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Is instability again returning to Maldives?
N Sathiya Moorthy
17 November 2012

Upsetting the political equilibrium that has since returned after the February 7 resignation of President Mohammed Nasheed, the Maldivian Government has sacked a Minister and arrested Abdullah Jabir, an MP of Jumhooree Party (JP), a partner in the ruling coalition, along with Opposition MDP parliamentarian and international spokesman Hamid Abdul Gafoor. With them, the police also arrested former SAARC Secretary-General Ibrahim Hussain Zaki and MDP spokesperson Mohamed Zuhair for presenting before a court on the charge of consuming alcohol and possessing drugs.

The developments involving the JP partner in the Government came after party founder Gasim Ibrahim favoured secret-voting on a no-confidence motion against President Mohammed Waheed Hassan Manik. Though daggers drawn otherwise, the JP's position tends to be supportive of a parliamentary move by the Opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) for ensuring secret-ballot on the no-confidence motion against President Waheed, moved earlier.

It is not the Indian infrastructure major GMR that is alone in the political cross-fire over airport contracts. If anything, it is now only one of the three that are in the news, though much larger than the other two put together, both in terms of the investments, and the protests, too. Worse still, even as a civil society coalition led by religion-centric Adhalathth Party (AP) launched direct action for ousting GMR, President's Spokesperson Abbas AdilRiaz, in a televised address, called Indian High Commissioner DyaneshwarMulay, a 'traitor to Maldives' and 'bribe-taker'.

The Government's distancing itself from Riaz's statement did not help - and definitely did not have the same effect as the sacking of Minister Shamheed. The latter indicated post facto that he had seen it coming and attributed it to difference of opinion over a host of issues. Against President Waheed's offer to have another JP nominee in Shamheed's place, the party has set a Sunday (November 18) deadline for his reinstatement. Against this, the six-day deadline set by the AP-led civil group ousting GMR, before their launching an airport blockade has passed, since

Triangular spat in the offing?

The MPs' arrest may have triggered a triangular spat involving the Executive, Legislature and the Judiciary. The police said that Parliament, which is now in session, has been kept informed about the MPs' arrest and that it would be for the courts to decide on their fate. Speaker Abdullah Shaheed, citing Article 220(d) of the Parliament Rules of Procedure, however, said that an "MP shall not be arrested prior to making a decision on a resolution tabled to remove the President, Judges, members of Independent Commissions". The reference here possibly is to the pending no-confidence motion against President Waheed, among others.

The Speaker is known to have defended the rights of the Legislature in the past. He sided with the Parliament Committee on Government Oversight summoning three trial court Judges trying former President Nasheed for the arrest of Criminal Court Chief Judge Abdulla Mohamed on January 16. At the initiative of Supreme Court Chief Justice Ahmed Faiz Hussain, the Judiciary and Legislature are reported to be trying to break the deadlock through discussions/negotiations. The MPs' arrest, if not handled with care and caution, thus has the potential to rock the boat all over again.

Media reports indicated that the arrested MDP leaders and also the JP parliamentarian have held similar views on the need to continue the GMR contract, and how the Government's approach could put off FDI for good when the country very badly needed the same, particularly in the infrastructure sector. For his part, President Nasheed lost no time in tweeting the arrest of his MDP aides, called for their immediate release, and linked it to successor Waheed's earlier observation that parliamentarians were not doing their job.

In his Republic Day speech on November 11, President Waheed had deprecated the 'economic dependency' of Maldives even as Finance Minister Abdulla Jihad, representing the Adhalathth Party, said that the Government accepted the IMF's findings on the nation's economy. Earlier, Minister Jihad had linked the delay in the receipt of the promised Indian aid of $ 25 million, to the Maldivian approach to the GMR concession.

India calls for reconciliation

If the arrest of two MPs assumes political significance nearer home, that of a former Secretary-General of SAARC has consequences at the regional level and beyond. Maldives at present is the SAARC Chair and nominates the Secretary-General. To embroil the highest regional office in an avoidable controversy thus smacks of bad taste. This is more so, considering the personal background of President Waheed as an international diplomat of some standing during his days as an official of one UN agency or the other.

It is in this context the Indian reaction to the latest developments needs to be seen. Taking note of the "arrest of former Secretary-General SAARC and other members of the Majlis" a statement from the Spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs said that "as a close and friendly neighbour, we are concerned at the continuing political instability in the country. There is an urgent need for dialogue and reconciliation among all political parties in Maldives in a peaceful and democratic manner".

India, the statement said, "urges the Government of Maldives and all political parties to adhere strictly to democratic principles and the rule of law, thus paving the way for the holding of free, fair and credible elections. Violence and coercive measures are not conducive to this end". A full week after President's Spokesperson Riaz had bad-mouthed the Indian envoy, the statement acknowledged that New Delhi "has been concerned at the occurrence of anti-India demonstrations and statements by a section in Maldives. A senior official of the Government of India visited Maldives recently and conveyed our concerns in regard to recent developments in the country."

The statement went on to add that the Government of India was closely monitoring the situation, "keeping in view the need to ensure safety and security of Indians in Maldives and Indian interests in that country". Going by official figures announced by the Government of Maldives, there are about 22,000 Indian workers spread across the Indian Ocean archipelago, most of them skilled or semi-skilled, down from close to thrice as many a decade or so back. Given the prevailing sense of insecurity in them, any politically-motivated effort could become even more worrisome.

The anti-India protests come at a time when Maldivian, the national airline, has expanded its operations, to cover more destinations in India to attract medium-spending tourists in the country as against the low-spending, high volume Chinese and high-spending, low-volume Europeans. Seeking to strike a balance, Maldives hopes to attract more Indian tourists to its shores, if only to check against the economic disaster of the kind that the 2004 tsunami and the 2008 global meltdown wrought on the nation.

This is possibly the first time that New Delhi has referred to the 'safety and security' of Indians living in Maldives even though at the height of the political developments, first in December and later in February, anti-India slogans had been raised. Considering that New Delhi was the first nation to acknowledge the power-transfer in Maldives in February, the Indian concerns now could go a longer way than ordinarily understood.

Religion and patriotism, again

The JP has five members in the 77-member Parliament. Of them, MP Jabir had won the Khashidoo seat in a by-election on April 14, only weeks after the change of Government in February. His wife Fathimath Dhiyana Saeed is a JP State Minister in the Waheed Government, and had quit her job as the first woman Secretary-General of SAARC, protesting against the Nasheed leadership at the height of the 'December 23 Movement' against his presidency.

In this overall background, any withdrawal of the Jumhooree Party's support for the Waheed Government, over the sacking of Minister Shamheed and the arrest of MP Jabir could lead to a return of political instability, when the nation's economy in particular can ill-afford it. Whether intended or not, the series of developments, including the anti-India tirade, seem to have failed to control the damage caused by an earlier episode. The high-profile arrests thus did not deflect from the attack on the Indian envoy only a week earlier. Together, they have left an all-round bad taste in every Maldivian, for more reasons than one.

At immediate focus is the attempt to combine religion and patriotism again, to create a new constituency in the country, as had happened at the height of the 'December 23 movement' against the Nasheed Government. Then, as now, the Indian neighbour and the Indian corporate GMR continued to be kept in focus. The history of Maldivian Independence from the British 'Protector' in 1965 is linked to 'sovereignty' over the Male airport on the one hand, and the near-simultaneous ouster of Indian Bohra traders on charges of profiteering, on the other.

Both find a common expression in the GMR concession. Whether or not it is being projected as an 'antidote' to western democracy, as the MDP has believed all along, there is a definite attempt to play it out as a political and electoral card. As President Nasheed pointed out after the tirade against the Indian envoy, the days of 'our grandmothers' of the Sixties are over. A 21st century Maldives will have to look at the world differently - and has to start with looking at itself, differently, too.

In a self-proclaimed moderate Islamic nation with 40 per cent youth population, job-creation, particularly overseas opportunities, alone can help resolve fiscal crises, both of the State and of the individual. To them all, FDI is as relevant as democracy and the freedom of expression that comes with it. Any perceived effort at thwarting either or both could be counter-productive, electorally, too.

(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter)