For decades, Maldives has mostly been famous for the pristine beauty of its islands; its breathtaking atolls remain a magnetic draw for high-end tourists from the West. Since 2008, when the country adopted its new constitution and held its first, free and fair presidential elections, its political developments have also started making headlines. As the country goes through its latest round of political crisis —President Abdulla Yameen has recently arrested supreme court judges and opposition leaders, and declared a state of Emergency—concerns have been voiced in South Asia and beyond about the future of Maldives’ nascent democratic institutions, especially the beseiged judiciary. Ahmed Mohamed, 48, Maldives’ ambassador to India, spoke to Pranay Sharma about the crisis and the best possible way to defuse it. Excerpts from the interview.
What chances are there for foreign powers to intervene in Maldives?
A situation that warrants foreign military intervention is non-existent in Maldives. We are going through a constitutional crisis, which the state of Maldives is trying to address. There is no civil war nor a massacre, and there is hardly a situation where foreigners are in distress.
But different sections are talking about the need for a military intervention in Maldives.
Yes, it is being talked about in the media by non-actors or non-decision makers—some retired diplomats or military officials or by sections of political parties. If you compare the situation of 1988—when India intervened after foreign mercenaries attacked Maldives and the government of the day requested Indian intervention—with the situation today, it is different. Some people are trying to put in a similar request for their self-interest.
If it were to happen, what will be Maldives’ reaction?
Then again, the question is whether a responsible government will do that when the situation that warrants such action does not exist.
In your assessment, what is the core of the present crisis?
The core of the crisis is a situation where the Supreme Court has appropriated powers that are not theirs as per the constitution of Maldives.
Supreme Court judges tried to stop bribery investigations against them. Some were also bribed to overthrow the government.
What will that be?
The court order of February 1 is deficient in many ways. The Supreme Court has taken the law into its own hands. It says the judicial commission of Maldives has no power to investigate or undertake any disciplinary measure against SC justices, while the constitution clearly says the commission has the mandate to do so.
Was that the only issue?
No, there is the matter relating to nine prisoners who the SC said should be released immediately. Their trials had gone through different levels and the SC had also upheld the ruling of sub-ordinate courts. But without any fresh hearing or evidence it now demanded their release.
So the Supreme Court over-stepped its jurisdiction? Could the chief justice not have been dismissed rather than being arrested?
Yes, he over-stepped, but his dismissal is not that easy. The president cannot dismiss the chief justice. Only the judicial commission can, but the supreme court tried to overrule that provision of the constitution.
So what happened?
The judges tried to stop the judicial commission from investigating them on bribery charges. Further investigations showed there was a serious attempt to overthrow the government and some judges were bribed to do so.
Who paid them to overthrow the government?
We don’t know, but some arrests have been made and there are various allegations. But the SC had clearly undermined the constitution.
What about parliament? Why isn’t parliament with the government on this?
The parliament session starts when the president delivers his address for the new year. Normally, this happens in February. I don’t think there is time for that now.
When do you think there will be time to do that?
The government has clearly announced that the state of Emergency will be lifted after 15 days. We are confident that by then normalcy will be restored.
What is India’s image in Maldives like?
We are brotherly, friendly allies. The prescriptive definitions by the so-called non-actors have made the narrative such that it gives the impression that Maldives is not sensitive to Indian Ocean security. Why wouldn’t we? We sit right in the middle of the Indian Ocean, we are surrounded by the ocean. Shouldn’t we be thinking about Indian Ocean security more than anyone else?
Are India-Maldives ties strained?
I have been here for three years and communication channels are always open. There are no strains from the Maldives government side, though I can’t speak for another country.
If there are sanctions from New Delhi on Male what will be their impact?
Again, my response will be similar: is there any need for sanctions? We cannot advocate what another country will do. But a country’s response should be responsible and based on exact knowledge of what is going on in Maldives. Just sitting in some corner of the world and giving prescriptive solutions doesn’t solve anything. One has to visit Maldives to see what is happening.
What is keeping them away?
Maybe they think we are a very small country. If they thought we are important we should also be made to feel important, rather than making us feel like a small kid on the streets.
Were Indian security concerns discussed when your foreign minister visited Delhi in January?
Yes, as were engagement between our defence forces and the trilateral exercise between India, Sri Lanka and Maldives coast guards. We have been holding meetings of security agencies of our countries specifically to discuss the security of the Indian Ocean.
So Maldives is cognizant of Indian security concerns?
Of course. As I said, we sit right in the middle of the Indian Ocean. We will be fools to jeopardise our own security.
What role does China play in Maldives?
China is a development partner. It has been with us since the early ’80s, when they were providing us development assistance for social housing programmes. It is funding infrastructure projects in Maldives, like the longest road projects—21 kms—along with Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the Islamic Development Fund etc.
Is it building naval bases?
I read in the media that China has been given 17 islands, but I would love to see someone list those islands for me. Chinese companies, like Indian ones, are investing in the tourism industry. Not every island in Maldives can have a naval base; for that you need islands that range from three to nine hectares. There are very few islands of that size, none of those has been given to any country. The Chinese are also building the main bridge that connects Male and the international airport.
Then why are Chinese investments not discussed in public?
If you are talking about the free trade agreement, it was discussed for two years. I don’t know why some people miss that. It started in 2015 and concluded in 2017. People of Maldives have aspirations and ambitions for development. If someone is willing to finance that and if we believe it is not sensitive to the security of the Indian Ocean, what is the problem? Who is a better judge of that than us? If others want to have the same stakes, they must promote themselves in Maldives.
Is Islamic fundamentalism a serious concern in Maldives?
It is a concern the world over, as also in Maldives. It is also a fact that a number of people from Maldives had gone to Syria and Iraq to join ISIS. But being a small country, statistics is always stacked against you. When the denominator is small, the outcome will be presented as a graver one. Extremism and fundamentalism are issues the world over and we are not immune to them.
How do you see this crisis ending, through internal initiatives or by nudges and pushes from external forces?
This is not the first crisis Maldives has faced since the new constitution came into force. I am sure Maldivians will show the same willingness and capacity to come out of this crisis as in the past. For that, holding our hand is essential rather than nudging or pushing us.