Event ReportsPublished on Jul 16, 2016
Maldives Opposition seeks active role of India

The Maldives United Opposition is expecting India to play a much bigger role in Maldives to “bring back Maldives’ democracy on track”.

This was one of the messages brought along by an eight-member delegation of shadow ministers of the united opposition of Maldives, which visited India recently. It was led by Mr. Ahmed Naseem, the shadow foreign minister. The delegation visited Observer Research Foundation on June 23, 2016 and participated in an interaction with strategic and foreign policy experts, scholars and media.

The delegation of shadow ministers has brought together political leaders and parties from across the spectrum in the Maldives. Besides the former President Nasheed’s MDP, the coalition also includes many leaders who were once allied with President Yameen, including his two former Vice Presidents and Defence Minister, according to Mr. Naseem.

Mr. Naseem, who was a foreign minister in the Nasheed government, sought more active Indian role in Maldives. “India should not allow fatigue to set in,” Mr. Naseem said when asked about what they expected from India.

The interaction was moderated by Prof. S. D. Muni, Distinguished Fellow, IDSA and Professor Emeritus, JNU. Prof. Muni opened the discussion by situating the Maldives in a larger context of overthrown dictatorial, centralised regimes in South Asia that are yet to reconcile with the notion of democracy — an argument he summed up as “the empire strikes back.” He found support in examples such as the monarchy in Nepal, the army in Pakistan, and of course, the three-decade long Gayoom presidency in Maldives. Almost a decade since Gayoom’s exit, Mr. Muni pointed out that the ruthless curbing of basic rights and freedoms continues to exist in the Maldives.

Mr. Naseem began his address by stating restoring democracy in the Maldives required the removal of President Yameen from office. He said “the only way for the Maldives to return to constitutional government, for freedom to be respected and democracy to be upheld, is through the removal of President Yameen from office”.

Mr. Naseem accused President Yameen of selling his foreign policy for money. “I am reminded of a Maldivian saying: Whoever provides sugar is an uncle. Our foreign policy is being aligned with countries that give money to President Yameen in an underhand, often illegal way, without regard to the interests of the Maldivian people, our neighbours, or countries with long standing relations with Maldives,” he said.

Mr. Naseem said at a time when the Indian Ocean is rapidly emerging as a key focus of international politics and trade, “it is highly deplorable that the Maldives has become dangerous, untrustworthy and failing state in the midst of it”. He criticised President Yameen’s “haphazard” policy of attempting to balance priorities between India and China, saying it is “undesirable, untenable and unwarranted.”

Mr. Naseem was particularly concerned with President Yameen’s interest in a Middle Eastern coalition. Regarding the Indian Ocean, Mr. Naseem reiterated the United Opposition’s support for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Region First” policy, even asserting that “it is India’s ocean first, and it should remain that way.” He also brought up the rise of radicalization amongst the youth, as many families are leaving the Maldives to join ISIS in Syria. Mr. Naseem suggested that a large number of known extremists are being funded by Sun Siyam, leader of the Maldives Development Alliance — Yameen’s closest coalition partner.

Mr. Naseem warned potential investors of the current instability in the country, given that the present bidding process is largely neo-patrimonial in its ways. Further, the criminal justice system has been reduced to a means of punishing opposition leaders and other dissenting voices. Lastly, Mr. Naseem emphasised that for a small state like the Maldives, its sovereignty depends largely on international acknowledgment and support.

Shadow Minister of Defence and National Security Abdullah Ameen said, “If India and the members of international community neglects us on this critical time, the results could be dangerous beyond imagination. The Indian Ocean might fall under unforeseen perils.”

“Today the friends of the Maldivian government are not its neighbours. Neither are they the close friends of India. For the safety and security of the region, we look for the support of India to rectify the course of Maldives,” Mr. Ameen said.

Without mincing words, he said, “we ask India to support the hard work of the Maldivians to bring back democracy to the Maldives.”

Mr. Ameen drew attention to the current state of affairs by likening present day Maldives to a cruel dictatorship, where many opposition political leaders are under lock down or in exile. He mentioned the threat to freedom of speech and expression, and stressed the need for a free and fair election.

Ms. Sifa Mohammed, shadow Minister of Education, highlighted the major issues in the sector. One area of particular concern for Ms. Mohammed is increased centralisation, which has led to overcrowding in housing, services and education sectors in Malé. She also brought up religious extremism, as a result of which the education sector is becoming “increasingly conservative, intolerant and anti democratic.” Moreover, this extremism has also resulted in a large number of families discouraging girls from attending school. In addition, the lack of institutions for those who do not qualify to take the O-level exams leaves teenagers with little motivation and highly susceptible to gang recruitment.

Decentralisation was also on the top of the reform agenda for Ms. Shidhatha Shareef, the shadow Minister of Health Social Protection and Gender. She was particularly worried about the overpopulation of Malé. Moreover, she described the health sector as a symbol of state failure, alluding to problems such as limited fresh water access and lack of safe sanitation systems. Ms. Shareef also acknowledged India’s previous contributions to improving healthcare in the Maldives, the only tertiary hospital in the country being a gift from India.

Ms. Shareef was concerned that the Maldivian economy has become the “second worst in the South Asia region, next to Afghanistan, with only 1.9% growth.” She said while 40% of the population is youth, 12% youth are unemployed, according to a World Bank report.

Lastly, shadow Minister for Constitutional Reform, Hussain Shameen lamented the misuse of the 2008 Constitution, with little separation of powers occurring in practice. Mr. Shameen called for a constitutional amendment package ensuring judicial reform and independence.

A short question and answer followed. The topics on the table ranged from type of content taught in local madrasas to concern about climate change impact in the region. Recommendations from the table included uniting as a single party, as well as to try and consider India’s own limitations preventing them from direct intervention. In response, the delegation from the Maldives emphasised that their problem is India’s problem, and also a problem for the entire region.

Prof. Muni concluded the session by urging the United Opposition to strengthen their case in the Maldives itself first, as widespread dissatisfaction with the current regime among the local people is essential to mobilising international support. Furthermore, he pointed out that history has shown if there is a clash between preserving India’s strategic interests and establishing democracy in a neighbouring country, it is the first that triumphs.

This report is prepared by Naira Oberoi, Research Intern, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.

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