Emergency in Maldives: Why India's intervention is tricky

New Delhi will have an interest in ensuring Yameen is out, but will wait and watch for now.

 |  6-minute read |   06-02-2018
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Caught by surprise over the Supreme Court order to free all political prisoners, Maldives President Abdulla Yameen is following the path of every other authoritarian regime.

Responding to the court order, Yameen has declared a state of emergency in the island archipelago, arrested chief justice Abdulla Saeed and another judge, Ali Hameed. The two judges were arrested early Tuesday (February 6).

What's more, Yameen has also placed his powerful half brother and former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom under house arrest. Gayoom, who ruled Maldives with an iron hand for decades, has joined the ranks of the Opposition and still has plenty of political clout. Arresting him may not be a smart move.

The Supreme Court had earlier declared the 2015 trial of the exiled former president Mohamed Nasheed on charges of terrorism unconstitutional. Yameen who has placed many of his opponents, including members of Parliament in prison is afraid that if they are freed he would lose his majority in the House. Nasheed is living in exile in Britain.

The fast-paced development in the paradise islands has led to international condemnation. India, the US, Britain and western democracies have strongly criticised Yameen’s action. New Delhi, which has been blowing hot and cold over Yameen’s overtures to China and was in the process of repairing ties with the dictator, now has a difficult task ahead. The Supreme Court as well as the Maldivian Democratic Party want India, as a regional power, to help restore democracy.

For a nation with big power ambitions it is imperative for India to be in a position to manage problems in the neighbourhood. But is India up to it? What are New Delhi’s options? The government is unlikely to take a hasty call on this sensitive issue. While it will not want to disappoint the democratic forces in Maldives, intervention and sending in troops to the island nation, could boomerang on India.

Indian intervention in Sri Lanka in the 1980s was a disaster. The 1987 India-Sri Lanka accord, led to an Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) being sent to the northern and eastern provinces of Sri Lanka. Despite New Delhi’s intervention on behalf of the Tamil minorities, in the end the Indian Army had to fight the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The LTTE and slain president Ranasinghe Premadasa joined hands to get the IPKF out of the island. Delhi lost the sympathy of the LTTE and larger Tamil population. Finally, the LTTE had its revenge and former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi had to pay with his life. An LTTE woman suicide bomber blew herself up and killed Gandhi.

New Delhi’s intervention in Maldives in 1988 was much more successful. The threat was also limited. A Maldivian businessman organised a group of mercenaries, mostly drawn from the Tamil rebel outfits of Sri Lanka, to take over key installations in the capital Male. Gayoom the then president escaped capture and went into hiding in one of the capital’s government buildings. He sent out an appeal for help from India, Britain and the US.

India being the closest was the first to react and send its Army. India quickly cleared the capital, released Gayoom and got the mercenaries captured. The forces did not overstay in the island and just about 150 men guarded important installations for a year before returning home. That was a neat job done and Gayoom was grateful for India’s quick response.

This time, however, the issue is not of a coup, but arises out of the internal political situation. Getting involved in the internal politics of a neighbouring country is risky. The tide can sometimes unexpectedly turn against foreign intervention. New Delhi is likely to wait and watch the situation and consult with both the US and the UK on developments. India is unlikely to send troops to the Maldives, but instead use all its diplomatic prowess to put pressure on Yameen. Much will depend on how the situation pans out in the coming weeks. However, president Yameen has so far got away with strong arm tactics and will rely on that to stay on in power as long as he possibly can.

China, another major player in the Maldives, is close to Yameen. Nasheed who was overthrown in a coup in 2012 was a much better bet for India. In 2015, after Nasheed was arrested and put behind bars by Yameen on charges of terrorism, Prime Minister Narendra Modi cancelled a scheduled trip to Male. Naturally, Yameen was furious and Nasheed and his Maldivian Democratic Party welcomed the gesture.

Since Yameen took power, China’s footprints in the islands have been growing. Yameen cancelled a lucrative deal with India’s GMR for the construction and upgrading of the international airport and passed that on to a Chinese company. He has been systematically cracking down on the Opposition and throwing challengers into prison. Last December, Yameen signed a free trade agreement with China, during a state visit to Beijing. He got the deal endorsed by the Majlis at short notice with only a few lawmakers present. This goes against the Constitution of the Maldives. But Yameen rode roughshod over the Opposition and went ahead with the free trade agreement. The islands location in the Indian Ocean, a stone’s throw away from India, makes it strategically vital for both New Delhi and Beijing. Round one with Yameen had gone to China. Much will depend on how the president plays his cards.

If elections are held in November, as offered by Yameen, and Nasheed and other Opposition politicians allowed to contest, that would be the best outcome. Nasheed in power will be welcomed by New Delhi as well as western democracies. Under the current president, Maldives, a conservative Sunni country, is becoming radicalised. The number of recruits for the ISIS had been the largest from the Maldives at one time. Yameen has often played footsie with Islamic radicals for political reasons.

With Nasheed in the saddle, round two would possibly go to India. New Delhi will have an interest in ensuring Yameen is out, but will wait and watch for now.

Also read: Why India needs to talk tough with ministers from Maldives


Seema Guha Seema Guha @seemaguha1

The writer is a freelance journalist.

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