Fortnightly Review & Analysis - Neighbourhood Studies (Vol 2 Issue IV)

(Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka & Maldives)

February 16 -28, 2017


Terror Wave Leads to New Military Operation, Nod for Military Courts

The upsurge in terror attacks in the second week of February reached a crescendo with the suicide bombing at the Sufi shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in Sehwan, Sindh. Over 80 people were killed and more than 200 injured in the attack which was claimed by the Islamic State (IS) terrorists who considered the shrine a place where Shi’ism was promoted and deviant practices abhorrent to Islam were the norm. The Sehwan attack shook the Pakistani society but most clerics, even as they condemned the attack, qualified their condemnation by pointing to Un-Islamic practices in the Shrine. A couple of days after the Sehwan attack, the district court in Charsadda was attacked by three suicide bombers of the Jamaat-ul-Ahrar. Although the police managed to limit the damage, seven people lost their lives and over a score were injured. There was another blast in an upscale Lahore market in which eight people lost their lives. But authorities claimed that this was the result of an accident – gas cylinders exploded – and not a terror attack. Nevertheless, the incident created panic in Lahore.

Forced to show a robust response after the Sehwan attack, the Pakistani authorities claimed that they had retaliated and killed over 100 ‘terrorists’ in a single day across the country. But there was no evidence that this huge number of terrorists were killed. Nor was there any information about who these terrorists were. There were also air strikes against terrorist targets in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) region. But questions were asked as to what the security forces were waiting for if they had such precise information about the whereabouts of all these terrorists. Be that as it may, the flurry of attacks seemed to have forced the hand of the ruling PML-N to give in to the Army’s long-standing demand of brining in the Pakistan Rangers to carry out anti-terror operations in Punjab, albeit with some restrictions which included getting the approval of the Chief Minister and working in conjunction with the Punjab Police. What is more, these operations were to now be under the rubric of a new countrywide anti-terror operation – ‘Radd-ul-Fasaad’ – that was announced by the military spokesman to eliminate the residual terrorism post operation Zarb-e-Azb.

According to the ISPR, Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad (which wags have called Raddul Façade) is “aimed at indiscriminately eliminating residual and latent threat of terrorism, consolidating gains of operations made so far and further ensuring security of the borders”. This operation, which will be carried out by not just all the armed forces (including the Navy and Air Force) but also paramilitary and civilian armed police along with all the intelligence agencies, also aims to de-weaponise Pakistan and ensure control over explosives (presumably the material used in making IEDs because conventional explosives are already controlled by other laws). Unlike Zarb-e-Azb, Radd-ul-Fasaad combines both kinetic operations by the armed forces in remote areas where terrorists may have established their bases and intelligence based operations in both urban and rural areas in rest of Pakistan. There are however questions being raised over the clarity of vision guiding this latest operation. Many analysts see it as a somewhat confused and reactive response to the upsurge in terrorism.

Alongside Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad, which has opened the door for military operations in Punjab, the army has also managed to get the government to build a political consensus on bringing back the military courts for another two years. Almost all the political parties have given their nod to the extension proposal which will require a constitutional amendment. The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and to an extent the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) are holding out because of their reservations over the widening of the ambit of the military courts. In their previous avatar, the military courts were restricted to holding trials of people “belonging to any terrorist group or organisation using the name of religion or a sect”. The new draft law for military courts excludes the phrase “using the name of religion or a sect”. The PPP and MQM fear that this exclusion could be misused for victimisation of political opponents. On the other hand, the JUIF and Jamaat-e-Islami have insisted that they will not support the military courts unless this phrase is taken out. Analysts however believe that the PPP will ultimately come around and support the military courts extension.

Panama Papers Hearings Conclude: Ruling Reserved, Politicians on Tenterhooks

The Supreme Court concluded the hearings in the Panama Papers scandal but has reserved its ruling because the judges felt they needed ‘time to deliberate and ponder over every aspect of the case’. The judges assured both the plaintiffs and the defendants that their judgment would not be coloured by public expectations, rather it would be based on law and constitution. All parties in the case are now waiting anxiously for the court’s verdict which could very well decide the future course of Pakistan's politics. If the verdict goes against the Sharif family, it would mean the end of the Sharif era in Pakistani politics; on the other hand if the verdict goes in favour of the Sharifs, then it would deal a body blow to Imran Khan’s politics and will give Nawaz Sharif a major boost going into the 2018 general elections.

By all accounts, it is difficult to say which way the ruling would go. However, if the proceedings in the case are anything to go by, then things appear to be looking a little tight for the Prime Minister and his family. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the verdict could go against him. There is a good chance that even though on technical grounds (lack of irrefutable or even certifiable documentary evidence) the judges don’t disqualify the PM and his other family members, they may make remarks which grievously damage the PM and his associates and family members – one judge had commented during the course of the hearing that it was more a case of honesty than of evidence – depriving them of the moral legitimacy to occupy the top political and administrative offices in the country. If this happens (and this could well be a middle-ground that judges could tread) then it will be constitute a tail wind for Imran Khan and his followers going into the next elections.

The proceedings in the case, which resumed after a brief delay caused by one of the members of the bench developing a heart condition, did not go in favour of the Sharif family which was held to account for making contradictory statements, not furnishing the documents that would absolve them of any wrongdoing, giving evasive answers to queries of the bench, and taking refuge in technical details. What is more, the judges passed scathing remarks against the heads of government watchdog institutions like the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) and Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) who were accused by the judiciary of doing everything to prevent the accountability of the Sharif family. The bench even ‘advised’ the attorney general to stop behaving like the counsel of the Sharif family and start behaving like the Attorney General.

Census and Terror Crackdown Widen Inter-Provincial Cleavages

Although under the directions of the Supreme Court, the government has set in motion the process of holding the Census in Pakistan from March this year, all the ethno-political issues that had prevented previous governments from holding the census exercise since 1998 have come to the fore once again. Politicians in Balochistan in particular are expressing serious reservations over the entire exercise. There is the whole issue of Afghan refugees settled in Balochistan which can tilt the demographic balance in the province against the native Baloch. The Baloch are also concerned about the mass internal displacement caused by military operations in the province against the ethnic Baloch. This factor would lead to an undercount of the Baloch, thereby putting them at a disadvantage, even reducing them to a minority, in the province. In FATA too the same dynamic operates. The scorched earth policies of the Pakistan army in FATA has displaced bulk of the population and this will have a bearing on their headcount. In Sindh there is a concern that like in the previous census, there could be a fiddle played in counting ethnic Sindhis which will tilt the balance in the province against the original inhabitants of the province.

All these concerns come at a time when the Pashtuns are bristling with anger over the ‘racial profiling’ of Pashtuns, especially in Punjab, in the recent anti-terror crackdown. Reports that police in Punjab has been directed to maintain a surveillance over people of FATA and that there was a proposal to issue them a chip-based ID cards to keep tabs on them, caused a lot of anger among the Pashtuns. This anger got compounded after reports that Pashtun areas in Punjab were being singled out, police were barging into houses and behaving in a heavy handed manner with Pashtuns, that there were large scale arrests of Pashtuns. It didn’t take long for Pashtun politicians, especially those belonging to nationalist parties (e.g. Awami National Party or ANP) or trying to arrogate the platform of Pashtun nationalism (Qaumi Watan Party of Aftab Sherpao), to react very strongly to these measures. While ANP chief Asfandyar Wali warned of forcible eviction of Punjabis from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the QWP warned that Punjab was weakening the Federation by singling out the Pashtuns. After some fiery rhetoric, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa assembly passed a strongly worded resolution condemning the harassment and ethnic profiling of Pashtuns in Punjab, Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) and Sindh.

CPEC Financials and Business Model Raise Eyebrows

Official documents regarding China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) projects, which have for the first time been revealed in public, have raised fears about the exorbitant financial costs that Pakistan will have to bear for the Chinese projects that form part of the ambitious CPEC programme. According to these documents, the average interest rate that Pakistan will pay for the loans taken for the projects will be around 13%. This includes a 7% insurance cost. The rest of the interest component comprises a nominal 1 – 1.5% interest plus the banking interest benchmark ‘LIBOR’ which is around 5-6%. In addition, the return on equity for some of the coal-based power projects coming up under CPEC are being promised an annual return of up to 34%. In case of hydel power projects, the return on equity is on an average around 17%. Some top economists and analysts in Pakistan fear that Pakistan will find it difficult to meet its financial obligations and could be staring at a financial crisis when these projects come online. What is more, the tax concessions being offered to many of these projects will make it even more difficult for the government to meet its financial obligations to the Chinese investors.

Meanwhile, Members of the National Assembly (MNA) have raised questions about the CPEC and asked if the CPEC will only benefit China or whether Pakistan too will get any benefit from it. Asking the government to reveal the terms and conditions of trade and transit from China, the MNAs have demanded to know if, like in the case of NATO supplies to Afghanistan, China too will use Pakistani infrastructure without paying anything. Members of the Senate have also asked the government how it proposes to protect Pakistan's interests and wanted to know how Pakistanis will benefit if only the Chinese were allowed to set up industries in SEZs, Chinese labour would be employed in Chinese ventures and projects and the Chinese will neither share their profits nor pay taxes to Pakistani government.


Pakistan Shuts Border, Conducts Cross-Border Operations in Afghanistan

Following the upsurge in terror attacks inside Pakistan, which Pakistanis blamed on terrorists based in Afghanistan, the Pakistani authorities shut the border with Afghanistan, ostensibly for security reasons. The move was clearly a disingenuous one because Pakistani officials have been claiming that after strict border regulations were introduced some months back, no unauthorised crossing was possible from the designated border crossing points on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The border closure was therefore a strong arm tactic used by the Pakistanis to impose ‘collective punishment’ on the Afghans. The border closure meant people were stranded on the wrong side of the border. Worse, thousands of trucks laden with goods were also stranded. The closure caused huge losses to traders, especially those dealing in perishable commodities. But even two weeks after the Lahore Mall Road attack, following which the border was shut, the border remains closed, despite entreaties by the Afghan government.

The Pakistan foreign office also summoned Afghan diplomats to protest the use of Afghan territory by terrorists to strike Pakistan. But in a move that violates all diplomatic protocol, Afghan diplomats were summoned to the General Headquarters (GHQ) where they were handed a list of 70 odd terrorists based in Afghanistan with the demand that they be apprehended and handed over the Pakistan. The Afghan government pushed back by summoning Pakistani diplomats and handing them a list of over 80 Afghan terrorists who had been given sanctuary inside Pakistan. The Afghans also demanded action against 32 terror camps inside Pakistan. Later, in what is being seen as a tit-for-tat move, the Afghan deputy chief of army ‘invited’ the Pakistani ambassador and asked him to impress upon his government to open the border with Afghanistan.

But the diplomatic tit-for-tat was a bit of a sideshow when compared to the ‘aggression’ of Pakistani armed forces which claimed to have carried out cross-border strikes to take out terrorist camps in Afghan territory. Following the terror attack in Sehwan, the Pakistani army claimed to have used artillery shelling to flatten some of the alleged terror facilities inside Afghanistan. There were also indications that some Special Forces operations were also conducted inside Afghan territory. Reports in the Pakistani press seemed to suggest that air power might also have been used ‘along the border’, which could very well mean inside Afghan territory. The artillery shelling inside Afghanistan was done over a few days which led to strong protests from the Afghan side who repeatedly summoned the Pakistani diplomats to register their protest against what they called ‘aggression’ by Pakistan and warned that they would retaliate if the attacks continued. There was also some talk of invoking the bilateral security agreement with the US under which both countries would consult on measures to counter any external aggression against Afghanistan.


Election Commission Invites Parties to Enlist for Polls.

The Election Commission, on February 26, asked the political parties to register themselves for participation in the local level elections scheduled for May 14, 2017. Although the Commission had enrolled the parties for elections in the districts recently, it has asked them again to be enlisted at the Commission’s head office in Kathmandu by Wednesday the 2nd. Only the parties which had registered earlier can participate in the forthcoming election. This move is expected to bring down their number. 45 parties were registered in Kathmandu while the lowest number was six in Manang. A total of 111 political parties have been registered with the Election Commission to carry out political activities. Article 269 of the Constitution says that only the listed parties must register themselves with the Election Commission for participation in the elections.

15 Amendment Papers Filed on Charter Revision.

‘Sanghiya Gathbandhan’ has registered an amendment proposal to the charter revision bill tabled by the government in Parliament demanding 2 provinces in the plains. As many as 15 proposals were registered as the 72 hours deadline to register amendments came to a close. With the opposition front led by Communist Party of Nepal – United Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML) choosing to remain silent on the ongoing Constitution amendment process, Parliament endorsed the proposal to consider deliberations on the Bill with the majority votes. Lawmakers affiliated with the alliance of Madhesi and Janjati parties have proposed realignment of the Tarai (Jhapa, Morang, Sunsari and Chitwan districts) with Province-2 and those of Kailali and Kanchanpur districts with Province-5. Sadhbhawana Party leader Laxman Lal Kharna was hopeful that the government would garner a two-third majority on the amendment proposal if not on the registered revisions. He further said that the government will be held responsible if it fails to garner the 2/3rd majority required to endorse the amendment proposal.

On behalf of the Gathabandhan, eight lawmakers registered reviews to the Amendment Bill. The paper was signed by representatives of the Tarai Madhes Loktrantrik Party, Sadbhawana Party, Nepal Sadhbhawana Party, Rashtriya Madhes Samajbadi Party, Samyukta Loktantrik Rashtriya Manch and the Nepal Janata Dal. Meanwhile, four disgruntled leaders from the ruling Nepali Congress and CPN (Maoist Centre) registered amendments to the government’s proposal demanding that Province-5 should not be split. The four leaders have been speaking publicly against the government’s proposal to split Province-5.

On the other hand, the Samyukta Loktrantrik Madhesi Morcha has deferred it plan to withdraw support to the government after getting fresh assurances from the ruling parties of passing the Constitution amendment Bill before the scheduled local polls. Earlier the Morcha had warned of severing the ties with the government after the Maoist-Congress coalition announced the date of the local level elections. Following Morcha’s warning, the two parties had sought more time for finding consensus for passing the amendments. The last meeting of the agitating parties have also reiterated not to take part in the May 14 polls unless the federal and local boundaries are drawn in line with the agreements reached with the government.

The Nepal Investment Summit – Kathmandu.

The Nepal Investment Summit is scheduled to take place in Kathmandu on March 2-3, 2017. The Indian Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, in a meeting with the Nepalese Ambassador to India Shri Deep Kumar Upadhyay, assured him of his participation in the Summit which is aimed at improving the investment climate in Nepal. The Summit will provide national and international investors as well as development partners an opportunity to learn about Nepal’s investment scenario, regulatory environment and sectors open for investment. Over 300 investors from more than ten countries and two dozen speakers will take part in the event. The area of focus will be energy and infrastructure, tourism, mines and minerals and agro-forestry.

China Assures Support to Nepal in Constitution implementation

Chinese Ambassador to Nepal Yo Hong has said that China was ready to support Nepal in the Constitution implementation. In a meeting with Prime Minister Dahal in Kathmandu, the envoy said that Nepal-China relationships so far had been extremely good and the development projects in Nepal were being carried out with alacrity and precision.


Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar visits Bangladesh.

The Indian Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar visited Bangladesh on a two day trip which (February 23-24, 2017). He called on the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, besides holding official level talks with senior officials. During this meeting, the Foreign Secretary drew attention to the issue of the ongoing deadlock in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). Sheikh Hasina recalled peaceful settlement of the Land Boundary and enclave problems. She sought bilateral discussions to solve the other contentious issues between Bangladesh and India. Sheikh Hasina further deliberated on the implementation of the ‘Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal’ (BBIN) Motor Vehicle Agreement alongside an enhanced cooperation in other sectors for people’s welfare. The Bangladesh spokesperson quoted Sheikh Hasina as saying that the BBIN initiative should be effective and all problems relating to it should be solved through mutual discussions. The Foreign Secretary conveyed India’s willingness to take up development project in Bangladesh as per its needs and requirement.

Both the sides expressed happiness and appreciated the excellent line of development of bilateral relations between Delhi and Dhaka. They took notes of all the decisions taken during the recent meetings under various bilateral mechanisms is areas of security, Border Management, Trade and Commerce, Power, Energy, Shipping and Railways. The Indian Foreign Secretary the forthcoming visit of PM Sheikh Hasina to Delhi (likely on April 1st 2017) will further strengthen relations between the two countries.


Foreign Secretary visits Sri Lanka:

India’s Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar visited Sri Lanka from February 18-20, 2017, for bilateral discussions with Sri Lankan leaders. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) delegation which met Mr. Jaishankar at the Indian High Commission in Colombo apprised the Foreign Secretary (FS) of some pressing issues faced by the Tamil people including the pace of progress in relation to the release of lands occupied by the military in the North and East, the disappearances and about the Tamil political prisoners.

FS informed the TNA delegation that India will not press Sri Lanka to merge the Northern and Eastern Provinces to form a single Tamil-majority, as envisaged by the India-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987, after a demand made by the leader of the Eelam Peoples’ Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) Suresh Premachandran, that India should honor its promise to keep the North and East united. Jaishankar told Premachandran that much water has flown down the bridge since 1987 and as the situation has changed it will be better for all concerned to make use of the various windows of opportunity which have opened up recently with the change of regime and secure the rights of the Tamils. He argued that it would not be wise to hold every other matter hostage to one issue - the merger of the North and East. Premachandran had highlighted the issue of the merger of the North and East partly because it had been the main theme of the Ezhuga Tamil rally held recently in the Eastern town of Batticaloa.

It needs to be noted that the demand for merger of Northern and eastern province has been kept alive by some section of Tamil political leaders, and this finds some traction within Tamils of Northern Province. As against the general perception, there is no credible mass support for this demand among Up country Tamils (Indian Origin Tamils) who are living in Sinhala majority areas of central Sri Lankan plains and Muslims of Eastern Province, who feel that merger will not be helpful as it will render them as a minority within minority.

NFF to Split from UPFA

National Freedom Front (NFF) Leader Wima lWeerawansa informed the Speaker in the Parliament that five members belonging to his party would function independently in the Opposition and that they should be recognised as a separate party in the Parliament. NFF had earlier also requested Speaker Karu Jayasuriya on April 5, 2015 to recognize it as a separate party in Parliament but the request was not granted and as such and hence this fresh request.

Although the NFF contested the election on the UPFA ticket, it continues to act as a party aligned with Mahinda Rajapaksa (MR) led Joint Opposition (JO). Now every political party in Sri Lanka is trying to interpret this move in a different light. To start with Mr. Weerawansa himself, maintains that this decision was taken to strengthen the Joint Opposition under the leadership of Rajapaksa. MR however sees Weerawansa’s request that five members of the NFF would function separately in Parliament, as part of a certain plan, and these tactics cannot be revealed in public. He assured that members of the NFF would remain as members of the JO even though they would no longer be a part of the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA). Some ministers of Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), the main component of UPFA, stated that Weerawansa has no right to form a new party to function independently, as there are only three main parties in the United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA). All the other parties contested in the UPFA led by the SLFP and those parties were not considered as separate entities. Therefore, before forming an independent party, Weerawansa should have written to the SLFP General Secretary Mahinda Amaraweera for permission. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, on the other hand, was happy with the move of Weerawansa, because it means that he cannot work with MR. He said there was no provision for the NFF to function as an independent entity in the House. He said each member of the NFF could function individually (according to the procedure) and not as a party. Sri Lankan Muslim Congress (SLMC) leader Rauff Hakeem said there is precedent that an MP or MPs who contested under one party, is not recognized as a separate group. Accordingly, his request to recognize SLMC as a separate group in the House was not accepted as his party had contested the re-election under the elephant symbol.

Political Parties in North and South Intensifying Activities over New Constitution

Tamil and Sinhala politicians are intensifying their political activities over the issue of new constitution and referendum. Soon after Indian Foreign Secretary’s visit, Opposition Leader R. Sampanthan called for an immediate political solution to the Northern and Eastern problem through the new Constitution. He said his party would fully back a new Constitution that will resolve the national issue as it is a matter of urgent public importance. The country should be kept informed of the truth in regard to the process, he added.

Speaking during an adjournment motion in Parliament, Sampathan said that certain points of the Bandaranaike-Chellvanyagam Pact, Dudley Senanayake Pact, Indo-Lanka Pact and the proposals by Mangala Munasinghe and even the draft Constitution of 2000, should be used as guidelines for the new Constitution. He added that the setting up of localised units while merging North and East as proposed in the Bandaranaike-Chellvanaygam Pact, district councils proposed by the Dudley-Chellva Pact and setting up of a Supreme Council under which Northern and Eastern provincial councils could function and providing equal rights to all ethnic group, could be used as guide lines for the new Constitution. He recalled that even India had called for a solution based on the 13th Amendment while the co-chairs called for a solution based on federalism sometime back. The Leader of Opposition said even former President had stressed the need for devolution of power when he was addressing the inaugural meeting of the all party conference in 2006.

Sinhala politicians in the JO immediately countered the suggestion by stating that if the government opts for a Constitutional referendum, TNA will achieve its purpose irrespective of what happens at the referendum. JO senses that the reason behind both R. Sampanthan and M.A. Sumanthiran calling for a referendum was that the TNA would benefit from it even if the referendum was lost. Their rational behind this thinking is, if the referendum is won by JO with a majority of over 95 per cent, the TNA would complain to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) while stating that it was the reason why they were unable to live in harmony with the Sinhalese for 65 years. Additionally, the TNA could also complain that since the Sinhalese hold the majority power, democracy was abused -- which was the reason behind their loss, and seek the support of the United Nations to intervene for a separation. JO senses that it was with this motive that the TNA asks for a referendum whenever the Parliament discusses the new Constitution.

Minor Political Parties Prefer LG Polls Under PR System

Minor parties supporting the government have urged Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe that the Local Government (LG) elections should be held according to the Proportional Representation (PR) system. These parties include the Tamil Progressive Alliance (TPA), the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), the All Ceylon Muslim Congress (ACMC), the Eelam Peoples Democratic Party (EPDP), the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the United Socialist Party (USP).

Smaller political parties are not in the favour of the proposed new system, under which 30 percent of the local government members would be elected according to the PR system and 70 percent under the ward-based system of election. Now the minor parties would not gain anything if the elections were held according to the new system and that is the reason why they would not contest if the elections were held according to the new system.

Indian Assistance in Training Forces Appreciated

Former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa said that while various countries including China, Pakistan, Ukraine, Russia and Israel supplied military equipment in the fight against terrorism, India helped immensely in the provision of training for the security forces. He further revealed that the 80 per cent of Sri Lanka military’s overseas training had been provided by India over the years, yet it could not supply weapons due to the Tamil Nadu factor. He acknowledged that despite these constraints, India has helped Sri Lanka in so many ways by way of training Sri Lankan officers. Israel supplied Dvora and Kaffir fighter jets for Navy whereas armored tankers and MiG aircrafts arrived from Ukraine and Russia.


Partnership with China of High Importance - President Yameen

Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom has declared that his government attached very high importance to its partnership with China. The remark was made during Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs of China, Kong Xuanyou’s courtesy call on President Yameen on February 20. President also acknowledged the support and assistance that the Chinese government has continued to provide in socio-economic development of Maldives. Kong Xuanyou expressed confidence that the partnership between Maldives and China will continue to strengthen, and the infrastructure development projects in Maldives assisted by Chinese government was symbolic of the partnership between the two countries. He assured Maldives of continued assistance under President Xi Jinping’s administration.

International community has already started expressing concerns about the growing Chinese influence in Maldives. Chinese engagement have intensified since the Presidency of Mohamed Hassan Waheed in 2012, and has continued to grow under President Abdulla Yameen’s regime. Due to its strategic location in the Indian Ocean Region and its proximity to the Sea Lanes of Communication, Maldives is envisaged as an essential part of China’s Maritime Silk Route Project. Maldivian dispensation has always maintained that a small littoral country like theirs needs generous investments from other countries to develop. While Western powers often tie their aid and investment loans to strict conditions for socio-economic transformation through the structural adjustment program by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, China has been generous with regimes irrespective of their regards for democratic values.

Saudi King’s Upcoming Visit Stirs Opposition’s Concern

Saudi Arabian King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud is set to visit Maldives in March as part of his tour of the Asian region. King Salman’s visit to Maldives is part official and part leisure. In January 2016, President Yameen had announced Saudi government’s interest in running a huge business project described as a “town-ship” of a variety of businesses. This development has caused some concerns among the members of opposition party.

The Land Act of Maldives was amended in 2015 that gives foreigners right to ownership of land, provided their minimum investment is to the tune of USD 1 billion. Special Economic Zones Act states that the longest period of investment in Maldives is 99 years. The Saudi investment in F. Atoll is estimated to be around USD 10 billion. This is the reason why the opposition in Maldives is speculating that the Saudi Arabian government may be planning to purchase the F. Atoll. Maldivian government has assured that it would not do anything unlawful. As for the amendment to the Land Act, President Yameen said that this legislation was needed to prepare the legal framework for Special Economic Zones. President Yameen said the transformation coming F. Atoll’s way was nothing unacceptable, and that it was a major project which will provide Maldives with global recognition. President Yameen said foreign investors will be provided opportunities within the legal boundaries of the country. And that any project which challenged the sovereignty or religious unity of the country, would not be allowed. But the opposition doesn’t seem convinced about the project. Maldives Police Service has warned that activities were already being planned to stage protests during the upcoming visit of the Saudi King and they have made it clear that any such action will be met with legal action.