India Is Biggest Stakeholder in Indian Ocean Region, Says Advisor to New Maldivian President

Mohamed Muizzu as the next Maldives president has led to apprehension about relations with its largest neighbour. However, his advisor Mohamed Shareef ‘Mundhu’ doesn’t think that India should be worried that the new government would be hostile to New Delhi.

New Delhi: While the election of the opposition’s Mohamed Muizzu as the next Maldives president has led to apprehension about relations with its largest neighbour, India, there is no need to be alarmed as his government will continue to regard New Delhi as the “biggest stakeholder” in the security of the Indian Ocean region, a key foreign affairs advisor of the newly-elected president said.

The challenger Muizzu solidly defeated the incumbent Mohamed Solih, winning 54% of the final run-off of the presidential polls on Saturday. More than 86% of Maldivian voters had turned out to cast their vote.

Congratulating the victor, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted on Sunday morning that New Delhi “remains committed to strengthening the time-tested India-Maldives bilateral relationship and enhancing our overall cooperation in the Indian Ocean Region”.

The opposition coalition Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM)-People’s National Congress (PNC) led a successful campaign which focussed on Solih’s ties with India, specifically alleging that his government had allowed the Indian military to be stationed in the island nation. The Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) government had dismissed that there were no Indian military activities on the island nation.

Due to the campaign and the earlier ‘India out’ slogan from the PPM-PNC coalition, Muizzu had been perceived to be close to China, just as PPM leader Abdulla Yameen was believed to be strongly aligned with Beijing. India had a rocky relationship with the Maldives during the five years of the Yameen government.

However, the PPM’s vice president Mohamed Shareef ‘Mundhu’, the former Maldivian ambassador to Sri Lanka and Japan, doesn’t think that India should be worried that the new government would be hostile to New Delhi.

“All the fear-mongering about China is unwarranted,” said Shareef, a former PPM secretary general.

“We strongly value and want to work with India on the safety and security of the Indian Ocean, in which we have said that the biggest stakeholder will continue to be India,” he told The Wire on the phone from Malé. In the background, there were sounds of celebrations after local media had called the elections in Muizzu’s favour.

Mohamed Shareef ‘Mundhu’ with Mohamed Muizzu. Photo: Facebook/mundhu.shareef

“We do not believe that when it comes to the safety and security of the seas that any non-Indian ocean states have a stake or should have a stake,” he asserted, adding that the Maldives will “continue to be one of India’s strongest ally in the international community”.

Historically, the first foreign trip by a new Maldives president has been to neighbouring India. “Absolutely, we would like to continue that tradition,” he noted.

But while that is still to be negotiated, the incoming administration will also assess the various development initiatives initiated by India over the past five years, as pledged by Muizzu during the campaign.

“When it comes to projects, we will honour all projects. But we have yet to see the fine print of any of them. Unfortunately over the last five years, the government has refused to share any of the agreements with India either with the media or parliament… We would, of course, be reviewing it and if the agreements conform to our constitution, laws and they are feasible, we will continue naturally and we will strongly support the completion of all projects,” said Shareef.

He highlighted that a potential obstacle in the bilateral relationship could revolve around the matter of helicopters donated by India to the Maldives.

In June 2018, President Yameen asked India to withdraw the helicopters along with their Indian crew. Following the 2018 presidential elections, the opposition raised concerns, asserting that this arrangement served as a covert means for the Indian military to establish a presence in the Maldives – a claim that the Solih administration firmly refuted as “baseless”.

“India will be our nearest and dearest neighbour. However, we have continuously been making it clear to the media and also during the campaign that we cannot agree to have boots on the ground from any country, not just India,” said Shareef.

He stated that the critical issue with the agreement was that helicopters were to be handed over to the Maldivian military after local pilots were trained, but Indian pilots continued to operate the aircraft. 

Maldives President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi shake hands ahead of their meeting at Hyderabad House in New Delhi, India, December 17, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Adnan Abidi

“We would want to discuss with the Indian government to find a way to transfer the helicopters to our military and not have any military presence .. that is the one issue which is a sticking point when it comes to Maldivian people,” said Shareef.

Maldives’ ambassador to India during the Yameen government, Ahmed Mohamed had the difficult job of keeping diplomatic ties at an even keel when New Delhi perceived that Malé had gone too far into China’s orbit.

He asserted that the new government will have to fulfil its campaign pledges related to Indian projects. “We should be able to continue to enjoy cordial relations with India or for that matter with any country without the need to have boots on the ground. In the past we have experienced Indian assistance and help, for example, the 1988 November 3rd incident, but without the need to continue Indian military presence indefinitely,” said Mohamed.

After the Solih government came to power in 2018, there had been a lot of talk, especially by former president Mohamed Nasheed, about reviewing Chinese projects and the ‘debt trap’. However, there had been no such public China-bashing from the Solih government and no Chinese projects were ever cancelled.

However, the Solih government did shelve or went slow on some Chinese projects that had raised eyebrows in India, like the Free Trade Agreement with China and also construction of an ocean observatory near a strategically located island.

Shareef also argued that the Yameen government had only done commercial deals with Chinese companies, which had no military value. 

“We continue to say over the five years and we challenged the government to present even one shred of evidence, whether we had any untoward arrangement with the Chinese government, which you wouldn’t find. Because our arrangement with China at that time was entirely commercial and there was no military angle to it whatsoever”.

In answer to a query, the senior PPM leader admitted that his party’s contacts with Indian diplomats in Maldives had been limited in recent times. He noted that the Indian embassy had “been in touch a few years ago”, but there has not been much contact “perhaps due to the campaigns”.

He regretted that India had begun to be seen “as the ally of the ruling party rather than as an ally of the Maldives”.

Another former Maldivian foreign minister Ahmed Shaheed, who describes himself as an MDP supporter, pointed out that China had “not put all their eggs in one basket in the Maldives”.

“Even when Nasheed was bashing China hard five-six years ago, Chinese diplomats were reaching out to MDP and taking them to Beijing and talking to them,” said Shaheed, who had been foreign minister between 2005 and 2010. He is currently a Professor of International Human Rights Law at the University of Essex.

He was confident that there would not be any substantial change in foreign policy direction for Maldives after the elections. “They are not going to kick India out. But what they are saying is let’s have more transparency. Let’s make sure that it (agreements) serves Maldives’ interest. They do serve Maldives’ interests but the government has failed to make it clear,” Shaheed told The Wire.

He was critical of the Solih government for its “over-secrecy and over-securitisation of everything Indian”. “The (Solih) government also wanted to close all access to India for the people to serve their own agenda. India was played out by this government by not letting India be seen as a neutral party,” he said.

Daniel Bosley, a British journalist who recently released a book based on his political reporting in the Maldives, noted that the while PPM coalition “captured headlines with its ‘India Out’ campaign, I don’t believe many Maldivians feel an intrusive Indian military presence”.

He termed it as “lazy populism by an opposition that has no democratic vision for the country”. He added, “The nation will pivot back towards China now, though it finds itself deeply indebted to both superpowers.”

Bosley, who had been editor of the Minivan News (later known as Maldives Independent), criticised the MDP for having squandered “an incredible opportunity” to push the democratic transition forward. 

“They were elected to stem the rampant corruption and extremist violence that was taking hold under the previous government. But progress on these fronts has stalled and the party has descended into farcical in-fighting.” The MDP’s split was a major factor in the defeat with Nasheed’s breakaway faction polling a respectable third in the first round of the presidential elections.

He felt that the general populace didn’t see much difference between the Solih and Yameen administrations, “save for a little less violence”.

“I fear this may be the first change we see, with dangerous terrorists – some charged with murdering my former colleague, Ahmed Rilwan – likely to return to the streets,” added Bosley.

One of the main developments a day after the election results was the transfer of former president Yameen, who is serving a sentence of 11 years, to house arrest.

Bosley pointed out this left president-elect Muizzu in precisely the same situation President Solih found himself in five years ago when former President Nasheed returned from exile and was exonerated. “As this election shows, the result was disastrous bickering. Yameen was unhappy that his party contested the election without him as the candidate, but he is also infamously comfortable wielding influence from the shadows.”

Admitting that future tensions between Muizzu and Yameen are inevitable, Shaheed, however, contended that both possessed a pragmatic outlook, which should prevent their personal dynamics from destabilizing the government. “Muizzu is a very pragmatic person. His pragmatism would mean that he would want survival, goodwill and not drama… Yameen is pragmatic enough to know that he shouldn’t sink his own ship.”