Maritime Security

CHURNING IN MALDIVES – POLITICALLY, STRATEGICALLY

By Malladi Rama Rao*

One-time adversaries, Gayoom and Nasheed are trying to slice away the parliamentary majority of President Yameen in order to scuttle his tie-ups with KSA and China. The first salvo on Mar 26 ended as a skud. Undaunted the duo is gearing up for a second show down. Their game: Keep the political pot boiling till the next Prez ballot, says the author a long time Maldives observer

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Maldives is witnessing political churning. This is bad news to China and Saudi Arabia, who are on the lookout for a new outpost on the Maritime Silk Road. Also to President Abdulla Yameen, who has been using the China card and the ties with the Saudis as his instant noodles. Topping the agenda of the challengers to Yameen rule is the resolve to “protect ownership of the land, sea and natural resources”.

It is no more than hoisting of Danger Signal Nine (that storm force wind is increasing significantly) by the opposition alliance led by two former Presidents, Maumoon Gayoom and Muhammad Nasheed, and two political heavy weights Gasim Ibrahim and Sheikh Imran Abdulla just when Saudis and the Chinese are firming up plans for their base on the Faafu atoll, some 120km south of Male. When ready, the base at the atoll of 19 low-lying islands would complement the Djibouti outpost, the Chinese have set up at the mouth of Red Sea as a part of their African outreach.

Technically, the Faafu atolls are a Saudi property; President Yameen has allowed them to carve out a sparkling investment Eldorado on reclaimed lands of these islands. It fits in well with the Saudi plans to reinvent the petro-dollar that had brought boom times to the desert kingdom.

RIYADH-BEIJING AXIS
Riyadh has turned to Beijing to develop an airport and sea port at Laamu, south of Faafu. Literally it is the Saudi bait to China for increased military and anti-terrorism cooperation; China did not disappoint the House of Saud, and grabbed the offer in order to strengthen its very own string of pearls (ports) in the Indian Ocean.

There is more than what meets the eye in the Saudi- China deal. Faafu is not very far from the Iranian coast, some three hour distance at the best.

On the one hand the deal helps to show case Beijing – Riyadh military cooperation. On the other hand, it enables Riyadh to address its concern over an inward looking America under President Trump, and present itself as a reliable partner to China.

Still there is one more big plus. Riyadh will become the key link in Beijing’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative to link Eurasia to the Middle Kingdom through Chinese-funded infrastructure, James M Dorsey wrote in South China Morning Post on Mar 12, 2017.

China is pushing anti-terrorism cooperation with Saudi Arabia to a new level. It has agreed to manufacture its CH-4 drones in the Kingdom- a first in the Middle East. These drone have proved their worth in Iraq, Yemen, Sudan, Ethiopia and Pakistan.

China has set up drone manufacturing facilities in Myanmar, its backyard, and Pakistan, its all-weather friend. So much so, this is a clear signal that Beijing is elevating the Kingdom to the level of a very dear friend

OPPOSITION TO DEAL
Now, with turbulence in Male, the Saudi-China axis is up against the Maumoon-Nasheed wall. “Our alliance stands for repeal of legal amendments that allowed both Saudi Arabian and Chinese companies to acquire Maldivian atolls”, Nasheed said in an interview as a cloud of uncertainty engulfed Faafu deals. Riyadh also has to blame itself for the growing opposition to the Faafu ventures. As it is, the deal was very opaque. Saudis tried to silence the critics by greasing their palms, local media reports say.

Why Riyadh stooped so low remains a Sudoku since its influence in Maldives is very broad based and deep rooted. It dates back to the rein of Maumoon Gayoom’s presidency (1978-2008), which made Maldives Sharia complainant almost.

IDENTITY POLITICS
Yameen contributed to further the process. And employed Islam as “a tool of identity politics, framing religious mobilisation as the solution to perceived Western attempts to undermine Maldivian national sovereignty”. He deliberately moved away from India and the United States and embraced Beijing for Yuans and allowed Riyadh to bank roll Wahhabi Islam across the atolls in the archipelago.

By September 2014, as Oliver Wright reported in the Independent, (UK), the Islamic Republic of Maldives became the recruiting paradise for jihadists on their way to Af-Pak and beyond. The situation made foreign intelligence agencies to sit up and take notice of the links that have come up “between Maldivians and violent extremists throughout the world”, according to a US State Department’s 2014 report on terrorism.

From al Qaeda to ISIS all foreign jihadi networks have their foot print on Maldives today.

President Yameen turned to anti-terrorism laws to intimidate and suppress critics across the board. And his targeting of political rivals did no less damage to his regime. In fact, it provided the trigger for the formation of grand opposition to the Saudi Faafu buy. These protests have forced Saudi King Salman to cancel his scheduled visit to the Maldives early March.

ROYAL MIND CHANGED?
What changed the royal mind? Here is an interesting take from Maldives Independent under the heading, “Saved by the bull?”

“The International Spokesperson for the President explained it was the H1N1 flu that kept the King away. As explanations go, it’s pretty lame, given the wide availability of flu vaccines and the fact that King Salman is travelling with not just medical staff but an entire hospital. No, what seems more plausible is that it’s the Maldivian motor mouths that have put this King off his planned paradise getaway.

“First to open his mouth was the President himself who told the starry-eyed people of Faafu Atoll Magoodhoo that ‘the Saudi government, or members of the Saudi elite’ had fallen absolutely madly deeply in love with their atoll. They were going to show their love by opening their wallets and giving Faafu the kind of makeover that would make it unrecognisable as an atoll in an island archipelago. The President’s bragging did not create the docile citizens he hoped for. It set tongues wagging instead. Pretty soon everyone was talking about the Saudis and Faafu – what does Yameen mean by investment? Is he selling Faafu? How much is it being sold for? Is it legal? What will I get?

“Strategic decisions, that no doubt looked cerebral from the perspective of the ‘top brass’ that were making them, were arrived at to ‘emphasis the Islamic angle’ – it’s okay to sell to the Saudis because they are 100 percent Muslim, ‘just like us’. …..

“Pretty soon the Saudi Embassy in Malé—run from an annex in the President’s Office—broke the silence by putting out a statement denying that the Saudi government had any interest or plans to buy Faafu or make an investment in the Maldives. The statement created even more confusion—it denied any involvement of the Saudi government, but not of the Saudi royal family, which is what Yameen had been ‘hinting’ at so very subtly. More tongues wagged in the Maldives”, Azra Naseem wrote in Maldives Independent (Mar 18, 2017).

GRAND ALLIANCE FORMED
The Grand Alliance was formed on March 25. Former Presidents, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and Mohamed Nasheed, Jumhooree Party leader Gasim Ibrahim and Islamist Adhaalath Party leader Sheikh Imran Abdulla signed the declaration to work together to restore democracy in the Maldives.

Their charter reads:
We have resolved to “protect ownership of the land, sea and natural resources”, “find a resolution to the political discord afflicting the country”, “safeguard civil and political rights abrogated from citizens”, and “ensure elections held in the Maldives are free and fair in which candidates of political parties choosing are allowed to contest.” We will also work together to “secure freedom for all individuals who have been arrested, under investigation, on trial, or convicted of politically motivated charges”, “prevent corruption and embezzlement within the government”, and “seek the restitution of transactions and properties unlawfully seized from citizens by the government”.

Will they succeed? Crystal gazing is a hazardous occupation at the best of times. These leaders want to check mate President Abdulla Yameen through Parliament in what is no more than a parliamentary coup. They are confident that they will be able to muster enough numbers in the 85-member Majlis, the Parliament.

CRYSTAL GAZING
The confidence stems from the reality that Maumoon Gayoom still holds the reins of the ruling from the ruling Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM). He parted ways with his half-brother President last October. Their parting was downright messy. One key issue which triggered the fall-out was President Yameen’s amendment to the Tourism Act which sought to bypass the bidding process in island lease for tourism.

Jumhooree Party leader Gasim Ibrahim turned against the President as his vast business empire spanning tourism to media was targeted and his accounts were frozen.

Islamist Adhaalath Party leader Sheikh Imran Abdulla’s crime that had earned him the Yameen wrath was his party’s rally along with Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) to protest against the jailing of dissidents. He was slapped with charges under the draconian anti-terrorism laws. At present he is cooling his heels under house arrest. From his ‘jail at home’, he has extended his support to the four-party Grand Alliance.

The Alliance faced its first test on Monday, March 27. Majlis took up for hearing their no trust motion against Speaker Abdulla Maseeh Mohamed. It pitted President Abdulla Yameen against the Grand Alliance in the 85-member House.

On the treasury benches were 48 MPs from PPM and six MPs from ruling coalition partner, Maldives Development Alliance (MDA).

On the opposition side were Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) – 21; Jumhooree Party – 7, and Adhaalath Party –One. With Speaker Abdulla Maseeh Mohamed unable to vote, Deputy Speaker ‘Reeko’ Moosa Manik presiding, and Independent MP Ahmed Mahloof in jail, the motion needed just 42 votes to sail through.

The Opposition counted on at least four ruling PPM lawmakers to switch their sides, as Maumoon Gayoom’s lawmaker son Faris Maumoon has openly sided with the Alliance, and one MDA member, Hussain Areef, announced his support to anti-Speaker trust vote.

FIRST TEST FAILED
Yet, President Yameen ensured that the GA grand plan collapsed amidst high voltage political drama. As many as 13 MPs were evicted; other opposition MPs walked out. Only treasury members voted, and the chair declared: the Opposition motion was defeated.

Now the Opposition is gearing for a second show down with Yameen. And hopes to emerge triumphant. This time the target is Deputy Speaker Moosa Manik. They also intend to table again the no-confidence motion against Speaker Maseeh.

The success of these ballots depend on Gayoom-Nasheed combine’s ability to encourage defections from the Yameen camp. Fence sitters in the ruling camp will be looking for ‘readable’ signals from far and near.

One thing is clear as of now. Whether success comes the Opposition way or not, the ballots have the potential of keeping President Yameen on the back-foot till the presidential ballot in September 2018. Also his friendly investors.

Nasheed told The Hindu that he hoped India would back their cause by pressuring the government of President Yameen to “stop arresting Opposition members.”

SIGNALS – WISH LIST
Interestingly New Delhi has not formally reacted to the churning in its backyard, which is Maldives.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi was to visit Male in 2015 but cancelled the visit at the last moment. Both External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar visited Male and reportedly offered some plain speak to their interlocutors. Well, President Yameen visited India in April 2016. It was a low key visit.

“As long as President Yameen insists on running the country as an autocrat, he cannot be a friend of India. I think it is important that India has given that message to President Yameen….,” said Nasheed who made London his perch and Colombo his sounding post. And he is not hiding his wish list.

“I am sure India will read the writing on the wall from our alliance of the four parties of the Maldives, that we have the vast majority of people with us… and I am sure they will act accordingly,” said the former President.

How things will shape up in the days ahead depend as much on this eternal optimist as on the pragmatist- Maumoon Gayoom, his tormentor turned collaborator to save democracy in Maldives, the home to 340,000 Sunni Muslims.

(* The writer is a Delhi-based analyst & Editor, South Asian Tribune)

REFERENCES

  1. No-confidence motion defeated – as it happened; Maldives Independent, Mar 27, 2017
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  2. Two Gayooms, two councils, two SGs: A tale of two factions Mihaaru.com, October 17, 2016
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  16. Maldives court sentences woman to death by stoning, Oct 18, 2015
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  24. Adhaalath Party: Wikipedia
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