Maldives, an archipelago consisting of 1200 islands in the heart of Indian Ocean is recently in the news for all the wrong reasons. The political turmoil that has engulfed this island-nation has created ripples across South Asia and the world. The recent arrest of former President and opposition leader Mohamed Nasheed under anti-terrorism charges has sparked the fire.
Is the Move Politically Motivated?
A buzz is doing the rounds in the international community that Nasheed’s arrest was unlawful. Current President Abdulla Yameen is said to have initiated this move in the wake of upcoming Presidential elections in 2018 and virtually eliminating the opposition amid waning support. In short, Yameen has all the three pillars of democracy (legislative, executive and judiciary) under its control and Nasheed’s arrest (and manhandling) is a testimony to this. Thus, Maldives’ nascent democracy is now on the retreat.
Is this how a political prisoner should be treated? As the adage goes, “In politics, nothing is right or wrong!” The judiciary accused him of illegally detaining a senior judge Abdulla Mohamed in 2012 during his presidency. As per the Maldivian Anti-Terrorism Act, “an act of terrorism to include kidnapping, holding as hostage or apprehending someone against their will or attempts to kidnap, hold hostage or apprehend someone without their will, for the extrajudicial enforced disappearance of the sitting Chief Judge of Criminal Court”.
A three-judge bench gave a unanimous verdict and held Nasheed guilty for ordering the chief judge’s arrest or forceful abduction and detention on Girifushi Island. Post this verdict, Nasheed’s supporters took to streets which resulted in clashes with the security forces.
As the political infighting is going bitter with each passing day, India along with US, European Union and United Nations have expressed grave concerns over the country’s regression. Richard Bennett, the Asia-Pacific Director of Amnesty International said, “Amnesty International condemns the conviction of Mohamed Nasheed to 13 years in jail by judges who were state witnesses during an earlier investigation of this case. This trial has been flawed from start to finish, and the conviction is unsound”.
India is deeply concerned over the developments in Maldives and will be monitoring the situation closely, as said by spokesman of India’s Ministry of External Affairs. The US diplomat for South Asia also met the Maldivian foreign minister and voiced concern over the situation. However, watching the kind of global involvement in Maldives, the foreign Minister said, “I am disappointed by the statements issued by some foreign governments and international organizations, including the Commonwealth and UN. The government of President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom will not take instructions from a foreign government on any issue in governing the country. The government is elected by, and answerable to, the people of Maldives.”
Only China has given a reaction contrary to what other nations have to say. When China was asked for comments over the arrest and manhandling of former Maldivian President, Chinese Foreign Ministry official declined to comment, saying that it is an internal affair of Maldives and the government has the capacity to deal with this ‘domestic’ issue on its own.
Does China Have Any Role to Play In Maldives?
If we closely observe the trial style and the harsh treatment meted out to the former Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed, it typically resembles the Chinese style of governance. China hardly gives any room for any kind of opposition to pulp. Possibly, the Chinese were baffled by their diplomatic reversal in Sri Lanka. The winning of Maithripala Sirisena in Sri-lanka (who has pro-Indian leanings) came as a shock to China because the recent elections unseated his loyalist Mahinda Rajapaksa. This may have given China a warning bell and the country acted pro-actively this time in Maldives. They were most probably pushed by the fact that Nasheed was gathering huge crowds to bring a change in the country and has mentioned several times the threat posed by China.
Also, Maldives is located in the strategic Indian Ocean, which serves as Asia’s economic arteries; China thought it fit to play this plank. Way back in 2013, China proposed to develop a Maritime Silk Route for which the co-operation of these island nations is essential. It has even requested India to be a part of this initiative. But, India has reservations regarding this initiative.
The think tanks at the South Block argue that China’s main intention is to create naval ports in this strategic location. To realize this ambition, it gives enormous cash to small nations and in the name of development activities, serves its untold purposes. China already has operating and controlling rights of Gwadar Port in Pakistan and Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka respectively.
Therefore, with little farsightedness, it can be said that China’s real intentions lay in setting up of a military base in Maldives (though the Chinese government denies it). The Chinese Foreign Policy has maintained a hawkish stance since the very beginning. In line with it, its String of Pearls strategy aims at developing economic and military ties with the littoral countries of the Indian Ocean. Their Navy Defence Budget has seen a massive rise of about 35%. If all this came true, it will prove disastrous for India, as China will control all the supply lines in the Indian Ocean in course of any war-like situation with India or any other nation. Sensing Chinese ambitions, US see India as a balancing force in Asia because such events could hamper their strategic ambitions of establishing Pivot to Asia.
The experts on the issue are of the opinion that even Pakistan wants to use Maldives as a launch pad for terrorists targeting India. In wake of the gruesome attack on Indian soil on 26/11, the Indian Navy along with the Coast Guard has adopted stringent surveillance measures around the Gulf of Cambay and Mumbai. All this has made quite difficult for the Pakistani terrorists to infiltrate on the Indian soil. So, radical and terrorist outfits like Lashkar-e-Toiba and others want to set up a base in Maldives so that they can export men and material to Kochi and from there to other parts of India.
With the jailing of Nasheed, the small light of democracy that paved way in this Paradise on Earth appears to be fading quickly. Instead, we might soon see this serene island nation to be a haven for Islamic militancy. It is to be seen what fate democracy will have and how this turmoil will impact on people’s lives.