Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Oct 01, 2016
Where from here is the question that they would be asking of Maldives – and Maldives should be asking itself.
Maldives seeks berth in UN Security Council If anyone is in doubt as to which way did the wind blow for Maldives on the much talked-about meeting of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG), the palpable evidence is here. If CMAG met on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, in the main session the same day, the Foreign Minister, Dr. Mohamed Asim, "boldly put forward" Maldives' "candidature" to seek membership of the UN Security Council (UNSC), to 'speak up' for such other 'unrepresented' smaller nations, too.

"We do not believe that might or size determines destiny; our ability, our motivation, our will to work, and our ideas do," Dr. Asim told UNGA. He said small states are under-represented because of their small delegations and limited capacities. " every member of this organisation must have the opportunity to serve, must have an equal chance to be part of everybody, especially the Security Council, to make the decisions that affect us all," he said. Asim explained that the "intent, resolve, fairness, and the principle of representation should decide the opportunities available to member states."

At the UNGA, Minister Asim also touched upon the immediate issue before his nation, namely, the CMAG decision and other global concerns about democracy and human rights issues facing the Government of President Abdulla Yameen. He reiterated his Government’s repeated position for the international community not to judge their action, using 'arbitrary benchmarks'. They should instead evaluate progress in Maldives against its own progress, he said, as if referring only to economic development of Small Island Developing States (SIDS). "Value us by our abilities, not our vulnerabilities," the Minister said further.

Time till March

At a rare third meeting in eight months, that too focussing on a single nation, the CMAG gave Maldives time till its next session in March 2017, and warned of ban from participating in Commonwealth Council meetings if it did not report progress on the six ‘Objectives’ set out in February. Therein is the catch as much for the CMAG and the anti-Yameen stake-holders in Maldives, even if the government were sincere and serious about measuring up to those ‘arbitrary benchmarks’.

Topping the list of the CMAG 'Objectives' is the commencement of 'unconditional talks' among Maldivian stake-holders, followed — and only followed — by a demand for freeing 'all political prisoners'. The third substantive CMAG objective/demand is the commencement of stakeholder negotiations for political and judicial reforms. The overriding CMAG proviso clarifies that these objectives should be met only through 'internal negotiations'.

In a way, the top three objectives are also self-contradictory. From the view of domestic stakeholders opposed to Yameen, they are also self-defeating. The government has been implying as much since the February CMAG by declaring that freedom for political prisoners could not be a pre-condition for commencing 'unconditional talks' but can only flow from it. Needless to point out, political and judicial reforms can also flow only from such negotiations.

It's here that the Maldives United Opposition (MUO), led by former President Mohammed 'Anni' Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) finds itself on the back-foot. It has persistently demanded freedom for 'political prisoners' before the commencement of any political negotiations. By implication, the MDP-MUO has sought freedom for Nasheed, the MDP leader, and also the religion-centric Adhaalath Party (AP) leader, Sheikh Imran Abdulla, and others, ahead of substantive talks of any nature.

More importantly, Shainee reiterated the government's resolve not to let Nasheed contest the presidential polls, due in November 2018. Referring to the CMAG Objective for a 'free, fair and inclusive elections' to the nation’s presidency, the Minister said that the term 'inclusive' would not apply to Nasheed, who was disqualified under the local laws, owing to the long jail-term in the 'Judge Abdulla case.'

Not 'political prisoner'

The Yameen leadership is not the one to relent on this score — whatever the true intentions on political negotiations, processes and goals, all of which are dead-locked at commencement. Hours after the weekend CMAG meeting, the Fisheries Minister, Dr. Mohamed Shainee, leading the official team for domestic negotiations, reiterated that Nasheed was not a political prisoner, for being released.

Shainee did not use the term 'fugitive from law', but implied as much, given that the nation’s Supreme Court had upheld the 13-year prison-term for the former President in the 'Judge Abdulla abduction case.' He was granted political asylum in the UK, after obtaining ‘medical leave’ from prison, to attend to a spinal injury.

As if to drive home the point, the government also lost no time after the CMAG meeting, the government asked the MDP and the AP to nominate their representatives for the all-party talks, which was to take off yet. The government had nominated the Shainee team, replacing the earlier team leader and then Home Minister Umar Naseer for the talks but refused to accept the MDP and the AP nominating the two jailed leaders as their representatives and/or team leaders.

For want of credible participation by the opposition, all-party negotiations in the past got limited to inconsequential talks with government allies, producing next-to-nothing, to go-by. Clearly, the government does not want to make the talks more farcical than already but it still has a good case on the domestic legal front, vis a vis Nasheed and Sheikh Imran.

Only a day before the CMAG meeting this time, the government also rescinded MDP Chairperson Ali Waheed’s Maldivian passport and advised all nations not to permit him to travel using the same. Ali Waheed was the first mainline opposition leader to leave the country, and was among one of the four opposition leaders to be granted political asylum by the UK, a few weeks after Nasheed's. Clearly, the government was signalling the possibilities of seeking Nasheed's extradition, though possibly not immediately.

Whither India?

Interestingly, even as they were fighting a heated war-of-words, both inside the UNGA and outside, post-Uri attack, India and Pakistan seem to have joined hands once again to put any punitive action against Maldives on the hold, at least for another six months. Both are on the nine-member CMAG in the 47-nation Commonwealth. After the May session, when the CMAG gave Maldives time till September to show measurable and verifiable progress on the six objectives, Yameen publicly thanked India and Pakistan for their support.

The Indian predicament is understandable, and not without reason. Even as official India has concerns over democracy issues in the immediate neighbourhood, in the case of Maldives, not only China-centred geostrategic concerns matter for India. In the immediate context, India would not want to be seen as interfering in the internal affairs of a friendly neighbour. More importantly, it would not want to see any diplomatic initiative that would upset political stability in the Indian Ocean archipelago, China or no China.

It's here that the inability of the Nasheed-led MUO to convince the international community to be able to effect a leadership-change in Maldives through peaceful means and constitutional continuity too would have weighed on CMAG/Commonwealth member-nations. For India, the added concerns of being the immediate, larger neighbour would have been and additional issue to consider.

Overriding India’s position would have been its traditional postures on non-interference in the internal affairs of third nations, either by itself or through or by any international organisation. Independent of leadership changes nearer home, India’s stand on the UNHRC votes on war-time 'accountability probes' in neighbouring Sri Lanka over the past years was only a reiteration of its avowed position.

UNHRC chief Prince Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein's recent references to alleged human rights violations in Jammu and Kashmir would not have helped matters for anti-government stakeholders in and on Maldives, either. If nothing else, India cannot take different views on external interference and/or probes in the case of Maldives and/or Sri Lanka, and oppose it in unequivocal terms on Jammu and Kashmir, too, would have hurt the nations much-valued credibility.

As coincidence would have it, only days before the CMAG New York meeting, Major General Ahmed Shiyam, chief of the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF), was in India, meeting with Defence Minister Manohar Parikkar, and all three services chiefs. During the four-day visit, which also saw General Shiyam visiting the Navy's establishments, including the shipbuilding facility, in Kochi, Kerala, India promised 'assistance' to MNDF’s air wing.

Already, India has donated the first two helicopters of the MNDF air wing, and is also training Maldivian personnel, both in flying and maintenance. Though details are not available, further IAF assistance could imply greater cooperation between the services of the two nations to make their shared seas and respective land territories secure. From an Indian perspective, it could imply that China, even if up to a point further than at present, and also IS and ISI brands of terrorism.

No sanctions

As Minister Shainee said after the CMAG meet, Maldives is not facing any Commonwealth-backed sanctions just now, though that was the demand and expectation of the MDP-MUO. Domestic politics and international diplomacy apart, CMAG members seem to be alive to the possibilities of an economically-stressed people facing further hardships if the Commonwealth were to impose sanctions on the nation, now or later.

Such a course could also have consequences for the nation’s domestic politics. As India’s 'GMR experience' showed not very long ago, it was not difficult for domestic players opposed to President Nasheed, then in power, to turn on a substantial portion of the Maldivian population, against their leadership, just by flagging 'sovereignty' and 'national pride'. Yameen led the 'December 23 Movement' from the side, but took over command once Nasheed had quit office.

Where from here?

Yet, the New York meeting's decision to place CMAG agenda does not mean that the Commonwealth is going the whole hog with the Yameen leadership. It might still be as much as strategy as it has been a tactic of the anti-Yameen sections of the international community as it has been a tactic for the Yameen leadership to stave off any immediate punitive action by the Commonwealth or any other international organisation.

In between, Maldives' current call for membership of the UNSC could set not just Commonwealth nations but also other global players thinking. Where from here is the question that they would be asking of Maldives — and Maldives should be asking itself. At a regional and sub-regional level, this could mean not much in terms of bilateral relations with and for India.

But any realignment at the regional and global levels, where China and Pakistan, among others, could end up playing their anti-India card, India may need to consider and/or reconsider its Maldivian options more seriously than at present. Should SIDS nations form a coalition and begin raising their voice on issues beyond climate change and development, greater international backing and backers — whether India, China or Pakistan, or all of them together — would and could make the difference to regional and sub-regional equations as well.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.