The Maldives Independent interviewed the Minister of Fisheries and Agriculture, Mohamed Shainee, on September 8. The transcript below has been edited for length.
– Sanctions threat –
MI: The government has described the US sanctions threat as an attempt to “interfere” and “intimidate.” Why would the US want to do that?
MS: I don’t know why. But if you look at the timing and what’s been happening in the country, there’s been no deviation since we had an agreement with EU and the UN that the best thing to do would be to have free and fair elections. Since we started the election [campaign], there’s been no arrest. So why would US come right now and provoke and influence?
MI: It’s not just the US that has a bad opinion of the electoral process. The EU, at the time of announcing the sanctions framework, also cited concerns.
MS: They were made to believe there won’t be elections in the country. One or two ambassadors sitting in Colombo and trying to create this issue. When they put up something, the rest of the countries follow.
MI: Are you saying the ambassadors sitting in Colombo are being misled? Or are they wilfully deceiving their own government?
MS: They are misleading their government. None of them contact us before they send a message to their administration on the alleged issues. I’ve personally sat with James Dauris [British ambassador to the Maldives]. I said, why did you put this statement out [during the attempts to impeach the parliamentary speaker]? Did you ever come to the government to clarify? He said, no, I got this from the opposition. I said, but you have to ask the government if this is right or wrong. He said, I read this from the newspaper. But most of the newspapers in the Maldives are against the government. This is what they do. Any responsible ambassador should talk to our ambassador in Colombo or to the foreign ministry and find out what is the other side of the story. It never has happened.
We know who these people are. They were actively engaged with President Nasheed during his election. There are some people who cried when he lost the elections. They were that emotionally involved. But unfortunately, it’s the fault of the government that we haven’t been able to travel to all these countries and clarify matters because we’ve been busy in our local development programme.
– India –
MI: India in recent months has been very vocal in its criticism. It has called for “restoration of democracy” and “the rule of law” in the Maldives. How do you respond?
MS: When cases go against the opposition, they are taken as instances as the lack of rule of law. India and the international community has been going on against [the state of emergency imposed on] February 1. We have shown it was the coup. In which country when a coup is unfolding will the government sit and wait until the administration is thrown out? The international community doesn’t see the mishaps [by the Supreme Court]. They say, if there’s a Supreme Court order, you have to abide by that. But the president has overruled it to keep the system stable.
MI: India has also expressed concern over the electoral process. Unlike the western countries you criticised for being far removed from the Maldives, India has an embassy in the Maldives and is privy to the going-ons. Why do they have the same impression?
MS: You and I both know theirs is not a political issue but geopolitical issue. The leaked cable on Twitter shows what kind of interest they have. I once asked the Indian ambassador Akhilesh Mishra, what is your problem? He said, China is the problem. They’re putting a military base here. I said, I will allow you access to any place in the Maldives you want. Show me where is a military base by China. If any military presence in the Maldives, it is India’s. There are around 60-70 Indian military personnel in the Maldives.
MI: Are you saying India’s concerns have nothing to do with the electoral process under way?
MS: There is nothing wrong with the elections. We have had three general elections that the international observers have certified as free and fair. Why would anyone think it is going to be unfair before it’s even happened?
MI: There’s also been a lot of talk about relations in the two countries going south. Recently, the Maldives refused to accept the choppers gifted by the Indian government. A lot of Indians’ visas also aren’t granted or renewed.
MS: Maldivians have been facing this issue before the Indians. This has been deteriorating on both sides of the border. As you know, a Maldivian MP was rejected from entering India. There is only one solution: to engage and talk.
MI: You seem to be acknowledging there is a problem. Until now, the governments have always denied this matter.
MS: There was no denial. Can India deny that our MP wasn’t granted access to India? This is a fact. Yes, some of the work visas… India has the largest number of workers in the Maldives, around 29,000. They are getting a fair treatment. Just not getting any more because of a migration policy, and when we had a technical issue with the system where we didn’t grant any visa to anyone, if that’s taken as a big issue, then yes, there’s an issue. But this is not one-sided. The solution is to renew the agreement that we’ve proposed to India.
MI: Could you tell me more about this agreement?
MS: That’s with the foreign ministry. I don’t know the details.
– Pakistan and China –
MI: The Maldives’ increasing relations with Pakistan has also been a sore point for India. Given the history between the two countries, don’t you think such moves may provoke the Maldives’ closest ally?
MS: India was the first country visited by our President. Why hasn’t Indian PM not visited us? That’s what you should be asking. In 21st century, Maldives will not sit back and wait for people to come and give aid to them. We will knock on the doors to whoever willing to give us aid and be our development partners. The initial request was to India. But it was difficult to get it implemented.
MI: You have said you don’t have any Chinese military base in the Maldives today. But has the Maldives signed any defence deals with China?
MI: How will you repay the millions of dollars China has been investing in the Maldives?
MS: We are very comfortable with our debt. We paid $320 million to GMR, didn’t we? Why would it be difficult to pay $300 million we have given them as sovereign guarantees? And this 300 million goes in the development of housing projects.
– Elections and the opposition –
MI: None of the serious contenders from the last election are contesting this time. Don’t you think it would’ve been smarter to let Nasheed and Gasim contest? It would’ve kept the international community happy and divided the opposition.
MS: By constitution, Gasim and Maumoon can’t stand for elections because he’s over 65. We can’t change the constitution to make them be in the elections. In the last three elections, we bent rules to allow Nasheed to run. But what good came out of it? Isn’t it time to give chance to new politicians? Ibu Solih and Faisal Naseem are new generation for the politics.
MI: Speaking of Maumoon, there have been reports that his health has been deteriorating. Why can’t he be under house arrest?
MS: Because he has committed a crime. Like anyone else, he’s also a citizen. And believe me, he’s not in a jail. He’s in a luxury one bedroom apartment with all the amenities he needs. He’s been well looked after. He’s been given all medical support.
– After the election –
MI: What will the margin of victory of the PPM be?
MS: We’re hoping it’ll be above 70 percent. But if the opposition starts bribing people, there will be a problem.
MI: The police have been criticised for arresting people ahead of their rallies.
MS: No. There has been no arrest before any rally. There have been investigations if someone is threatening to kill the president. Some have been detained. But I have also got a lot of queries from our activists that they have been arrested or detained.
MI: How about the instances where the police take off the opposition campaign posters?
MS: If someone puts up a poster on a house where they don’t get the permission to do it, and if that household calls the police, they will remove it. Under campaign regulation, you have to get the consent of the house-owner.
MI: What are the next five years going to be like?
MS: They will be peaceful if international community will let us have free and fair elections no matter who wins. I am only concerned that if Ibu comes as the President, the pressure on him to bring Nasheed back for President will again provoke and cause instability. From our analysis, we know inshallah we will win. At the current rate, this country will be much prosperous.
MI: What about those living in exile?
MS: Most of them are living in exile by themselves. For them, it’s a luxury life. Anyone who claims they are politically targeted and want to get asylum, they get a very good life in EU countries.
MI: And those in exile in Colombo?
MS: I don’t think they get the same support after failure of (David) Cameron’s government. That’s why they live in Colombo. We haven’t put anyone in exile. They’re free to come back. If they face a sentence, they have to face the sentence. If they have to face the court, they have to face the court. Those who don’t have any of that and are still political asylum seekers, we can’t do much about that.
Photo of Mohamed Shainee from December 2017