The Maldives
Sripathi Narayanan

The Maldives is an archipelago nation situated in the Indian Ocean and stretches in a north-south direction off India's Lakshadweep islands, between Minicoy Island and Chagos Archipelago. It stands in the Laccadive Sea, about 700 km south-west of Sri Lanka and 400 km south-west of India. The archipelago chain of the Maldives consists of approximately 1,190 coral islands grouped in a double chain of 26 atolls, along the north-south direction, spread over roughly 90,000 sq.km. The archipelago is 823 km long and 130 km at its greatest width. This makes the Maldives one of the most dispersed countries in the world. Of the islands, only 202 are inhabited. The average height of the islands is about 1.5 m above sea level and the highest point is 2.5 m above sea level. This makes the island- nation a country with the lowest high point in the world.

The total population of the Maldives is under 400,000. This includes the immigrant labour force that constitutes a quarter of the population. For a country that converted to Islam wholesale as far back as the twelfth century, religion in Maldives continues to remain moderate though citizenship is granted only to Sunni Muslims. From a tradition of autocracy of both Republican and earlier forms, the country took to multi-party democracy as recently as 2008, thus possibly heralding a wave of pro-democracy protests elsewhere in the Islamic world. The introduction of the presidential form of Government coupled with an Opposition-controlled Parliament, or People’s Majlis, at inception has contributed to certain confusion and consequent defining/re-defining of the role and responsibilities of individual institutions.

History: from the past to the present

The original inhabitants of Maldives were migrants from South India and Sri Lanka. Archaeological findings suggest the islands were inhabited as early as 1500 BC. But then the islands boast of its history being as old as 2500 years. Around AD 947, recorded contact with the outside world began, with the first Arab traveller. Early traders found Buddhist customs and practices. But the greatest contribution was made by the Persian and Arab travellers after the islanders converted to Islam in AD 1153. Dhivehi, the Maldivian language, also underwent a certain conversion as a result of constant contact with the outside world, particularly with Sinhala and other South Asian languages. For instance, the Dhivehi word for ‘boat’ is ‘dhoni’, a term differently pronounced in some of the Indian languages.

During the sixteenth century, the Portuguese launched an expedition against the Maldives and administered their holdings from Goa on India's west coast. For 15 years, the invaders tried to maintain control over the islands. But Maldivian islands being scattered over the seas it became difficult for the colonisers to administer the nation. In the mid-seventeenth century, the Dutch replaced the Portuguese as the dominant power in Ceylon, and established hegemony over Maldivian affairs without involving themselves directly in local matters, which continued to be guided by to centuries-old Islamic customs. By the 1800’s, European Oriental trade had expanded dramatically since the Maldives straddle trade routes from Europe and Africa to the East, and surveying and charting the Maldivian seas became an urgent international necessity, with the ever increasing need for and improvement in sea-borne communication and transport. Therefore, when the British Admiralty survey of the Red Sea was completed in 1834, Commander Moresby was dispatched to the Maldives. And thereafter the Maldives became a Protectorate of the British who were stationed in Ceylon. The internal affairs of the archipelago were left to be administered according to local law and customs with the Sultan continuing as the Head of State. The overbearing presence of the British in the region resulted in the Maldives’ foreign policy and external affairs being guided by the British.

The Maldives was never colonised by European powers like other countries in the region. The primary reason for this is that very nature of the archipelago made it difficult for the Maldives to be colonised. This apart, the Maldives had very little to offer in terms of economic interest and did not figure highly in meeting the trade needs of European colonisers in the region. This resulted in the Maldives not figuring highly in the strategic calculations of the powers-that-be and powers-to-be. Yet, the Gan Island in southern Addu Atoll served as a Royal Air Force (RAF) base during the Second World War. The UK also retained the air base even while granting freedom to Maldives, and let go off it only later. The comparison with the British colonial power retaining possession of the Trincomalee Harbour and Kattanayake airbase, both in Sri Lanka, after granting freedom to what was then Ceylon, cannot be missed. Though the situation has changed over the decades, and more so in the ‘Cold War’ era, what with the emergence of China as a regional/global power has sought to re-write certain past beliefs and preferences. In a strategic sense, the Maldives today is important for India, and by extension to other regional/global powers, including the US and China in particular.

This island chain officially remained a Protectorate of the British Empire from 1887 till 25 July 1965, wherein the State was administered by the indigenous Sultanate. The British guaranteed the security of the Maldives and in turn decided the foreign policy affairs of the archipelago. After a period of internal political developments that witnessed the rise and fall of the First Republic and the reinstatement of the Sultanate, the Maldives became a Republic on 11 November 1968, when the monarchy was abolished. The Republic’s first President was Ibrahim Nasir, who stayed in office till 1978, when he had to resign when faced with political opposition. This also coincided with the country facing economic hardship. For his part, Nasir as the President, was alleged to have looted the treasury of millions and had taken the money with him when he fled to Singapore. He died in Singapore in November 2008, days after the conclusion of the first multi-party presidential polls in the Maldives.

President Nasir’s successor, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom became the President and stayed in office for next 30 years. He won six continuative presidential elections within that time-frame, but all of them under a single-party, single-candidate format. Gayoom’s tenure as President witnessed a period of political stability and economic prosperity, the latter initiated by his predecessor but effectively implemented later. Gayoom was credited with improving the economy of the otherwise improvished country as he transformed the Maldives into a destination for high-end, high-value resort-tourism. He also strengthened the relations of the Maldives with other countries without compromising the interests of the country. At the same time, Gayoom has also been criticised for his totalitarian style of governance. Political opponents and other forms of dissent were quelled by limiting freedoms and a resort to political favouritism.1 Where neither worked, critics were sent to prison for long terms. His successor, President Mohammed Nasheed, was one and the most popular one, and was named ‘Prisoner of Conscience’ by Amnesty International. In short, President Gayoom ruled the country with an iron-hand.

Faced with political protests in 2004 and 2005, the Maldives under President Gayoom underwent a series of political reforms. This culminated in the drafting of a third Republican Constitution in 2007, and fresh elections to the presidency a year later. The 2008 election resulted in Mohamed Nasheed, popularly known as ‘Anni’, being elected as the President in what was to be the country’s first multi-party elections and there by ending reign of President Gayoom. This also marked the advent of the current era of democratic governance in the country.

Political system

Under the 2007 Constitution, the Maldives follows the presidential form of governance. In a way, this is a continuance of the earlier scheme but with a difference in that multiple candidates and multi-party nominations are allowed under the new Constitution. The President is both the Head of State and the Head of Government. The President and his Vice-President running-mate are directly elected to office for a term of five years, with the latter filling in the vacuum, if and when created. The winning candidate should be the one who tops the list with more than 50 per cent of the polled votes, with a run-off poll in case of necessity. In the first election under the new scheme, incumbent President Gayoom topped the first round but was still short of a majority. In the second round, he lost to Mohammed Nasheed of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), for whom other losing candidates from the first round of polling pledged their support.

As in the US scheme, and unlike in parliamentary democracies as in the UK and India, the Cabinet members are selected by the President, and have to be approved by the Legislature. The Parliament of Maldives, the People’s Majlis, is a unicameral legislature body with 77 members. Elected in 2009, six months after the presidential poll under the 2007 Constitution, the present Parliament did not give absolute majority to any single party. However, a combined Opposition, contesting the parliamentary polls separately, commanded majority in the House. The Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) of President Nasheed was the second largest party at the time with the Dhivehi Rayyathunge Party (DRP), founded by his predecessor Gayoom becoming the single largest party. However, there are certain shifts in the numbers, since, and splits in parties like the DRP. The ruling MDP has witnessed both legislative supporters like Dhivehi Qaumee Party (DQP) and the Republican Party (RP), and also non-legislature partners like the Islam-centric Adhaalath Party (AP) quitting the Government. However, in most such cases, the ministerial nominees of the parties concerned have chosen to remain in the Government.

The last parliamentary election, under the new Constitution was held on 9 May 2009. A total of 465 candidates - 211 from 11 political parties and 254 independents - were vying for seats in the People's Majlis. The 2009 elections were the first multi-party elections in the country for electing a Parliament. During the election, 78.87 per cent of the 209,000 registered voters turned out at the polls. The final results gave the DRP and the People’s Alliance (PA) 28 and seven seats respectively, three short of a parliamentary majority. The PA was founded by Abdullah Yameen, a half-brother of Gayoom and erstwhile Finance Minister under his regime. The MDP became the second largest party, winning 26 seats. The Dhivehi Qaumee Party (DQP) and the Republican Party (RP) took two seats and one seat respectively. The remaining 13 seats went to independents.

Decentralised Administration

Under the new Constitution, there should be a Provincial Council to administer the atoll and an Island Council to administer each Island. The Island councillors are elected by the people of that Island, and the Provincial Council members are elected by the Island councillors. Under the earlier scheme, the island councillors and the atoll councillors (whom the Provincial Councillors have since replaced) used to be nominated by the Government. In political terms, the change-over has also contributed to the changing political hue of the grassroots-level administration in most cases, first with nominations to the newly-constituted Provincial Councils in 2009, followed by elected Councils at all levels a year later.

To underline the purpose of taking democratic administration to the grassroots-level, the Government has also been making meaningful gestures in the matter. President Nasheed held a meeting of his Cabinet at Gan in the South some time ago. Departing from the past, the Government also chose Gan as the venue for hosting the SAARC Summit in November 2011. This is expected to be followed by more meaningful efforts at decentralisation of political power. In a nation where the scarce population is distributed unevenly across islands (in some cases, the population of an island not crossing the three-digit figure), such gestures and departures are expected to fill a gap that could not be filled otherwise, but has to be filled, nonetheless if democracy has to take deeper roots.

The "Freedom in the World" index, a measure of political rights and civil liberties published by Freedom House, judged the Maldives as "not free" until May 1, 2009, when it was raised the level to "partly free". The "Worldwide Press Freedom Index", published by Reporters Without Borders, lists Maldives as a "very serious situation" (a verdict also passed on to Libya, Cuba, and China). While there is a general belief that freedom of expression, and of the Press have improved since regime-change and scheme-change in 2008, concerns do remain. The political Opposition in particular, and sections of the Press, have voiced their worries on specific issues and cases, from time to time.

Political Parties

The Maldives under the new Constitution is a multi-party democracy. The process for registering political parties commenced with the advent of the new Constitution and fresh elections in 2008. Under the law, a party should have a verifiable 3000 members for being registered with the Election Commission. The scheme provides for internal democracy in the choice of office-bearers. From the first presidential poll of 2008, the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), which was at the vanguard of pro-democratic protests, introduced the scheme of primaries, as in the US, for the choice of its nominee. This seems to have caught on with other parties in the country – a welcome departure from the existing practice of ‘imposed’ candidates in other South Asian countries and Third World democracies. Of all the political parties there are at present four that are relatively important at a national level. Of these the MDP and the DRP are the two major political parties that present are perceived to be the most important political entities in the country. Of them, the DRP split recently, leading to the creation of the ‘Progressive Party of Maldives’ (PPM), by supporters of former President Gayoom. Their legislative strength after the split is not yet known, so is their membership, as yet.

Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP)

The MDP is the ruling political party of Maldives at present. It is also the first political party to register itself with the Election Commission, when multi-party democracy was introduced in the country. The MDP along with the DRP constitute the two major political parties of Maldives. The present President is a member of the MDP. The party’s first attempt to be reorganised by the State by registering itself in February 2001 ended up as a futile attempt. But the MDP declared its existence from Sri Lanka with 42 members, who were all on a self-imposed exile, on the 10 November 2003. This was done under the backdrop of changing political climate in the Maldives. On 2 June 2005 the Majlis unanimously voted in favour of a multi-party system and the MDP was legally reorganised on 26 June 2005.

Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) or Maldivian People’s Party

The DRP was the political party founded by former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, under the new politico-constitutional scheme. Though it was the single largest party in Parliament after the 2009 elections, the DRP has since been pushed to the second place after the MDP, following cross-overs to the MDP from this and other parties. After losing the presidential election, the party elected Mohammed Thasmeen Ali, Gayoom’s running-mate as the new leader and presidential candidate for the 2013 elections. Though this had Gayoom’s blessings and support, there have been a drift , with the Gayoom faction launching the PPM, in mid-2011.

Adhaalath Party

The Adhalath Party (AP) in Dhivehi means ‘Justice Party’. This political party, like the MDP, came into existence as a result of the political reforms that Maldives underwent. At present it is the third largest political party in terms of membership, but does not have elected members in Parliament. The party used to dominate in the affairs of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs and its member used to be the Minister concerned. However, with the AP resolving to withdraw from the MDP-led coalition recently, the Minister has decided to stay with the Government.

The Adhaalath Party is considered to be pro-Islamic, and not liberal like the MDP or the DRP. The Ministry of Islamic Affairs had imposed restrictions for the first time on January 2009 for New Year party celebrations. The Ministry also issued a statement that all religious discourses had to be delivered only by qualified religious scholars. The AP discourages women from running for leadership roles. The party openly propagates the abrogation of any law if it is in conflict with the Shariah.

Islamic Democratic Party (IDP)

This party was founded by Umar Naseer, Mohamed Haneef, Ahmed Inaz, Mohamed Ibrahim Didi, Abdulla Waheed and Mahamed Hassan Manik. Umar Naseer was a police officer liked by his superiors and subordinates alike. He was trained in the UK and other countries. Mohamed Haneef was a Police Officer, later he resigned from his services and began his Political career. He is well known among Maldivians as the person who organised two protests against then President Ibrahim Nasir in 1975.

Emerging Scenario

The other political parties that are registered include the Maldives Social Democratic Party (MSDP), whose founder Ibrahim Ismail alias Ibra, has since joined hands with President Nasheed, the Maldives National Congress (MNC), Dhivehi Qaumee Party (DQP), People's Alliance (PA), People's Party (PP), Poverty Alleviating Party (PAP), Social Liberal Party (SLP), Republican Party or Jumhooree Party (JP). Of them, the AP was founded by former Finance Minister and Gayoom’s half-brother, Abdulla Yameen, the JP by another ex-Finance Minister Gasim Ibrahim (who is also among the richest men in the country) and DQP by one-time presidential hopeful (like the other two) and later-day Presidential Advisor, Dr Hassan Saeed, a Supreme Court lawyer.

The emerging scenario after the presidential polls of 2008 had witnessed the DQP under its original name, Maldivian National Front and the JP under Gasim Ibrahim leaving the MDP front. Indications are that the two have since moved closer to the undivided DRP, though their respective positions in the days after the DRP split are yet to be assessed. The PA, as was to be expected, has moved closer to the dissident DRP, formed into a new party, PPM.

Legal and Judicial System

The legal system is based on Islamic law with admixtures of English common law, primarily in commercial matters. But it is mainly derived from traditional Islamic law. However, there is scope and need for further improvement to the legal system and legislations. The new Government has taken a special interest in the matter. In a nation with limited exposure to formal education at the university level, owing to the absence of the same until now, qualified legal professionals are few in numbers – be it as lawyers or judges. The new university, started by the Government some months ago, is expected to have faculties of higher learning, including law, in due course, to fill this gap. The co-existence of Islamic of law and the British common law practices together means that Maldives could benefit from interaction with the legal and judicial system in India, where such a combination have succeeded in addressing the concerns of the people and the nation. The Maldives has not accepted the International Court of Justice jurisprudence.

There is a Supreme Court with five judges, including the Chief Justice. The Chief Justice is appointed by the President on the recommendation of the Judicial Service Commission (JSC), and Parliament needs to approve his appointment before he takes office. There is a High Court, a criminal court, civil court and lower courts in the atolls/islands. The working of the new scheme needs to be fine-tuned, as became evident when the Executive and the Judiciary on the one hand, and the Executive and the Legislature on the other, collided, head-on during 2010, with the Supreme Court attesting some of the decisions/directions of the Majlis, for the Government to follow/not to follow. Most of those problems seem to have been sorted out, since.

Fiscal and Economic Policies

The Maldivian economy is dominated by tourism sector and fisheries. Tourism contributes 28 per cent of the nation’s gross domestic product2 (GDP). These two sectors and Government employment are the primary source of family incomes. State employment used to cover a third of the work force in the country. However, the trend has begun to change after the new Government, having inherited a severe fiscal situation on assuming office, was forced to cut down on jobs and slice away 20 per cent off the salaries of Government employees, to meet IMF criteria for long-term credit facility. Reports have indicated that the IMF was unhappy with the Government in the same vein creating the elected offices of Provincial and Island Councillors, who are being paid from the Government exchequer.

The tourism sector is predominantly staffed by expatriates. In addition to this, expatriates dominate the services sector of the archipelago. The primary reason for the overwhelming presence of non-locals in Maldives is the absence of skill-based education. The country boasts of high literacy but then does not have any higher education institutions. Lately, some career-based institutes have commenced functioning, addressing the demands of the tourism and hospitality industry to a limited extent. Maldivians who are to pursue their higher education have to go to other countries like Sri Lanka and India, Australia and Malaysia, the UK and the US, to meet this need. This is not restricted to technical and formal education but also to religious and theological studies.

On the other hand, the fisheries sector is not modernised to the extent it is possible. The State discourages those methods of fishing such the use of trawlers that can have a negative impact upon the environment and the maritime as ecosystem. During the Asian tsunami of 2004, the country lost economic assets to the tune of about 62 per cent of the GDP and the economic growth declined to a mere one per cent from a 20-year average of eight per cent. This was because the economy was based on the twin sectors of resort tourism and fisheries, where the infrastructure too suffered. It needed US $239 million in emergency relief and another $1.3 billion for reconstruction over the next five years.

In addition to this, the Maldivian economy is also linked to the vagaries of global economy. This is so as the tourists that visit Maldives are high-end earners, whose personal fortunes are linked to the economic wellbeing of the developed countries. However, the Maldives has been diversifying on attracting tourists from other countries, and has also recorded success. In the years after the tsunami, when the Maldivian economy was further affected by the global economic meltdown, affecting tourism industry in particular, it turned to China, India and Africa for tourism promotion. The campaign met with success, with the result, the nation’s economy has found alternate ways of managing tourist flow and incomes, but not necessarily diversification into other sectors.

Purportedly under IMF diktat, the Government of President Nasheed has also been reviewing economic practices from the past, and has introduced new taxation measures, property legislation, and taken to large-scale privatisation of economic infrastructure and services. While the privatisation of the Male International Airport, through a private-public partnership with the Indian infrastructure conglomerate, GMR Group is the most visible and important one to date, down the line, the Government has privatised utilities like power and water-supply across the country.

The more significant change on the economic front in toto relates to the Government’s decision in 2011 for a ‘limited float of the rufiyaa’, the Maldivian currency. Pegged at a fixed rate against the US dollar for long, the artificial forex rate for the rufiyaa meant that the Government was subsidising heavily not only on infrastructure and supplies but also on the currency. The ‘managed float’ or ‘devaluation’ as the critics of the Government describe it, has led to steep increases in prices of commodities, and is hence considered as a not-so-popular a measure. Simultaneously, the Government has also been working to do away with the past practice that allowed payment of taxes and other duties in dollars, as also free repatriation of business earnings in foreign exchange. The new scheme involves payments to the Government to be made in rufiyaa. However, no clear-cut decision has been taken about free repatriation of all earnings by foreign investors – something that was thought of as necessary for attracting the latter, but felt to be not required any more.

Given the small size of the islands, their salty sands and water (which is being desalinated for consumption), and also the limited market that it offers, the Maldives is highly dependent on imports to meet its basic needs with limited resources for export. The country to this end is an imports-based economy. From sand for the construction of resorts and other infrastructure material, food grains and pharmaceuticals, stationery and most other needs for daily living are imported from other countries, particularly from Sri Lanka and India. The Government of India in particular has been careful to exempt the Maldives (along with Bhutan), from the periodic ban on imports, particularly of food grains, sugar, etc, often necessitated by shortages on the home front.

Strategic Issues and Security Concerns

The security concerns of the Maldives are none that are specific. Yet they impose a grave threat to the island nation in the form of extremism, piracy and global warming, to name a few. Some neo-cons in the West are often tempted to include Maldives as a future part of their ‘String of Pearls’ theory, of China wanting to strangulate India, all around. Independent of the China angle, these security concerns were a threat to the State in the past and might even haunt them in the future. The common thread that binds all the security concerns of the State can be attributed to the State system and geographical limitations of the country, coupled with lack of resources – which is as much human as fiscal.

Given the vast seas that mark the borders and the large number of islands that it comprises, and the equally high number of uninhabited islands among them, the Maldives should ordinarily be the nightmare of any strategic analyst planning for the security of the nation. The increasing relevance of the country in geo-strategic terms and the consequent geo-political importance that is vested on it, burdened however it is by the economic realities of being an islands-nation, the Maldives poses a complex problem for solution. The fact also remains that the problem should not be allowed to be flagged or fester in anyway whatsoever.

The nation’s vulnerability was exposed when in 1988, a non-LTTE mercenary Tamil militant group from neighbouring Sri Lanka targeted Maldives from the seas. The coincidental presence of an Indian Navy ship in the adjoining waters while on its way back home from an overseas assignment meant that New Delhi could respond to the SOS from Male, routed through an overseas point after the coup leaders had blocked telephone lines in the capital. New Delhi also despatched Indian Air Force (IAF) aircraft, and the coup attempt was defeated. In a more complex situation arising in the twenty-first century, the Maldives would remain mostly unprotected; its strategic security ensured only by relative diplomatic neutrality, still inevitably leaning on India and possibly Sri Lanka, too, and not allowing non-regional players to enter the Maldivian waters with a geo-political intent.

Extremism

The Maldives is a Muslim country for all intents and purposes, and the officially reorganised religion of the State is Sunni Islam. All other forms of worship and religious beliefs are discouraged by the State and are forbidden. This includes denying citizenship to non-Sunni Muslims. This has remained so under the new Constitution, which has borrowed most democratic tenets from the West. Despite the Government’s stated position on religion, Maldives is not a theocratic State and does not confine itself to the narrow interpretations of Islam or has a dogmatic view on religion. The Government, to its credit, has been in a position to negate the influence of the ulemas on the affairs of the State. This is an interesting facet of Maldives politics and theology, as former President Gayoom was educated in Islamic jurisprudence in Egypt, at the Al-Azhar University, Cairo. As President, he was also the religious and theological head of the country, and also introduced the Shariat to the islands-nation3.

Yet, Maldivian Islam has remained tolerant and private as far as the nation and/or its people go. There are no complaints against non-Muslims working in their midst, in the name of religion and traditional practices. Even in the interior islands, India-born female teachers and nurses could be seen adorning the tilak on their foreheads and flowers on their plait. Islam that is being practiced in Maldives is of Shaafi-Sunni school, and not the fundamentalist version of Wahhabis’ Salafism4. But Shaafi-Sunni Islam is now losing ground to Salafist Wahabism because of external influence. The popularity of Salafist-Wahabism is directly influenced by the Maldivians who have been educated in conservative madrassas in foreign countries. This is so as a large number of Maldivians pursue higher education in traditional institutions overseas, particularly for want of such facilities in the country.

A large number of Maldivians pursue Islamic theological education in madrassas and other educational institutions in countries such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. This results in a few Maldivians being influenced by conservative and narrow interpretations of Islam in Pakistani and Saudi Arabian madrassas. These madrassas profess the dogmatic Wahabi school of Islamic philosophy. A few of the madrassas that are frequented by Maldivian are those whose alumni have been leading figures of terrorist organisations like al-Qaeda and the Lashkar-e-Taiba. President Nasheed has acknowledged that that 50 Maldivians were students in Pakistani madrassas and 40 students were studying in ‘radical madrassas’. In 2010, among the militant cadres detained by the US forces along the Afghan-Pakistan border were some Maldivians.

The influence of such radical madrassas have resulted in Maldivian nationals either being associated with or joining Islamic terrorist organisations, outside the country thus far. Inside the country, there is a discernible increase in the activities of religious political parties with a relatively fundamentalist approach to issues and ideology. In a way, it should be welcome as the democratic scheme provides them with a voice to express, and a way to evaluate their own support-base. The alternative would have been for some of these peripheral groups to feel frustrated and react accordingly. Despite predictions to the contrary, the Maldivian voter overwhelmingly side-lined fundamentalist political parties in the first multi-party presidential poll in 2008. Together, they could not garner more than 1.5 per cent of the polled votes. None of them could win a single seat in the parliamentary elections the next year. In the March 2011 local council elections, the Adhaalath Party in particular did manage to send a few Island Council members. It owed mostly to local conditions and issues. However, given the melting-pot that Maldivian politics has become since taking to multi-party democracy, any frustration of the youthful voters could be a cause for future concern.

The Government of the day distanced a lone incident of reported bomb-explosion in recent years from religious groups. The blast in Sultan Park in the capital city of Male in September 2007 left 12 tourists injured. The Gayoom dispensation attributed it to pro-democracy groups, based in Europe, whose aim, it was claimed, was to deter tourist-arrival to the country. Independent security analysts, including Mr B Raman from India, argued that the modus operandi of the explosion was similar to the earlier ‘London rail station blast’. Religious extremists were blamed for the latter. It was further known that the archipelago too had become a part of the international network of Islamic terror groups. Maldivian nationals were known to be in contact with terrorist organisations like the Lashkar-e-Taiba, al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and that Maldivian nationals were involved in jihad elsewhere. A number of Maldivian nationals have been fighting in the Af-Pak region. A few have been killed in Jammu and Kashmir. Ibrahim Fauzee, a Maldivian national, was detained in Guantanamo Bay when his affiliation to al-Qaeda was unearthed by the US agencies. He was subsequently released, at the end of his detention period.

The terrorist network with respect to Maldives is not specific to Pakistani ISI but also extends to other countries. Maldivian nationals have been detained in Sri Lanka en route to Pakistan to join Islamic jihadi groups. Their suspected presence in India is also well documented. A planned attack by the LeT on the ISRO facility in Thiruvanathapuram was called off as the Maldivian national code named ‘Ehsham’ backed out at the last minute. Maldivian nationals wanting to take part in terrorist operations in India use a number of routes to enter the country. A few of the known routes include infiltration across the LoC in Jammu and Kashmir and through Nepal. A Maldivian national was arrested, again in Thiruvananthapuram, where he was attempting source weapons and explosive components.

The issue of Islamic extremism in Maldives is also magnified by the changing nature of the Maldivian society. The Arabic influence is visible in the island nation, where long-flowing dress and the (mandatory) beard for men, as is the wont in South Asia, and burqa for women have become a common sight in the national capital of Male. This was not the case earlier, as Maldivians, particularly the city-dwellers practised a moderate form of the religion, where dress codes did not exist. The city houses a third of the nation’s population and internal migration, in search of jobs and better school education for children, is on the rise. This has meant families from far-off islands have brought with them their traditional customs. But there is also an equally visible increase in the number of people who have taken the back-to-the-basic routes, owing mainly to developments, particularly in other parts of South Asia. Posters in praise of Osama bin-Laden and ransacking of shops that sold figurines of Santa Claus during Christmas have also been reported in recent years. But to the credit of the Government, all foreign religious leaders have been barred from entering the country unless invited by the State. This is aimed at limiting the possibility of their influencing the population on a conservative thought process.

Piracy and External Help (‘Operation Cactus’)

Another factor that can possibly be a source of external threat Maldives is the possibility of an armed invasion or aggression by either a State or non-State actor. The concern is real as unsuccessful coup attempts had been launched against the Government of then President Gayoom in the years 1980, 1983 and 1988. Of the three it was the 1988 coup attempt that came close to success. In 1988 a Sri Lankan Tamil militant group called PLOTE (‘People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam’), acting as mercenary, failed in their bid to overthrow the Gayoom leadership. Around 80 armed militants were recruited by a Maldivian businessman named Abdullah Luthufi. India diverted a Navy ship in the vicinity and despatched Air Force planes to secure the Maldives after President Gayoom sought military assistance to repel the armed mercenaries.

The Indian forces reached Maldives in a move that was code-named “Operation Cactus”. The operation resulted in the Indian forces securing Male, which was then under threat and was holding up to enemy fire, within hours. The perpetrators of the coup were neutralised. Investigations showed that the PLOTE was rumoured to have been promised access to Maldivian islands, to be used as base for their struggle against the Sri Lankan State. The rebels were also believed to have been promised financial assistance with estimates varying between US$ 1 million to $10million.

Op Cactus exposed the inherent inadequacies, weaknesses and the consequent inability of the nation’s security forces, since rechristened as Maldivian National Defence Force (MNDF), to ensure the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the nation. In times of crises, the 4,000-strong force would be woefully inadequate to meet the security demands of an open-to-water and open-to-skies nations, whose island territories are spread out over a 90,000 km area in the seas. The inherent resource-constraints, both in terms of personnel, naval and air assets and other equipment, is an added cause for concern. These apprehensions have since been revived and reinforced with the advent of Somali piracy in the neighbourhood waters. The Indian Navy and Coast Guard have undertaken the responsibility to patrol and securing the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of the Maldives. India has donated Coast Guard ships and helicopters for the MNDF to patrol their seas. The two nations, in recent years, have also established networked access to information and intelligence data to help in this. Cooperation between the navies of the two countries in particular has been on a steady increase since the 1988 coup. Lately, the Maldives is also reported to have diversified its personnel’s training, to include US instructors equipped in counter-terrorism and counter-piracy measures in particular. There has been limited, or no interaction of the kind involving China, Russia or Pakistan.

Global-Warming, Narcotics and Economy

The Maldives’s other concerns relate to narcotics and global-warming. Both are very real concerns for the State and are not seen as issues or irritants that can be tackled, as is the case with other countries. In the case of the Maldives, climate-change and global-warming are real as the rising sea-levels have threatened to submerge the islands, including those that are inhabited. This is so as the average elevation of the country is around a metre and a half, the lowest in the world. If the sea-level were to rise as a result of climate-change, there is a real possibility of the whole country being submerged over the next 50-100 years. The islands constituting the country being a coral archipelago and not a volcanic archipelago have not helped matters. The change in the climate and rise in sea temperature will not only affect the nation’s territory, but also the marine ecology. This will begin impacting on the local fishing industry, one of the economic mainstays of the nation.

To this end, the Maldives along with other small island-nations, has taken the lead in sensitising the world on the issues of global-warming and climate-change. The Maldivian efforts in this regard received a further boost in recent years in particular. Named by the UN as ‘ambassador’ on climate issues, President Nasheed made a point when he chaired an underwater Cabinet meeting, which drew the world’s attention to global-warming ahead of the Copenhagen Summit in December 2009. Earlier, ahead of assuming office in November 2008, President-elect Nasheed flagged the issue for the first time for the world to hear. He indicated that going by the pace of the rising sea-levels, caused by global-warming, the Maldives may have to look elsewhere for transplanting an entire nation. He mentioned enclaves in countries such as Sri Lanka, India and Australia in this regard.

In addition to fishing, the Maldivian economy is based on tourism. The Maldives is among the preferred destinations for high-end, high-value, high-cost tourism. This viability of this sector is primarily based on a few key factors. International economic outlook and political stability in the country are only two. This is so because tourism as a sector is most affected during times of economic recession. At the same time, safety and security are two other perquisites for tourism to flourish. Any perception about political stability and the nation’s security at any given point could affect tourism industry in a big way. Since the Maldivian economy is based mostly on tourism, it cannot sustain itself if the tourism sector is to be affected.

The second issue that Maldives faces is that of drugs and narcotics. For a country with a small population the drug problem is two-fold. The first being the problems that the country is facing on the law and order front because of narcotics, the second one is social impact that this will have in a small country. The issue of drug-addiction is so acute that every Maldivian family is touched by this5. The drug problem, if unchecked, is said to impact the labour market and could also contribute to health issues like HIV, Hepatitis-C and other blood-borne diseases. Added to this, narcotics in the Maldivian context need not only be an internal issue. The geographical position of the nation and also the existence of uninhabited islands could result in Maldives becoming a transit/logistics hub for international drug cartels. The Maldives till date has not been known as a transit route for the drug trade despite being in close proximity of the ‘Golden Triangle’ (Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia) and the ‘Golden Crescent’ (Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran). Adverse reports of the kind could also affect the tourism sector.

International Power Politics

One situation that could lead to a security risk for Maldives in the near future is that of it being sucked or pulled into a regional geostrategic political tug-of-war. The archipelago had managed to maintain its distance from the ‘super powers’ during the Cold War years. It had declined the offer to ally with both the US and the erstwhile Soviet Union. This is despite the fact the Maldives occupies geo-strategic locale in the Indian Ocean, because of its close proximity to South Asia, the waters of the Arabian Peninsula and the eastern coast of Africa. This in turns makes this country a valuable staging post in the region that covers a sizeable part of the Indian Ocean, including key choke-points.

To its credit, the Maldives did not seek, nor was it enticed to offer any of its islands to either of the super-powers. After the closure of the Second World War airfield in Gan in 1978 by the British Government, the Shah of Iran (for his own reasons), Mohammed Gadaffi of Libya, and the Soviet Union all tried in vain to secure the base (the latter two, to counter the US military presence in Diego Garcia.)6 The US on their part were interested in utilising the serine beauty of Maldives as a rest and rehabilitation place for their military personnel, posted in the Indian Ocean region.

The current dilemma that Maldives could face would be with respect to China, India and the US. The US is already present in the Indian Ocean, at Diego Garcia, with their Seventh Fleet, south of the Maldives. India is the north (Lakshadweep), while possible Chinese presence at Hambantota in Sri Lanka (the ‘jewel’ in the ‘Sting of Pearls’) adds to the current political discourse in geo-strategic terms in the Indian Ocean. This three-way ballet will by default result in the Maldives becoming the dancing floor for regional and global powers. The future prospect for the island-nation would be based on its ability to manage its relations with all three nations as they have a stake in the Maldives to enhance and also secure their respective geo-political interests in the Indian Ocean. On the other hand, the Maldives is also depended on all three nations, independent of one other. It is a recipient of assistance from both India and China.

India is helping the Maldives in setting up a series of radars that will help in surveillance and also in security. In total there will be 26 radars in the Maldives which would be linked with the Indian coastal command.7 At the same time, it is speculated that the Marao Island is being developed into a submarine facility by the Chinese – a speculation that the Maldivian authorities have denied, whenever made. This has already resulted in a race in the India Ocean by both India and China, to secure their respective national interests and also project their power in this region. The Maldives though a bystander at present may not have such a luxury in the future.

Conclusion

The Maldives’ security concerns arise from both its geographic nature and its geographic position. These concerns are further complimented by the limited economic and human resources. The geographic nature of the Maldives itself makes it a difficult proposition to secure all the outlying islands. In addition, the nation is also faced with limited economic resources, which end up hindering the prospect of the State investing enough to ensure minimum security. These deficiencies have been exposed and exploited in the past. This has resulted in a situation wherein the State is dependent on external guarantees for ensuring its security. This is the reality that the Maldives would have to realise and that every Maldivian would have to live with. The acceptance of the situation that the archipelago faces would throw up the next question - with whom to align with, whom to depend upon, and who is dependable? The obvious choices that the Maldives faces are limited to India, the next-door neighbour and long-standing friend. China, a prospective global power and the US, the sole super-power at present, are the others. Managing the tri-lateral relations will be another aspect of Maldivian foreign and security policy in the years and decades to come.

The limitations that the Maldives faces with these three countries are that the neighbour though reliable and non-interfering may not be in a position to bank-role Maldives the way Male expects. On the other hand, China, given its economic might and fiscal liquidity, is poised to aid the unstable Maldivian economy as and when the need arises. China can also invest heavily in capital infrastructure projects that the country can do with. Whereas for the US, the Maldives may not be the blue-eyed boy of the Indian Ocean since their navy is already present in Diego Garcia, yet it would be interested in ensuring that the Maldives did not play host to another power in the Indian Ocean. In addition to this, any perceived proximity to any extra-regional power could become counter-productive, considering Maldivian linkages to India and also Sri Lanka.

The interests of Maldives would be best served if it can assure itself that the waters of the Indian Ocean would be stable and not engulfed by one crisis after another. This is an imperative as tourism will flourish only in an environment that is free of instability and security-threats. To this end, piracy, environmental issues and armed conflicts will not benefit the Maldives in anyway. At the same time, international power politics and tug-of-war will at best result in the Maldives becoming a pawn in the hands of others, without the nation gaining anything significant in return.

Notifications

  1. http://articles.cnn.com/2008-11-11/world/maldives.president_1_sea-levels-maldivian-climate-change?_s=PM:WORLD
  2. S. D. Muni, Maldives: Towards Open Polity, 31 October 2008 se1.isn.ch/serviceengine/Files/ISN/93796/.../403DCA83.../86.pdf
  3. Philip Sherwell and Ben Leapman, 30 September 2007, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1564623/Has-Islamic-terrorism-arrived-on-Maldives.html
  4. Praveen Swami, http://www.hindu.com/2007/11/24/stories/2007112455381200.htm
  5. Sarah Crowe and Rajat Madhok,11 March 2009, http://www.unicef.org/infobycountry/maldives_48581.html
  6. Balaji Chandramohan, 13 October 2009,
    http://www.idsa.in/idsastrategiccomments/IndiaMaldivesandtheIndianOcean_BChandramohan_131009
  7. ibin

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Published Date: 25th October, 2011

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