Maldives: India has let down its friends

President Yameen. AP/PTI file photo.

For weeks now, President Yameen has been sending some tough messages to Delhi. Firstly, his government refused to extend the visas of our helicopter pilots based in Gaan island of Addu atoll. Secondly, he asked the Government of India to remove the helicopters by the end of June. Then the final blow — all Indians working in the Maldives have been told to get out, with clear instructions that their work permits will not be extended. All private employers, resort/hotel owners have been told not to employ Indians since no work permits will be issued to them.

India, in return, denied visa to one ruling party MP Ahmed Nihan Hussain Maniku, who landed in Chennai in the first week of June on the expectation of getting a routine visa on arrival, as is the normal practice between the two neighbours. So, is it just tit-for-tat? No, the bad blood goes back to much earlier and is far more fundamental in the nature we govern ourselves. And that’s where the itch is.

The downturn in our ties began almost three years ago, in 2015, when President Yameen started treating his opposition leaders as criminals and putting them behind bars with the help of an extremely malleable judiciary. But the worsening of our relations truly began after the events of February 1, 2018, when the Supreme Court ordered the release of all political prisoners, including former president and leader of the main opposition party, the Maldivian Democratic Party, Mohamed Nasheed; Jumhoree party leader Gasim Ibrahim, Adalath Party leader Sheikh Imran Abdulla and six other MPs, stating that their trials violated the Maldives constitution and international law.

Subsequently, he got several MPs jailed when they tried to attend Parliament to discuss a no-confidence motion against him. But the cruellest cut of all was the imprisonment of former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, an 80-year-old patriarch who was head of the united opposition group, and the arrest of chief justice of the Maldives’ Supreme Court, who declared that the imprisonment of Nasheed and nine other MPs illegal.

While President Yameen was crushing the opposition parties, parliament and supreme court, the Government of India did precious little, despite repeated calls by leaders of the Maldivian Democratic Party for India to intervene on the side of democracy.

Instead, Delhi reportedly assured Beijing that it would not intervene in the affairs of Maldives and expected similar ‘strategic trust’ that the latter would ‘not cross the lines of legitimacy’. If this is true, then it’s a strange way of exercising foreign policy in our own backyard.

It is not clear as to who gave such an assurance and what were the terms of that assurance. Did we assure China that we would not interfere as long as Yameen is giving away military bases to China? Or, did we also say that we would not intervene even if he throws out all the Indians working in that country? At what point was this assurance going to be ‘time-barred’ or un-bankable?

When China is invited by the duly elected government of the Maldives to set-up military bases in its northern atolls, it is certainly not crossing any lines of legitimacy. And, who decides the ‘lines of legitimacy’ — obviously the host country and not us.

Yameen is merely consolidating his country’s strategic partnership with China and is asking us to remove the two helicopters from the strategic Gaan island in the southernmost Addu atoll. Do we quietly accept his decision because of our assurance to China? Is this in line with our newly emergent status as an Indo-Pacific power?

If we cannot protect our interests in the Indian Ocean, then there is hardly any chance of asserting ourselves in the Pacific Ocean. Meanwhile, the President of Seychelles has told us to forget the development of one of their islands for our naval use. Thus, our control over the Indian Ocean is becoming tenuous.

As for the Maldives, the simple fact is that Yameen, fully encouraged by his Chinese friends, is testing the limits of our power. The question is, when will Delhi say “enough is enough” and start tightening the screws on this corrupt and ruthless dictator? He has imprisoned practically everyone who opposes him and has been assiduously working against India’s interest from the day he came to power.

As a first step, Yameen should be told that all the Maldivians living in Thiruvananthapuram, Chennai and Bengaluru could be deported in retaliation for any Indian who loses his work permit. By all accounts, there are far more Maldivians living in southern India, either for educating their children or for medical treatment of their family and friends in various hospitals here. Visa is always a reciprocal arrangement. You throw out our citizens, we will do the same to you. And this move may still not violate our assurances to China, in case we are afraid of that!

Secondly, it’s time we went beyond platitudes and lip sympathy for the cause of democracy in the Maldives. Yameen’s tyranny has exceeded all limits of tolerance. The two former presidents Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and Mohamed Nasheed always considered a democratic India as the best bet in their fight against the dictator. But we have repeatedly let our friends down. It’s time we stood by something worthwhile, because any talk of ‘muscular foreign policy’ has become a bit trite now.

(The writer was a diplomat in the Maldives)

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