Maldives: Whither ‘international community’?


N Sathiya Moorthy, 1 September 2017

With politics in the country dead-locked, the questions in the lips and minds of every Maldivian are these: Where is the so-called ‘international community’? What is its intention? What is its capability in a given context? And have they ever matched their intention and capabilities, fair or unfair, to the given ground realities?, etc, etc, etc.”

It is not only the frustrated, four-party combined Opposition, more especially their jailed leaders and cadres in the country who are asking these questions. Even any keen observer of the Maldivian scene is bound to bounce them before any interlocutor from the ‘international community’ (read: West).

There are no answers. Rather, there were no answers to begin with, as the West, too, like their friends in the Opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) did not ask one another or the self the right questions, for them to have the right answers. It is only on the basis of which alone any ‘composite campaign’ against incumbent President Abdulla Yameen could have been mounted when they launched it in December 2014, barely a year after he had come to power, with full four more years left for fresh elections.

Truth be acknowledged even at this late hour, there was absolutely no provocation for the three-party combined Opposition to launch the protest, infamous for its coincidence with the worst-ever drinking water crisis in the capital city of Male. It also led to avoidable suspicions about the intentions and methods of the Opposition and open criticism about their misplaced ambitions and consequent priorities in public life.

Male houses a third of the archipelago-nation’s 350,000-plus population, and desalinated water was the only source of potable/drinking water, other than a limited quantity of imported drinking water bottles. As long-time friends and immediate neighbours, India and Sri Lanka rushed drinking water, to meet the immediate situation, caused by an unprecedented fire in the local desalination plant.

Precipitating crisis

Bangladesh and China, the latter ever-waiting on the wings to prove its worthiness as all new-found friends try to do, also rushed water-assistance as distance commanded. In the current international political discourse on Maldives (which seems to have become rare and distanced), the question is never being asked if things on the ground would have been different if the Opposition MDP and its former President Mohammed ‘Anni’ Nasheed precipitated the politico-constitutional crisis and also chose a wrong time for the purpose.

Nothing can explain or defend the current conduct of the Yameen Government’s and its inherent, institutionalised distaste for democratic norms, and the political Opposition and journalist critics, who have been at the receiving end, since. It had started with MDP’s Nasheed, against whom the ‘Judge Abdulla abduction case’ was reopened, converted into ‘terrorism-charge’ and he was jailed for 13 years in prison, denying him any chance to contest presidential polls for a long time to come.

The West has since forgotten how they were half-hearted in studying and understanding the evolving situation when it was still evolving. It took their MDP friends from an earlier era as gospel and also assumed that having tamed the last of the pre-democracy Presidents in Yameen’s half-brother, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, they could bring around anyone else in his place with greater ease.

In the process, they miscalculated the efficacy of President Yameen in getting what he wanted, and keeping what he had thus got. So much so, Yameen has also got rid of his electoral partners from 2013, namely, the Jumhooree Party (JP) of billionaire-politician Gasim Ibrahim and religion-centric Adhaalath Party (AP). He has since split the ruling party of which half-brother Gayoom was the chair, and has since put the latter’s son, Faaris, a future-day presidential aspirant, on trial for some alleged acts of crime and corruption. The list of ‘Yameen’s victims’ seems endless. Worse still, Maldivians too seem to have lost count – and possibly interest, too.

‘Constructive work’

It is anybody’s guess why the UK kept insisting on involvement in Maldivian domestic affairs ever since the one-time Protectorate (as against a ‘colony’, which neighbouring India and Sri Lanka used to be) forced peaceful Independence on them, a la the other two. If the UK was acting as a friend for the whole of Europe and other western powers with the US on the top, there is no knowing if it did take the Indian and Sri Lankan neighbours as much into confidence, as was required at the time.

If India’s Gandhiji showed them the way through ‘Satyagraha’ and ‘Ahimsa’, Maldivians under then Prime Minister Ibrahim Nasir improved upon it, by resorting to the Indian leader’s pro-active, participatory ‘constructive work programme’ and helped widen the run-way to Male Airport, which was the bone of contention at the time. Hence possibly, India from a political philosophy point of view and Sri Lanka as a neighbour with whom most Maldivian leaders of all hues are even more comfortable, may have made the democratisation process during the Gayoom era more balanced and mutually-beneficial for all stake-holders.

Going by the success recorded by the ‘Westminster House Accord’ on democratisation, signed at the British High Commissioner’s residence in Colombo when Gayoom was in power, the West glossed over the discrepancies and deficiencies that they had let creep into the 2008 Constitution. The anticipated election of Mohammed Nasheed as the first democratic President, to them, meant the end of the process. But Maldives and Maldivians were beginning with it, instead.

The international community’s interest and involvement in Maldives since has been in fits and starts, and as elsewhere, they felt comforted viewing the nation through the coloured glasses of their friend Nasheed and Nasheed alone. With the result, they failed to notice, or take note of the democratic incursions of his short-lived regime (2008-12), including the ‘Judge Abdulla case’, and the arrests of Yameen and JP’s Gasim, then in the Opposition.

Having failed to apply the correctives when needed the most, the international community has since taken to condemning the Yameen regime, and rightly so, but to no avail. Yameen has continually proved, at least until now, that he is equal to the challenge, unlike his half-brother Gayoom, who from the ‘old school’, still. When the West used the Commonwealth under the UK’s care used to push him to the wall on the human rights front (read: freedom for Nasheed), he simply quit the Commonwealth.

‘Economic slavery’

The two presidential successors of Nasheed, starting with his one-time Vice-President, Mohammed Waheed Hassan Manik, have since armed themselves with a new ‘foreign policy’ that Yameen inaugurated in January 2014, declaring ‘economic independence’ as the nation’s new goal to stall ‘international interference’. The veiled reference at the time, and the unmentioned goal of the new document was to try and reduce, if not cease, continued economic dependence on the Indian neighbour, post-GMR fiasco.

Even as India was seeking to provide economic muscle to the smaller economic neighbour through the much-fancied privatised FDI route, and thus the choice of the GMR investments in the Male international airport expansion project, the latter seemed to have read the brief wrong – even after being faced with implementation plans on the ground. The Yameen camp readily used it as a post facto justification to befriend the Chinese adversary of India, to balance off any ‘India-centric’ western interference in the nation’s internal affairs.

Economic Minister Mohammed Saeed made a veiled reference to the prevailing situation recently, when he said that ‘economic slavery’ was the biggest fear post-2013 but now the government has eliminated that fear. Without mincing words, he said that the Male-Hulhumale sea-bridge to the airport-island and the second runway, both funded by China, were among the ‘pillars that will defend the Independence of the country’.

Neither Yameen, nor his ministers have explained how getting eternally indebted to China would help in the ‘economic independence’ of Maldives. If the idea was for Maldives to have a dependable international ally ready to use the UN veto-vote without asking questions, facilitating Chinese funding has helped.

In this contemporary Maldives was watching intently at neighbouring Sri Lanka, where the West, with Indian acquiescence, got the UNHRC resolution on an ‘international probe’ into ‘war crimes’ charges, passed without having to take it to the UNSC. Both Maldives and China are alert to the possibilities since, but Maldivians should still be looking at Sri Lanka all the same, for lessons on how China got the uneconomical and unviable Hambantota project loans effortlessly converted into stakes and shares, without the Sri Lankan owner, or the strategically-targeted Indian neighbour, or the rest of the world knowing the logic and logistics behind it all!

In the given condition, there is no escaping the international community dealing with the Yameen leadership rather than seeking to lead against it. They have a lesson or two to learn from the Norwegian interlocutor in the case of war-torn Sri Lanka, where they took lessons from the earlier Indian experience and also kept India and Indians in the loop all the same. What the West provided the Nasheed leadership was defenders of his personal right, not facilitators and the negotiators of the kind that the UN subsidiaries did when Waheed was in power – and whose efforts and contributions none other than Nasheed torpedoed from within.

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