Liberal democracies, don’t give up on the Maldives

India must calibrate its policy with caution and in coordination with other concerned countries to counter a potential Chinese backlash. Sanctions can backfire.

Arafat Kabir
9 April 2018

Chinese President Xi Jinping holds a welcome ceremony for visiting Maldives President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom before their talks at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, capital of China, Dec. 7, 2017. Pang Xinglei/Press Association. All rights reserved.Known for its sun-kissed white sand beaches, turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean, and breathtaking vistas, the Maldives offers a perfect tropical getaway for those seeking to get lost in peace and tranquility. That was true, anyway, until the beginning of February this year. The island nation is now teetering on the precipice. 

President Abdulla Yameen declared a 15-day state of emergency on February 6 only lifted on April 9 amidst what has been described as a “terrorism” crackdown. This appeared to be a brazen attack on the country’s judiciary. The apex court had been acting as a partial check on the increasingly authoritarian president. The supreme court ordered the government to release incarcerated opposition leaders. However, it turned out to be too big of a task for Yameen’s government, triggering an otherwise unavoidable crisis.

The international community, including the United StatesBritain, and neighboring India, expressed immediate concerns. Given the Trump administration’s insouciance toward smaller countries, the state department’s statement was a welcome development. The former President, Mohamed Nasheed, who is in exile in Sri Lanka, called upon on Delhi for a military intervention to end the unrest. He also urged the US government to block the Maldivian government’s financial transactions. The other important player China, however, was not breaking away from its standard boilerplate diplomacy. Rather, Beijing hoped that the crisis would be “solved internally.” 

This divergence in response reveals that the Chinese do not like to see any third-party interference to rupture the status quo in Malé, the capital city. Why would they? China sees the Maldives, thanks to its strategic location, as an important element of its much-touted One Belt, One Road initiative. China can count on Yameen to help cement its foothold in the Indian Ocean region, which Delhi considers as its sphere of influence. 

Going by the playbook of the twenty-first-century-Chinese diplomacy, Beijing has lavished lucrative deals on the Yameen government with virtually no strings attached regarding good governance and human rights. In fact, Yameen’s allegiance to Beijing has reached the point that last December the Maldivian parliament approved a thousand-page free trade agreement with China after just an hour of debate. Therefore, it should not come as a surprise that China does not find it requisite to mount pressure on Yameen. Furthermore, China does not readily support Nasheed, who favored a pro-western foreign policy during his tenure.

In 2013, Nasheed was convicted by a so-called anti-terrorism law, which Amnesty International called “a travesty of justice.” Later, while on a medical leave to London, Nasheed hired Amal Clooney as his lawyer and managed to secure asylum in the United Kingdom. Since then Nasheed has remained the vocal critic of the Yameen government’s lack of transparency and violation of human rights.

Defiance shown to the judiciary is not uncommon in the Maldives, which has a long history of authoritarian rule. Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, Yameen’s half-brother, ruled the country for thirty years until he ceded power to Nasheed through a multiparty election in 2008, ushering in democracy for a country so accustomed to a one-man show. Nasheed earned his reputation on the global stage as a champion of climate change that threatens the Maldives’ existence. However, the relationship between Nasheed and his partners as well the judiciary soured, leading him to arrest judges. That political miscalculation cost him his power and eventually led him to his imprisonment. 

President Yameen has continued to stifle successive oppositions and turn against the judiciary. But he seems now to have gone a little too far. Perhaps emboldened by Chinese cash, Yameen has also disregarded international pressure. He did not hesitate to pull the Maldives out of the Commonwealth amid increased criticism against his government. The government became increasingly hostile to journalists and passed draconian laws in the name of fighting terrorism. A recent display of his ham-fisted action came in February as he deployed the army in a show of force and arrested supreme court judges as well as Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who had a falling out with Yameen. 

It is hard not to see that President Yameen is on an authoritarian streak. This current turmoil is likely to affect the country’s tourism sector, which is the lifeblood of the national economy. China may bailout Yameen to weather any impending financial storm. If the Yameen government survives the current political crisis unscathed, it would set a dangerous precedent, only encouraging other authoritarian-minded leaders to reveal their true selves when the timing is ripe for them. We must not forget that a number of transitional democracies in Latin America and Asia are still vulnerable to the reverse wave of democratization. They need to see democratic countries acting together when democracy is being choked, anywhere.

Therefore, established democracies should not give up on the Maldives just because little seems to be at stake for many countries should the Maldives fall into the grip of an authoritarian. Those who are sympathetic to Nasheed are echoing his call for India’s direct intervention. But India must calibrate its policy with caution and in coordination with other concerned countries to counter a potential Chinese backlash. Sanctions can backfire and further drive the Yameen government toward the Chinese axis.

But going easy on him is no answer either. Finding the delicate balance between coercive diplomacy and co-optation is key. It’s tricky, but not impossible.   

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