New Delhi: For two consecutive days, the Maldives government has had to do damage control after a news outlet and an opposition politician leaked the alleged draft of a bilateral agreement with India on the development of coastguard facilities at a strategically-located island, which the Maldivian military has denounced as “fake”.
During the visit of Indian external affairs minister S. Jaishankar to the Maldives last month, New Delhi had signed an agreement to develop and maintain a coastguard harbour and dockyard at Uthuru Thila Falhu (UTF), an atoll near the Maldivian capital.
After signing the pact, the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) leadership held a joint press conference to assert that it was not a foreign base. A day later, the Maldives parliament also debated the topic after an opposition politician submitted an emergency motion against the agreement. Fifty-one MPs supported the demand for a parliamentary debate, which included 48 ruling party lawmakers.
The issue again resurfaced after a Maldivian news outlet Dhiyares, published what it claimed is the copy of a draft agreement that permitted the stationing of Indian military personnel at UTF. The news organisation declared that the alleged copy was provided by a senior officer of the MNDF on condition of anonymity. Former home minister Umar Naseer also shared screenshots of the agreement on his Facebook account on Monday.
The Maldivian defence ministry issued a press release on Monday afternoon that the documents were fake. The statement asserted that “it will not allow for any decision which may endanger the safety of Maldivian people or the freedom and sovereignty of Maldives”. MNDF also issued an advisory asking citizens to “refrain from circulating illegitimate documents that might hinder Maldives’ relationships with neighbouring countries”.
Press Release – 15 March 2021 pic.twitter.com/FAaKWC2lfY
— Ministry of Defence (@MoDmv) March 15, 2021
The Maldivian defence minister Mariya Didi also tweeted that it was unacceptable to spread fake news by claiming to have sources within the Maldivian military. “Attempting to slander Maldivian military officers to serve a political purpose is highly reprehensible and cowardly,” she said.
Dhivehi askariyyaage isverinna havaalaadhee kamahbune haqeegathaa khilaafu dhogu khabaru fethurumakee balaiganeveyne kamehnoon. Siyaasee maqsadheh haasilukurumah Dhivehi sifainge aguvattaalan masahkayi kurumakee varah dhashudharajaige findi amaleh. 🇲🇻 https://t.co/qkSp5EyL7P
— Mariya Didi 🎈 (@MariyaDidi) March 15, 2021
The controversy did not die down, with Maldivian polity and social media buzzing over all the reports.
On Tuesday, MNDF’s top brass held a press conference to scotch the rumours.
The Chief of Defense Force, Brigadier General Abdulla Shamaal, reiterated that the documents being circulated on social media were false.
According to the state broadcaster, Shamaal stated that there was “no threat to national security or sovereignty” in the signed UTF agreement.
He refuted allegations that senior MNDF officers took bribes and held secret emergency meetings as “lowly attempts to tarnish the reputation of the military in order to fulfil a certain political agenda”.
The Maldivian military chief also denied that they were being pressured to sign this agreement. “I still have a message I wish to convey. This is something that the national defence force wishes, we are pushing this with the government to do this,” said General Shamaal, as quoted by a news outlet, Sun News.
He added that the Maldives government would operate the dockyard. “No one else will be operating the dockyard. The ownership of the dockyard will also be with the state of Maldives. Any technical officials who come to the dockyard will also come with the permission of the state of the Maldives who will also determine how long they stay”.
Meanwhile, the Maldives parliament was debating on Tuesday whether the UTF agreement should be shared with the lawmakers. Parliamentary speaker Mohamed Nasheed opined that he did not believe the deal had to be mandatorily tabled in the parliament, as demanded by opposition members. An MDP member of parliament also submitted a motion urging the government to take action against those who have circulated “fake” drafts about the UTF project.
Speaking to The Wire, Maldivian analyst Azim Zahir said a substantial constituency in the Maldives was worried about the direction of the close strategic ties with India. “A lot of people would not, for example, like any military presence in the Maldives, because of the nationalist sentiment,” said Zahir, who is a research scholar and political scientist at the Centre for Muslim States and Societies, School of Social Sciences, the University of Western Australia.
He stated that it came from a “deep-seated nationalist sentiment” that fuels Maldivian identity, which is shaped by the centuries-old historical memory of invaders from the Indian mainland. “Maldivian national identity is partly positioned against these historical incidents, where there was an intervention from India”.
Zahir, who has recently written a paper on India-Maldives strategic ties, also felt that the Maldivian government had been “terrible in explaining its growing relationship with India”. “That’s partly the problem here. There is a lack of transparency here”.
While he observed that the controversy is politically damaging, he was sceptical if it would translate into electoral success for the opposition. The Maldives is scheduled to hold local elections in April.
“There is a question mark on whether they will be able to mobilise people on this issue. For that to happen, there would need political backing from the opposition, especially PPM (Progressive Party of Maldives) and other groups who are with the government. I am talking of leaders like Ghasim Ibrahim of Jumhoori party,” said Zahir.