by Rama Rao Malladi
For quite a while, media in India and Sri Lanka has been taken in by informed speculation about an impending regime change in Maldives. Two factors have contributed to the sudden focus Male. One was the BBC broadcast on August 25 that Mohammed Nasheed, who had squandered his mandate in a burst of youthful exuberance, is plotting a comeback from his London perch along with other Maldivian leaders opposed to President Abdulla Yameen’s regime. The broadcast was short on details but cited unnamed credible sources to report that the Nasheed et al were looking to move against Yameen “within weeks”.
The Mihaaru website of Maldives reported that Nasheed flew to Sri Lanka for “an important sit-down over the present crisis in the Maldives.” But it is the BBC report that received much attention in diplomatic and strategic circles. It may be because of the credibility of the organisation in South Asia. The anti-democratic credentials of President Yameen, and the disquiet his regime has caused in Washington, and even in New Delhi with his close ties to China contributed no less to the ‘anti-Yameen plot’ theories.
This phase in the Maldivian polity has seen intensified campaign against Male regime in the Western media, and to an extent in the Indian media. On 6 September, The Indian Express carried a report under the heading, “In exile, former Maldives President Nasheed vows to come back soon”. The Hindu published a more or less similar story from its Colombo correspondent.
Both dailies said Nasheed was in the Sri Lankan capital around August 23 on a private visit from the UK where he got political asylum under a deal brokered by his well-wishers with President Yameen.
Presence of his relatives and close political activists in Colombo in order to escape trouble at home provided a perfect cover for Nasheed. The two Indian dailies and the Mihaaru website said in plain language that India did not offer any helping hand to Nasheed in his mission.
“I believe that taking a stand about the affairs in the Maldives is not necessarily taking a side. The stance that India takes does not have to be a side that it takes,” Nasheed told the Express when asked if India had reached out to him in his efforts against Yameen.
Ten days before Indian media woke up to Nasheed, The New York Times ran a lengthy piece on “Embattled Maldives President” and the “Accusations of Corruption, Past and Present”, he is facing. “President Abdulla Yameen of the Maldives, who is under pressure to step down, faces allegations of corruption dating back more than a decade, including oversight of questionable oil sales to a Myanmar dictatorship under economic sanctions”, Richard C Paddock reported from his Bangkok base.
The reference was to the sale of nearly $300 million worth of oil to Myanmar ignoring the US -led sanctions against the military junta in the early 2000s. The Maldives does not produce any oil. Part of its own oil imports were diverted on high seas to Yangon to the great relief of the Junta.
Nasheed, as President, tumbled upon the oil deal “accidentally”. His attempt to recover the money through legal proceedings in Singapore largely hastened his overthrow, and a jail term on trumped up terrorism charges. Yameen’s spokesman, Ibrahim Hussain Shihab, in an e-mail to the NYT denied the Nasheed charge. It is a proforma job expected of a spokesman. Significant however is his silence on why the court case instituted in 2011 was halted after the ‘coup’ against Nasheed.
STATE OF TURMOIL
For the past one year Yameen’s government has been in a state of turmoil. Media has been gagged. A stringent defamation law has been brought on the statute book “to impose severe penalties on those seeking to exercise freedom of speech, including shutting down news organisations and jailing journalists for up to six months”. This is a retrograde step since Maldives had abolished criminal defamation in 2009, a year after its first democratic elections.
The regime ignored the concern voiced by US, India, and other nations that the new law risked undermining basic freedoms on the troubled honeymoon islands.
United Opposition of Maldives, (UOM), has termed the new law as “clear proof of regression of democracy in Maldives and a step backwards from democratic norms”. It accused Yameen of enacting the legislation to silence critics who charge him with corruption.
The UOM was formed in June in London on the basis of a common agenda of ousting Yameen. Former Vice President, Mohamen Jameel Ahmed heads the new grouping.
Frequent arrests, firings and resignations of top officials have heightened a sense of insecurity. Ahmed Adeeb, a Vice-President, was convicted in June of plotting to kill President Yameen. Foreign Minister, Dunya Maumoon, resigned in July. She is the daughter of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who ruled the Maldives for 30 years with an iron hand and presently heads the ruling Maldives Progressive Party (MPP). It was the first signal of a deepening rift in the ruling family and troubled days ahead for Yameen, who is Gayoom’s half- brother.
Both Gayoom and several lawmakers have opposed new land law that allows foreign freehold ownership though through public auction. The law is designed to pave the way for China to set up military bases camouflaged as economic zones on the nation of nearly 1200 islands, many of them uninhabited.
Gayoom, who had authored Male’s China tilt, has since repaired his relations with India and the West. Not Yameen. He is publicly courting the Chinese for their Yuans, and Pakistan for its Islamic clout even while paying lip service to democracy and close ties with India and the West.
Significantly, amidst fuelled speculation of a regime change, Defence Minister, Adam Shareef Umar visited Pakistan as Yameen’s Special Envoy, on 8 Sept, and conferred with the Adviser to Prime Minister on Foreign Affairs (defacto foreign minister) Sartaj Aziz.
“During the meeting, the adviser supported the constructive engagement between Maldives and the Commonwealth. The special envoy appreciated the support Pakistan has been extending to his country at regional and international fora,”Parvez Jabri reported in Business Recorder, a Karachi daily.
YAMEEN UNDER SEIZE
Reports from Male say Yameen clearly feels under siege. Local courts have issued fresh arrest warrants early September for Nasheed, Jameel and other senior leaders of Opposition Maldives Democratic Party, (MDP), who are living in exile in London. Police raided Nasheed’s house in Male, and the offices of The Maldives Independent, a 12-year-old newspaper reportedly linked to MDP.
The newspaper’s editor Zaheena Rasheed says the raid was carried out based on a court warrant for an enquiry into a conspiracy to topple the government. “We believe it is an act of harassment and we are extremely concerned about it,” she told The Hindu. Zaheena is no longer living in Maldives. She left the country early September due to security concerns.
The latest charge on Yameen is that his government is involved in money laundering to the tune of $1.5 billion.
Doha-based Al Jazeera made the charge in ‘Stealing Paradise’, a documentary based on a five-month long investigation. The Yameen government said it was “disappointed by the allegations” made in the documentary. “We worked very discreetly as we are well aware of the attitude towards journalists shown by the government of the Maldives,” Will Jordan, who led the investigation, told The Hindu in an email interview from London. He is a former editor of The Maldives Independent.
I wrote on the News Blaze a year ago, May 10, 2015, that political circles in Male were agog with the talk that the government might impose an emergency on the grounds of “threat to national security” to ward off troubles.
Yameen pushed his plans to the backburner largely because of an impending review of his government’s HR record by the Geneva-based UN Commission for Human Rights. The May Day saw thousands of people taking to the streets in the largest anti-government protest in a decade. Police cracked down on the protesters.
“The fear and intimidation we thought were a thing of the past are now back,” blogger Sighpad Mohamed wrote in The Minivan News, which also reported that the Government of Yameen is labelling the opposition campaign for the release of Nasheed as the one that promotes Islamic radicalism.
Some photos, Asian Tribune, published around the same time raised the hackles of the ruling establishment. These photos gave a fresh lease to the charge that the regime was using criminal gangs as “non-state” actors to silence its critics.
In one photo, Yameen was seen in “the company of gangsters” at a reception hosted by the First Lady. The second photo showed Yameen addressing a rally dominated by “gangsters”. Some of these gangsters were wanted by police. Ahmed Adeeb, who started as Yameen’s Minister for Tourism and went on to become a Vice President used gangs to commit politically motivated “state-sponsored” crimes, alleges the opposition lawmaker, Ahmed Mahloof.
Adeeb was involved in the arson attack on Raajje TV in October 2013 and the stabbing of former MP Alhan Fahmy in February 2014, according to Mahloof. “In reality, the current government is a big gang.”
His assessment of the ‘gang’ gained wide currency. “There aren’t that many people in this gang. There about six people in this gang. President Yameen is the boss. Some people might find this hard to hear, but I’m saying this with daring because President Yameen would not keep Adeeb close knowing the serious atrocities in this country are carried out by him.”
Adeeb has since fallen from grace. It was because of a new crime – plotting to kill President Yameen that came to light last June.
Another charge against Adeeb that refuses to go is that he encouraged Islamic radicals in the island nation as a part of State policy, which gives a free run to ‘radical’ preachers.
Two years ago American security specialists cautioned the Yameen regime that “opening the doors” for Islamic fundamentalist youth could pose a threat not only to the Maldivian atolls, but to Sri Lanka and India also “in the short to near term.”
A section of law enforcement officials has also voiced concern over the growing clout of drug business and religious fundamentalists.
The Maldives is home to about 400,000 predominantly Muslims.
The Australian has reported about the “danger” that Maldivians are joining ISIS to fight the Syrian regime.
Its report, “Could a terror threat sink paradise?” said: “The country famed for white sands and laid-back locals is teetering on the edge of a coup with unrest and the threat of Islamic State terrorism set to see paradise turn ugly.”
The Guardian reported last year itself that “radical preaching and social problems are prompting a rise in Islamism” in Maldives. Jason Burke in his dispatch “Paradise jihadis- Maldives sees surge in young Muslims leaving for Syria”, wrote that the first departures of Maldivians to Syria took place in Oct 2013. Between 50 and 100 have joined “the jihad”, and at least five of them have been killed, he reported after a visit to Male in Jan- Feb 2015.
Analysts say the emergence of al-Qaida affiliate al-Nusra Front and Isis in Syria has catalysed an existing problem, giving it new dimensions and urgency. “It had a really big impact. It made [jihad] popular and appealing in some ways,” Burke quoted Azra Naseem, a researcher at Dublin City University, as saying. Azra is from the Maldives and specialises in radicalisation.
“Though some of those travelling to Syria have come from poor fishing communities on outlying islands, most of the recent departures are from Malé, the capital. Last month (Jan 2015) almost a dozen left a neighbourhood where a combination of radical preaching, organised crime and social problems have created a toxic mix”, the Guardian report noted.
Hundreds of protesters marched through central Malé last September bearing banners reading “Send democracy to hell” and “Islam will dominate the world”. Many carried the black flags of Isis and al-Nusra Front.
Indian media has been highlighting the jihadi spectre haunting Maldives for a long time. Praveen Swami wrote about the danger in 2007 itself in his dispatch titled, “Maldives: militant Islamists on the rise” to The Hindu.
Some excerpts from Swami’s dispatch of Nov 24, 2007:
Faseehu and Wahid travelled to Pakistan in March 2005 to study at a seminary in Karachi. Soon they moved to the Jamia Salafia Islamia — a Faisalabad seminary whose alumni are several Al Qaeda and Lashkar-e-Taiba leaders.
More than two decades ago, a young seminary student from Maldives made the same journey. Mohamed Ibrahim Sheikh returned to the islands in 1983, armed with the neo-conservative Salafism he had learned in Pakistan. He railed against the mainstream Shaafi-Sunni traditions the regime of President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom propagated. Soon Sheikh was banished from Male to the southern atolls.
Out of sight, he continued to preach his faith though. Sheikh Ibrahim Fareed, Qatar-educated cleric now held for his links with the Sultan Park terrorists, was among his students. Salafi mosques operating without the permission required under the Maldives law were set up in Male. On the remote southern island of Himandhoo, in the Alif Alif atoll, Fareed was eventually to build a Shariah-bound mini-state modelled on the Taliban’s Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, the flow of students to Pakistan continued. Mohamed Halim, now vice-chief of administration for the Laam atoll, was among the first from Maldives to study at Jamia Salafia. “There were 23 students from Maldives there in 1989,” he recalls in perfect Urdu, “and dozens of others at other seminaries across Pakistan. Some used to go off for training with jihadi groups along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.”
Among Mr. Halim’s contemporaries was a Fonadhoo island resident Ali Shareef, who has now been held for his alleged role in the Sultan Park bombing. Along with Mohamed Mazeed of Male, as well as Ali Rashid and Mohammad Saleem, both residents of the Kalaidhoo Island in the Laam atoll, Shareef plotted to establish a Shariah-based state in Maldives. The plot failed but President Gayoom sent an envoy to Jamia Salafia to insist that the seminary watch its students more closely.
It was a futile enterprise: at the seminary, religious education and jihad were organically enmeshed. Shareef’s contemporaries included, for example, a Faisalabad resident Abdul Malik. As head of the Lashkar’s Umm ul-Qura camp between 1998 and 2003, he trained thousands of Lashkar operatives for the jihad in Jammu and Kashmir. Operating under the code-name Abu Anas, Malik was eventually killed in a 2003 firefight with the Indian troops near Sangrama in northern Jammu and Kashmir.
Several Maldives students thus continued at the Lashkar-run facilities in Pakistan, some during Malik’s tenure as head of Umm ul-Qura. Ahmad Shah, a Male resident now battling heroin addiction, was put through the daura aam, or basic combat course, in a camp in the late 1990s. “Many students from Maldives were there,” he recalls. Others were recruited from Karachi’s Binori Masjid seminary, which gave birth to the Jaish-e-Mohammad’s Maulana Masood Azhar. A Maldives national, Ibrahim Fauzee, spent time in Guantanamo Bay after intelligence officials learned of his association with Al Qaeda operatives.
In the run-up to the Sultan Park bombing (September 29, 2007), evidence emerged that these networks were preparing for more aggressive operations. Ali Shameem and Abdul Latheef Ibrahim, now held for their role in the terror cell, were arrested on charges of preparing to join the jihad in Jammu and Kashmir. In April 2005, Ibrahim Asif was arrested in Kerala after attempting to source weapons from Thiruvananthapuram. Last year (2006), Male residents Ali Jaleel, Fatimah Nasreen, and Aishath Raushan were arrested for preparing to go to Pakistan to receive jihad training.
Although acquitted for want of evidence, Nasreen made little effort to veil her ideological leanings. In one recent interview, she said of Osama bin Laden: “There are things I support and things I can’t decide on.”
Just why did Islamism flourish in paradise – in islands apparently free from the deep social and political strains that drove its growth in Pakistan or India? Two sets of processes – cultural and political, need be examined.
Nothing illustrates the changing cultural climate in the Maldives as well as the story of its top rock star, Ali Rameez. Three years ago, Rameez abandoned his place under the spotlights, and chose a new life guided by the light of Islam. In a public demonstration of his new convictions, the rock star had thousands of hit compact discs thrown into the sea off Male, and invited his fans to follow the teachings of the islands’ best-known neo-conservative Islamic theologian, Sheikh Ibrahim Fareed: the man who inspired the Sultan Park cell.
Rameez’s journey represents an ongoing battle between religious neo-conservatism and liberalism: a battle Islamists seem to be winning. Maldives residents say the cultural influence of Islamists has become increasingly visible in what used to be an almost ostentatiously westernised society. There are more women wearing headscarves than short skirts or jeans now, while growing number of men can be seen sporting full-length beards.
Two key social classes in the Maldives backed militant Islamists. Merchants and traders, the islands’ traditional elites
During his presidential campaign (2013) Yameen had presented himself as a saviour of Islam. In his election speeches he had made it clear that there should be no space for other religions in the Maldives. His election manifesto, pledged to implement death penalty under Sharia and strengthening of ties with Arab Muslim nations. He called his opponent, Mohamed Nasheed, as an enemy of the nation’s Islamic unity.
Ever since the Yameen government came to office, the Ministry of Islamic Affairs has been working to fulfil these objectives. It now wants to block all religions except Islam; ensure that all laws and regulations adhere to Islamic principles; and develop and strengthen the Islamic Fiqh Academy to issue fatwas.
The Ministry has signed an agreement with the Saudi Arabian Muslim Scholars Association to receive a grant of $ 104,166 for the “mutual goal” of developing and improving the study of Quran and religion.
The Ministry of Education has introduced Arabic as a subject, and now plans to have schools teach Quran as a subject up to grade VII. In January 2014, President Yameen vetoed a bill on marital rape as un-Islamic after a cleric’s ruling.His government subsequently started enforcing a Sharia law that enforces death penalty even on 10 year olds.Police regularly hunts for atheists on social media on grounds of blasphemy.
The government of Yameen sees a threat to Sunni Islam from the Christian West. This perception is reflected in the foreign policy where protecting the Islamic unity of the country and promoting Islamic characteristics internationally figure.
While India has remained relatively insulated from the threat of IS indoctrination, radicalization in the neighbourhood remains a concern for Indian authorities, the Times of India reported on June 13, this year as a family of three from the island of Hithadhoo in southern Maldives was said to have arrived in Syria seeking to join IS.
Former foreign minister Ahmed Naseem from Nasheed’s MDP told the daily that the number of Maldivians who have joined IS now exceeded 300. “This is the highest number (of fighters contributed by any nation) per capita in the world, considering our small population,” he said.
Maldives is reportedly negotiating a counter-terrorism agreement with India and hopes to use it to deal with returnees from Syria and Iraq, who might be well-trained and armed but the opposition accuses President Yameen of underestimating, even ignoring the issue. As per government estimates, not more than 50 Maldivian youths have travelled to Syria or Iraq.
“He (President Yameen) makes statements which are seen as significant by the international community but behind that he encourages radicalised youth to remain militant,” said Naseem.
According to him and other MDP leaders, Yameen is aligning himself with extremist groups in his attempts to convince the Muslim-majority country that Nasheed was anti-Islam. Former strongman, Abdul Gayoom too was accused in the past of having used extremists to undermine liberal, democratic opposition.
In mid-June this year, President Yameen for the first time admitted that violent extremism poses ‘one of the biggest threats’ to the Maldives’ national security.
And presented a new national counter-terrorism strategy in the People’s Majlis, (Parliament) promising to tackle “violent extremism and terrorism” and safeguard the islands’ prized tourist resorts. He did not specifically mention Islamic extremism as a threat though.
Both opposition and the international community sees the counter-terrorism strategy as a new tool to stamp out growing political turmoil.
Terrorism and radicalization featured prominently in PM Narendra Modi’s meeting with Yameen in April this year with both leaders seeking close cooperation between intelligence agencies. Any presence of IS in Maldives will have serious security implications for India.
Despite the growing presence of China in the Maldives, India remains the preferred destination for Maldivians in areas like education, medical care and business. In fact, the number of Maldivians seeking visas to India has gone up significantly in the past three years.
Indian media and counter terrorism experts as also seasoned diplomats have been of late urging Prime Minister Narendra Modi to back the Nasheed-led opposition’s moves against Yameen. “India must assert its credentials by helping democrats to come to power,” according to them.
“India, the US and the EU are backing opposition moves to oust Yameen’s dictatorial government by legal means,” MDP international spokesman, Hamid Abdul Ghafoor was reported as saying in The New Indian Express.
Officially, however, there is no word from Delhi.
Despite heightened speculation that Nasheed’s Colombo visit was a prelude to the imminent ouster of President Yameen by the Maldivian opposition, there is no indication that Delhi had reached out to him.
Yes, as Nasheed himself noted, India is observing the situation in the Maldives, where India has warily watched China’s clout increase over the last two years.
The fact that Nasheed did not visit India and preferred Colombo for his tête-à-têtes tells its own story.
Interestingly, Nasheed had no problem to ‘conduct’ his political activities in Sri Lanka during the government of President Mahinda Rajapakse. And now during the government of Maithripala Sirisena and added that “he must be doing the same thing even now.”
“I believe India is very, very, aware that democratic institutions must be strengthened in all Indian Ocean countries for the stability of the Indian Ocean region”, Nasheed told the Indian Express during his ‘secret’ sojourn to the Sri Lankan capital. And went on to add: “President Abdulla Yameen is threatening the stability of the Indian Ocean region by making the country increasingly dependent on a single country.” He did not deny he was referring to China.
As a regional power India has a stake in the stability and peaceful progress of Maldives. And also the situations that can create very volatile outcomes.
In the near term, Nasheeds of Maldives should be enabled to visit the country to articulate their concerns before think tanks and educate Indian public opinion. More so as Nasheed says, “We have emerging economic powers incursion into our affairs to a very large extent. We are increasingly going into debt… and specifically the amount we would owe to a single country is something that is untenable for us.”
It is also time for India to take greater responsibility to commensurate with itsstatus as a major regional power and to protect its interests by factoring in two emerging realities: one importance of the Indian Ocean because of the Sea Lanes of Communication (SLOCs);twothe expanding Chinese footprint in the region and reports that Chinese submarines have travelled in the Maldivian waters. In essence India must put in place a calibrated maritime security strategy with a synergy between foreign policy and its blue water navy while cultivating lasting friendly relations with all nations in the Indian Ocean region.