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Meddling in the Maldives

The US and India’s long-term plan seems to be unrestrained control over the Indian Ocean.

Looking at the ongoing political crisis in the Maldives, now almost a month old, one would have to be utterly politically naïve to believe that India and the United States (US) are concerned about the democratic rights of the Maldivian people. It just happens that this Indian Ocean archipelago happens to be close to the shipping lanes through which a large part of the oil destined for the Indian, Japanese, Chinese and other East and South-eastern Asian economies passes, as also much of the manufactured goods exports of these economies make their way via these sea lanes to West Asia, Africa, and Europe. Moreover, contrary to what New Delhi and Washington wanted—and India considers Maldives as part of its “backyard”—Malé decided to participate in China’s One Belt, One Road infrastructure project, and has also entered into a free trade agreement with China.

On 5 February, Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen declared a 15-day state of emergency suspending democratic rights in the archipelago and also arrested two Supreme Court judges who had on 1 February ordered the release of opposition members of Parliament, including former President Mohamed Nasheed and other prominent opposition figures. The very next day, Nasheed, in exile in Sri Lanka, issued a provocative statement calling upon India to militarily intervene, and asking India and the US to remove Yameen from office. The Supreme Court’s order must have come as a shock to Yameen, for it came all of a sudden when Yameen seemed to have been assured of the Court’s backing. But, of course, there must have been intense pressure on the judges what with India, the US, and the European Union backing the political opposition. With the defectors from his party exonerated by the Court, Yameen’s government would have fallen for failure to obtain a majority, and Nasheed would have been back as one of the main candidates in the presidential election later this year. So Yameen cracked down with the state of emergency and got the remaining Supreme Court judges to reverse the earlier order.

Indian big media have been reporting that India’s armed forces are ready for “deployment at short notice.” But surely New Delhi must be keeping in mind that so far the Maldivian security forces have been loyal to Yameen, as also the fact that Beijing has firmly, but indirectly, made it clear that New Delhi has no right to meddle in Maldives’ internal affairs and violate the archipelago’s sovereignty. Moreover, even as the US and Britain will back India, military intervention would undermine the credibility of India’s claim to maintaining “strategic autonomy” vis-à-vis the US. The US President Donald Trump had telephoned Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to discuss the political crisis in the Maldives, and the White House thought it necessary to issue “a read-out” of Trump’s conversation with Modi. Just as Washington and New Delhi helped arrange the defection of Maithripala Sirisena from the government of Mahinda Rajapaksa in Sri Lanka, whom they reckoned was acting in China’s interests, and aided Sirisena’s emergence as the common opposition candidate in Sri Lanka’s 2015 presidential election that he won, so also they are now manoeuvring to bring about “regime change” in the Maldives. In 1988, the Indian armed forces helped thwart an attempted coup against the authoritarian government of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom in the Maldives, and he remained in office to govern autocratically with India’s support till 2008.

On 20 February, India and the US were again jolted when Yameen, on the plea of a grave threat to national security, extended the state of emergency for another 30 days. New Delhi has, however, restrained itself despite sections of the media and the security establishment suggesting that India must not allow the erosion of its influence in its own backyard. How can India emerge as a global power if it cannot control developments that threaten security in its own backyard, asked one security expert. Sections of the media have been calling for coercive diplomacy and, if necessary, military intervention.

The question in establishment circles is about “countering Chinese influence in the Maldives,” but both Trump and Modi must be asking how this can be done. Their larger aim is full control over the sea lanes in the Indian Ocean upon which China depends for the conduct of its foreign trade. India and the US seem bent upon the creation of military bases in the Maldives and their connection with those in Seychelles and Diego Garcia. Perhaps, after successful regime change in the Maldives, the Trump administration will press for the signing of a “Status of Force Agreement” that will put in place a “legal framework” for the eventual setting up of military bases over there.

Updated On : 7th Mar, 2018


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