The Maldives, with its abundance of scenic beauty endowed by nature, is unfortunately submerged in political turmoil.
The current burgeoning crisis, unless properly addressed, could turn into a proxy war between India and China.
Nature has endowed the Maldives with bountiful beauty -- the turquoise sea, and the colourful corals convey a breathless beauty. It is one of the world’s smallest nations. The total area is around 298 sq-km, and a population of around 400,000 are spread across 26 atolls and 1,192 islets, though not all are inhabited.
One would expect Maldivians to lead a peaceful life of languor, leisure, and luxury. Alas, the reality is very different.
Over the past few years, the Maldives has been experiencing tumultuous politics. Even the singularity of faith has not created the anticipated unity.
Extremist interpretations of the same religion are now pitted against the more conventional beliefs, creating a culture of acute conflict. Politics have gone awry, and are now poised to threaten the stability and peace of the Indian Ocean republic.
A bit of history
Having obtained independence from the British in 1965, the Maldives was ruled with an iron hand for three long decades by President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. Opposition was not tolerated.
Several attempts at a coup were put down with Indian support. But Gayoom yielded to mounting international and domestic pressures and, in 2008, a slice of democracy came to the Maldives in the form of elections.
Power was transferred to Mohamed Nasheed following two rounds of elections. Many believed spring had come to Maldivian politics.
He acceded to the Indian request to deploy 26 coastal radars, and declared that “Indian Ocean is India Ocean,” a claim that was not even made in India. Detractors began to see him as plus royaliste que le roi: More royal than the king.
Nasheed was defeated in 2013 by Abdullah Yameen, a half –brother of Gayoom. Arrested and jailed, he was eventually allowed to travel to the UK in 2016 where he was granted political asylum.
Yameen also demonstrated quickly that he was not to be confused with Florence Nightingale. He transformed himself into an authoritarian ruler soon, and he too became intolerant of domestic opposition.
In a move that was Bismarckian in action but not necessarily in intellectual content, he veered towards China, which established its embassy in Male.
He treated the “special relationship” with India with scant respect. He cancelled an Indian company’s contract to develop the Ibrahim Nasir International Airport and gave it to the Chinese.
He joined the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative, offered them mega infrastructural contracts, and signed a free trade agreement with Beijing that was fast-tracked through the parliament.
One would expect Maldivians to lead a peaceful life of languor, leisure, and luxury. Alas, the reality is very different
The great divide
Then, in a strange and eerie repeating of history, he fell out with the Supreme Court. This is what has sparked the current crisis. Standing up to Yameen’s authoritarian ways, the Supreme Court ordered the release of a group of incarcerated opposition members of parliament.
Adding insult to injury, the court declared Nasheed’s trial in 2015 unconstitutional. Livid, Yameen alleged that the court was seeking to impeach him. He had Chief Justice Abdullah Saeed arrested along with another of his colleague, declared a state of emergency, initially for 15 days, and sacked the police commissioner who pledged to implement the court’s rulings.
Thereafter, Yameen turned to his army, which appears supportive, and Male was once again engulfed in turmoil. In an unprecedented move, the court appealed to India and other foreign countries to help.
Such developments have placed India between the devil and the deep blue sea. Earlier, in what was known as “Operation Cactus” in 1988, India had intervened to quell a coup attempt by militants coming from Sri Lanka in response to an appeal by President Gayoom. But the situation now is starkly different.
High states and higher stakes
It would be unseemly to act against an elected president of a sovereign country, which, with all his faults, Yameen can claim to be. Also, unlike the previous situation, the Chinese stakes are very high. Beijing is not likely to sit back and allow Yameen to simply sink.
While Washington and London have issued pro-court statements, in a US State Department tweet, nothing much more was said than “the world is watching,” and despite having a pro-active ambassador there of Indian descent (Atul Keshap), any decision to get too deeply involved beyond ritualistic declarations would have to be carefully weighed.
There is great merit in avoiding the proxy war between India and China in the Indian Ocean when other key players can not do much but watch haplessly.
The crisis can provide the UN to play a role.
Indeed, it seems to be the only actor which can become involved, perhaps with the acquiescence of all concerned. Earlier, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights had already made an appeal to the Maldivian government to respect the court’s ruling.
Then the UN Secretary General Antony Guterres expressed the organization’s continued readiness to facilitate all-party talks in finding a solution to the Maldivian stalemate.
Perhaps he can do more. He could appoint a special envoy to defuse the crisis in consonance with his “good offices” responsibility.
In this volatile region, where one is witnessing the outbreak of a variety of conflicts as great powers are increasingly reluctant to rush in (which in itself could be a positive development), the UN should not fear to tread in endeavours to establish acceptable norms and standards of the rule of law.
Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury is Principal Research Fellow, Institute of South Asian Studies.