by Saurabh Dubey

An archipelago dotted with pristinely beautiful islands and lagoons, inhabited by very gentle and welcoming people is what comes to mind when ‘Maldives’ is the subject of discussion. Yet the country bestowed with idyllic beauty and generous people, has been occasionally afflicted with turmoil. Since its independence in 1965, Maldives has been under the dark clouds of dictatorship. But 2008 saw a much awaited positive yet till today a protracted battle to bring the archipelago under stable democratic rule.

Well Maldives, apart from being a tourist’s paradise has become an oceanic pivot as the archipelago is situated smack bang in the middle of the Indian Ocean, overlooking critical shipping routes through which essential energy supplies of the big three economies of Asia, namely; India, China and Japan pass. It’s one of a kind oceanic great game which has drawn both regional and global powers to the shores of this island nation. The navies of all major powers along with regional powers prowl this strategically important stretch of the Indian Ocean. In any geo-political great game the inescapable result has been that the country with strategic importance, especially when the said country isn’t a stable democracy (which is mostly the case) ends up becoming a mere pawn of the powers that wish to control its destiny. These pawns occasionally become expendable unless they are being sucked into a strategic tug of war between competing powers. Maldives fits this description hook, line and sinker.

It would sound hackneyed to harp upon the events that have unfolded in the past fortnight in the island nation, but it’s worthwhile to delve deeper into the root cause of this problem. The problem is in part indigenous and part imported. Indigenously speaking despots like Yameen are a byproduct of a bygone dictatorial era. Hence, the irresistible itch to clamp down on democratic institutions, curtail universal values on human rights, muzzle media freedom and show flagrant disregard for international opinion rebuking them to undo their debacle that has jolted the Maldivian democracy. To add to the chaotic cocktail even the Police and Army have sworn allegiance to a despot, who have helped to suppress the protests and physically roughed up even the judges of the Maldivian Supreme Court.

Now we come to the imported part of the problem. Saudi wahabism (about 70 per cent of Maldivian population follows the wahabi sect) and Chinese debt (70% of Maldives’ total external debt) represent the double whammy that has engulfed the picturesque archipelago. How did this debacle come to pass? Was our diffidence for a political intervention in the disputed Maldivian election results, back in February 2012 was also a part of the reason. The Indian government of that time sent the Foreign Secretary to Maldives after a coup d’état was engineered to overthrow the popular President Nasheed’s government. Nothing substantial came of that visit, no strict rebuke or vehement protest coupled with lack of intent to mediate if not meddle into the crisis. What was the then government’s dilemma...moral, diplomatic or strategic? Today Mr Nasheed is still in exile in the UK and the island nation is firmly in the odious orbit of China’s influence and perhaps on the verge of becoming a colony.., an economic colony of China and a wahabi colony of Saudi Arabia. When the masters arrive, can their obedient student be far behind? In this oceanic great game enters Pakistan, wherever an anti-India alliance can be stitched up, it happily obliges to be the needle that embroiders the sinister designs against its superior neighbor, even if in the bargain it ends up bleeding itself.

Maldives accounts for one of the highest numbers of foreign fighters in Syria in terms of per capita. In the midst of increasing radicalization, Pakistan’s ISI eyes the archipelago as another front to foment anti-India terror and exploit its geographic proximity to the Indian state of Kerala, which is also witnessing growing radicalization. With radicalized Pakistan on the western land border and with a rising specter of radicalized Maldives in its oceanic backyard, India should be concerned. 

In the days of dictatorial rule, selling the already scarce land in Maldives, to foreigners would have been seen as high treason punishable by death. What happened in July 2015, in the Maldivian parliament set alarm bells ringing not only in the island nation but in New Delhi too. President Yameen pushed his radical proposal to amend the constitution to allow foreigners to buy land, rather than just lease plots up to a maximum of 99 years. This ownership of land was allowed to foreign nationals who were willing to invest at least $1 billion. Now that was an invitation for Saudis and the Chinese to purchase atolls comprising of many islands.

This was followed by a diplomatic coup designed by the Saudis. The Maldives ended its 40-year-old diplomatic ties with Iran in 2016. Maldives which is also a member of the Saudi-led coalition against terrorism had cited Tehran's policies in the Middle East as reason for severing diplomatic ties. Maldives also withdrew from the Commonwealth in October 2016, in what was seen as another blow to the Maldivian democracy. If joining the ‘Maritime Silk Road’ of China wasn’t enough, last November the Yameen government pushed through its FTA with China in the Majlis (Maldives Parliament) despite much opposition. With mounting Chinese debt over Maldives the FTA is more like an economic noose around its neck. Wherever the influence of the above three countries has eclipsed any nation, that nation has had to face many crises. Now compare how India has come to the aid of the Maldivian people in times of crises by not causing any in the first place. There’s a reason behind listing out the episodes of India’s timely intervention in situations of crises to make a larger point in the end.

Let’s briefly jog back our memory to November of 1988, when an SOS was sent from Maldives, India initiated the valiant ‘Operation Cactus’ to prevent a coup, with decisive and swift action of the Indian armed forces, the day was saved for the then Maldivian President Abdul Gayoom. The world admired India’s response and restraint shown in such a delicate situation, US President Ronald Regan appreciated India’s prompt action. Even the British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, was reported to have commented: “Thank God for India; President Gayoom’s government has been saved.” On December 26, 2004 Maldives was struck by a deadly tsunami, which had wreaked havoc in many Asian countries. The Indian Navy swung into action to swiftly deliver aid relief to Male, despite the fact that the India’s eastern coast too was pummeled by the tsunami. Fast forward to December 2015, Maldives faced a severe water crisis as a massive fire had brought the capital’s largest water treatment plant to a grinding halt. Residents of the capital city of Male were left without potable drinking water and panic had spread. Again it was India as the first responder that came to the rescue, Indian Air Force particularly, swiftly delivered five plane loads of drinking water to Male and another crisis was averted. 

Maldivian people appreciate India’s friendly intention and timely intervention in times of crises, but this time the Maldivian people themselves have to set their house in order. This November will see elections and Maldivians will have to ensure that it is conducted in a free and fair manner. Every single one of the 1,192 islands of the Maldivian archipelago belongs to the Maldivians and not to the Chinese or the Saudis. For the Maldivians it’s time to dispatch the despot and undo the damage caused by his destabilizing policies and ensure that the idyllic archipelago is not used as a pawn in the oceanic great game.

Saurabh Dubey is a keen observer of Geo-politics and a Research Analyst on the same subject. Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of IDN. IDN does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same