As Maldives Declares Emergency, India Ponders ‘Tough' Response

Late on Monday night, National Defence Force personnel "broke into" the premises of the Supreme Court. And arrested the chief justice.

New Delhi: Four days after the Supreme Court of the Maldives called for the release of all political prisoners, the government of Abdulla Yameen announced a state of emergency in the country for 15 days, suspending the Supreme Court and arresting the chief justice, another top judge, the president’s estranged half-brother and former dictator, Maumoon Gayoom.

India, which has remained at loggerheads with President Yameen for most of the time he has been in power, is now believed to be examining the full range of options available to it – including ‘tough’ ones – so as to jolt the Yameen government and make it realise its current political course – and the impasse it has created – are not sustainable.

India is a destination for a large number of Maldivians who travel to the country not only for educational purposes, but also for advanced medical treatments in the hospitals of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Any restrictions on visas would directly impact ordinary citizens, which would be detrimental to Indian interests too, officials say.

The other key leverage that India has in the Maldives is as the source of most imported items. The 1981 trade agreement gives special privileges to the Maldives for importing items from India which are restricted to other countries. However, any restrictions on the trade of essential commodities could lead to severe shortages. This could fuel antagonism towards India among the Maldivian public – and again, could be unhelpful.

There are “harder” options too, say sources familiar with the relationship, but it would depend on how the situation evolves in the country.

New Delhi is also aware that President Yameen, having taken the extreme step of declaring emergency, may only be amenable to stronger measures.

The only time India has directly intervened in the Maldives was in 1988, when a small military deployment flew to the atoll nation to to defend the Gayoom government against a takeover by mercenaries.

Yameen’s moves had been steadily raising concern as presidential elections are scheduled this year. The near decimation of the opposition – most leaders are in custody or outside on exile – would ensure that there were not any viable candidates standing against him in the polls.

File photo of Maldives President Abdulla Yameen. Credit: Reuters

A possible hint about India’s next move is in the travel advisory issued by the Ministry of External Affairs immediately after Maldives government announced the declaration of emergency.

“The prevailing political developments in Maldives and the resultant law and order situation is a matter of concern for the Government of India,” said the advisory, which however did not explicitly refer to the Emergency. It also asked Indian nationals to “defer all non-essential travels to Male and other atolls until further notice.” (emphasis added)

The mention of the “law and order” situation could be a probable trigger for India to intervene more visibly in the Indian ocean island nation.

“Indian expatriates in Maldives are also alerted to the need for heightened security awareness and urged to exercise due caution in public and avoid public gatherings,” said the Indian advisory. As per MEA estimates, there are 25,000 Indian nationals living in the Maldives, along with 108 Persons of Indians Origin (PIOs).

Indian tourist arrivals in the Maldives have increased by 24% in 2017 compared to the previous year.  Chinese tourists declined by 5.5%, but they still constitute 22% of foreign tourists while India has only a 6% share. The region which is the biggest source for foreign tourists is Europe, which account for 46.5% of arrivals in the Maldives. So travel advisories from India, China, the US, UK and EU will certainly impact the tourism industry.

India urged to act tougher

Unlike other countries, India has usually been rather reticent in commenting on Maldivian political developments, which had sometimes led the opposition parties there to complain that New Delhi was losing focus in the region.

Indian officials argued that India could not afford to be more forthcoming in its public statements, as unlike the US and UK, there was a direct impact of developments in the Maldives on India’s security situation.

Therefore, India joining the chorus of western countries in asking President Yameen to implement the Supreme Court’s February 1 order was significant. India’s official response said that it was “imperative” that the Yameen government should implement the apex court’s judgment. The statement had also made special mention about the need to ensure the safety and security of Indian expatriates.

Reiterating the safety of Indian expatriates, along with the reference to the law and order situation, in Monday’s travel advisory is notable insofar as the ‘law and order situation’ in the Indian Ocean nation is said to be calm.

Till now, the only reported clashes between police and opposition supporters took place in the early hours of February 2. When the emergency was declared, the Maldivian capital Male was lashed with rains and remained quiet, but tense. While opposition supporters did try to come out on the streets, the heavy deployment of policy and military and blockading of roads prevented any confrontation.

Former president Mohamed Nasheed, who is among the political prisoners listed by the Supreme Court for immediate release, urged India to “act swiftly”. He declared the emergency declaration as tantamount to imposing martial law.

“This deliberate refusal by the government to uphold the constitution further destabilises the Maldives and wider Indian Ocean security. President Nasheed continues to engage with concerned international partners, including India and other neighbouring countries, seeking resolutions to the ongoing crisis and urges India to act swiftly,” said a statement issued by his office.

In a tweet, the United States National Security Council warned the Yameen government and military to respect democratic institutions, since the “the world is watching”. The US has also advised its nationals that the Maldivian capital may witness demonstrations from February 6 to 15 due to the emergency declaration.

In a scathing indictment, US state department spokesperson Heather Neuert said that President Yameen had “systematically alienated” all his coalition partners, diluted human rights law, curbed freedom of expression and weakened democratic institutions since his election in 2013.

Yameen had managed a win the run-off for the 2013 presidential elections by 51.39% against Nasheed. However, Yameen’s narrow win was largely on the shoulders of Gayoom’s campaigning and support provided by Jumhooree Party’s Gasim Ibrahim.

The Maldives president has cause for worry about his poll prospects if he goes it alone. In the last significant elections, the MDP won 46% of the seats at the local bodies polls in May 2017.

Stating that the US was “troubled and disappointed” with the declaration of Emergency, Neuert called upon President Yameen and security forces to fully comply with the Supreme Court’s ruling, ensure proper functioning of parliament and restore constitutionally-guaranteed rights.

British foreign secretary Boris Johnson also called upon Yameen to “peacefully end the state of emergency, restore all articles of the constitution, take immediate steps to implement in full the order of the Supreme Court, and to permit and support the full, free and proper functioning of Parliament”.

China had already advised its citizens to avoid the Maldives in a statement on Monday morning. This was an upgrade from its previous advisory of February 2, which had only asked Chinese citizens to be cautious in travelling to the country.

Making no explicit mention of the Supreme Court order that has precipitated the current crisis, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said that “all relevant parties” have to resolve differences through dialogue. “What happens for the time being in the Maldives falls within the internal affairs of that country. China supports all relevant parties in the Maldives in properly resolving differences through dialogue and negotiation and in safeguarding national and social stability,” he said.

For the Yameen administration, China is now its principal backer, since Saudi Arabia has largely backed off from  its ambitious plans in the island nation.

The Wire had reported Monday morning that the Supreme Court justices, who were being pressured by the Yameen government, had taken refuge in the premises of the top court on Sunday evening. Sources in the Maldivian judiciary had anticipated that the government would be making attempts to arrest the two key judges – Chief Justice Abdulla Saeed and Justice Ali Hameed – and replace them with more amenable jurists.

Both the US and UK ambassadors spoke to the chief justice on Monday to express solidarity and also learnt “about the great pressure judges are under”. Maldivian opposition leader Nasheed had also spoken to the chief justice who remained besieged in his office. The Indian high commissioner remained in touch with all relevant authorities, Indian officials said, though they provided no details on the record.

The Maldives resident on Monday morning sent three separate letters which called upon the Supreme Court to revoke its order of February 1 and also cancel the annulment of warrant against the chief judicial administrator Hassan Saeed, deemed loyal to the chief justice. The Supreme Court rejected all three letters.

The presidency then sent another letter through the internal document messaging system.

With the Supreme Court also in no mood to relent from its constitutional position, the declaration of emergency did not come as a surprise to observers.

According to the presidential decree, the emergency was declared to “protect peace and welfare” of citizens following the Supreme Court order of February 1. The official press release said that the step had been taken as the implementation of the Supreme Court judgment would have resulted in “the disruption of the functions of the executive power and the state institutions vested with specific mandates under the constitution, the infringement of national security and public interest, and if implemented, which would potentially lead to an undermining of the supremacy of the constitution of the Republic of Maldives”.

Yameen had previously announced emergency in 2015 for 30 days after he claimed there was an assassination threat against him. He had to lift the emergency within a week, due to criticism from foreign countries.

The key difference with this declaration of emergency has been the wide swathe of constitutional articles which have been put into abeyance. This includes articles on the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court and the right of parliament to remove a sitting president.

Husnu Al Suood, president of the Maldives Bar Association told The Wire that the declaration of emergency was constitutional but not the suspension of the Supreme Court. “[Yameen’s] declaration has suspended the Supreme Court. But, according to article 258 [of the Maldives constitution], the Supreme Court has to determine the validity of any challenge to a declaration of emergency. It means that there is no power given under the constitution to suspend the  Supreme Court under emergency provisions,” he said.

Suood had been in direct touch with the Chief Justice Abdulla Saeed, who had issued an appeal through him to the public even as the police stands ready to storm the SC premises. He also told The Wire that the judges had been staying inside the building without any food as the police had stopped all entry and exit for over a day.

The official account of the Maldives judiciary also confirmed that troops had entered the building.

The arrest of the Department of Judicial Administration’s chief judicial administrator Hassan Saeed Hussain was the first to be confirmed by the Maldives police.

Finally, six hours after the police had ‘broken into’ the premises, Supreme Court Chief Justice Abdullah Saeed and Justice Ali Hameed were publiclyarrested “for an ongoing investigation”. They were taken out of the Maldivian capital to another detention centre on a police launch boat.

Former president arrested

Even as the drama at the Supreme Court was unfolding, security forces were also at the door of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the estranged elder brother of President Yameen and a key opposition figure.

Gayoom, who had been president of Maldives for 30 years, was arrested along with his son-in-law on charges of trying to overthrow the government. Before he was formally arrested, his aide recorded a video which was posted on twitter.

File photo of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom in Male October 7, 2008. Credit: REUTERS/Stringer (MALDIVES)

“Right now, the police are here to arrest me. I remain steadfast in my resolve. I don’t know what the charges against me are. I haven’t done anything to warrant arrest. I urge all our supporters to remain strong. We will not give up on the reform work we started. I wish all Maldivians success. Stay courageous and I pray Allah almighty guide us on the right path,” he said.

As 80-year-old Gayoom was taken away, a few policemen saluted him.