MonitorsPublished on Mar 07, 2019
South Asia Weekly Report | Volume XII; Issue 9


Maldives: Understanding politico-religious ‘conservatism’

N Sathiya Moorthy Even as the Government of President Ibrahim ‘Ibu’ Solih is seeking to re-build relations with the northern Indian neighbour, brick by brick, after predecessor Abdulla Yameen had single-handedly demolished them, peripheral efforts are still on to revive India-baiting an occasional past-time to be re-visited and refuelled. Heading it just now from the periphery is Yameen’s estranged former Home Minister Umar Naseer, with his own presidential ambitions, yes, but there is no knowing if the former would hijack it all over again at the politically appropriate time, as he had done at the height of the ‘GMR controversy’ in the first two years of this decade. At the centre of one such controversy was a recent social media rumour that GMR was back in the country and that the Solih Government had opened negotiations with them. Learning from the past under then President Mohammed Nasheed’s shortened term (2008-12), his MDP successor’s Government issued an immediate statement, declaring that they were not in touch with the GMR. Maybe once bitten twice shy but then Economic Affairs Minister Fayyaz Ismail also recalled the troubles that the predecessor Waheed and Yameen administrations had put the nation through, in this regard. On the positive side, President Solih led a Governmental team in an inaugural Friendship Cricket Series with a visiting Air India team, which included ex-national Yuvraj Singh. In the past, friendly matches of the kind with overseas teams and even within the nation’s bickering political class used to be confined to football. Almost every Maldivian would give his left hand for watching an international player play football, and to him, cricket was a new experience, so to say.

No-trust motion

If the GMR issue did not raise temperatures nearer home this time, a persistent effort is being made to put Defence Minister Mariya Didi in the dock. Once the Chairperson of the ruling MDP, Mariya Didi, who did her under-graduate studies in Bengaluru, India, is the first woman Defence Minister of Maldives, taking off from Duniya Maumoon, who was the first woman Foreign Minister when Yameen was in power. The Opposition has pounced on Mariya Didi for a comment made by her in a media to an Indian TV news network. Responding to the interviewer, the minister referred to India’s military prowess and said India had no intention of getting militarily involved in Maldives. She acknowledged (the truth) that India had the military prowess to do so. However, the political Opposition, starting with Yameen’s PPM-PNC combine, along with sections of Parliament Speaker Gasim Ibrahim’s JP, had since demanded Minister Mariya’s resignation. They have since moved a no-confidence motion against Minister Mariya in Parliament. This is the first time any ministerial colleague of Solih has been hauled up before Parliament, to answer queries. The Opposition’s aim may be to embarrass and also try and weaken the Solih leadership, but their choice of the issue and of the person targeted have caused eyebrows to rise. The MDP’s inability/unwillingness to carry the presidential poll allies from September to the parliamentary elections of April has re-polarised the parliamentary majority in a way. Unlike the impeachment of the President and Vice-President, which requires two-thirds vote, a no-confidence motions against a minister requires only a simple majority. In recent days/weeks, the ruling MDP has failed to get the House pass their high-priority President’s Commission Bill, to probe the Yameen era wrong-doings, thrice in as many weeks or less.

For another day

The idea seems to be feeding the conservative constituency and keeping it alive, for another day. As may be recalled, the fall of the Nasheed Government was presaged by the GMR-centric anti-India campaign. It was clothed in ‘Islam’, ‘nationalism’ and ‘Islamic nationalism’, carrying the very limited India-baiter groups (often individuals) alongside a substantial religious conservative constituency. The anti-Nasheed ‘December 23 Movement’ combined both. However, once Nasheed quit office on 7 February 2012, the political Opposition, under Yameen openly declared that they were taking over from there. If anything, Yameen asserted that there was no role now for the religious NGOs, who had been allowed to spearhead the anti-Nasheed protests until then. Today, when Yameen is in prison, facing corruption probe and other court cases, the temptation for his party and leadership is to seek and divert the public attention, if they could help it. Their immediate target would be the 6 April parliamentary elections, but they may not stop there. Again, if domestic politics would suffice to sub-serve their purpose, fine. If not, they may not mind flagging the anti-India card, if required, to attempt a repeat of their 2012 success. The failure of the GMR-centred controversy to capture the nation’s imagination could not have come at a better time for Solih supporters. But then, in attempting to have Minister Mariya Didi voted out by Parliament, the emerging ‘joint opposition’ involving the Yameen and Gasim camps, are seeking to demoralise the Solih-Nasheed leadership of the MDP and of the nation. If India had to take a hit or two, they might not mind – unless good sense prevails especially in the Gasim camp.

Conservative constituency

If Yameen and Gasim are playing hide and seek between them, and also against the Solih-Nasheed combo for their own political reasons and electoral ends, the likes of Umar Naseer are waiting on the wings already with future elections in mind – or, so it seems. Ex-Minister Naseer was believed to have played his political ambitions all along only with the 2023 presidential polls in mind. For him, even the 2008 presidential polls, where he got a lowly 1.5 percent vote-share, was a trial-balloon, an advance announcement. Umar Naseer has always targeted the conservative constituency in the kind, which also includes the religious conservatives. They were with former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom earlier, and are supposedly now with his half-brother Yameen. Naseer, it would seem, is hoping for Yameen to fail as a political leader after losing the presidency, and wants to garner that constituency, for starters. It is with this possibly in mind that Umar Naseer has also been targeting India. Lately, he has been tweeting and/or putting out Face Book messages about wanting the ‘Indian military’ in Maldives out, and also about India allegedly wanting to have the archipelago-nation merged in itself. Some imagination this, but a conservative constituency that could turn anti-Establishment for other incumbency-centric issues, if at all, could well be projected as being supportive of Naseer’s anti-India campaign, as well. The more recent of Naseer’s campaign also includes his volunteering to lead a force to have the ‘Indian military’ out of Maldives. To him, the presence of two India-donated helicopters and also the satellite-linked sea-surveillance are all part of an Indian strategy to keep Maldives under its thumb, politically and otherwise. As an ex-colonel in the Maldives Police Service (MPS) with specialised training in Scotland Yard, Naseer should have known better. If nothing else, the Yameen administration, even while wanting the Indian helicopters and technical crew withdrawn, did not push the matter beyond a point. If anything, his Government even had the India-donated Coast Guard vessels refurbished in Vishakapatnam, at the height of bilateral strains last year.

Prime mover

Maldives is a ‘moderate Islamic’ nation, which has not escaped the post-9/11 global trend of greater religious conservatism, attributed mostly to external factors. The greater western interest and initiative in ‘imposing’ modern democracy in Maldives since the turn of the century too has not helped matters in a country that was a sultanate for thousand centuries. The MDP as the prime-mover and defender of ‘modern, western democracy’ in the country has not looked at the need for adjusting it to address unique Maldivian needs and characteristics. Confusing ‘Maldivian conservatism’ entirely with Islamic nationalism too can produce only wrong conclusions. The Saudi influence has been in the pre-democracy era, too, but it got more pronounced in Yameen’s time. The perceived failure of western democracy in the eyes of a section of the Maldivian youth of the past decade and more has also been a contributing factor for some taking to religious extremism and fighting for the Taliban, against the US-NATO in the Af-Pak border first and with the ISIS in Syria more recently. Larger migration to urban centres, especially capital Male, from once-remote islands and atolls, for education and healthcare has changed the social composition in those places. Yet, in South Asia, Maldives also has the highest number of divorces, unheard of in traditional Islamic communities and countries.

Divorce and drugs

This has meant that there are more “orphaned children” of sorts fighting for living space in cramped capital Male, for instance. They are forced to live, join and form ‘gangs’ on the streets, and are given to drugs in a big way. Religion helps to mainstream them, but in the process a few of them too take to fundamentalism, extremism and militancy of the ‘international political jihad’ kind. In such cases at least, the solution to the problem of tackling religious extremism may lie elsewhere. Reports that at least six ‘IS widows’ from Maldives want to return home with their infant children in recent weeks is a positive development. The message that they may carry to their people on return would be stronger than any western propaganda. Hyped up anti-IS campaign from outside just now has the potential to be misunderstood as continuing international interference in Maldivian political affairs, societal life and social lifestyle. Even otherwise, there is need for moderation in the understanding of Maldivian orthodoxy and religious fundamentalism. Under Gayoom, the first voice of ‘democratic’ (?) dissent was raised by religious leaders -- modern democrats took off from there, in due course. In a succession of pro-democracy rallies and protests, young Maldivian men with flowing beards and women in Islamic head-gears, including the once-unconventional full-face covers, were seen in large numbers, drawing a distinct line between religious practices and political preferences and priorities. The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Chennai

Myanmar: Amendment of Constitution or battle for justice?

Sreeparna Banerjee Since past few weeks a lot of commotion has been taking place due to NLD’s decision to amend the constitution. Though the concept of constitutional change in Myanmar itself is far from new but understanding the context as well as impact due to its re-emergence is essential. It leaves no doubt that the third constitution framed in 2008 by the then junta ruling party remained extremely non-democratic in nature. It gave unlimited power to the army, less to the federal government and completely no right to the ethnic minorities.

Joint Committee

Visibly a difficult task, but the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) proposed and formed a 45 member joint committee on constitutional amendment on 19 February amidst strong objection from the military and its proxy the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). The measure was approved by a vote of 389-192 and thus established a committee comprising 18 lawmakers from the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party, eight military MPs, two legislators each from the opposition Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), Arakan National Party (ANP), and Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD), and 13 other lawmakers. Khin Maung Win, a lower house MP from the NLD, has been appointed committee chairman, and brigadier general-level military lawmakers and legislators from other political parties will be members. The said committee is supposed to submit its report on the proposed amendments to Parliament by 17 July. The new parliamentary joint committee tasked with amending Myanmar’s constitution is committed not take short cut but review the constitution chapter by chapter. It is supposed to review the 48 basic principles of the first chapter of the charter, including the powerful military’s role in politics, amid ongoing objections by legislators from the armed forces. But the question remains why now after three years when it should have been in 2016 itself. Since coming into power, the NLD has been careful in its dealings with the military. The government mostly has remained silent during military atrocities on ethnic minorities. This has painted a rather dark picture of the nation in the world forum. But the turn-around came once the party lost in the by-elections held towards the end of 2018.  Thus the party is now geared up to address the issues they had advocated while they came into power, one of them being the amendment of the constitution. 2019 constitutes an important year to do exactly that, because Myanmar’s next election is expected sometime in 2020. But will that really help in bringing the NLD to power again is a farfetched question at this moment.

People’s support

Hundreds of people marched in Yangon on 27 February to express their support for the move to amend the 2008 Constitution by the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD). About 1000 people, including political activists and civil society groups, joined the event, which culminated at Maha Bandula Park in front of city hall. A signature campaign was also launched for people who support the parliament committee that will propose amendments to the charter. Though the people of Myanmar are in full swing to put the controversial constitution to task but one must keep in mind that the constitution needs to be amended in the lines of democratic principles which will reinforce in bringing about equality, liberty, autonomy and rule of law for all citizens. Or else the much needed cause for amending it will be lost.

Possible impact

The real controversy may begin once the amendment details are decided. Some of these changes may be on political endeavour. The appointments and power-sharing arrangement between states and federal government may be taken up. This may be a lesser issue of contention. On the other hand, issues regarding the unlimited power and control of the military on legislative matters of the government as well as state counsellor’s eligibility over presidency candidacy may be more controversial topics. The formation of the committee though remains a welcome step, it must also be kept in mind that a simple majority in parliament may decide the formation of a committee to look over and propose amendments on constitution. But for the entire constitutional changes to actually go through it stages and become a bill and later law would still require more than 75 percent vote. This will be a real challenge since the military has 25 percent seats. Thus, military still retains its power as the ultimate decision maker. The military officials have also been extremely vocal regarding their dissatisfaction with the current amendment issue. Lastly, it is important to understand that the constitutional change may also bring about intensive civil-military tensions in Myanmar which the nation can ill afford at this moment. Thus, though this amendment remains an extremely required and important endeavour but the government needs to tread this path extremely carefully in order to avoid any future fiasco. Also the government needs to be well prepared to handle any adverse situation pertaining to the change in the power dynamics. The writer is a Research Assistant at the Observer Research Foundation

Country Reports


Peace in progress

The U.S. Special Envoy for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad has announced the three day interaction with the Taliban in Doha to have been ‘productive’. His consequent Twitter post states that small and steady steps will eventually lead to peace. The meeting is being followed by internal deliberations by both parties and there are plans to regroup in the immediate future. Meanwhile in Kabul a national team is being prepared to engage in intra-Afghan dialogue with the Taliban.

Operations galore

The Afghan Ministry of Defence has recently announced that four joint offensive operations, 69 Special Operations and 18 airstrikes have been carried out by the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces in the of 24 hours across the country. The Afghan Air Force has also assisted the ground forces and accordingly participated in 94 other missions. As a result 8 militants have been killed; while 13 have been others wounded. Vehicles and explosives have also been seized.


‘No’ to new refugees

Foreign Secretary Shahidul Haque informed that Bangladesh has to stop accepting refugees from Myanmar. He observed that the government of Myanmar is being "obstructionist" about taking back more than 1 million Rohingya Muslims who have fled to Bangladesh to escape violence. Shahidul Haque made these observations at the U.N. Security Council this week. Around 700,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh since August 2017 after Rohingya militants attacked Myanmar security forces in Rakhine and triggered a massive military retaliation. Rohingyas are from Myanmar’s Rakhine state bordering Bangladesh.

Hijack crisis

The country experienced a hijack crisis after a Dubai bound flight from Dhaka, made an emergency landing the port city of Chittagong after a man attempted to hijack the plane.  The crisis ended after the security forces killed the man who attempted the hijack. Following the incident, the government ordered increasing security at the country’s airports.


Education scam?

A Japanese language school accepted on tape, that it had paid millions of Japanese yen as commission to SND agency for getting Bhutanese students enrolled in their school. SND is a Japanese partner agency of Bhutan Employment Overseas (BEO) that has sent job-seekers to Japan under the ‘Earn and Learn’ scheme. At least, 140,000 Japanese yen was paid as commission to the agency for each Bhutanese student, the tapes recorded by the Japanese social worker, Yumiko Kan revealed.

Austria promises 8.3-m euros

Austria on 23 February committed 8.3 million euros to help Bhutan graduate from the least developed countries group by the end of the 12th Plan. An agreement between the two countries was reached during the Austrian minister for Europe, Integration and Foreign Affairs, Karin Kneissl’s two-day visit to Bhutan. The priority areas for cooperation so far have been energy, culture, tourism and governance.

Tourism promotion

The government will run a flagship programme on tourism to address the lacuna of promoting the country as a tourist destination. Lyonchhen Dr Lotay Tshering making this announcement called for ironing out the differences between dzongkhags and make Bhutan an all-year-round tourist destination.


Abhinandan saga

The continuing tensions in Pakistan relations following the 26 February Pulwama terror-attack escalated after PAF launched anticipated attacks on India, in ‘retaliation’ for the IAF striking ‘terror targets’ in PoW and across the IB, leading to Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman being arrested in Pakistani territory when his MiG fighter took a hit. The Pakistani Government and media gave wide publicity to the ‘capture’, leading to apprehensions in India and intervention by international players, including the US, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, having failed to obtain a favourable response from Indian counterpart Narendra Modi to revive political talks, made a ‘unilateral’ announcement to return Abhinandan to India, as a ‘goodwill gesture’. The nation celebrated and the region heaved a sigh of relief as Abhinandan crossed over at the Atari check-point, easing mounting tensions between the two nuclear powers that share a land-border.

Ordinance on Aadhar?

With the winter session of the Rajya Sabha having failed to pass the Aadhaar and Other Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2018, the government has decided to promulgate an ordinance before parliamentary polls, due by May. The ordinance will grant freedom for private companies in sectors such as banking and telecommunications to ask for an individual’s Aadhaar card for Know-Your-Customer (KYC) authentication purposes. However, the government has also mandated that the usage of this document is completely voluntary and must only be taken after the informed consent of the individual is given to the company.

ED search on ex-bankers

The former ICICI Chief Executive Chanda Kochhar and the founder and Managing Director Venugopal Dhoot had their homes raided by the Enforcement Directorate in connection with the case related to the loans given by the ICICI Bank to the Videocon Company during Kochhar’s tenure. Responding to an FIR filed by the CBI, the ED is investigating possible money laundering in connection with the loan case, for which the CBI received separate FIRs naming Chanda Kochhar, her husband Deepak Kochhar and Venugopal Dhoot as benefiting personally from the provision of these loans.


No-trust move

In the first of its kind against the incumbent Government of President Ibrahim ‘Ibu’ Solih, the Opposition PPM has moved a no-trust motion against Defence Minister Mariya Didi, and summoned her to face parliamentary enquiry. After the ruling MDP’s inability to patch up with the other three allies from the September presidential polls, ahead of the upcoming parliamentary elections, the Opposition has a numerical upper-hand in Parliament, and requires only a simple majority to get a confidence vote against a minister passed.


Security ties with Vietnam

Myanmar and Vietnam have signed a bilateral agreement on cooperation in crime-prevention and fighting transnational crimes. The agreement was signed between Myanmar Minister of Home Affairs Lt. Gen. Kyaw Swe and visiting Vietnamese Minister of Public Security General To Lam in Myanmar's capital of Nay Pyi Taw. This followed a discussion on bilateral cooperation in security, rule of law, fighting transnational crimes including drug and human trafficking, terrorism, and promotion of the capacity of police and investigation.

Aid from Japan, UN

Japan and eight United Nations agencies on 26 February signed a US $37-million (K 56.46 billion) agreement on humanitarian aid and development projects for Shan, Kachin and Rakhine states. The money will fund the delivery of life-saving assistance, protection, trust-building initiatives and early recovery support to people across the three states, according to a UN statement.   The agreements were signed by His Excellency Mr. Ichiro Maruyama, Ambassador of Japan to Myanmar and representatives of the participating UN Agencies.


Gyawali at UNHRC

The 40th session of the UN Human Rights Council was attended by Pradeep Kumar Gyawali, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nepal. This occasion was used as a platform to convey the peaceful process of democratization in the country. On the sideline of the conference, the Minister also held talks with countries like Costa Rica and other human rights based organizations in Europe.

Small farmers’ summit

The Small Framer’s Summit 2019 has started in Kathmandu revolving around the contributions and future prospects of the small scale farmers for the economic development of the country. This is primarily dealing with the agricultural productivity. Around 1000 participants have been engaged.


‘Peace until provoked’

The Pakistan Cabinet led by Prime Minister Imran Khan as reaffirmed the country’s commitment to peace and stability. Khan has made it clear that any form of external aggression threatening its territorial sovereignty will be repelled with equal force. He hopes that good sense will prevail in the Indian government and that there will be no threats of disruption towards the region’s peace and harmony.  On his part Khan has offered the ‘arch rival’ dialogue to ‘de-escalate the situation’.

Russian mediation

Russia has offered its services as a mediator to resolve the ongoing differences between India and Pakistan. Emphasising on the nuclear status of the two conflicting nations, Russia highlighted that any further clashes could be dangerous. The country’s offer comes as USA under Donald Trump is helping to ease the crisis and the Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan has promised to return the captured Indian pilot; Abhinandan Varthaman. Russia’s relations with Pakistan have warmed in the recent past.

Sri Lanka

Gota in the dock?

In his court statement on the ‘missing civilians’ from war-time against him, Navy chief, Adm Wasantha Karnangoda is reported to have mentioned that he had reported the details to then Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. The CID claims that the 11 missing persons were killed, and Karanagoda’s reported statement can lead to the police questioning him, even as the brother of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa is facing prosecution and/or investigation in a host of other criminal cases from his days in office.



Opinion Pieces

Fatima Faizi and David Zucchino, “700 Afghan Women Have a Message: Don’t Sell Us Out to the Taliban”, The New York Times, 28 February 2019 Mohammad Zahir Akbari, “President Ghani: Afghanistan is no more A Landlocked Country”, Daily Outlook Afghanistan, 26 February 2019


Afghanistan Times, “Collateral losses, damages”, 25 February 2019 Afghanistan Times, “Presidential polls vs Peace Process”, 23 February 2019


Opinion Pieces

Noah Smith, “Bangladesh versus India in the Development Race”, Bloomberg, 25 February 2019 Abdullah Shibli, “Why redefining the 'poverty line' is necessary”, The Daily Star, 26 February 2019 Dwitiya Jawher Neethi, “What is the true cost of labour?”, Dhaka Tribune, 26 February 2019



The Bhutanese, “Sharing the mineral wealth”, 23 February 2019 Kuensel, “A dilemma facing trained teachers”, 23 February 2019


Opinion Pieces

Ravish Kumar, “When Abuses Are Considered Proof Of Patriotism”, NDTV, 19 February 2019 Rahul Roy Chaudhary, “Only India and Pakistan Can Solve The Current Crisis”, International Institute for Strategic Studies, 27 February 2019 Shalini Bhutani, “Patent Protection: What Monsanto can Learn From Tesla”, The Wire, 24 May 2018 Rajeshwari Deshpande, “Existential Fears Dictate Shiv Sena's Fickle Politics”, The Wire, 27 February 2019


Opinion Pieces

N Sathiya Moorthy, “Maldives: Advantage MDP, possibilities still in Parliament polls”,, 26 February 2019


Opinion Pieces

Kyaw Phyo Tha “USDP Finds It’s Not Easy Shedding Its Reputation as ‘Party of Thieves’”, The Irrawaddy, 28 February 2019 Nyein Nyein, “Military Vows to Remain in Politics as Long as EAOs Exist”, The Irrawaddy, 26 February 2019 Kyaw Phyo Tha, “A Tale of 3 Myanmar Political Assassination Plots”, The Irrawaddy, 26 February 2019


Opinion Pieces

Anurag Devkota, “Exploitation in the hills”, The Kathmandu Post, 1 March 2019 Ushma Rebel, “We all need Nepal”, Republica, 28 February 2019


The Kathmandu Post, “The curtain rises”, 26 February 2019


Opinion Pieces

Sohaib R. Malik, “Of promises and delusions”, Dawn, 1 March 2019 Ahmed Saeed Minhas, “A responsible state: Pakistan’s post-Pulwama behaviour”, The Express Tribune, 1 March 2019


Dawn, “Time for diplomacy”, 1 March 2019 The Express Tribune, “Role of OIC”, 1 March 2019

Sri Lanka

Opinion Pieces

Kusal Perera, “Gota’s freedom to live no joke”, Daily Mirror Online, 1 March 2019 Azeem Izzadeen, “UNHRC: The right road ahead for Sri Lanka”, Daily Mirror Online, 1 March 2019 Neville Ladduwahetty, “Of President’s comments on CC and HRCSL”, The Island, 27 March 2019 N Sathiya Moorthy, “UNHRC Review: Importance of safeguarding Sri Lanka war heroes,  Ceylon Today, 26 February 2019 Jehan Perera, “What the prime minister needed to make it clearer during his visit to the north”, The Island, 25 February 2019 N Sathiya Moorthy, “The ‘stuff’ some MPs are made of?”, Colombo Gazette, 24 February 2019


Daily Mirror Online, “India-Pakistan tensions from a Sri Lankan perspective”, 1 March 2019


Afghanistan & Pakistan: Sohini Bose

Bangladesh: Joyeeta Bhattacharjee

Bhutan: Mihir Bhonsale

India: Ameya Kelkar

Maldives & Sri Lanka: N Sathiya Moorthy

Myanmar: Sreeparna Banerjee

Nepal: Sohini Nayak

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.