April 18, 2018 By Nimaya Harris and Anishka De Zylva
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Political tensions in the Maldives escalated on 5 February 2018 when President Abdulla Yameen declared a state of emergency. This gave “sweeping powers to troops to arrest and detain individuals, while curtailing the powers of the judiciary and the legislature,”1 and was extended on 20 February 2018. President Yameen’s term ends in November 2018 and the crisis has been attributed to his attempts to continue in power. Maldivian authorities charged former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom with terrorism on 21 March 2018, and arrested over one hundred anti-Yameen activists. Though the state of emergency has now been lifted, the crisis is far from over.
This article aims to further an understanding of developments in the Maldives, by a focused review of recent commentary on the crisis. We selected three commentaries that we felt most comprehensively explain different aspects of the crisis, and which hold relevant insights and lessons for other smaller states in the Indian Ocean and especially for Sri Lanka. The following articles explain three main aspects of the crisis, which are (1) internal politics, (2) India’s choices, and (3) China’s interests in the Maldives.
Democracy on the Brink in Maldives,2 The Diplomat, by Olof Blomqvist (South Asia Analyst)
Olof Blomqvist explains that the political situation in the Maldives was tumultuous and that to regional analysts, the crisis was inevitable. Blomqvist examines the internal factors that undermined democracy in the Maldives, resulting in the state of emergency. These factors include (i) the division of the President Yameen’s party, the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), and (ii) his authoritarian action.
The PPM formally split due to differences between President Yameen and former President Gayoom, resulting in many of President Yameen’s allies leaving the PPM to follow former President Gayoom. President Yameen’s extrajudicial arrests, restrictions on media, and the repression of peaceful protests, contributed to the erosion of democracy.
On the other hand, the opposition is uniting and gaining momentum, indicating that democracy is not completely lost, even if fragile. Nevertheless, Blomqvist argues that “the prospect of a free and fair election”3 in November 2018 is unlikely and democratic change is uncertain.
India’s Choice in the Maldives,4 Project Syndicate, by Brahma Chellaney (Professor of Strategic Studies, Center for Policy Research, Delhi; and Fellow, Robert Bosch Academy, Berlin)
The state of emergency5 in the Maldives has drawn attention to the regional “chess-match”6 between India and China. President Yameen’s allegiance to Beijing challenges the Maldives’ long history of ties with India. For India, a primary concern is the potential impact from the situation in the Maldives on freedom of navigation and trade in the Indian Ocean, especially in light of China’s increased presence. Chellaney notes that China has been steadily eroding India’s influence in the Maldives, and the crisis may be a “defining moment” that is also an opportunity for India to re-assert its power in the country.
Chellaney weighs two potential options for India: (1) military intervention, and (2) embargoes. In regard to the first option, India’s previous intervention in the Maldives in 1988 was invited by the then Maldivian President and deemed successful.7 In this case, however, there is no call for an intervention, and such action is unlikely to expedite the necessary democratic change, or contain China’s leverage in the country. A similar problem arises with imposing embargoes; the situation may be too far gone for sanctions from India alone to have any impact.
Chellaney, therefore, argues that India’s most strategic move in this situation would be to mobilise global support to display a reasonable threat of military intervention and to collectively impose sanctions.
In a Fortnight: In Maldives Standoff, China Looks to Safeguard Growing Interests,8 The Jamestown Foundation, by Matt Schrader (Editor-in-Chief, China Brief, The Jamestown Foundation)
China’s engagement in the Maldives has generated significant speculation about China’s intentions in the archipelago. Matt Schrader notes that the Maldivian crisis has resulted in greater international scrutiny of China’s interests in the region and its ties to President Yameen. The Maldives’ central location on China’s Belt and Road Initiative9 (BRI) map and, in particular, its increased engagement with China under President Yameen, has concerned India and other countries in the region.
Schrader analyses the range of ways in which China and Maldives have expanded their links. These include the Maldives removing visa requirements for Chinese tourists, China funding the expansion of the Velana International Airport in Malé, and the first visit to the Maldives by a Chinese President. He analyses expected future developments, like an increase in China’s military presence in the Maldives and argues that, despite the apparent stabilisation of the Maldives crisis, China’s engagement with the Maldives is likely to continue to heighten geopolitical tension.
1 The Guardian. (2018). Maldives state of emergency: judges block release of political prisoners. [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/feb/07/maldives-state-of-emergency-judges-block-political-prisoners
2 Olof Blomqvist, T. (2018). Democracy on the Brink in Maldives. [online] The Diplomat. Available at: https://thediplomat.com/2018/02/democracy-on-the-brink-in-maldives/
3 Maldives Independent (2018). Maldives opposition seeks EU help for free and fair election in 2018 | Maldives Independent. [online] Available at: http://maldivesindependent.com/politics/maldives-opposition-seeks-eu-help-for-free-and-fair-election-in-2018-133800
4 Chellaney, B. (2018). India’s Choice in the Maldives, by Brahma Chellaney. [online] Project Syndicate. Available at: https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/maldives-political-crisis-india-intervention-by-brahma-chellaney-2018-02
5 Junayd, M. (2018). Maldives parliament approves extension of state of emergency by 30…. [online] U.S. Available at: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-maldives-politics/maldives-parliament-approves-extension-of-state-of-emergency-by-30-days-idUSKCN1G41Z9
6 Kumar, S. and Stanzel, A. (2018). The Maldives Crisis and the China-India Chess Match. [online] The Diplomat. Available at: https://thediplomat.com/2018/03/the-maldives-crisis-and-the-china-india-chess-match/
7The Times of India. (2018). Operation Cactus: How Indian Troops Went to Maldives and Helped Quell a Coup. [online] Available at: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/world/south-asia/operation-cactus-how-indian-troops-went-to-maldives-and-helped-quell-a-coup/articleshow/62816787.cms
8 Schrader, M. (2018). In a Fortnight: In Maldives Standoff, China Looks to Safeguard Growing Interests – Jamestown. [online] Jamestown. Available at: https://jamestown.org/program/fortnight-maldives-standoff-china-looks-safeguard-growing-interests/
9 Tsinghua University. (2017). Chinese-Maldives Cooperation Along the Belt and Road Initiative on Tsinghua Campus. [online] Available at: http://www.dir.tsinghua.edu.cn/publish/iren/8516/2018/20180323093450922100447/20180323093450922100447_.html
*Nimaya Harris is a Programmes and Communications Assistant at the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute of International Relations and Strategic Studies (LKI). Anishka De Zylva is a Research Associate at LKI. The opinions expressed in this article are the authors’ own and not the institutional views of LKI, and do not necessarily reflect the position of any other institution or individual with which the authors are affiliated.