Maldives crisis: India stuck between a rock and a hard place

Last Updated: Fri, Feb 09, 2018 09:19 hrs
Security forces stand outside Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) office as they barricade it,in the capital of the Maldives, Male

In a crackdown on the opposition, the former President of Maldives, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom was detained after the government declared a 15 day state of emergency. He was in power for three decades and was arrested at his home. The current president Abdulla Yameen has refused to comply with court orders to release political prisoners.

As part of the state of emergency, parliament was suspended and the police were stood guard outside the Supreme Court where judges were held up overnight against their will. Former President Gayoom was essentially an autocrat before the country entered into a multi party democracy in 2008.

Former President Mohamed Nasheed, the first democratically elected leader of Maldives, who is currently in exile, has asked India to play the role of liberators and stated that he wants military intervention to resolve the turmoil in the island nation. Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) operates out of Colombo and requested troops to be sent.

China, however, is vehemently against any use of military force in this situation. Instead it has asked political parties in Maldives to find a solution without any external intervention. As the current President seems to have strengthened his grip on power, he announced envoys to ‘friendly nations’ China, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Notably, India was absent on the list of countries.

India’s official response came on Tuesday, which was in response to the current government refusing to abide by the Supreme Court and called the imposition of an emergency disturbing. While there are calls for India to act, the stance and actions or lack thereof should be taken after careful consideration. Indrani Bagchi, in a column for the Times of India writes on how India must tread softly with regards to the current situation in Maldives –

“Why should we not be a big power and show muscle in the shape of warships and fighters to cut panda-hugging Yameen down to size? India would be monumentally stupid to take any of these actions at present. An outside power attempting regime change by force is no longer an option this century; it is likely to have the opposite effect”.

The further complication for any outside interference from any country is that the country has general election later this year. It could be seen as India attempting to put a thumb on the scale if it exerts any pressure on the current regime.

“It could consolidate public opinion behind Yameen and ramp up nationalist fervour, giving his actions greater acceptability. Yameen’s profound distrust of India would do the rest and we would have truly lost Maldives”.

“The exercise of external power works only when it fits in with domestic aspirations. In Maldives, we’re not there yet”.

This in some ways is history repeating itself. In 1988 under the Rajiv Gandhi government, India intervened in Maldives save the then president Gayoom from an attempted coup. It was carried out by Sri Lankan Tamil militants on the orders of Maldivian businessman Abdulla Luthufi. The decision to send troops into Maldives was met with support from the West. Manoj Joshi, a Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, in a column for The Wire, writes on this mission, titled “Operation Cactus” –

“From the military point of view, there are important lessons that Operation Cactus offers us, the foremost being the need to be ready for such contingencies through advanced planning, exercises and linguistic skills”.

“The Indian Ocean is becoming more important by the day and India has vital stakes in its stability. The small island states in the area are vulnerable to the kind of threat that compelled India to send its paratroopers in 1988 on behalf and at the invitation of an elected government.”

The delicate dance that India has to do is with China, which has explicitly stated that no external military action should be used. With former President Nasheed calling for India to use their military option, the centre has not given indication of fulfilling those wishes. Both countries have a major role to play in the Indian Ocean. David Brewster, an author and a senior analyst with the National Security College, Australian National University, in a column for the South China Morning Post, writes on the limited options that India and China have in a region that is consequential for both –

“Delhi’s biggest worry about the Maldives is not the current threat to democracy, but its tilt towards China especially the possibility that Beijing may establish a naval and airbase there. A Chinese base in the Maldives might upset the naval balance of the whole Indian Ocean, potentially threatening mainland India”.

The evidence of the tilt towards Beijing is Yameen awarding projects to Chinese companies. There could be vested interest in keeping Yameen in power for China. According to David’s column, ideally India would not like Yameen in power. Given this, the options on the table don’t seem to be viable.

Imposing sanctions would alienate the country and military intervention seems unlikely given as the column points out, “India generally adheres to the trappings of international law and it traditionally opposes regime change”. While the policy of non interference is held, it’s not entirely accurate. Raja Mohan, director, Carnegie India in an op-ed for The Indian Express, writes on certain examples of this –

“India has often intervened in the internal affairs of other countries — recall its liberation of Bangladesh from Pakistan in 1971, the intervention in the Sri Lankan civil war in the late 1980s or its more recent involvement in the making of Nepal’s constitution”.

The op-ed also examines how Yameen uses his position to test the waters with regards to India and China –

“President Yameen of Maldives has been testing the limits of his maneuverability between India and China. There was much criticism of Delhi, at home and abroad, in recent years that it has been too passive in relation to Yameen and has allowed China to rapidly gain ground in the Maldives”.

The conundrum that India faces is real. A passive response might draw criticism and allow China to dictate proceedings; in a region that India needs to play a key role in. However, military action, like the one in 1988 might not work given the current scenario and the general stance of non interference. With pressure from China to not interfere and from opposition leaders in Maldives to do the opposite, the government walks a tightrope.

More columns by Varun Sukumar

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