Many Maldivians have families, homes, businesses and jobs in neighbouring Sri Lanka, and they were closely watching the economic melt-down in that country, circa 2022. They are now unsure what all these new agreements with China mean for them, their economy and their nation
N Sathiyia Moorthy 13 January 2024
Even as l’affaire Lakshadweep continues to bother Maldives’ relations with India, President Mohamed Muizzu will be faced with a host of domestic problems on return from a ‘successful’ State visit to China. It begins with the Male city mayor elections due on Saturday, 13 January, followed by the parliamentary elections, fixed for 17 March, with an Opposition MDP’s threat to impeach him when he was away in China.
Unless there are more defections from the Opposition beyond the recent crop of 13, a tactical alliance between the erstwhile ruling MDP with 43 MPs and the breakaway Democrats with 13 can prove risky for the incumbent, as they will only be short of two votes for the mandatory two-thirds majority in the 87-member Majlis. Admitting the 13 MPs in a public rally last month, Muizzu declared that even if their fingers were cut, there were MDP parliamentarians who would not vote against him. Whether he will have the need to prove his claim is a question now.
However, events will have to wait as the results of the Male mayoralty poll in the midst of the continuing conundrum over the disparaging remarks of three of his ministers, since suspended, will have multiple messages. Male is the quintessential Maldives, and the way Male votes now, the whole nation may do so in the parliamentary elections. Or, that is the belief. The mayoralty fell vacant after he quit on election as President. So Muizzu’s leadership cannot be seen as losing the position, which had brought him some name and fame more than his work as Works Minister under an estranged mentor, jailed former President, Abdulla Yameen.
It is here that the current controversies viz India and the overlapping China visit of Muizzu come into the picture. Before the Indian social media launched a Maldives-bashing campaign, the street opinion in Male and possibly elsewhere in the country was one of utter condemnation of the three errant ministers. But the Indian social media campaign, accompanied by what is being seen as uninformed anti-Maldives TV talk-shows in multiple Indian languages, especially Hindi, and of course English, may have done some harm. Yet, the Maldivian public opinion is yet to come to grips with the multiple outcomes of Muizzu’s China visit.
In particular, they are yet to grasp the nuances and hidden aspects of the large number of bilateral ‘developmental agreements’ signed between the two sides. There is already the unspoken apprehension of Maldives going the Sri Lankan way, of ‘white elephant’ projects, if not an outright debt-trap.In the customary joint statement, China reiterated the Yameen era declaration about ‘upholding national sovereignty, independence and national dignity… and firmly opposes external interference in the internal affairs’ of Maldives. Further, the joint statement said that ‘China respects and supports the Maldives’ exploration of a development path that suits its national conditions’. Again, the Muizzu administration is expected to explain what it means — and implies to the national Parliament.
Among the host of agreements Muizzu’s delegation signed first in Fuzhou and later in Beijing, where he held official-level talks with Team Xi, is ‘Action Plan… for Building a China-Maldives Comprehensive Strategic Cooperative Partnership (2024-2028)’. India and other neighbourhood nations like Sri Lanka and extra-regional powers like the US with its grand anti-China geo-strategic and geo-economic policy, would be keenly watching the outcome, where visible. So could be Mauritius, again in the neighbourhood, especially after Muizzu vowed to review the predecessor government’s decision to settle the long-pending dispute on the maritime boundary line, which critics declared was detrimental to the nation’s interest.
At present, there is certain consternation among Maldivians if the usage of terms like ‘sovereignty, independence and national dignity’ target the Indian neighbour, as when China declared in February-March 2018, India was critical of President Yameen declaring national emergency, to upturn an unanimous Supreme Court verdict that freed Mohammed Nasheed, the nation’s first ‘democracy President’ and 12 other ‘political prisoners’.The Chinese talk of Maldivian sovereignty sounds a jarring note now, especially after Muizzu’s repeated declaration that India has agreed to pull back the 89 military personnel engaged in aerial emergency evacuation and reconnaissance in his country, and a joint group was discussing the modalities.
Muizzu has been mostly silent on his mentor Yameen’s out-of-office claims that the India-funded dockyard for the Maldivian Coast Guard in Uthuru Thila Falhu (UTF) was in fact an Indian military base.In the light of a clutch of agreements with China, which includes both strategic and development projects, the question is if like Yameen, he would pick up one Indian project after another, to ask New Delhi to pack up and go. For now, he has stood by his poll promise not to disturb any of India-funded development projects, and only requested the fast-tracking of the prestigious Thila-male sea-bridge project, connecting capital Male to two industrial and housing islands.Maldives’ HambantotaMany Maldivians have families, homes, businesses and jobs in neighbouring Sri Lanka, and they were closely watching the economic melt-down in that country, circa 2022. They are now unsure what all these new agreements with China mean for them, their economy and their nation. In context, they are waiting for the government to explain to them what the joint statement meant by ‘core interests’, in the ‘safeguarding’ of which the two sides ‘agreed to continue firmly supporting each other.Likewise, the $50-million integrated tourism development project in suburban Hulhumale Reclamation Island could be another agreement of strategic importance/concern for Maldivians and the nation’s neighbours. In asking India to take back soldiers, Muizzu has been declaring that he would not allow militaries from any nation in his country. It flows from a certain Maldivian national psyche which prides itself as the only South Asian nation that fought and threw out foreign militaries, of the Portuguese colonists in the 16th century and the ‘Malabaris’ from India, in the 18th century — and is hence acceptable. Will it now extend to China also, especially in the light of the current statements and agreements are another question.It remains to be seen if Muizzu keeps his poll promise to take the people into confidence on all bilateral treaties (even if) through Parliament. The question is if it will be a replacement for Beijing’s long-held plans for a ‘resort atoll’ exclusively for Chinese tourists. If so, will the Hulhumale project turn out to be Maldives’ very own Hambantota, on the lines of the original in Sri Lanka — a 99-year-old security concern, if not outright threat, to India?Of equal importance from a Maldivian standpoint is an agreement for China to fund 30,000 ‘social housing units’ in the upcoming Ras Male, or ‘King (of) Male’ project, the highest-ever reclamation of 1,000 hectares on Fushi Dhiggaru Lagoon, not far away from the national capital. The local social media is not entirely convinced that the Sri Lankan contractor commissioned for the reclamation, to be completed in just eight months, nor will its western partner have all the funds to pump in. Even the government’s announcement of compensating the investor by handing over 70 hectares of land, 10 of it in the existing Hulhumale area, has not convinced many.Questions are being raised about the term, ‘social housing’. Does it mean that Muizzu has grand plans to shift the national population as a whole to Male and suburbs, as had been discussed many times in the past, considering the logistics nightmare that the archipelago-nation with thinly spread populations mean, especially in the context of an ‘ever-sinking’ Maldives. If so, what does the government, this one or any other, intend to do with all the inhabited islands, where resort tourism is forbidden under existing laws? Sans the population that would have been shifted to the Male urban conglomerate, will those islands too be converted to tourism resorts, to dollar-paying foreign investors?Muizzu has inherited a ballooning economic crisis, which needs hard cash to manage, first the annual interests and also the principal in due course. The popular fear is that there is nothing in the published statements on his China visit that points to currency-flow, even if in yuan and not in dollars. They point to mirroring the huge Indian investments across the country on schemes identified by the local government of predecessor President, Ibrahim Solih, under the generic name, ‘High Impact Community Development Projects’ (HICDP).As is being pointed out, unless he was working overtime through his mayoralty or had it all worked up during his seven years as Works Minister (1912-18) under Presidents Mohammed Waheed and Yameen, these are projects that could not have been visualised, debated within the government and discussed with the Chinese authorities, for them all to be signed in a bunch, less than two months after Muzzu taking over as President on 17 November 2023.Likewise, Maldives’ street-opinion is divided over Xi’s reiteration of the Yameen era declaration to defend Maldives’ ‘sovereignty’, an unabashed reference to India without naming it. They see it as China wantonly poking its nose in Maldives’ bilateral affairs with India, which dates back to millennia and has withstood the test of time even in the contemporary era.Nothing in publicIn the backdrop of ‘l’affaire Lakshadweep’, where do the current developments leave India-Maldives relationship in? Though slow-paced, there were definite hopes of a recovery before the social media war and more so the outcome of Muizzu’s China visits. As Muizzu has been reiterating, both sides have since his ascendancy agreed on India withdrawing the limited number of military personnel deployed for emergency rescue missions and aerial reconnaissance, using three air assets, gifted by New Delhi. At Dubai, where Muizzu and Modi met for the first time, they decided to set up a committee on the subject. Noticeably, India has not officially commented on the Lakshadweep-Maldives row, if that is what it is. Nor has New Delhi said anything in public about the crass intransigence of the three suspended Maldivian ministers, who it is generally felt, should have been sacked, instead, if the idea was to assuage the larger Indian sentiments. New Delhi too may be studying available details on the multiple Maldivian agreements with China, especially those that may infringe upon India’s future security concerns.There is possibly some meaning in the Indian strategic community’s concern about Muizzu taking up Yameen’s demand for New Delhi withdrawing from the India-funded Uthuru Thila Falhu (UTF) dockyard for the Maldivian Coast Guard that the latter falsely claimed was an Indian military base. A structural engineer by qualification and profession,Muizzu however has welcomed the continuance of the $ 500-m India-funded Thila-male sea-bridge connecting capital Male to two industrial/habitation islands and sought its fast-tracking. He has also reiterated his unspecified desire to continue with inherited development projects of the kind – but the current mood and trend may have made New Delhi feel uncomfortable, whatever the truth.Tailpiece: India is still the main source of daily essentials in Maldives, from rice, wheat, onions and eggs, to medicines and stationery. The average Maldivian has always acknowledged this fact, and has been extra thankful after India’s ‘intervention’ in ‘Operation Cactus’ (1988), post-tsunami rescue and relief measures (2005-06) and during the Male drinking water crisis (2014). Initially, they were upset and angry at the three ministers for playing cheap politics with the hallowed India relations. However, threats of ‘Boycott Maldives’ social media calls from India, which included celebrities, who in the past had enjoyed Maldivian hospitality even if they had paid for it, has not gone down well with them.As they point out, while their three ministers deserved all condemnation, it all started with a purportedly Indian social media post, forwarding PM Modi’s Lakshadweep pictures, and making an uncalled-for call to promote Lakshadweep as a tourist spot and boycott Maldives. Their question is this: Would the Indian boycott call, etc, have not accelerated to the present levels if the uncharitable comments in their country had come not from ministers but from faceless social media activists, say, with an anti-India perception and/or agenda?In context, they point to the way the Indian ‘spectators’ reacted to the Aussies’ winning the Cricket World Cup against India in Ahmedabad last year, and say the parallels are striking, only that the Maldivians reacted whereas the Aussies kept quiet, at least those on the scene.
(The writer is a Chennai-based policy analyst & political commentator. Emai:email@example.com)