraying since Nasheed’s exit from power in 2012. That year, the Maldivian government abruptly terminated a $500 million contract awarded to India’s GMR Infrastructure for developing an airport in Male.
Bilateral ties have deteriorated since then.
Yameen’s authoritarian governance has irked India, but it is his tight embrace of China that has raised hackles in Delhi.
In 2014, when Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Maldives, Yameen handed over the airport project to a state-run Chinese company. The two sides signed a string of deals during that visit that saw Beijing participate in a big way in infrastructure building in Maldives. Maldives also became an enthusiastic participant in the Maritime Belt of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Then in December last year, the Maldives and China signed a Free Trade Agreement, much to India’s concern. Delhi is worried about Beijing’s mounting influence over Maldives and the strategic implications for India.
China’s growing presence in the Maldives is a serious concern to India given the latter’s geographic proximity to the Indian coastline. The Maldives also sit near international sea lanes through which India’s oil imports traverse. India’s security would be threatened should the Chinese set up a naval base in the Maldives. These concerns are not without substance; in August 2017, three Chinese naval vessels docked at the Maldives’ capital, Male, setting off alarm bells in Delhi.
India is watching the unfolding crisis in the Maldives with concern. It is mulling different options. Not doing anything is not an option given India’s stakes in a stable Maldives.
Sections in India are in favor of an Indian military intervention in the Maldives. Some argue that it does not behoove a rising power with big ambitions like India to shrink away from acting robustly to defend its interests in the region.
Indeed, Manvendra Singh, a legislator of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in the state of Rajasthan and editor of Defense and Security Alert, has described the current crisis in the Maldives as an “opportunity” for India “to stake its claim to being a [global] player.” It is “imperative” for India to intervene in the Maldives, he says, “since any global role is always dependent on a country’s performance in the neighborhood first.”
The time “may indeed be ripe for a decisive Indian intervention in the Maldives,” C Raja Mohan, noted strategic analyst and director, Carnegie India, Delhi, observes in an op-ed piece in Indian Express.
Such intervention by India would have the support of countries like the United States and United Kingdom, which would be keen to see the pro-China Yameen removed from power.
If India does decide in favor of military intervention, this will not be the first time it has done so in the Maldives. In 1988, India sent in a small contingent of troops to avert a coup attempt against Gayoom.
But the circumstances of that intervention were different from what exists today. In 1988, President Gayoom invited India to intervene. Yameen is unlikely to do so now. Importantly as well, 30 years ago the coup plotters were just a small group of mercenaries. A military intervention today could leave Indian troops stuck in a Maldivian quagmire.
It could also prove counterproductive to India’s long-term interests. It would push Yameen closer to the Chinese, for instance.
Besides, it would boost perception of India as a “big brother” and a “bully” in the region. Undemocratic forces in India’s neighboring countries have usually stoked anti-India sentiment among the masses by stressing such perceptions. This can be expected to happen in the Maldives too.
Importantly, an Indian military intervention is unlikely to benefit democratic forces in the Maldives in the long run as a democratic government, should one come to power in the archipelago following an intervention, would be seen as “made in India” with the United States acting as a “midwife.” Such a government would lack legitimacy in the eyes of many Maldivian people.
According to reports in the Indian media, the government has ruled out the military option for now, although it has activated its standing operating procedure for the Maldives by keeping troops ready for deployment there at short notice, should the need arise.
India is said to be working with a group of countries, including the United States and Saudi Arabia, to pressure the government through imposition of sanctions. However, India has traditionally opposed the sanctions option to influence regime behavior, as sanctions affects ordinary people rather than the ruling elite.
As a first step, India could offer the Maldives its good offices, perhaps act as a facilitator or even a mediator in a possible dialogue between the Maldivian government and the opposition. But will Yameen welcome an Indian role? Besides, does India have the leverage to influence his decisions? He has reportedly defied Indian requests relating to the current crisis.
China is closely watching events in the Maldives. The archipelago is a popular destination for Chinese tourists; in light of the current uncertainty, Beijing has advised its citizens to postpone travel to the Maldives. Having invested heavily in the Maldives, China is concerned about the safety of its investments, projects, and personnel. It has asked the Maldivian government to “to take necessary measures to earnestly protect the security of the Chinese enterprises, situations and personnel.”
Unlike India, China has leverage with the Maldivian government. Yameen is likely to listen to China. But Beijing would not want to see him go.
China is opposed to India meddling in Maldives and has made this more than clear. An editorial in China’s state-run Global Times chided India for openly intervening in its neighbors’ domestic affairs. There is “no justification” for India “to intervene in Male’s affairs,” it observed.
It does seem that the Sino-Indian contest for influence in the archipelago is as fierce as the ongoing tussle between Yameen and the Maldivian opposition.
Dr. Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore, India. She writes on South Asian political and security issues.