On March 23, the Maldivian parliament accepted an emergency motion banning an opposition rally scheduled two days later in the capital Male. It had been summoned by former President Abdulla Yameen and his Progressive Party, and its ally, the National People’s Congress.
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The emergency motion was proposed by Abdulla Jabir, a member of former President Mohamed Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP). He said the gathering endangers national security and sows discord between the Maldives and one of its neighbours. He asked the Maldives National Defense Force to stop the rally and other similar events.
The theme of the rally was “India Out”, a slogan coined two years ago by protesters who claimed the CDM government under President Ibrahim Solih had “sold out” the Maldives to India.
The protest, a day before External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar was due to arrive in the country, was not allowed as police cracked down on protesters traveling to the event in Male from other parts of the country.
Political context in the Maldives
A small country of around 500,000 people that only gained democracy in 2005 and sits at a strategic crossroads in the Indian Ocean, the Maldives has been buffeted for the past decade or more by geopolitical winds of the region.
India and China have been vying for influence in the Maldives for the past 10 years. Islamists have also found a hunting ground in the country, where Islam is the state religion. Throughout this time, the country has experienced the political ups and downs that democracy has brought.
As the nearest large neighbour, India was the Maldives’ first responder for decades in all sectors, the relationship cemented by strong former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who was the undisputed ruler of the country until the last years of the 20th century. In a sensational moment in South Asia at the time, India’s National Security Guard thwarted a planned coup against Gayoom by a businessman who had hired the Sri Lankan Tamil militant group PLOTE for the power of fire.
Over the past two decades, as political parties vied to win elections, foreign policy played an important role, tied to the economic development of the small country. The period coincided with the rise of China and its projection of power in the region and beyond.
Beijing’s reach into a part of the Indian Ocean where India was the preeminent power has seen geopolitical rivalry play out in the national politics of Sri Lanka and the Maldives. In the Maldives, the MDP and its top leaders, particularly Nasheed, are seen as pro-Indian, while their rival Yameen is seen as a proxy for China.
In the last presidential and legislative elections of 2018, the MDP was re-elected. Nasheed was unable to contest due to a conviction under the Yameen government, and Ibrahim Solih became president. Yameen was found guilty of bribery soon after.
With a friendly government in Male, India was able to rebuild bilateral relations and regain some of its former influence after a six-year hiatus under Yameen’s presidency that saw relations plummet to their lowest point.
Yameen’s release in December 2021 from a lengthy house arrest after the Maldives Supreme Court overturned his conviction, led to an immediate increase in the height and frequency of anti-Indian rallies. Protesters carry posters of the politician, who is a half-brother to Gayoom. Yameen has been present at some of these protest sites and led rallies.
The next presidential and parliamentary elections will be in 2024, and Yameen is using the campaign to bolster his support base, portraying the MDP as a party that has enslaved the country to India.
Demands of the “India Out” protesters
What started as a general protest against the perceived pro-India policies of the Solih government has now turned into an allegation that New Delhi has sent a large military contingent to the Maldives, a claim that the Solih government has repeatedly denied.
Particular attention has been focused on the cooperation between the two parties to develop a port on Uthuru Thilafalhu Atoll (UTF) for the Maldivian Coast Guard. The Solih government said there were no Indian military personnel in the Maldives other than a maintenance and flight crew operating three Dornier planes used for surveillance, as well as rescue and air ambulance operations .
In a March 13 statement, the Maldives Ministry of Defense said there were no foreign military personnel on the UTF, which is being developed as a shipyard for the Maldivian Coast Guard. .
“Statements that claim the UTF is a foreign military base are simply false,” the Department of Defense said.
Security cooperation with India
In February 2021, India and the Maldives signed an agreement for the development of the UTF port during Jaishankar’s visit at the time. The Union Minister tweeted at the time that the project would “build the capacity of the Maldivian Coastguard” and described the two countries as “partners in development and partners in security”. During the same visit, India extended a $50 million line of credit for defense purchases.
The defense line of credit would “facilitate capacity building in the maritime domain”, Jaishankar said at the time. A joint statement said the two sides agreed to strengthen coordination in strengthening regional maritime security and focus on countering terrorism in “all its forms and manifestations”.
The Maldives is also part of the India-led Colombo Indian Ocean security mini-conclave, in which other members are Sri Lanka and the newly admitted Mauritius. Bangladesh and the Seychelles are expected to join them soon. NSAs from these countries met in Malé in early March to highlight “shared security goals” in a region where India sees itself as the net security provider. Last November, the Indian Navy, the Maldives National Defense Force and the Sri Lankan Navy conducted a two-day exercise in the exclusive economic zones of the three countries in the southern Arabian Sea. Dubbed the “Targeted Operation,” it aimed to “enhance understanding and interoperability” between the three countries’ key maritime security agencies, according to an official statement on the operation.
The Maldives signed a defense pact with the United States in 2020. Last month, the Maldives signed an agreement allowing the United States to open an embassy in the country, the first western country to do so. Right now, the US Ambassador to Sri Lanka is doubling up for the Maldives.
The domestic politics of the country
As Yameen hopes to use Maldivian nationalism to return to power on an anti-India plank, the government has countered by pointing out that the country, which imports almost all of its needs, depends on India for its security, including food safety.
The MDP launched its own “India First” campaign and even drafted legislation to criminalize anti-Indian protests as anti-national. The legislation was scrapped, but the underlying sentiment led to the banning of the ‘India Out’ protest in Male last week.
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Yameen also hopes to politically leverage the differences between President Solih and Nasheed. The two have been largely successful in preventing these differences from hampering the work of the government, but the assassination attempt on Nasheed last year, attributed to a local Islamist group, saw the former president openly oppose the government for not having taken difficult measures. against such forces.
A defeat of the MDP in a local election saw differences come to light. Nasheed wants Solih to use the CDM’s two-thirds majority in parliament to move the Maldives from a presidency to one in which a prime minister leads the government.