Oil drums are unloaded at the airport island of Hulhule in the Maldives. (Photographer: Daniel J. Groshong/Bloomberg News)

Paradise Burning: Turbulent Road Ahead For The Maldives

BloombergQuintOpinion

The imposition of national emergency and a full-scale assault on all institutions in the Maldives by its autocratic President Abdulla Yameen has highlighted the fragile condition of the tiny Indian Ocean archipelago and the dangers it poses to the region.

To argue that the process of democratisation, which began in 2008, is failing in this tourist paradise with a Muslim-majority population of less than half a million people would be an understatement. The hoped-for transition to democracy has not just been slowed but reversed through a naked usurpation of power by Yameen, who has dismantled checks and balances through a combination of brute force, religious fundamentalism, and cynical manipulation since he was declared the winner of a flawed election in 2013.

Yameen has pushed the Maldives backward to its old authoritarian model where a strongman railroads the nation. The dramatic nature of this reversal is illustrated by the irony that the originator of the dictatorial trend, former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom who governed with an iron grip from 1978 to 2008, is himself under arrest after locking horns with his erstwhile protégé and half-brother, the current president.

Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, then-President of Maldives, right, receives military honours upon his arrival at Jose Marti Airport in Havana, Cuba on September 14, 2006. (Photographer: Diego Giudice/Bloomberg News)
Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, then-President of Maldives, right, receives military honours upon his arrival at Jose Marti Airport in Havana, Cuba on September 14, 2006. (Photographer: Diego Giudice/Bloomberg News)

Republic Of Intolerance

Tolerance, accommodation, and respect for state institutions are the keys for a country to shift from despotism to democracy. But the ruthless and thuggish leadership which has emerged in the Maldives in the past few years is impervious to these requirements.

Consider the following:

  • The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Abdulla Saeed, is physically dragged by security forces and imprisoned along with another judge for challenging Yameen’s revengeful and wrongful prosecution of his rivals.
  • The leader of the opposition, the staunchly secular and nonviolent Mohamed Nasheed, is falsely convicted on preposterous charges of terrorism and exiled to London.
  • Two national police chiefs are fired in three days for obeying the Supreme Court and disobeying Yameen.
  • Members of Parliament are disqualified by a partisan Election Commission to maintain a semblance of legislative majority for the incumbent, and they flee the country fearing for their lives.
  • The military and police are deployed to occupy the Parliament and block no-confidence votes against Yameen’s allies.
  • Lawyers who agitate for cleanup and reforms are summarily suspended for “obstructing the independence of the justice system.”
  • A draconian defamation law, which criminalises the news media for criticising the government, has gagged the fourth estate.
  • Political prisoners languish in jail and government-endorsed gangs roam with impunity to muzzle dissent online and on the streets.

Yameen is no better than Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe or Cambodia’s Hun Sen in the level of intimidation and repression. While he is unlikely to last as long as these classic despots, he is imitating their playbook in controlling abusive levers for maintaining himself and his coterie of cronies in the saddle.

When a tyrant issues commands and his security personnel duly carry them out even though they are illegal, unconstitutional and immoral, it means that he has a legitimacy based on personal loyalty, patronage, and ideology among his enforcers.

Maldivian president Yameen Abdul Gayoom, center, surrounded by his body guards arrives to address his supporters in Male, Maldives, on February 3, 2018. (Photograph: AP/PTI)
Maldivian president Yameen Abdul Gayoom, center, surrounded by his body guards arrives to address his supporters in Male, Maldives, on February 3, 2018. (Photograph: AP/PTI)

According to former President Nasheed, who awaits from abroad for a chance to return and reclaim the mantle that was snatched away from him through a coup in 2012, Yameen’s Islamist constituents “have embedded themselves in strategic places within our military, police, customs, and immigration” and they constitute “a state within a state”.

Yameen distributes spoils to these pro-jihadist elements with smuggling contracts and a pie of the tourism revenues which are the mainstay of the Maldivian economy. These praetorian guards protect Yameen in return for the favours and are standing by him in spite of his callous disregard for democratic principles. In this aspect, Yameen is like North Korea’s totalitarian leader, Kim Jong-un, who allegedly regularly bribes his military and police bigwigs to keeps them on his side. If and when some system insider betrays the big man in the reciprocal game, the President has options of firing that person from office or worse.

Cracks often emerge within the ruling dispensation in the Maldives and have resulted in purges. Yameen has politicised and infiltrated the security apparatus thoroughly, but he still faces intransigent and conscientious persons who refuse to be rubber stamps. He, therefore, has to keep purging the ranks of the police and military to feel secure.

The cutthroat and paranoid environment this generates weakens the impartiality of pillars of the state and leaves open possibilities of future coup d’états and violent rebellions.

Yameen has packed the judiciary with his yes-men, but he still could not forestall a Chief Justice like Abdulla Saeed who had the gumption to call out the fraudulent convictions of opposition politicians. The regime’s smear campaign against the deposed Chief Justice that he is a traitor driven by financial inducements from European powers is typical of Yameen’s dirty politics. Most dictators allege that those who stand up to them are in the pockets of Western imperialists who want to undermine their country’s sovereignty. Such charges from a corrupt mafia-like government should be taken with a pinch of salt.

A Maldives policeman charges with baton towards protesters after the government declared a 15-day state of emergency in Male, Maldives, early on February 6, 2018. (Photograph: AP/PTI)
A Maldives policeman charges with baton towards protesters after the government declared a 15-day state of emergency in Male, Maldives, early on February 6, 2018. (Photograph: AP/PTI)

Foreign Cooks Spoil The Broth

Domestic intrigue is not a sufficient cause of Yameen’s resilience. Like all authoritarians who lord over mini-states, he relies on external benefactors to keep the slush funds flowing and to ward off international pressure to democratise. China is Yameen’s most reliable foreign patron. Beijing has finagled a free trade agreement that was rushed through the Maldivian parliament and has invested massive sums in infrastructure projects across the Maldives.

China holds approximately 70 percent of the Maldives’ debt.

Its has controversially taken over vast tracts of land there as part of its geostrategic expansion in the Indian Ocean region.

Nasheed estimates that China owns 17 islands of the Maldives by using the pretext of ‘development assistance’. This land grab raises suspicions about whether China is aiming for more overseas military bases beyond what it has formally acquired in Djibouti and the bases it has surreptitiously erected in disputed territories of the South China Sea.

With similar strategic outposts already in place in Myanmar (Kyaukpyu) and Sri Lanka (Hambantota), Yameen’s Maldives is a geopolitically conducive beachhead for advancing China’s ‘string of pearls’ design to encircle India on all sides of the Indian Ocean.

Should democracy be restored in the Maldives with the India-favouring Nasheed staging a comeback, China would lose a major bet. Hence the sharp India-focussed commentary emerging from Beijing warning against foreign intervention in the ‘internal affairs’ of the Maldives. The Chinese government’s desire to avoid making the Maldives 'another flashpoint' with India is a backhanded acknowledgement that Beijing sees its interests as conflicting with New Delhi in its backyard.

Yameen is banking on a firm Chinese counter to any potential Indian dispatch of Special Forces to overthrow him.
Chinese President Xi Jinping Meets with President Abdulla Yameen of the Maldives in Nanjing, on August 16, 2014. (Photograph: Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs)
Chinese President Xi Jinping Meets with President Abdulla Yameen of the Maldives in Nanjing, on August 16, 2014. (Photograph: Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

The precedent of 1988, when the Indian Army, Air Force, and Navy mounted Operation Cactus to avert a coup against then-President Maumoon Gayoom, is a constant reminder in the Maldives that New Delhi has not just diplomatic tools at its disposal but also military ones if the situation deteriorates.

Deterring Yameen from converting Maldives into a full colony of China or a hub for jihadists who spread terrorism in South Asia are valid reasons for India to do its utmost for stabilisation. If Yameen stays on the same oppressive trajectory and rigs or delays the upcoming elections in 2018, a tipping point may arrive for India.

Meanwhile, New Delhi is conferring closely with the United States to try and veer Yameen away from his path of flagrant violations of democracy and human rights. The discussions between the Indian Minister of External Affairs, Sushma Swaraj, and her Saudi Arabian counterpart on the Maldives imbroglio indicate that a behind-the-scenes de-escalation is in the works. Loans and charitable donations from Saudi Arabia have been pouring into the Maldives for over a decade and Riyadh has leverage with Yameen as well as other Maldivian religious conservative political parties. The infamous card of ‘Saudi money’, which oils many Islamist regimes worldwide, could come in handy for crisis management in the Maldives.

Given the close relations between the Donald Trump administration in Washington and the Saudi Crown Prince and de facto monarch, Mohammed bin Salman, New Delhi has to leverage this duo to overcome the turmoil in the Maldives. If all three of them are on one page, the China factor might be overridden.
U.S. President Donald Trump, speaks with Mohammed bin Salman, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s crown prince in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S. (Photographer: Mark Wilson/Pool via Bloomberg)
U.S. President Donald Trump, speaks with Mohammed bin Salman, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s crown prince in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S. (Photographer: Mark Wilson/Pool via Bloomberg)

Ultimately, no outside actor can compensate for the basic deficiency at the heart of the disturbances in the Maldives — the absence of a democratic political culture and the tendency to resort to hook or crook to obtain and retain power. Maldivian society itself has been divided between two brands of politics — secular liberalism and Islamist conservatism. Strife is not going to magically end overnight. Democratisation is a hard slog and the Maldives is, at best, passing through its nascent phase.

Sreeram Chaulia is a professor and dean at the Jindal School of International Affairs.

The views expressed here are those of the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.