Famed for its sandy beaches, corals, resorts and clear turquoise waters, the island nation of the Maldives has been under lockdown for weeks. President Abdulla Yameen declared a state of emergency on February 5 and ordered the arrest of the Chief Justice of Supreme Court. Hours before the emergency was set to expire, it was extended by another 30 days, denounced as “illegal” by the Opposition.The turmoil and suspension of rights in the Maldives has drawn strong reactions from the international community, including the UN, the US and the UK.
But it is India that should be most concerned by these developments. New Delhi says it is “closely monitoring the situation”, but it is in an unenviable position.The strategic location of the Maldives in the Indian Ocean has a tremendous bearing on India’s geopolitical interests and maritime strategy. Sitting on the global sea lanes of trade and communications, it is in India’s interests to have a stable and friendly Maldives. However, this has not happened under Yameen.Not only has it lost out in the Maldives—a $500-million airport development contract which was awarded to India’s GMR Group was cancelled by the Maldivian Cabinet—but more of concern to Delhi has been Beijing’s growing presence. More recently, China and the Maldives countries signed a Free Trade Agreement.
The Saudis, too, play a role, pouring large funds into the local economy. For decades, they have sponsored scholarships, built mosques and given grants for housing and infrastructure projects. Last year, the kingdom pledged $10-billion investments. China’s One-Belt-One Road initiative pivots on establishing a strategic foothold in the Indian Ocean. It has expressed interest in developing a commercial port at Gadhoo, a southern atoll, despite the fact that the Maldives is not yet a significant commercial hub. But this effort may actually bear fruit—a constitutional amendment now allows foreigners to own land if the total value of the investment exceeds $1 billion.
The current situation in the Maldives is markedly different from the circumstances of ‘Operation Cactus’ in 1988— when the then president sought India’s military assistance to thwart a coup attempt. Sending in troops is no longer an option. The most viable option for India at this moment is to bring diplomatic pressure to bear on the Maldives to ensure the restoration of basic rights and the independence of the judiciary. India’s stand on these issues should strengthen its credentials. As part of the Quadrilateral Alliance with regional powers such as the US, Japan and Australia, all of whom have clear interests in the region, India could help negotiate in order to keep Chinese influence at bay as a China-leaning government in Malé is not in the best interests of regional powers. The US should be interested in opposing Chinese designs on the southern atoll, for this could become a possible listening post on the large secret US base in Diego Garcia.
With presidential polls in the Maldives due later this year, India and other countries should insist on free and fair polls, monitored by an international election observation mission. This will not only benefit India’s strategic interests, but also the Maldivians who have sought a return to democratic governance for years. In this fast-moving story, time is of the essence. A Yameen victory in the presidential election may not afford another opportunity for the restoration of democracy and basic rights.
(Trinanjan Radhakrishnan is a Programme Officer with the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative’s International Advocacy and Programming team in New Delhi)