The United States has “real concerns about the status of rule of law and democracy” in the Maldives, Acting Assistant Secretary Alice Wells told a congressional subcommittee hearing Thursday on ‘Maintaining US influence in South Asia.’
“Lack of higher educational opportunities, high youth unemployment, rise of social media, and weak institutions all contribute to an environment in which Islamist violent extremism is on the rise,” Wells said at the hearing on the State Department’s 2018 South Asia budget.
“Our work with the government to combat violent extremism remains critically important, in a country with a grim distinction: per capita, it has produced more terrorists who have fought in Iraq and Syria than any other country in the world.”
The State Department’s request for US$440,000 in foreign assistance for the Maldives is to continue “limited support for maritime security cooperation,” she added, noting “threats posed by narcotics trafficking, piracy in the Indian Ocean, and seaborne trade in illicit materials of potential use for terrorist activity.”
The Maldives abuts sea lanes through which pass two-thirds of the world’s oil and half of its container shipments, she observed.
The US concern comes amidst renewed political turmoil after the opposition coalition secured the parliament’s majority with defections from the divided ruling party in early July. Seven former ruling party lawmakers have since been contentiously unseated, a dozen opposition lawmakers put on trial, and Jumhooree Party leader Gasim Ibrahim sentenced in absentia to more than three years in prison.
The military was also deployed to lock down the parliament and protect the embattled speaker whilst former President Maumoon Gayoom’s son, MP Faris Maumoon, who led a bloc of lawmakers loyal to his father, has been detained for nearly two months.
With Speaker Abdulla Maseeh Mohamed conducting the Majlis under military guard and heated exchanges descending into brawls, US Ambassador Atul Keshap had called the events “disturbing and unfortunate” in late August.
“A free and fair parliament governed by impartial rules is essential to the proper functioning of any healthy democracy,” he said in a video message, calling on the government to ensure that the legislature can function freely.
“The United States will continue to stand in solidarity with the people of Maldives. We applaud your faith in democracy. We support your vision of a peaceful, prosperous, stable, moderate, democratic future for the Maldives.”
A day after the statement, JP leader Gasim was sentenced to jail while he remained hospitalised after collapsing inside the courthouse.
The midnight verdict “erases any pretence of judicial impartiality,” Keshap tweeted.
In late July, the US embassy also joined other Western countries to call on the Maldivian government to restore the independence of the legislature after the unprecedented expulsion of opposition lawmakers from the parliament house by the police and military.