N Sathiya Moorthy, 5 September 2017
By repeatedly reiterating that his recent India visit for a seminar organised by a think-tank funded by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) was a ‘signal’ about New Delhi’s current thinking on affairs of his native Indian Ocean archipelago-nation, former president and opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) may have shot all of the combined opposition once again at its feet. Yet, there is no denying the immediate positivity flowing from his statements, what with the government of President Abdulla Yameen renewing the call for all-party talks one more time, but possibly before the opposition had prepared itself for a reaction of whatever kind.
“You should be blind not to see the Indian signals,” Nasheed told a host of individual media interviewers while in Delhi. Be it as it may, he may have closed the possible option of New Delhi being acceptable to the Yameen camp for playing a behind-the-scene facilitator’s role for Maldivian talks without actually getting directly involved in any which way. Independent of Yameen’s own thinking, whatever it be, there will be pressure on him from within his camp, on the Indian signals that Nasheed has talked about.
If any Yameen reaction was expected to Nasheed’s renderings, it came in the form of a renewed invitation for all-party talks, extended publicly by Fisheries Minister Dr. Mohamed Shainee, heading the Government’s negotiations team. In a possible reference to Nasheed’s current status as an ‘absconding prisoner’, if that is the Maldivian legal term, after he acquired political asylum in the UK, where he went for spinal treatment while serving a prison-term, Shainee said that the government cannot consider the opposition’s past demands for freeing all jailed leaders as a pre-condition for talks.
Significantly, the government has added to the list of jailed leader, Jumhoree Party’s (JP) Gasim Ibrahim, who has since been sentenced to three-plus years in prison on the charge of bribing MPs to vote against Speaker Abdulla Maseeh on a no-trust motion, which however is yet to see the light of the day. Given his heart condition, the government has ordered ‘house arrest’ for Gasim, whom the family and party has repeatedly said required immediate medical treatment overseas, but to no avail.
Apart from Nasheed, who is overseas, Sheikh Imran Abdulla, leader of the religion-centric Adhaalath Party (AP), is serving a long prison-term on ‘terrorism charges’ for inciting opposition ranks to revolt against the government at a 2015 rally in capital Male. Yameen’s one-time Vice President, Ahmed Adheeb, is in prison. So is his one-time Defence Minister Col. Mohamed Nazim (retd), for allegedly trying to assassinate the president or overthrow him. Another incumbent Vice President, Dr. Mohammed Jameel Ahmed, quickly moved away to the UK, where he is living now, to escape arrest and harassment.
Invitation for Gayoom
Significantly, the government has also invited Yameen’s estranged half-brother, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, for the talks. The last time such invites went out, Gayoom was the founder and chairman of the ruling Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), which the courts have since handed over to Yameen. Minister Shainee said that the government acknowledged Gayoom for his experience and expertise as president for 30 years (before Nasheed replaced him, in the first multiparty democracy elections of 2008).
It is doubtful if the Yameen leadership has any real use for Gayoom’s experience and expertise, including the way he went ahead with the negotiations leading to the 2008 Constitution, and his own political downfall. If nothing else, Yameen was a senior ministerial aide of Gayoom and an active politician in his own right during those crucial days, and there isn’t much that he needs to learn from the other, unless he is open and ready for goal-based negotiations, and free and fair polls to the presidency, due by November 2018.
Ahead of Nasheed’s India visit, two Yameen aides also visited jailed Gasim in his hospital. Though details of the discussions, if any, are unknown, the chances of the Yameen leadership offering an olive branch to Gasim with his failing health cannot be ruled out. In the case of Gasim, as with Gayoom, the Government’s efforts seem to be to try and divide the opposition, whether nominally or otherwise. The aim seems to be to weaken the psychological advantage the four-party combined opposition now has, after the relatively better showing in the nation-wide, local council polls earlier this year.
‘India First’ still
Days after Nasheed’s Delhi visit, Maldivian Ambassador to India, Ahmed Mohammed, has been reported as saying that ‘India is the closest nation to the Maldives and that Maldives has an ‘India First’ policy, reiterating a forgotten observation of President Yameen. “The relations between Maldives and India will not be changed,” he was reported to have said adding, “India is the most important for Maldives even with regard to regional security.”
Denying that Maldives has some anti-Indian sentiments, Amb Mohammed said, “Maldives is always willing to work with any country that wants to work with Maldives.” What more, he said, “Maldives wants to get assistance from all countries that are willing to help in the development,” of the country. He also acknowledged that Maldives “is in need of help from all the countries for development, to develop human resources and to strengthen the institutions.”
In diplomatic terms, Amb. Mohammed was addressing India’s continuing concerns over China’s increasing presence in Maldives through developmental funding and its impact not only on bilateral relations, but also on the larger aspects of Indian Ocean security in the shared neighbourhood seas. Otherwise, too, he was possibly indicating Yameen’s qualified acceptance of a future role for the international community, starting with India, in ‘strengthening (democratic) institutions’, where (alone) China is a laugh at present.
Yet, for now, Yameen has once again played his call well in tactical terms, but not necessarily in strategic terms. By inviting his political opposition for talks all over again, he seems to be closing the door once again on any international initiative of the kind, sooner than later. If nothing else, the international community cannot afford to drag its feet for long, if they were serious about ensuring free and fair presidential polls a year from now.
Yet, unlike in the past, Yameen seems clear that he would not move a rung down to accommodate the MDP’s official demand for freeing Nasheed and allowing him to lead the party’s negotiations team. In any international initiative in this regard, his camp is bound to cite local court rulings and Nasheed’s violations of the same, to ask them if they would countenance such a course in their own nations, if it came to that.
Yameen also seems realistic enough to consider possible options for a relook at the current Constitution, drafted in a hurry, with the then opposition, of which again the MDP was a major player, kept incumbent President Gayoom in near-exclusive focus. In the interim presidency of Mohammed Waheed Hassan Manik, who succeeded Nasheed in February 2012, a consensus of sorts was emerging for a closer and independent relook at the Constitution, with the Indian ‘parliamentary scheme’ as an option.
For all practical purposes, Yameen has cut himself and hence his nation out of the West-dominated international community. Yet, he seems to continue acknowledging the inevitability of the larger, democratic Indian neighbour, whose China-centric security concerns, too, he seems to be accepting as a reality — independent of whatever he may or may not be doing in this department.
When the West thought it could pressure him into yielding, he simply walked out of the Commonwealth. In the UN and UN-related institutions like the UNHRC, Maldives is relying on China’s presence and unconditional support, like many other ‘small nations’ with an autocratic ruler of sorts. Hence, yielding to China on matters that interest China becomes an unmentioned condition precedent of sorts.
For India or any other nation or international organisation to break this nexus would require them to acknowledge the domestic compulsions of their rulers without actually getting involved one way or the other. Looking the other way is their instant prescription for such other nations, which India cannot be expected to do all the time. It does not always happen that way.
The last time Nasheed, for instance, faced criminal trial and possible conviction and sentencing, leading to his disqualification ahead of the 2013 presidential polls, India intervened, considering the substantial to massive vote-base that he and his MDP commanded. The ground situation does not seem to have changed since, but then, Yameen, as the incumbent president, does not want a repeat of the 2013 experience or anything close to that.
For now, the Yameen government is also seeking to strengthen its image as an ‘Islamic nation’ even while enforcing the Maldivian model of ‘moderate Islam’ nearer home. Even as it has punished a female school teacher for coming to work with a full head-cover, it has become the first nation to break trade ties with Myanmar over the Roghingya issue involving Bangladeshi Muslims. Earlier, toeing the conservative Saudi political line, Yameen also broke diplomatic ties first with Iran, and later Qatar, both Islamic nations otherwise.
(The writer is a Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter)