By Barun Das Gupta
Maldives, a small island nation in the Indian Ocean south-west of Sri Lanka, with an area of 300 sq, kms a population of 4.5 lakh, is now in the grip of a political crisis that has international implications. Maldives has seen many political crises in the past. In November, 1988, armed mercenaries from Sri Lanka tried to capture power. Maumoon Abdulla Gayoom, who was the President of Maldives, sought India’s military assistance and the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi readily responded. ‘Operation Cactus’ was launched. Paratroopers were airdropped on capital Male and the mercenaries surrendered in no time.
The present crisis was triggered by a confrontation between President Abdulla Yameen and the highest judiciary of the Maldives. Before going into that it would be helpful to remember certain facts of recent history. Maumoon Abdulla Gayoom had ruled the island nation with an iron hand for thirty years from 1978 to 2008, when, in the first ever democratically held elections, Mohamed Nasheed came to power. In 2013 Nasheed, who was close to India, lost power. He claimed he was “forced to resign at gunpoint.” Abdulla Yameen, a half brother of Abdulla Gayoom, seized power. Nasheed was allowed to go the UK for medical treatment where he has been living in self-exile since then.
Now to what happened this time. Toward the end of January, the Maldivian Supreme Court set aside the criminal convictions against nine of Yameen’s opponents and ordered their release. Yameen saw this as a threat to his continuing in power. He decided to hit back quickly. He declared a State of Emergency for a fortnight. On February 5, under his orders, the army stormed into the Supreme Court building and arrested the chief justice and another judge. Soon enough, the other judges fell in line with Yameen and revoked the release orders of his opponents issued earlier by the now detained chief justice. The fat was in the fire.
Former president Nasheed reportedly flew in from London to Sri Lanka to keep a close watch on the developments in his country. He appealed to India to send an envoy “backed by Indian military” to free the judges and a former president. India did not react officially but there were reports that units of the armed forces had been kept ready to act on short notice. China reacted angrily, asking India to ‘respect the sovereignty of Maldives’ and ‘not to complicate the situation’ by ‘meddling’ in what it called a ‘domestic crisis’ of the island nation.
China’s reaction is expected as Yameen is known to be very close to China, like the former Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksha. Yameen has signed a ‘Free Trade Agreement’ with China. Its terms are considered controversial by his opponents. Tourism is the principal foreign exchange earner of Maldives and China sends the largest number of tourists. If India chooses to put economic pressure on Maldives by discouraging visits by Indian tourists, China will no doubt send many more tourists to neutralize any fall in Indian tourist traffic. A report in the Maldives Times of December 21 last year said that in one year – from November, 2016 to November, 2017, the number of Chinese tourists rose by 11.8 per cent.
A major concern for India is that Maldives under Yameen has recently passed a law which permits foreigners to own land in the country. China may take advantage of this law to buy land and set up military bases in Maldives. Maldives’ location is of immense geostrategic importance. Major oil export trade is carried between the Gulf of Aden and the Malacca Strait. The Maldives archipelago is situated right in the middle of this area. As is well known, it is the waters of the Indian Ocean rather than the high Himalayas in the north which are becoming the central point for establishing China’s supremacy in the region. The navies of both countries are going through intense expansion and modernization. India is constantly adding to its submarine fleet to neutralize Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean.
The recent crisis in Maldives has to be seen in the larger and long –term context of Sino-Indian rivalry to gain supremacy in the Indian Ocean Region and the Asia-Pacific Region. The situation in Maldives is indeed worrisome for India. But New Delhi must not allow itself to be driven into taking a hasty or precipitate action in Maldives. It should be borne in mind that in 1984, India sent its armed personnel in response to the call of the elected head of government, Maumoon Abdulla Gayoom. The present president, Yameen, has sent no such request, denying India any excuse to intervene directly.
It would be foolhardy for India to attempt to bring about a ‘regime change’ in Malidves. Its consequences will be unpredictable. Such a move may be resented by the people of Maldives themselves despite their desire for restoration of democracy. India’s own image as a peace-loving, non-interfering nation may be hit in the eyes of the world. Diplomatic measures, taken in consultation with other friendly nations, would be by far the best course. (IPA Service)