NEW DELHI: The Maldives has rejected an invitation to participate in a friendly exercise hosted by the Indian Navy in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands named “Milan” (as in the Hindi word meaning ‘meeting’) citing “current circumstances of a State of Emergency being in effect for those under investigation for serious crimes.”
The exercise held once every two years is a friendly drill for India and the navies of the Indian Ocean Rim countries to network socially and through drills.
The latest edition, Milan 2018, is scheduled to be based in Port Blair from March 6 to 13.
The rejection of the Indian invitation by the Maldives was confirmed by India’s Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Sunil Lanba, on Tuesday morning. He was speaking after a seminar on the “Indo-Pacific” in New Delhi that was also attended by the defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman. The Chief of Naval Staff said he was not aware of the reasons why the Maldives, a regular participant, had declined the invitation this time.
Maldives’ rejection of the invite to Milan 2018 now puts a question mark on the continuance of the Indian Navy detachment in the islands. India has gifted a fast attack craft, two Dhruv helicopters and has trained, among others, the chief of the Maldivian National Defence Forces who now supports Yameen.
The Maldives’ rejection of the Indian invite, without assigning an official reason, is easily the biggest snub by the Indian Ocean archipelago since the Yameen Abdul Gayoom government went into turmoil from February 1. The Yameen government was urged by India to free political prisoners, abide by the country’s Supreme Court directives and restore democratic institutions.
In the evening, however, by when the navy’s chief’s remarks were on news portals and on television, the Maldivian embassy in New Delhi put out a clarification that cited its ‘State of Emergency’.
“During such a time especially, security personnel are expected to be in a heightened stance of readiness,” said the statement.
“Also the participation of Maldivian Naval Officers would have been as observers only,” the embassy noted.
The suspicion in New Delhi that Yameen was getting closer to China has now grown stronger. China has designs to set up civilian cum military establishments in the archipelago.
“China has been aggressive in the Indian Ocean,” said Admiral Lanba. “At any given time they have eight to 10 warships in the region.”
The Maldivian embassy said: “When situations warrant that officers be at their post, back at home, we have held back on deploying them to participate in exercises and training programs held overseas, and as such, not being able to participate in the naval exercise at this time is not extraordinary.” The statement concludes by saying that Maldives and Indiaenjoy a long history of excellent defence and military cooperation and it is a tradition that we are confident that will endure and continue indefinitely.”
The theme for Milan 2018 is “Friendship across the seas”, according to an Indian Navy official statement issued last week.
It said “the growing participation (of navies in Milan)…bears testimony to the success of this multilateral initiative. From a sub-regional event started in 1995, Milan has grown into a prestigious international event and encompasses participation by maritime forces from not just the Bay of Bengal and South East Asia but the larger Indian Ocean Region”.
The subtext of the exercise has been in pursuance of New Delhi’s belief that it is a “net security provider” in the region, a description also used by the US. A total of 16 maritime forces were expected for Milan 2018.