The political battle between sitting president Yameen Abdul Gayooom Mohammed and former Mohammed Nasheed seems to be reaching a climax. And it will impact both China and India.
February 1, 2018, would go down as a red letter day in the political history of the idyllic islands of Maldives. On this day, the Maldivian Supreme Court ordered the release of nine individuals, which the court dubbed political prisoners.
The court also ordered authorities to restore the seats of 12 legislators who had been sacked for defecting from ruling President Yameen Abdul Gayoom’s party, adjudging that the cases were politically motivated.
Maldives, a strategically located South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) member country in the Indian Ocean, has been prone to political crises. But the intensity and frequency of these political crises have been on an uptick since February 2012 when Mohammed Nasheed, the country’s first democratically-elected president, had to resign in a huff and took refuge in the Indian embassy in the capital Male for several days seeking Indian intervention which never materialized. Nasheed said he had been forced to resign and called it a coup.
Yameen was this political drama’s other protagonist when he seized power in 2013 after a controversial election. Nasheed won the most votes in the first round in that election but the Supreme Court annulled it despite the positive assessment of international election observers, putting Yameen at the helm of affairs.
Shortly thereafter, President Yameen got Nasheed arrested on charges of corruption and sedition and got him sentenced for thirteen years and disqualified for contesting any elections. After months of his incarceration, Nasheed managed to be freed on medical bail for treatment in London, a concession that India was able to extract for Nasheed from the Yameen administration. Nasheed has of late shifted base to Sri Lanka. Since then, the Nasheed-Yameen tug of war has been going on virtually on a daily basis.
The current crisis
Following the Supreme Court ruling earlier this month, the Maldivian media was abuzz with reports that the court was soon going to order impeachment of President Yameen, a clear case of the apex court overreaching itself as the only Maldivian institution that has the power to impeach the President is People’s Majlis or Parliament.
This, in turn, led to President Yameen fielding his Attorney General Mohammed Anil in warning the Supreme Court against any such move. “Any Supreme Court order to arrest the president would be unconstitutional and illegal. So I have asked the police and the army not to implement any unconstitutional order,” Anil went on record as saying.
Yameen’s next move was to send military to barricade parliament. It was a clever move as Yameen didn’t want a band of opposition MPs to get inside parliament, quickly hold a brief session of parliament and impeach the President.
Simultaneously, the Yameen government ordered a crackdown on the Supreme Court. By now, both democratic institutions, the parliament and the Supreme Court, were effectively shut down.
This was followed by President Yameen coming up with an unprecedented measure: imposition of a state of emergency on February 5 for a period of fifteen days. This triggered immediate censure of the Yameen government internationally – by the US, European Union, United Nations and India. However, powers like China, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan kept quiet.
Yameen restores SC after arresting top judges
The Yameen government's next crackdown was equally controversial as he got arrested the two SC judges, chief justice Abdulla Saeed and Justice Ali Hameed, for allegedly receiving hefty bribes in lieu of their February 1 order. Soon thereafter, he restored the apex court after getting rid of the two top judges.
On February 6, three Maldives Supreme Court judges annulled their own order to free a group of imprisoned opposition politicians after two of the court’s justices were arrested. Yameen described original court ruling a coup and a plot and remarked thus on national television after the February 1 SC order was annulled by the Supreme Court: “This is not a state of war, epidemic or natural disaster. This is something more dangerous...This is an obstruction of the very ability of the state to function.”
Operation Cactus 2.0 in sight?
After the imposition of emergency, a furious India kept its defence forces on a standby even as former President Nasheed urged for an Indian military intervention.
Many Maldivians as well as Maldives-watchers abroad started wondering if India were going to intervene militarily in Maldives almost three decades after the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had sent 1600 soldiers to Maldives on 3 November, 1988 under Operation Cactus to rid Maldives from the clutches of a ragtag coalition of mercenaries and terrorists who had run over Maldives.
However, the situation today is starkly different from November 1988 when the then President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom had requested Rajiv Gandhi to send military help quickly. This time, Maldives has not been seized by terrorists. It’s only the actions of the Yameen administration like throttling of democracy and free expression which are the major bones of contention.
This is too weak an argument for India to intervene militarily in Maldives. India has already burnt its fingers badly by sending military troops in Sri Lanka almost three decades ago to broker peace between Sri Lankan government troops and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) got sucked into the political whirlpool and ended up fighting the LTTE on behalf of Sri Lankan government – something that ended with disastrous results for India. Since then, India has carefully steered clear of sending troops anywhere in the world, except for UN-mandated peace missions. This policy is likely to continue, thus throwing out of the window the possibility of India sending its soldiers to Maldives.
The annulment of the original SC order, however, doesn’t pertain to the 12 MPs who are now free.
It’s another clever move by Yameen as he will shortly take another measure to expose the Opposition's claim of majority in parliament. It’s quite likely that he will reopen parliament sometime next week with his statutory state of the union address.
The Opposition had claimed having 43 members in the house of 85, thus pipping past the ruling party (42 MPs) by one. But the effective strength of the Opposition currently is 39 only. MP Qasim Ibrahim is in Germany, Ilham Ahmed and Sinan Ahmed are in hiding and police are looking for them, while the fourth Opposition MP Faris Maumoon is in custody. This means there is no immediate danger for Yameen who in due course will take a call when to hold Presidential elections in Maldives due this August.
China factor exacerbates Maldives’ strategic importance
Maldives is far more strategically important than parameters like area and population would indicate. With a little over four lakh population and an area of 298 sq kms, it’s the smallest Asian state. Yet, it’s location in Indian Ocean makes it of high strategic importance.
The China factor has further exacerbated Maldives’ strategic importance for India and the world. President Yameen has forged closer ties with China, yet another SAARC state to witness growing Chinese influence. Former President Nasheed has accused China of land grabbing in Maldives. The increased Chinese influence in Maldives in a way may well present Maldives with its own Sri Lanka moment. China proved to be a major election plank in the Sri Lankan presidential election in late 2014 that routed the formidable Mahinda Rajapaksa, a blatant China-supporter during his presidency and catapulted to power Maithripala Sirisena, an underdog who eventually won the election with anti-China rhetoric.
China will definitely be the biggest X factor in the Maldivian presidential elections in a few months. Yameen has thus far managed to steady his rocked boat but it remains to be seen if he would be able to weather the China storm in upcoming presidential elections.Rajeev Sharma is a strategic analyst who tweets @Kishkindha