The Maldives is looking to India for protection against “punitive action” from the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group over the widely condemned imprisonment of opposition leaders, President Abdulla Yameen said today in his ongoing official visit to India.
In a joint press statement with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi following official talks at the Hyderabad House, Yameen said the main reason for his visit was to express gratitude for India’s role in helping the Maldives avoid action from the Commonwealth’s human rights and democracy oversight body.
“The reason I visited Mr Prime Minister in India today is to express my appreciation for the very steadfast leadership India has shown in protecting Maldives in the CMAG deliberations,” he said.
“We look at India for continued support in preventing any unfair, any punitive action by the CMAG on the Maldives. It is indeed very sad for a small country like the Maldives, trying to engage in international diplomacy and trying to learn from the governance of these institutions, while smaller countries are unfairly punished.”
The CMAG – comprised of a rotating group of foreign ministers from eight member states – is due to review the Maldives’ progress in resolving a year-long political crisis in mid-April.
Last month, Yameen said the Maldives avoided action after India and Pakistan “spoke in our defence” at a CMAG meeting in February.
The CMAG had issued a list of demands for the Maldivian government, including initiating all-party talks and releasing jailed politicians such as former President Mohamed Nasheed.
Yameen has since sought the Malaysian government’s help in avoiding “unfair punishment” from the Commonwealth. In recent weeks, he has also dispatched ministers to Pakistan and the Solomon Islands, which sit on the CMAG along with India and Malaysia.
Yameen went on to say that India has always been prepared to assist the Maldives.
“That is why again, coming back to a friend who can defend us in CMAG, that is the visit I’m paying to Prime Minister Modi today. I have no doubt in my mind that the countries in the CMAG, in the Commonwealth, will deliberate well in the case of the Maldives.”
The Maldives was placed on the CMAG agenda in 2012 following Nasheed’s controversial ouster; a move the government said had damaged “the country’s economy and democratic governance”.
Besieged by multiple political crises since early 2015, Yameen has remained defiant in the face of mounting diplomatic pressure, international censure, and the threat of sanctions after a UN rights panel declared that Nasheed’s jailing was arbitrary.
India has not made any public statements on Nasheed’s case either since his conviction in March last year or after the judgment by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.
But India’s ruling BJP leader Subramaniam Swamy had called on Modi to send a special envoy to Maldives to secure Nasheed’s release, describing the 19-day terrorism trial as “politically biased, inadequate and subject to external influence.”
Indian media coverage of Yameen’s visit meanwhile focused on New Delhi’s concerns over the growing Chinese influence in the Maldives. China is financing several large-scale infrastructure projects in the country, including a bridge connecting the capital to the airport island.
The opposition had raised fears of Chinese military expansion in the Maldives following controversial constitutional amendments that allow foreign freeholds in the country. But Yameen assured the Indian government at the time of the Maldives’ commitment to “keep the Indian Ocean a demilitarised zone.”
In his remarks today, Modi said India is the “net security provider” in the Indian Ocean, adding that the Maldives’ security and stability is linked to Indian national interests.
Yameen agreed that the Maldives will remain “sensitive” to India’s concerns, he said.
Modi also said India is ready to partner with the Maldives in the development of a transhipment port in the country’s northernmost atoll.
Yameen’s visit to India comes days after he unveiled plans to expand the Maldives’ main international with a US$373 million loan from Chinese EXIM Bank. The project was awarded to China’s Beijing Urban Construction Group.
Indian infrastructure giant GMR is meanwhile seeking nearly US$1 billion in damages from the government for abruptly terminating an airport development contract in 2012.
A Singaporean arbitration tribunal is due to determine the amount of compensation to be paid to the GMR-led consortium. The tribunal ruled last year that the government had “wrongfully” terminated a “valid and binding” concession agreement.
India-Maldives relations had soured in 2012 after the previous administration’s abrupt termination of the concession agreement with the Indian developer.
The Indian government subsequently tightened visa requirements for Maldivians and revoked a special quota for the import of aggregate and river sand. The restrictions were lifted after Yameen assumed power in November 2013 after prolonged political turmoil.
But ex-President Nasheed’s imprisonment appeared to strain relations with Modi dropping the Maldives off his Indian Ocean tour. The Maldives is the only South Asian country that Modi has not visited since assuming office.
Yameen meanwhile said today that India is “the most important friend of the Maldives” and invited Modi to visit the Maldives.
“The Maldives and India share common perspectives on peace, and stability in the South Asia and Indian Ocean region. That is why the Maldives pursues an India First foreign policy. The security of the Maldives is intimately linked with the security of India,” he said.