Originally Published 2015-04-30 00:00:00 Published on Apr 30, 2015
Combined with the Maldives government's demonstrated preparations for a face-off, the tone and tenor of the Opposition's preparations for the May Day rally, and their call for the civil society to chip in, indicate a possible repeat of the 'December 23 movement' protests (2011-12) that led to President Nasheed's exit.
MDP's 'May Day' call, now again to India

Maldives's ombined Opposition is organising a 'May Day' protest, which Adhaalath Party's (AP) Sheikh Imran has said would end President Abdulla Yameen's 'tyranny'. Maldivian Democratic Party parliamentarian Eva Abdulla has written to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to "use your good offices to pressure the Maldivian government to release (former) President (Mohammed) Nasheed". A kin of Nasheed, Eva, in her letter dated April 22, has also called upon Modi to ensure freedom for "other political prisoners, return to rule of law, uphold the constitution and protect the basic human rights of all Maldivians".

Before Eva, Nasheed himself, days and weeks before his arrest and anti-terror trial, conviction and 13-year sentencing, too had publicly asked India to "protect" him if and when arrested. Now, nearly coinciding with Eva, Amnesty International's India advocacy coordinator Raghu Menon said India as a regional power "has a responsibility to work towards a human rights-friendly environment in the Maldives".

Promptly, Maldivian Foreign Minister Dunya Maumoon said AI was speaking the language of the MDP. When Nasheed had made the call, Minister Maumoon was confident that India "will not intervene in the domestic politics" of her country. As pro-MDP Minivan News recalled, Ahmed Nihan, heading the ruling coalition of President Yameen's Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) in Parliament, had this to say on the occasion: "Urging India to intervene in a sovereign nation's internal affairs is a betrayal of our Constitution. Its results will be bitter, especially on the Maldivian public."

Preparing for the protest

Combined with the government's demonstrated preparations for a face-off, the tone and tenor of the Opposition's preparations for the May Day rally, and their call for the civil society to chip in, indicate a possible repeat of the 'December 23 movement' protests (2011-12) that led to President Nasheed's exit. However, rally organisers have repeatedly declared that the May Day protest, even while being decisive, would not violate the Constitution. However, on the 'freedom to protest' (even without prior police permission), different interpretations and new laws are now available for regulation.

Yet, the Opposition this time has been more careful than in 2011-12. At the last major street protest for Nasheed's freedom, the Opposition, with Jumhooree Party's Gasim Ibrahim as the absentee-leader, ensured that the participants did not violate the law or the self-imposed closure time of 6 pm, well before sunset. Today Gasim is relatively silent, following revenue recovery demands for a whopping $ 90 million on his Villa Group, but his second-line and cadres are active.

The Government does not seem to be leaving things to chance, either. Tourism Minister Adeeb, who has already emerged as the perceived voice of President Yameen, has said, as if in mock-jest that days may come and go, but 'nothing' would happen on May Day. The Maldivian Police Service (MPS) too has been preparing to face-off the protest. MDP youth wing leaders said that they were met with pepper-spray when they offered the symbolic white rose to MSP personnel on the streets of capital, Male, though published pictures in the Minivan News, told a different story.

What can India do?

After planning a historic four-nation, neighbourhood Indian Ocean visit in March, PM Modi had to drop Maldives from his itinerary, obviously owing to the engulfing public protests and political uncertainties when the Nasheed arrest became the talking-point in Maldives. For India and the entire Indian Ocean sub-regional neighbourhood, the linkages meant to have been made - and were made sans Maldives - had greater connotation and for the long term.

Though the official Indian statement on Modi's itinerary did not mention Maldives at all, the Maldivian Government however said that the visit was being rescheduled, and new dates would be announced through mutual consultations. No efforts of initiatives seem to have been taken by either side, since, on the subject. Needless to point out, the existing ground situation, and the emerging uncertainty (not necessarily in terms of possible leadership change that Nasheed's MDP may have hoped for) may rule out one for at least some more time to come.

Questions remain. Having waited for two years after the last adjournment of the original criminal case against Nasheed, it's anybody's guess why the Yameen leadership could not have stalled his arrest, trial and conviction until after the Indian visitor had come and gone. It's even more curious why the three-judge trial court decided to order Nasheed's 13-year jail-term on Friday, a public holiday, when Modi was landing in neighbouring Sri Lanka, the first stand-alone bilateral visit by an Indian PM to that country in 28 long years.

The Indian government has the "power to make a difference in the Maldives", MDP's Eva Abdulla said in her letter to PM Modi. She also claimed that India's support "had been crucial to the success of the democratic reform movement that culminated in the adoption of a rights-based Constitution and multi-party elections in 2008". A section of the strategic community in India too has problems, owing to their own perceptions on Maldives, pertaining in particular to China, 'Islamic radicalism' and possible anti-India base for ISI terrorists targeting the country, the GMR row and democracy concerns -not necessarily in that order.

True as it all maybe, the not-so-infrequent MDP references to India in context may have already cut both ways. Maldivians are a proud and patriotic people. Even when the majority in the country backs the MDP and Nasheed, proven as the most charismatic of all leaders in the country just now, it needs to be remembered that the non-MDP constituents in the present-day Opposition combine (along with the PPM, then in the Opposition) had used Islam, nationalism and 'Islamic nationalism', to spite India on the earlier occasion.

The anti-Nasheed protestors at the time even linked the independent Indian initiative to regulate visa-on-arrival procedure for Maldivians, and also the enforcement of court-ordered ban on export of river and artificial sand for construction purposes, to the 'GMR fiasco'. If the visa issue has since been sorted out in favour of the Maldivian people, there is no great and visible improvement in the treatment of Indian/foreign labour, at the hands of their local employers and government officials.

Geographical advantage

There is no denying the geographical advantage that Maldives derives from proximity to India, which again cuts both ways. It's strategic space for India and a daily livelihood concern for Maldivians and their government, whoever is in power. Despite perceived cold vibes between the two nations under President Yameen, India alone had the capacity and consistency in policy, to rush instant help when Male faced an unprecedented and unimaginable drinking water crisis in December 2014.

Not only did India rise to the occasion, the nation also proved that independent of whoever was in power in Delhi, nation remains the same for Maldives and Maldivians - the friendly neighbour, ready to chip in, at times, even before asking. To that extent, the MDP's efforts and the AI's initiatives were/are aimed at provoking India to play a 'pro-active' leadership role for the international community to count on and follow upon viz President Yameen's Maldives.

Yet, they could also be seen as serving a silent notice on India: "If not, why not?". That is to say, 'Don't blame us if we end up looking to the West for playing a pro-active role, if you do not show up, measure up'. Only that there is no role outside of a political and diplomatic initiative that India - and/or the international community - could take, by 'encouraging' and 'facilitating', if at all, political negotiations between the various stake-holders in the country.

Whither China?

Even for argument sake, there is no way that 'sanctions' of any kind by any country could impact on Maldivian economy or the people, if China did not cooperate. Under President Yameen, China has emerged as an ally of sorts for Maldives, more than at any time in the past - though the relations had always remained. True, Maldives depends mostly on Indian exports even for daily essentials like food and medicines, but pressures of such a nature, if at all brought about by a big nation on small neighbours, have almost invariably been counter-productive. But there has also been some diversification of import-sources.

At the height of the combined and mostly confused, anti-GMR, anti-Nasheed street protests of the 'December 23 Movement', deliberate rumours were also spread (by all interested parties, and not just one) that India was sending troops to Maldives, or Indian Navy ships were already berthed not far away from Maldivian waters. None would had any clue - or, question - as to what the Indian mission was, if there was any, unlike during the 1988 coup-bid and post-tsunami humanitarian operations earlier, and post-crisis drinking water supply, as late as December 2014.

It can be even more counter-productive in the present context if, for instance, China were to supply those goods at what has come to be acknowledged as 'Chinese rates' (even if it were only for 'Chinese goods'). India's court-ordered sand-export ban witnessed Maldives beginning to bring it from Bangladesh and elsewhere, though after a lot of initial confusion and against a much higher cost.

That way, though not at all as high-spending as their western counterparts, Chinese tourists have for long replaced them as the number one tourist arrivals in the Indian Ocean archipelago. It was a long-term, strategic initiative that China had made, and mostly when India-friendly President Nasheed was in power. Though not at the centre of the current domestic crisis, where the solution lies only in domestic political negotiations, China possibly had identified Maldives' weakest economic link, and provided answers and alternatives, where none was though feasible and possible in the past.

(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter)

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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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