Maldives Other Side: Great Power Rivalry, Authoritarianism  

Mohamed Nasheed replaced Maumoon Abdul Gayoom in 2008 after the first multi-party elections ended the 30-year authoritarianism in the Maldives

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

Until 2011, I barely knew anything about the Maldives. All I knew was its capital is Male and the country’s longest-serving ruler Maumoon Abdul Gayoom faced a coup in November 1988 that prompted India to fly 1,600 paratroopers to tackle dozens of Opposition-backed mercenaries who descended on Male and attacked his palace.

A handful of guards engaged the assailants and allowed Gayoom to seek India’s help when the Maldives had no army or navy.

The Maldives, an Indian Ocean archipelago, had since come a long way when I landed in Male on a balmy December afternoon in 2011 as part of an Indian media delegation. Mohamed Nasheed was then the president having replaced Gayoom in 2008 after the country’s first multi-party elections ended the 30-year authoritarianism in the country. The polls followed Nasheed’s protracted struggle for democracy in the Maldives and incarceration, which earned him Amnesty International’s Prisoner of Conscience status.

Nasheed championed the fight against climate change and was in the news for presiding over an underwater Cabinet meeting to highlight the impact of rising seas on low-lying island nations. He was the man of the moment. Everybody in our delegation looked forward to hearing from and seeing him at the groundbreaking ceremony of the Male international airport.

Inaccessible top-ranking elected government officials surrounded by multiple layers of security and big entourages are a norm in our part of the world. Nasheed’s arrival at the venue of the ceremony almost like a common man left a lasting impression. Dressed in a finely-tailored suit, Nasheed walked around without any airs after addressing a gathering.

He appeared unassuming and mingled with the officials, journalists, and others who had gathered at the venue, where I also met his aide and then-foreign minister Ahmed Naseem.

Naseem and I stayed in touch after a long conversation at the ceremony. He helped me understand the nuances of Maldivian politics particularly when Nasheed was arrested in 2013 after his ouster from power as I regularly wrote on the Maldives for the Times of India.

Naseem was with Nasheed when the former president was arrested after evading arrest twice by taking refuge in Male’s Indian mission. Nasheed was accused of ‘illegally’ ordering a judge’s arrest during his rule in January 2012, which his supporters maintained was an excuse to oust him as the country’s first democratically-elected president.

The arrest came against the backdrop of protests against Nasheed’s successor, President Mohamed Waheed, in Parliament as his party faced a bill for its abolition as it did not have the required number of members – 10,000 – to continue as a political outfit.

Naseem gave me an interview for the Times of India’s edit page immediately after Nasheed’s arrest and a sense of the atmosphere in Male at that time. Naseem described how Nasheed was pushed and shoved on the streets even as he never attempted to resist his arrest.

Nasheed walked out of his house as over 70 armed policemen came to arrest him with their faces covered. There were more security men in camouflage uniforms. Naeem told me they were not shown the arrest warrant and they were unsure initially where he was taken to. Later, Nasheed’s lawyers were allowed to visit him in Dhoonidhoo jail on an isolated island.

It appeared to be back to square one for Nasheed and the Maldives. Nasheed’s imprisonment in the Dhoonidhoo jail was a throwback to the country’s authoritarian past when political opponents were tortured in the prison.

Naseem told me he spent five-and-a-half years there. When Nasheed was arrested before he became the president, he was allegedly given a crushed glass with food and almost died in the prison. Naseem again feared for Nasheed’s life in the absence of a robust legal system. ‘Help us before they murder him,’ he pleaded.

Nasheed left the Indian mission after reaching an understanding that he would not be arrested. The reversal of his fortunes came as a setback to India. New Delhi pinned hopes on Nasheed as it jockeyed for influence with China in the Maldives, which straddles the major sea lanes of the Indian Ocean. Some 97% of Indian trade by volume and 75% by value passes through this region.

The Indian government was already facing criticism for frittering away its advantage as Beijing was increasing its influence in the region. Many feared the Maldives could become another ‘pearl in China’s string of facilities around its periphery.’

China’s investment in the Maldives was seen to be significant even as it was not on its radar until recently. It became the first non-South Asian country to have a mission in the country of around 400,000 days before Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visited the Maldives in November 2010.

China’s trade with the Maldives was worth nearly $64 million in 2010, up 56% compared to the previous year. India’s trade declined with the Maldives from Rs 608.21 crore in 2008-09 to 395.57 crore in 2009-10.

China was also boosting the infrastructure of the country. A Chinese company was constructing 1,000 houses in the Maldives with the help of preferential loans from Beijing. China built the Maldivian foreign ministry and national museum buildings in Male in July 2010. Direct charter and commercial flights were also launched between China and the Maldives in 2010.

A year later, Wu Bangguo, the standing committee chairman of the National People’s Congress, became the first top Chinese official to visit the Maldives in May 2011.

In May 2010, Nasheed visited Beijing as part of a series of high-level exchanges and secured an aid of $8 million. Maldives Today, a current affairs portal, cited an unconfirmed report in November 2010, saying China secured a military base on the Maldivian Marao Island with the capacity to deploy nuclear submarines.

China reportedly coaxed Gayoom to let it establish the base with Pakistan’s help. Indonesian newspaper Jakarta Post quoted an unmanned official as saying that a Pakistani delegation visited the Maldives in February 2001 and pressurized Male to ‘facilitate Chinese plans for a naval base’ using ‘the Islamic card’ at China’s behest.

There was no independent confirmation of the base. But China’s port projects around India in Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka were seen as part of Beijing’s ‘policy to choke India.’ China was also reportedly constructing its first overseas military base in Seychelle.

Our trip to the Maldives coincided with a friendlier shift towards India after Nasheed took over as Maldives president in 2008. He chose India for his first overseas visit and allowed it to deploy coastal radars, and patrol its territorial waters and exclusive economic zone a year later.

An Indian company was also allowed to refurbish an airbase to host Indian reconnaissance and surveillance aircraft. The policy shift was also seen as part of a strategy that countries have adopted to benefit from competitive India-China assistance. Experts pointed out smaller states play the China card against India and the Maldives also benefited from the competition.

During Prime Minister Singh’s November 2010 visit, the first by an Indian head of the government in a decade, the two countries signed a framework agreement for cooperation. India extended assistance worth $140 million to the Maldives and backed Male’s candidature for the UNSC non-permanent seat (2019-20).

Indian private sector companies also pledged investments worth $ 1 billion amid growing concern about the impact of the competition between China and India for influence in the Maldives.

Maldives Today articulated the concerns when it noted on November 26, 2011, that the Indian influence in the Indian Ocean grew bigger when GMR took over Male international airport. It added many suspected it to be a part of a broader Indian policy to control the Indian Ocean.

Nasheed was seen as key to securing India’s interests in the region. India’s fears came true when his successor revoked GMR’s licence to develop the Male airport, which was seen as a part of New Delhi’s growing clout in the Maldives.

A Chinese company was given the airport contract even as India recognised Nasheed’s successor. The India-Maldives remained in the doldrums as Nasheed’s life and politics seesawed following his resignation in 2012.

Nasheed managed to have his disqualification overturned even as he lost the subsequent presidential election. He was ineligible for the 2018 election due to a prison sentence but bounced back to become the speaker of the country’s Parliament.

Nasheed, 53, had a close shave when an explosion in May 2021 left him critically wounded. He recovered after multiple surgeries to live to fight another day.

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide

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