Diplomatic Enclave: Political challenge
Increasing Chinese influence in Maldives has been a cause of concern for India
The Indian Ocean island nation of Maldives is going through another spell of political instability as an opposition alliance moved an impeachment motion against the Speaker of the 85-member Parliament, Abdulla Maseeh Mohamed. The opposition’s attempt to impeach Abdulla Mohamed, a close ally of President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom, was seen as the beginning of an opposition challenge to Yameen himself. The impeachment motion was defeated amidst chaotic scenes when opposition members walked out once Maldivian soldiers forcibly removed 13 members from the House.
While the challenge to the Yameen government has been warded off for the present, the impeachment move has drawn international attention to the political scene in Maldives. As video clips of the scuffle in Parliament circulated on social media, the US urged the Maldives to “restore faith in democratic processes”. Former President Mohamed Nasheed, who had spearheaded the impeachment move from Colombo, claimed that the resolution had exposed the government’s shaky majority. The move came after Nasheed had formed a coalition with one-time rival, former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, Jumhoree Party leader Gasim Ibrahim and Adhaalath Party leader Sheikh Imran Abdulla. The coalition intends to keep up the pressure on the government till the next elections are held in 2018.
The Maldives government had received another blow in March when the high-profile visit of Saudi King Salman to the Maldives was put off indefinitely. The Saudi King was to visit the Maldives as part of his month-long tour to several Asian countries, but cancelled his Maldives visit reportedly due to an outbreak of swine flue in the islands. There was widespread speculation that the cancellation was due to the public protests against a controversial plan to sell an atoll to the Saudis.
Yameen had announced in January that Saudi Arabian leaders were planning to invest $10 billion in the Faafu group of islands. The sale proposal had sparked off strong protests over the lack of transparency in the deal. It was to have been the first sale of an island in Maldives where the normal practice is to lease land on long-term contracts for investors to build the luxury island resorts that Maldives is famous for. Saudi King Salman had visited Faafu atoll in 2014 while he was the crown prince; a year later his son, deputy crown prince Mohammed bin Salman had paid a second visit.
There were reports that the Saudis would develop the atoll into a world class city with all modern facilities. The government denied any plans to sell the atoll and the Saudi embassy also denied plans to buy an island but the sale rumours have persisted. Islanders in Faafu atoll and opposition parties have continued to protest.
In 2015 the Yameen government had passed a controversial constitutional amendment that allowed foreigners to purchase land in the Maldives. The amendment had upset India as it was believed to be aimed at drawing large scale Chinese investments into the islands. No plans to sell islands to China emerged thereafter till the Saudi proposal came up.
China has invested in large projects in the Maldives, including the building of a new runway and constructing a mile-long bridge to connect the airport to Male, the capital. The Maldives government had cancelled the contract with an Indian company for the upgradation of the international airport and awarded it to a Chinese enterprise. Maldives has also indicated willingness to be part of China’s “one belt, one road” initiative. The increasing Chinese influence in the Maldives became a cause of concern for New Delhi. In the past few years, China has increased its engagement in the South Asian and Indian Ocean region countries. It is a major investor in Sri Lanka, building airports, railways, roads and the new Colombo port expansion project. It has been building closer economic and defence ties with Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Maldives.
In a bid to balance foreign investment, the Maldives government turned to Saudi Arabia for investment and cooperation as Yameen visited Riyadh. The proposed Saudi investment was heralded as an investment that would create jobs in the islands, but it roused suspicion of loss of sovereignty among the people.
The Yameen government is wary of the Nasheed-Gayoom alliance. Gayoom separated from his half brother Yameen’s ruling Progressive Party of Maldives that he had created to join the alliance. Gayoom’s three decades rule had ended following the Nasheed-led campaign for democratic rights.
Nasheed had a short-lived term as president as he was ousted from office in controversial circustances. He was sentenced to 13 years imprisonment in 2015 for arresting a senior judge, but was allowed to go to the UK for medical treatment, where he sought asylum.
The opposition alliance and Nasheed’s presence in Sri Lanka would indicate that the political challenge to President Yameen will not die down easily.
Shubha Singh