As India Seeks a Passage to the Maldives It Must Not Underestimate China

India sending the odd battle-fleet or the odder battle-axe of a minister to Maldives is unlikely to wean the island nation from the Chinese nor will it provide the security the archipelago needs.

The Indian government has sent INS Vikramaditya to Male on a goodwill visit to awe the locals and show them that they do not, yet, live in the Chinese ocean. It was almost comically inevitable that this would be the ship chosen, not because it is our largest, but because it is the eponym for a historical figure who, according to Hindutva belief, had an empire that extended to what is now Saudi Arabia, which the present Maldivian regime considers one of its two godparents, the other being China, of course. The Vikramaditya sailing with its escorts as a carrier task-force will be a vigorous waving of the flag, but sending the odd battle-fleet or the odder battle-axe of a minister is unlikely to wean Maldives from the Chinese, who are not only ubiquitous in the islands but the prop on which that economy now leans.

China ups its game

The tourism sector contributes 33% to Maldives’ GDP. With indirect contributions, the figure is closer to 50%. Tourism directly accounts for 50% of jobs and adding jobs indirectly supported by tourism, it is almost 90%. In 2014, 33% of all tourists were Chinese and only 3% were Indians. China’s Ambassador to Maldives Wang Fukang has announced that half a million Chinese are expected to visit the island nation in 2016, which means they will push the 50% mark, as tourism from West Europe is stagnant and Russian tourism is falling. Residents of Male, through which most tourists transit and Maldivians who work at the resorts in the atolls, see the Chinese as a cheerful, beneficent and vital presence on whom their jobs depend. If the Chinese stop coming, Maldives will go under, whether the seas rise or not. Without the Chinese government having to invest a yuan, its tourists have made China central to the survival of the Maldives. It is as simple as that, and India has nothing to offer to match it.

Indeed, the Chinese government is now coming in to finance and build the infrastructure Maldives needs to boost tourism. Work on the Maldives-China Friendship Bridge that will link Male to its airport, presently reached by ferry, was started on the December 31, 2015. Earlier that month, an agreement was reached on China’s financing of the expansion of the airport (from which GMR was evicted). These two projects will cost over $500 million, peanuts for China but crucial for Maldives. Sailing in now, Vikramaditya will loom on Male’s horizon as a warning rather than reassurance.

India may think this lets us project ourselves as “a net provider of security”, whatever that means, but this is not the security Maldives needs – the poor want economic security, its civil society and media want the security of rights, which is in tatters under the present dispensation, and the government wants security against the West’s demands that it mends its autocratic ways.

Jobs come from the Chinese, as does investment, now supplemented by the Saudis. India does not and cannot provide this security. We ignore the erosion of rights, fearful that we will drive the government even deeper into the Sino-Saudi embrace if we speak up, though our public silence has not nudged it towards us. Not only do we have no influence on the West, we will now be in a cleft, having had ourselves elected at the Commonwealth Summit last year to its Ministerial Action Group (CMAG), which monitors members where democracy, the rule of law and human rights are under threat.  Maldives is on CMAG’s agenda and a team, which included Indian Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar, was there earlier this month. What will India do in the CMAG, where Pakistan is also a member? Exhibit a prudent cowardice, in all probability.

This would be a pity, as the idyll to which tourists flock exists only at the resorts they visit. Massive tensions and pressures are building in the islands where the locals live, and the government’s policies are making things worse.

A cauldron of problems

At the end of November last year, I went to Maldives as part of a fact-finding mission put together by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI). The other members were Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena from Sri Lanka and Asad Jamal from Pakistan, both distinguished lawyers, and Uladzimir Dzenisevich of the CHRI, a Belarussian who has ended up working on problems in the wrong Commonwealth of independent states.

The rule of law in Maldives is crushed under the judiciary. The law is what the Supreme Court says it is and that court is stuffed with men, some of them barely literate, almost none with a legal background, who were placed there by former President Abdul Gayoom, to whose party they owe their allegiance. Yameen, the half-brother of Gayoom, owes his position to the judges; they intervened repeatedly and illegally in the electoral process, browbeating the Election Commission, setting aside ballots and postponing votes until the police could ensure that former president Mohamed Nasheed would be defeated and Yameen elected. If an efficient police force is one that catches more criminals than it employs, the Maldivian police are wildly inefficient.

After being deposed, Nasheed was convicted of terrorism in an utterly Kafkaesque trial, an outcome that has been called judicial tyranny, though the process smacked as much of judicial terrorism, a fedayeen assault on the rule of law in Maldives. The judiciary then outdid itself at the trial of former vice president Ahmed Adeeb, suspending his legal team and revoking their licences so that there could be no defence, trying their hand this time at Lewis Carroll rather than Kafka. Presumably a sentence will be passed before verdict.

Gayoom had hoped his half-brother would be his catspaw, but shorn of the power to dispense patronage he has lost control to Yameen, who is purging, one by one, anyone who might be amenable to the ancien régime or a threat to him, former defence minister Tholhath Ibrahim and Adeeb being the two most prominent victims so far. Watching Maldivian politics now is like following the great migration over the Serengeti: you are ostensibly looking at an orderly, natural process, but in reality you wait for the next kill.

Yameen’s closeness to the Saudi monarchy compounds the most serious challenge Maldives faces – the unchecked spread of Wahabi doctrines, which have transformed the practice of Islam on the islands, and prepared the ground for the Salafi, which has made extraordinary inroads. We were told that for many years boys have been taken to the madrassas in Pakistan that churn out jihadis. Most come back to preach and proselytise in Maldives, but quite a few have trained with Pakistani terrorist outfits, including the Lashkar-e-Taiba. The gangs for which Male is notorious have become radicalised, some of their leaders and cadres having fallen under the spell of religious firebrands in prison. These are men trained in and prone to violence, contemptuous of laws and human life. It is, therefore, not surprising that from a population of 400,000, at least 200 Maldivians are fighting with jihadi outfits in the Middle East, accounting per capita for the highest incidence of jihadi fighters in the world.

As fundamentalism strengthens its hold, the gains women have made in Maldives are being lost. Highly educated women now stay at home, bowing to social pressure, rather than pursuing careers. The numbers who wear the hijab or the burkha are rising, many doing this not out of conviction but to escape abuse or worse in the streets and problems at home. Domestic violence against women too is rising sharply. Sharia punishments are in vogue, because most judges, who are ignorant of civil laws or ignore them, know a smattering of Sharia – flogging is decreed for pre- and extra-marital sex, and women suffer the most, since a girl who gets pregnant can neither camouflage nor deny what is considered a crime. Recently, for the first time, a woman was sentenced to death by stoning for adultery. This is Saudi Arabia transplanted into the atolls.

Bubbling in the middle of this cauldron, forgotten but very much part of the brew, are the Bangladeshis, who at over 50,000 account for almost 13% of the population, doing the jobs the locals will not do. Although most work without permits and are technically illegals, the government treats them as a necessary evil – signs in Male’s streets and public spaces are in Divehi, English and Bengali. They are, however, easily identified as alien and will be very useful as scapegoats whenever the government needs to deflect attention away from its failures. They will be blamed for being the ones who take jobs away, who bring their tainted Islam into Maldives, their loose morals, etc. It is an old and cynical trick, but it usually works for a while. Now it is just a question of when it will be played.

Satyabrata Pal is a former Indian diplomat. He served as India’s High Commissioner to Pakistan, and as a member of the National Human Rights Commission.