The Maldives has amended its constitution to allow foreign nationals and entities the right to own freehold land, including entire islands, a move that some Maldivian legislators say will turn the Indian Ocean nation into a “frontline state” in a “new Cold War” between India and China.
A set of enabling amendments was moved by the ruling Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM) on July 22 and won the support of 70 out of the Majlis’s 85 members, 13 more than the two-thirds required, thanks in part to 10 MPs from the opposition Maldivian Democratic Party voting in favour of the measure.
Under Article 251 of the unamended Constitution, titled ‘Prohibition of foreign ownership and foreign military purposes’, foreigners were not allowed to (a) “own or be given ownership of any part of the territory of the Maldives”, or (b) receive a lease of any part of the territory of the Maldives for a period exceeding 99 years.
Now, a foreign party that invests more than $1 billion in a project can be granted freehold in the area designated for the project provided “at least 70 percent of the land must have been reclaimed from the ocean and visible at medium tide” upon completion. The amended article also says,
“Allowing foreigners to own land under Article 302 does not undermine the Maldivian state’s sovereignty over its territory and does not amount to loss of territory.”
“No part of the territory of the Maldives shall be used for foreign military purposes without the approval of the majority of the total membership of the People’s Majlis.”
Although the PPM of President Abdulla Yameen has presented the amendment as a measure aimed at boosting foreign investment in the Maldives, the unsettling political consequences of allowing foreigners to acquire entire islands was apparent when his ally, the former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, urged the government not to rush into enacting the change. “I have appealed to president to seek public opinion on proposed constitutional amendment re land ownership before ratification,” the veteran PPM leader tweeted. He also made public a letter he wrote to Yameen.
According to the Minivan News, this is the first time Gayoom has publicly opposed Yameen, who is also his half-brother, on any issue.
The MDP of former president Mohammed Nasheed had also warned about the impact the move could have on regional stability. “Being a centre right political party, the Maldivian Democratic Party in principle believes in free ownership of land and property. Nevertheless, the amendments can facilitate foreign non-commercial logistical installations in the Maldives. The MDP Parliamentary Group Leader Ibrahim Mohamed Solih speaking on the bill on Tuesday night reiterated MDP’s call to guarantee national security, safeguard stability, peace and security of the Indian Ocean. This therefore forms the MDP position.”
Nasheed’s continuing incarceration, however, has weakened the MDP’s resolve to oppose Yameen’s moves. It has backed the government in impeaching Vice-President Mohamed Jameel Ahmed, paving the way for Ahmed Adeeb, the powerful tourism minister, to replace him.
Whatever Indian analysts may believe, within the Maldives itself, the constitutional amendment is being seen by some as part of Male’s attempts to build closer economic and even strategic ties with Beijing. According to Minivan News:
President Abdulla Yameen has declared a foreign policy shift to the East last year. Chinese president Xi Jingping was the first head of state since Yameen assumed power and the first Chinese president to visit the Maldives.
During the visit, the Maldives agreed to become a partner in China’s maritime silk route, a trade route from China’s Fujian province to the Mediterranean Sea via South Asia and East Africa.
China is providing grant and loan assistance to the Maldives to build a bridge between the capital and the airport. Chinese companies are involved in airport development and have now been handed islands for resort development.
In January, the MDP alleged the government was making plans to award parts of south central Laamu Atoll to China for a military base. The Chinese embassy promptly dismissed the allegations as “completely false.”
“It is a common knowledge that China pursues a national defense policy that is defensive in nature,” read the press release. “China does not maintain any military in any foreign country.”
On their part, PPM leaders insist the land ownership change is a purely economic measure:
PPM MP Ahmed Nihan – who submitted the amendments on behalf of the government today – said contrary to “misleading” media reports, the amendments would not allow the government to sell large islands or lose sovereignty over Maldivian territory.
The PPM parliamentary group leader said the purpose of the amendment is to attract “extremely large” foreign investment and spur economic growth and infrastructure development. Nihan said Singapore developed despite the lack of natural resources because the small island state “opened up” to foreign investment.
PPM MP Ali Arif emphatically stressed no land will be given for military purposes.
Opposition MPs countered this:
Independent MP Ahmed Mahloof reminded ruling party MPs of their campaign to evict Indian airport developer GMR and said: “This bill amounts to selling off our land. If things continue like this, we might sell off our wives, children and the boxers we are wearing. As we celebrate 50 years of independence, our land must remain ours.”
The former ruling party MP suggested the JP and MDP had been coerced to support the amendment in exchange for freedom for Nasheed and a removal of a freeze on Gasim [Ibrahim]’s tourism companies.
Meanwhile, JP MP Ali Hussein said that Maldivians wanted clean water and sanitation instead of “mega projects.”
The fear of Maldives being dragged into a tug-of-war between India and China was also raised by some MPs:
Speaking during the final debate on the amendments today, MDP MP Eva Abdulla said that a Chinese Yuan class 335 submarine passed through Maldivian waters and docked at the Karachi port on May 22, adding that Indian media called it “China’s deadliest attack submarine.”
Maldivian foreign and domestic policies should be based on ensuring Indian Ocean regional security as “Maldives is not in the South China Sea,” she said.
The Maldives is “a front line state” in the new Cold War and should not be a catalyst for conflict, the MP for Galolhu North added.