Today's Editorial

07 March 2018

Archipelago in turmoil

Source: By Bhopinder Singh: The Statesman

Thirty years is a long time in the evolution of the smallest Asian country both in terms of land mass and population. Maldives attained freedom as late as 1965. It is also the country with the lowest geographical elevation with an average height of 1.5 meters above sea level. This makes it vulnerable to be fully submerged within the next 30 years ~ two-third of the country’s land mass had gone under water during the 2004 tsunami.

However, it is not the rising sea levels that immediately threaten the atoll paradise of half a million Dhevis (islanders), but the political instability that pitches the first-democratically-elected-and-now-exiled President Mohamed Nasheed against the dictatorial dispensation of the sitting President Abdulla Yameen. The irony of the current tumult posits Abdulla Yameen, the half-brother of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom (who served as the President for 30 years) and fellow party-man of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) to assume a decidedly anti-India stance.

Thirty years ago in 1988, India had intervened militarily and saved the PPM government of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom from a coup d’état. The ongoing purge in Maldives has also witnessed the Stalinist and desperate instincts of President Abdulla Yameen to arrest his half-brother and former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, besides the arrest of top judges of the Supreme Court. The trigger for Abdulla Yameen’s crackdown was a Supreme Court judgment that ordered the release of nine political dissidents, the restoration of twelve legislators who had earlier defected from Abdulla Yameen’s PPM party and had also paved the way for the possible return of Yameen’s bete noire, the former President Mohamed Nasheed.

Aided by a pliant Chief of Defence Forces of Maldives, Maj General Ahmed Shiyam and an equally yielding police chief, Abdulla Nawaz , the Abdulla Yameen regime has tightened its grip with summary arrests, clampdowns and reckless geopolitical dalliances that swing Maldives dangerously into the arms and protectorate of the ‘other’ competing camp of China-Pakistan. The ruthlessness and brutality of Abdulla Yameen’s tactics have forced the remaining Supreme Court judges to promptly overturn the orders given by the arrested Supreme Court judges, “in light of the concerns raised by the President”.

However, the conflict within Maldives has clearly demarcated the lines of competing camps in the region with the exiled President unambiguously invoking and soliciting India’s proactive intervention ~ “We would like the Indian government to send an envoy, backed by its military, to free the judges and the political detainees, including the former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, from their detention and to bring them to their homes. We are asking for a physical presence”.

On the contrary, Abdulla Yameen has sent envoys to ‘friendly countries’, notably China, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Circumstantially also, the bitter party politics, virulent personality clashes, intrigues and the accompanying necessities to finally be seen as ‘different’ from the stands held by the previous political dispensation, has seen the sacrifice of the steadfast ‘India-first’ centricity, that dominated the international affairs of the previous regimes.

This turmoil posits India into the larger geopolitical fight with China-Pakistan for dominance in the vulnerable archipelago waters, just four hundred kilometers from its own mainland. The open dare and threatened re-alignments have been brewing for some time, with China intensifying its economic footprint in Abdulla Yameen’s reign and raising disquieting murmurs of yet another ‘Pearl Port’, in the strangulation of the ‘String of Pearls’ that geographically encircles India.

Tectonic shifts in global affairs since 1988 have been marked by the Pan-Islamic fervour sweeping the Islamic countries. Secondly, unlike the Cold War era, the world is sliced loosely and increasingly into the ‘democratic bloc’ (Western powers, India, Japan, ASEAN nations etc.) against the ‘Chinese-illiberal bloc’ (China, Pakistan, North Korea, Sudan and other ‘non-democratic’) nations.

In 1988 pursuant to the desperate Maldivian requests and an international outcry, ‘Operation Cactus’ saw the Indian paratrooper detachment land, secure and restore control to President Gayoom, within hours. It was a seamlessly executed operation. The parallel action by the Indian Navy in intercepting and capturing the fleeing mercenaries in the high sea, composed of a disgruntled Maldivian businessman’s mercenaries and elements of an Tamil secessionist organization (PLOTE), earned India the gratitude of a shaken nation and international plaudits.

India’s non-expansionist, impartial and non-intrusive attitude of repatriating the mercenaries for justice, further enhanced the military action. The benign security role and the launch of a multi-service operation enhanced India’s perceptions and prestige that virtually established the country as the leading security provider in the Indian Ocean. However, in 2018, the Chinese hegemonic ambitions, generous bankrolling and diplomatic leverage over India in the current Abdulla Yameen rule, coupled with Male’s subtle overtures towards co-religiosity has seen Maldives deliberately swerve towards Pakistan, and obviously Saudi Arabia. Even the fact that a disproportionately large number of Maldivians are believed to have joined the ISIS in the Middle East mayhem, has not deterred Yameen from exploring a pro-Pakistani accent.

Clearly, mainstream perceptions in 2018 are a lot more complex with the ongoing crisis dividing the nation into geopolitical realms and flavors. Even neighboring Sri Lanka, which is relatively assured of India’s intent, China’s largesse of $1 billion in the port city in Colombo, coupled with the 99-year lease of Hambantota port in the southern part of Sri Lanka to the Chinese, makes the Sri Lankans obligated to the Chinese. With these undercurrents, the Chinese have cautioned against “external intervention” in the archipelago as that could ostensibly undermine the country’s “sovereignty”.

The battle of wits is on, and besides Maldives, it is India that has the most at stake in the current conflict. Therefore inaction is not an option. If not a military intervention immediately, then India will need to assert and flex its diplomatic muscle to intervene in bringing the warring parties to the negotiation table. A ‘wait and watch’ approach is detrimental and India will have to invoke, reiterate and offer its historical fair-play credentials to intervene, whilst fully recognizing that the situation in 2018 is fundamentally different from 1988.



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