India’s Maldives initiative of the UN kind, as reported in a section of the media, could reopen old wounds in the neighbourhood, where the political opposition may have a whole new story to tell their constituencies.
By thanking China, Russia and Saudi Arabia, and leaving India (wantonly) out of the list, for blocking western efforts to put Maldives on the ‘agenda’ of the UN Security Council last week, President Abdulla Yameen may have said more than he may have intended. Taken to the logical conclusion, it still implies a first-round diplomatic slowdown, if not defeat, for India, which was seen as getting more involved in the Maldivian domestic situation than earlier, after the nation’s Supreme Court ordered freedom for nine ‘political prisoners’ through an omnibus order on 1 February 2018.
“Up until last night, the UN security council was discussing what measures to take against the Maldives. But the discussions were unofficial. The discussions then moved to table the Maldives on its official agenda. But that move failed. Our foreign policy has also emerged victorious. This was made possible by the efforts of our closest friends. That is China, Russia and Saudi Arabia,” the New Indian Express reported Yameen as telling a rally of his People’s Party of Maldives (PPM) on Friday night.
Though the New Indian Express did claim that Yameen’s ‘special envoys’ to Pakistan and China, if not Saudi Arabia, returned empty-handed, after India had reportedly snubbed him by delaying/denying time for Maldivian Foreign Minister Mohamed Amin to explain his government’s case with the Indian leadership, that need not be relevant just now. Instead, the delay or denial of making Maldives an ‘agenda’ item in the UNSC should be more relevant from a Maldivian perspective.
News reports did claim that both China and Pakistan, allies otherwise in any diplomatic enterprise against India, had called for ‘non-interference’ by ‘external players’ in the internal affairs of Maldives. China also reportedly called for domestic stakeholders in Maldives to sort out their problems (without going to ‘outside players’). Translated, it could also mean that both China and Pakistan could still revise their current position should India or the US or any other nation ‘intervene’ in Maldives, in whatever form.
At this stage, neither China, nor Pakistan seemed to have mentioned any ‘military intervention’ of any kind by any nation in Maldives. But China especially did say that the UN too should not intervene in Maldives. Whether supporting democracy in Maldives, or opposing the Yameen leadership for its proximity to China, neighbours of India have always felt the need for a near-eternal support of a UN veto power that they could count upon. Without being a veto member in the UN, India used to exercise that presence and dominance through its ‘traditional sphere of influence’ approach to the neighbourhood, but not now when it is seen as a ‘global player’ more than any time in the past.
While saying that the UN cannot interfere in the Maldivian affairs, if China also meant UNHRC at Geneva, it has not mentioned it thus far. Yet, going by the US-led western precedent of taking India’s other Indian Ocean neighbour, Sri Lanka, to the UNHRC after China and Russia had stalled making the nation an ‘agenda’ item in the UNSC in the months and years immediately after the conclusion of the war in 2009, both possibilities cannot be ruled out. The question is if India will side with the US if Maldives went to UNHRC all over again, and if they could get the numbers — and what impact it would have on the neighbourhood.
In the case of Sri Lanka, the first UN-linked round went to India, China and Pakistan working together to defeat an EU-sponsored human rights resolution at the UNHRC, just 10 days after the war, and replace it with another that hailed Colombo for ending LTTE terrorism. Down the line, India did vote for a relatively ‘watered down’ version of the US-sponsored resolution on ‘war crimes probe’, after the then Mahinda Rajapaksa regime was seen as shifting the goalpost constantly, but then the Indian vote did not go down well with Colombo then.
In context, India’s Maldives initiative of the UN kind, as reported in a section of the media, could reopen old wounds in the neighbourhood, where the political opposition may have a whole new story to tell their constituencies. In the case of Sri Lanka, Rajapaksa is seen as being on a comeback trail after sweeping the nationwide local government polls across the nation, not on a ‘local agenda’ as should have been the case, but on national issues, concerns and leadership claims and counters, especially in the ‘Sinhala South’.
At the current phase and pace, India is seen as getting bogged down at the level of Maldives in political equation. It has already begun assuming the contours of a neo-cold war, where the US and China are the real players, with Maldives providing the first battleground and India fronting for the West as a whole and the US in particular. In a way, it is where China had wanted India to be, not to treat itself as an equal, if New Delhi did not want to work together with Beijing on global, Asian and South Asian affairs, as against aligning with the West in general and the US in particular.
What should interest Indians even more is Yameen’s reference to Russia, to which country he had not sent any ‘special envoy’. Obviously after Chechnya, Russia seems more inclined than earlier to side against the US-led West than for and on the side of China. In the case of Russia-US entanglement, Yameen has referred positively to Moscow after his immigration department had cooperated with the US Secret Service in arresting the son of a Russian parliamentarian wanted by American courts, in June 2014. Both sides did sort out the differences at the time.
It is unclear as yet if India did take Russia into confidence after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Moscow visit when the two sides reportedly sorted out ruffled feathers from the recent past, not very long ago. It is even more unclear if India did take its individual neighbours into confidence on its propositions and proposals on and for Maldives, even if bilaterally, if that was also included in PM Modi’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy announced at his inauguration in May 2014.
India is also said to be in touch with the US and China on Maldives, though neither Russia, nor Saudi Arabia, has found any mention in media reports. At this stage, India could try to use its allround good offices to try and resolve the Maldivian clouds, which is already showing signs of dissipating, after ending all talks of any initiative against the incumbent government in Male, if only to resolve the current crisis and also address its democracy concerns for the Indian Ocean archipelago.
On the domestic front in Maldives, it at least seems to be business as usual for the common man, like the Yameen leadership claims. The police have been arresting more of Yameen’s detractors, including Faaris Maumoon, political heir of jailed half-brother and former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, and a son of self-exiled Jumhooree Party (JP) leader, Gasim Ibrahim. In self-exile in Germany, Gasim has been adding numbers to his top leadership, with the induction of Yameen’s ‘impeached’ first Vice President Mohamed Jameel Ahmed, who was supposed to be heading Nasheed’s MDP-centric joint opposition since inception in 2015, but not seemingly relevant any more.
The police has quoted millions of dollars as bribery payment for a favourable Supreme Court order, and claimed to have recovered massive sums from a bag of Supreme Court Justice Ali Hameed, who has since been jailed and kept under suspension along with Chief Justice Abdulla Saeed, for alleged ‘coup bid’. The government has since said that the three remaining judges, now constituting the Supreme Court, had declined to side with the jailed two, to ‘impeach’ Yameen through a judicial order, a day after they had ‘freed’ nine ‘political prisoners’. At least as of now, none of the three is reported to have claimed that his signature in the omnibus order was not theirs, or was obtained through deceit or coercion.
The Gayoom defence has flatly denied the ‘coup charge’, but given the Maldivian ‘social connect’ and social media’ connect, ‘news’ travels as fast as rumours, with the result there is always a 50 per cent chance of people believing their government’s version, especially when such charges are tinged with references to nationalism and sovereignty, religion and ‘military intervention’. So much so when self-exiled former President Mohammed Nasheed also alleged divisions within the security forces, their leaderships promptly denied it — and had to deny the same, as well.
The 15-day Emergency ends on 20 February, even if Yameen and also the truncated Supreme Court were to ignore pending need for Parliament to approve the measure and the judiciary to validate the same, against Yumuna Maumoon, Gayoom’s daughter. Yumuna’s twin sister, Dunya, a junior minister now under Yameen, has appealed to the ‘authorities’ to free their father, and circulated it among diplomats of India and other democracies.
In between, the nation’s Election Commission has restored the parliamentary membership of 12 ‘defectors’ from the Yameen camp, possibly indicating that he is now confident of securing a ‘simple majority’ back again in the 85-seat Parliament, where his detractors would anyway require a two-thirds majority of 57 votes to ‘impeach’ him. They do not have it just now. It is another matter that Nasheed too had set a precedent in his short term as President, when he faced an opposition-controlled Parliament, or People’s Majlis.
The Yameen camp has since claimed credit for implementing the Supreme Court order in restoring the the truncated three-Judge Bench having rescinded the omnibus ‘freedom order’ for Nasheed and others. However, the question remains if the ruling party was unsure of winning any or many of these seats if by-elections were to be held, that too ahead of the presidential polls, due before November this year.
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