External Affairs

Maldives External Debt Under Control, No Urgent Need for Talks With Opposition: Mohamed Shainee

Maldives cabinet minister and foreign secretary speak to The Wire about the country’s relations with India, its major infrastructure projects and whether the South Asian nation could be piling up excessive debt.

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Maldives cabinet minister Mohamed Shainee (left) and foreign secretary Ali Naseer Mohamed. Credit: Twitter

New Delhi: After having weathered a tumultuous 2016, during which former president Maumoon Gayoom split the currently ruling party and various opposition parties decided to form a united front, the government of Maldives president Abdulla Yameen has signalled that reconciliation talks with the Opposition are not necessary.

In an interview with The Wire, Maldivian minister of fisheries and agriculture Mohamed Shainee – who was the government’s lead representative for talks with the opposition last year –indicated that Malé did not see a “situation” to warrant an enhanced level of “engagement” with the opposition.

He, however, insisted that the government was willing to talk with the opposition “without any condition”, putting the onus on the other side for bringing a “viable solution” that could allow the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) leader and former president Mohamed Nasheed to stand for elections next year.

The United Nations and the Commonwealth had in their disparate ways tried to get the polarised polity to talk to each other in order to bring a sense of political stability. The UN had several rounds of proximity talks last year but there was no progress.

Shortly after the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group warned Maldives of suspension, it left the multilateral body. Most of the opposition leaders, including Nasheed, are now either living abroad or like the Islamist Adhaalath Party’s chief Sheikh Imran Abdull, are in custody.

While the country’s relations with India have remained on an even keel, Maldives has visibly moved towards China and Saudi who have provided loans for Yameen’s major infrastructure projects. Shainee, however, accompanied by the Maldives foreign secretary Ali Naseer Mohamed, insisted that the Indian Ocean nation’s India first policy remains intact.

Recently, World Bank and IMF repeatedly warned that Maldives could be piling up excessive debt that could exceed 120% of the GDP in three years. However, the minister expressed confidence that Maldives would not get bogged down by big debts and enter into a debt trap like Sri Lanka mainly due to mega infrastructure projects financed by China. He insisted that the country’s government continued to give India the first look-in for all infrastructure projects.

There have been reports of Maldivians travelling to fight in Syria after being radicalised, with their numbers ranging from 40-250. The minister responded to it by saying that the government had tightened its control upon the sermons preached in mosques throughout the country in order to ensure that only moderate Islamic views are orated. He blamed the government of Nasheed for loosening its leash and for not keeping an eye on what was preached in mosques.

Excerpts from the interview with Maldives cabinet minister Mohamed Shainee and foreign secretary Ali Naseer Mohamed on the sidelines of the Raisina Dialogue in Delhi. 

The interview has been edited for clarity.

Is the government’s call for talks with the opposition parties still on the table? What is its current status?

Mohamed Shainee: Yes, it was the second time that President Yameen had initiated the talks. As of now, we are hoping that the opposition gives the names (of representatives) after it is confirmed from their highest body, the advisory council or whatever is the highest.

What the government wants is for it (talks) to be legitimate. If you have been following the party talks of the Maldives, one of the issues that came up after the first round was that there was a blame game happening that the government did not stick to its part of the agreement. It was shocking to us because the government team negotiating was myself and two other cabinet ministers.

During that time, they (opposition) had come out (of the talks) and said (what) was never agreed. Later, we came to know that the agreement was with someone else who was not approved as a negotiator from the government side. So, there were second channels, parallel channels and that was blamed on the government.

We had given the name of the team of government negotiators to the United Nations, which was publicly announced. Every day after the negotiation we gave interviews. So, what has been agreed has already been outlined in those interviews. It came as news to us that someone else had negotiated on behalf of the government.

This time we want to ensure that whoever is coming to the table is legitimate. Because if you are following from newspapers, even the opposition has a lot of internal conflicts, so someone who comes now to the party talks and reaches an agreement could go out and say that no, this was not approved by the council by the highest authorities. We want to avoid this situation.

But this status quo has remained unchanged for the last several months. Are you still pushing for talks?

M.S.: They (opposition) have never said that they don’t want to come to the talks, so we are optimistic. We have no conditions, no pre-conditions to talk.

To be honest, we don’t believe that there is a situation in the country that requires this level of engagement (with the opposition). For us, life in the Maldives is normal. So, if there was a situation where there was a need for reconciliation or something… that requires an understanding that needs to be out of the norm, then, I am sure that they (opposition) will be coming to us.

By saying that there is no requirement for engagement with opposition right now, aren’t you indicating that talks can happen only when the opposition is more active and on the streets?

M.S.: The world has come to know as well that there is no valid argument to come out on the streets. The public has seen and felt the level of engagement that the government has with the islands. There is development in almost every island. The people are seeing this physically. They don’t want to disrupt this development that President Yameen is bringing to the country. So, they (the people) stopped coming out to the street.

But, isn’t there still a need to engage with the opposition at some level? With the presidential elections imminent in 2018, isn’t there an urgency to address the issue of Mohamed Nasheed’s candidature?

M.S.: I would put that question to you. If they (opposition) had wanted, wouldn’t they have come (for the talks)? I mean, are there factions within MDP which don’t want this to happen?

The Commonwealth did put a condition that Nasheed should be allowed to stand for an inclusive 2018 election.

M.S.: There was a precondition that he should be released. Also, initially, the precondition was that he should also stand for election. But, these are issues that need to be politically agreed among everyone because even the president cannot act outside the constitution. If they (opposition) want reconciliation, there should be proper justification for any step which will be wrong (as per the constitution) – everyone has to agree on that. The government on its own cannot take decisions unconstitutionally.

Then even if the opposition does come for talks, how can the discussion find a solution to an outcome which would be unconstitutional?

M.S.: They (the opposition) have to come to us and propose a viable solution.

But is a viable solution possible?

M.S.: I don’t know yet. We are very involved in developing the economy of the country. That is one of the reasons that the president wanted to bring the opposition to the table to ask what the government is doing wrong.

We are doing something in the country after five years of chaos. The only condition – if it can be called a condition – in order to continue the development, let’s sit down and we are willing to listen. But, pre-condition is not something anyone will agree willing to.

Have you got any proposal to hold talks with opposition outside Maldives?

M.S.: I had no request from any party or anyone on this. There may be news articles created by someone on which I don’t think I need to respond. But, what my reference to what you have said is that we can have solutions among themselves. There is really no need to go outside because Maldives is very safe. We all walk on the streets. There is no issue security wise. I don’t see a situation where we need to go outside (the country to hold talks).

Has the government considered re-joining the Commonwealth?

M.S.: This is something that I cannot answer as we have not been talking about it.

Since you mentioned development plans, I understand that the Maldives government proposes to sell sovereign bonds to fund infrastructure projects.

M.S.: No that’s not true. This was something in the papers and which is not true.

So, you are saying that the media articles about sovereign bonds were completely wrong?

M.S.: Completely wrong. I would say that was what the opposition was anticipating. But, of course, with President Yameen being an economist and a practitioner of governance for so long, we have other means of funding and we have done it.

It wasn’t even a proposal at the preliminary stage?

M.S.: No.

But, former president Gayoom has criticised the decision to sell sovereign bonds.

M.S.: He may have, but there is no truth to it. Because to issue such bonds, we (would) have to go to the parliament and get permission.

Moody’s was asked to provide sovereign credit rating to Maldives earlier. They assigned B2 issuer rating. Was this not related to the plan to float sovereign bonds?

M.S.: It has no relations with it.

[Note: After the interview, it was clarified that the minister was only denying that the government had already sold the sovereign bonds.]

Then how are you funding your major infrastructure projects – isn’t it mainly through Chinese and Saudi money?

M.S.: We have invested in an India first policy. There have been opportunities for India to come and invest… and India is investing in the Maldives. Already, they are looking into tourism development. Taj is there, Oberois is there.

Among the bigger projects, the (expansion of main international) airport for example – which is a billion dollar project – is funded by grants and very soft loans at very, very low interest rates. The (China-Maldives Friendship) Bridge project is largely from a grant from China. Then there is a plan for the shifting of the (main deep water) port to the nearby island (of Thilafushi). It is not yet finalised, but discussions are on with various parties, so that is happening. We are also investing in developing harbours.

If you look very closely, when we came into office, the recurring expenditure of the government was 80% compared to 20% capital expenditure. It was a pledge of the president, not to the public but to us within the cabinet, to change that around so that majority of it goes into capital investment. If you look at this year’s Budget, majority is capital investment, so we have completely changed the way that we are spending.

You are aware of how Sri Lanka found itself under a massive external debt partially due to the Chinese who were building massive infrastructure projects. They had to ultimately go to back to the Chinese when western finance was not available to bridge the gap. Aren’t you worried that Maldives could get into a similar debt trap?

M.S.: We are very careful about it. In 2013-14, international finance was the cheapest that you could get. The borrowing cost was very, very less. President Yameen, being an economist, saw that as an opportunity for the government to borrow money. The clear signal that you can be assured that this (debt trap) is not happening is that this year he has proposed a surplus budget. Even with all this borrowing and paying back of the loans, new and ongoing projects, the government has proposed a balanced budget, not only balanced but surplus budget. So, this shows that the debt is under control.

There is no Indian investment, however, in any of the big infrastructure projects. Have you made any proposal to the Indian government for investment in any particular project?

M.S.: All the projects that we floated when we came in were open for India to get into and win the project.

The airport project we have negotiated with the Japanese, then we negotiated with Saudis and Chinese. It is partly funded by Chinese and Saudi investment, and part of it is locally funded as well, so it is a mix of investments that we have.

Right now, there are only two high profile projects under implementation – airport and the bridge.

And both are being implemented by the Chinese?

M.S.: Not all of it. Airport is being funded through consortium financing. Not only Saudi, some of the money comes from IDB (Islamic Development Bank), Kuwait, Abu Dhabi

Ali Naseer Mohamed: President Yameen came to office with an election pledge of expanding the airport from its current size catering to 1.7 million visitors to 7 million visitors. It was of a high priority for the president. You might be surprised to know that the first country that we approached for the project with details of the plan was India. That was when president visited India in January 2014.

You do know that there is a certain history that India has with the airport project due to the GMR experience.

A.N.M.: Airport development investments that we talked about came in while the (GMR arbitration) case was going on. The point that you raised was why not Indian companies? India was and remains the first preference for any large and investment project that the government initiates.

Maldives had offered the strategic iHavan project to India. What has been the response so far?

M.S.: We have not had any proposals, but I believe some Indian partners are looking into it. It is very open for India and others to invest. iHavan is a concept in the north. Along with Saudi investors, even Indian investors are welcome. I don’t think any one company or country can actually invest that much in this area.

Have you got any proposals for iHavan project from any non-Indian foreign firms?

M.S.: No. We have done a feasibility study. We are drawing the plan to roll it out, but we have not got any funding yet or any proposals signed. There have been interests from many countries who are looking into the proposal. 

Maldives is now the only country which the Indian prime minister has not visited in South Asia. Do you look forward to a visit from him in 2017?

A.N.M.: The invitation to the prime minister was extended both in public and in private. The prime minister of India will always be welcome in Maldives. He will always be treated like a guest and it gives immense pleasure to Maldivians to welcome an Indian prime minister. And that has always been the case since Mrs. Indira Gandhi visited in 1974. After the Queen, she was the first leader to visit Maldives after Maldives gained independence and that special place that India occupies in Maldives remains higher than ever before. And it is up to the prime minister’s schedule to determine a date and Maldives will always be ready.

Are you disappointed that he has not been to the Maldives so far?

A.N.M.: The Maldives will always remain ready to host the prime minister. It will be a privilege for Maldivians to welcome the prime Minister. So, whenever his schedule permits, I’m sure, he will visit.

The meeting for the trilateral initiative on maritime security by Sri Lanka, Maldives and India have not been held for a long time. Maldives was supposed to host the fourth meeting. Have you been able to pin down any new dates?

A.N.M.: You know national security advisors (NSA) are very important people. So, scheduling is an issue. The initial meeting was scheduled to be held in 2015, but there was some conflict over Sri Lankan election dates. We always remain ready whenever it is convenient for the NSAs or their equivalent of the three countries to find the time.

But not having a meeting has not prevented us from actually undertaking activities or formulating plans that the three countries can implement jointly. A month or so ago the three countries were engaged in joint exercises.

I understand Seychelles and Mauritius were supposed to join the trilateral initiative formally in the next meeting. Isn’t the delay in meeting of the trilateral also leading to a delay in the expansion?

A.N.M.: Well, as I said, the trilateral collaboration between the three countries is an example for others to follow and it could give a sense of satisfaction for the strength of regional cooperation that India, Sri Lanka and Maldives have shown. That can be emulated and that is what is happening.

Has India ever suggested or implied any red lines in your engagement with China. For example, is defence cooperation with China such a red line?

A.N.M.: See, India and China have such a sophisticated level of cooperation, with high investments, that you sometimes forget about the points of difference which exist, which the Indian prime minister very eloquently pointed out in his speech.

That being the case, do you think that Maldives, being the smallest country is South Asia, would be in a position to hinder that… It would take immense level of strength on the part of the Maldives to come in between that accelerated cooperation between India and China.

But I’m sure China would like to have greater access to that part of the Indian Ocean. And Maldives is in a very strategic location.

A.N.M.: Maldives strategy has been consistent in its main aim – to secure Maldives. You are very right to point out that Maldives lies at the centre point of East Asia and Africa. There is equidistance between Maldives and Indonesia and Maldives and Somalia. That very strategic or centre location in the Indian Ocean puts us in a position where we have to be extremely vigilant and also mindful of the challenges that we face. For us, it is the source of non-traditional securities that causes the greatest dangers to the Maldives.

We have excellent bilateral relationships with our neighbour countries in the region and beyond. We are confident that the conventional notion of security is not the most serious threat, but it is the unconventional security and emergent security threats and on that particular aspect we have been working with India, particularly since 1988.

On an annual basis, there is a structured program of collaboration and activities that are implemented and whenever there is a need, joint exercises are held even two or three times a year. Our coast guard is a very, very small force and we work very closely with India to guard our coast and also maritime security, joint exercises on various types of emergencies that may arise. That will remain the character and the content of the collaboration between the two countries.

Talking about threats, there have been reports of Maldivians travelling to Syria to fight alongside Jabhat Al-Nusra or ISIS. Have you been able to gather how many Maldivians have left, because there are conflicting numbers more than the official tally of 40 plus.

M.S,: I’ll tell you how some people have come up with these numbers. They have included their families who went with them and have come up with 140 number (of Maldivians in Syria). But, that is wrong because they are not fighters. Also, some of them have not gone to fight with ISIS, as we come to know from YouTube and Facebook posts.

But, in any case, we are not proud and do not want to get involved in foreign fighting. Towards that end, we have done a few things to stop these few cases. One is that we have enacted this law to criminalise anyone going to fight. There is at least one case on trial and we have convicted some who have come back.

Then on a broader sense, we have brought in more policy changes. During President Maumoon Gayoom’s 30 years we had a very stable country, until towards his last years. But then when President Nasheed came into power, there were some realities that you have to accept. For the first time the Ministry of Islamic Affairs was formed in the history of Maldives. The Islamic ministry was managed by the Adhaalath Party, which is the only religion related political party in the Maldives. If someone wants to put radical ideas into the society, that will be best done through education. Again, President Nasheed gave the education ministry to that other party as well.

He (Nasheed) deregulated the control that government had on preaching of sermons. Until then, it was very well controlled. No one could just gather a group of people and give sermons. This was all deregulated. When President Yameen came, he realised this and again regulated the sector.

The Friday sermon is now carefully controlled. Government writes it and government selects the person who gives the sermon.

But, there have been Islamic preachers on TV who have preached extreme views.

M.S.: Never, not during President Yameen’s time.

Hasn’t Maldivian society already gotten very radicalised? Recently, there were reports that a private school had to withdraw textbooks as it had pictures of a church and Roman gods.

M.S.: It is a rumour. I have to look into it. How can a textbook having a picture of a church be controversial? Even Islam tells us that we have to be aware of all other religion and respect other religion.

As far as I know, as there had been similar rumours spread, the same line of rumours had been spread from the same school

Do you still have a large number of young Maldivians going to Saudi and Pakistani seminaries?

M.S.: A large part of Saudi scholarships that we have received is not for Islamic studies, they are for technical studies. And independently, people going overseas and studying, it is very difficult to say that they are going for religious studies. But we have asked India, we have asked other countries to provide us with the opportunity to send people to more moderate schools of Islam.

A.N.M.: We do get scholarships from India, not in Islamic studies, but in institutions where Islam is taught, some very moderate centres. We are in continuous dialogue. There are more self-financed (Maldivians) students in India than on scholarship schemes. So, we having these dialogues with these institutions and universities that are known to the federal government and that are known to us as well. Aligarh (Muslim University) was one such institution. So, that dialogue continues.

  • K SHESHU BABU

    The exhaustive interview provides nights into the ruling party of Maldives. The intensions are clear. . Opposition views must also be taken into account in deciding the policies of the country.