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Published on Apr 13, 2022 Updated 16 Days ago
The quick and silent acceptance of the defence and security agreements with the US is indicative of the anti-India bias that is being harboured by the Yameen camp
Maldives: Anomalies in Yameen’s anti-India bias Addressing a special ceremony at the Integrated Headquarters of the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) in capital Malé, where she signed an agreement with the US’ Montana National Guard Partnership Program, Maldivian defence minister Mariya Didi said that “by enrolling in this programme, we (the President Solih administration) are reiterating our commitment to the deepening of the US–Maldives defence and security relationship, which has grown tremendously over the past three years,”. The three-year reference is to the time when the minister travelled quietly to the US at the height of the COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions, and signed the “Framework for US Department of Defense-Maldives Ministry of Defence Defense and Security Relationship”, in September 2020. At the more recent ceremony, minister Mariya said that the enrolment of Maldives in such a prestigious programme as one of the solid outcomes of the earlier pact, which, she explained, ‘formalised the way forward in cementing bilateral defence and security cooperation’. The US partnership will go a long way in ‘building the capacity and readiness of the Maldivian defence sector to meet the challenges of today’, she added. The minister clarified that the programme was tailored to meet the unique requirements of Maldives’ defence and security landscape, by facilitating engagements in key areas such as maritime domain awareness, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, cyber defence, and communication security, aviation security operations, leadership development, military medical and engineer activities, operational logistics, and chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, environmental defence and response.
Indian strategic analysts, in particular, contextualised the agreement to the India–China border clashes, beginning with the illegal Chinese occupation of Indian territory and the brutal massacre of 20 Indian soldiers.
Short of preparing the MNDF to fight a formal war, the US training programme, by bilateral admission, is exhaustive and all-inclusive. The minister herself asserted that the ‘US partnership would go a long way in ‘building the capacity and readiness of the Maldivian defence sector to meet the challenges of today’. It was all in line with what minister Mariya had said while signing the 2020 agreement. She had said that “defence and security relationship will add immense value to the excellent US–Maldives partnership defined by shared principles and interests in peace and security of the Indo-Pacific and the IOR amid rising threats like piracy and terrorism.” By referring to the Indo-Pacific, coined by the US with regard to its delayed post-Cold War strategic shift from the Atlantic, the 2020 agreement and all that follows should be of concern to China, with its geostrategic agenda for the IOR region abutting Maldives, Sri Lanka, and by extension, its historic Indian adversary. Indian strategic analysts, in particular, contextualised the agreement to the India–China border clashes, beginning with the illegal Chinese occupation of Indian territory and the brutal massacre of 20 Indian soldiers.

Stupefying silence

Nearer home, former President Abdulla Yameen, who is opposed to the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), has been highly critical of the Indian neighbour since his days in office (2013–18). He has also launched a nation-wide ‘India Out’ and/or ‘India Military Out’ campaign, has surprised admirers and opponents alike, with his stupefying silence over the Solih government’s defence and security agreements with the US, the only other nation with which Maldives has such pacts. It’s not about Maldives’ sovereign freedom to engage with whichever nation in whatever ways it wanted. This is not the first time that the Yameen camp has reacted this way. In his time, the government of the nation’s first democracy President Mohammed ‘Anni’ Nasheed (2008–12) signed the first-ever overseas defence cooperation pact, the US’ Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA). Later, after the Yameen camp became the political face of what was touted as (Islamic) religious NGOs’ anti-Nasheed protest, leading to the latter’s vice-president, Mohammed Waheed Hassan Manik succeeding him to complete the remainder (2012–13) of the five-year term, there were talks of another America-centric defence cooperation agreement. The proposed pact supposedly involved what could be termed as the upgradation of the American ACSA into SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement), which provided for non-application of domestic laws to American soldiers on ‘rest and recuperation’ (R&R) trips and freedom for them to carry personal weapons on Maldivian territory. There were also allegations about Waheed’s Maldives handing over island-territory for the US to set up a military base. Local media leaks about both projects forced the Waheed government to distance itself from the proposal. Then Attorney-General Aishath Bhisham also clarified that Maldivian territory cannot be transferred thus to other nations without a parliamentary enactment.
The proposed pact supposedly involved what could be termed as the upgradation of the American ACSA into SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement), which provided for non-application of domestic laws to American soldiers on ‘rest and recuperation’ (R&R) trips and freedom for them to carry personal weapons on Maldivian territory.
It's noticeable that in all these cases, too, Yameen did not raise his voice over the US deals, real and speculated. If this was Yameen’s disposition to US-centric defence deals, as against those involving the immediate Indian neighbour, he also caused his PPM-PNC combine to issue a statement, welcoming the stop-over visit of outgoing US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, when he held substantive bilateral discussions with Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid. It happened when Yameen was still in prison, pending the Supreme Court acquitting him for the multi-million-dollar ‘money laundering case’.

One-sided demand

The Yameen camp’s criticism of India is centred on the bilateral agreement for India to fund and develop an exclusively Maldivian Coast Guard base on Uthuru Thila Falhu (UTF) island. As Maldivian officials, including minister Mariya, have explained, there were no secret clauses, nor was there any provision for Indian military personnel taking possession of the base, when built. Instead, it was a part of the local government’s decision to strengthen each arm of its military, which now serve under the common identity, as the ‘Maldivian National Defence Force’ (MNDF). While repeatedly demanding presenting sensitive security and defence cooperation agreements to parliamentary debate and public scrutiny, the Yameen camp forced the Solih government to show the UTF agreement to members of the Parliament’s ‘241’ National Security Committee. Once dust had settled over what the PPM-PNC members of the parliamentary panel did not find in the UTF pact, the Yameen camp began demanding full disclosure to full Parliament, and by extension, the nation at large. However, not once have they sought even half the details on any of the defence cooperation agreements signed with the US, the only other nation with which Maldives has any such arrangement thus far. It was a clear indication that the Yameen camp’s concern for national security were one-sided and only India-centric, and not as ‘nationalist’ as they want Maldives and Maldivians to believe. More importantly, as President (2013-18), the Yameen government signed a series of trade and development agreements with China, incurring huge debts that future governments would have to repay. Given the continuing Sri Lankan experience in the matter at present, the development man aspiring to be Maldives’ Lee Kuan Yew would have been expected to take the nation into confidence through the Parliament, on what essentially were only economic matters. However, Yameen was secretive of the island-allocation for resort development when it came to Chinese interests, and followed it up with an after-thought of a Parliament session, that too only for a few hours, to clear the Maldives–China FTA, two days before his China visit, which itself was kept a top secret until almost the last minute. If the FTA has not come into force, it is because of the change of government in Malé.
The Yameen government also kept up pressure on India by asking to take back the two helicopters that New Delhi had gifted earlier, along with Indian pilots and technical personnel, for humanitarian-use, particularly for air-lifting emergency patients in far-away islands.
Personal bias It looks as if, Yameen’s anti-India politics flows from a personal bias, centred on what his camp considered as New Delhi’s continued favouritism to his domestic political opponents. Days before the 2013 presidential polls that he won in the midst of multiple controversies over alleged judicial bias in his favour, Yameen, along with another candidate, Gasim Ibrahim of the Jumhooree Party (JP), issued a joint statement that Indian tech personnel assisting the Maldivian Election Commission were set to rig the outcome in favour of MDP’s Nasheed. The Yameen camp had also taken exception to India seeking and obtaining a ‘level-playing field’ for Nasheed to be able to contest the election, when he was facing an ‘abduction case’, with possible conviction causing electoral disqualification. Yameen’s prejudice against India took the form of his cash-strapped government paying a high US$ 271-million compensation to the Indian infra major, GMR Group, after the predecessor Waheed government had cancelled the Malé airport construction-cum-concession work, allotted by the Nasheed dispensation earlier. Later, he did not take kindly to India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), in an unprecedented manner, commenting on the ‘internal affairs’ of a friendly nation, and criticise his decisions, including the proclamation of Emergency, after a five-judge Bench of the Supreme Court ordered freedom for Nasheed, who had obtained political asylum in the UK, where he had travelled as a prisoner, sentenced by a Maldivian court.  He also did not take kindly to India sending close aide and PPM parliamentary group leader, Ahmed Nihan, back when the landed in Chennai, for his mother’s medical treatment. Throughout, the Yameen government also kept up pressure on India by asking to take back the two helicopters that New Delhi had gifted earlier, along with Indian pilots and technical personnel, for humanitarian-use, particularly for air-lifting emergency patients in far-away islands. It did not work out that way and the successor Solih government has continued with the use of Indian choppers, pilots, and technical personnel, after repeated clarifications and assurances that they operated exclusively on the instructions and directions of the MNDF, which was the coordinating authority. This may be behind the Yameen camp shifting gears between their ‘India Out’ and ‘India Military Out’ calls, as they too seem unsure about public support for this cause as against their multiple charges against the incumbent government, which they are not as eager to press. It starts with their party cadres, as they are also alive to India’s continued supply of every daily-use item, starting with rice, sugar, and medicines for years, including those years when India itself was facing shortages having problems convincing themselves that they did not want India or did not owe anything to India.
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N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy is a policy analyst and commentator based in Chennai.

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