Two years after the Maldives attainted the Wilsonian democracy, it’s witnessing a classic test of democratic ideals with a political struggle emerging between President Mohamed Nasheed and the opposition dominated parliament which has given Islamic terrorism a foothold in the young nation. The struggle has “invited” regional mediation from Sri Lanka with the countries as China, India and Pakistan wanting to have a crack at solving the problem as well. The United States, meanwhile, have urged Malé to accept international (i.e., not regional) mediation.
Now, what worries India and the United States the most is that with the Maldives struggling with its infant democracy, there is every chance of the political chaos being used by jihadi extremists to use the island nation as a springboard for terrorism. Indian intelligence was alerted recently from Western sources that the internationally banned terror group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), which is based in Pakistan, had been trying to set up base in isolated islands of the Maldives. The group may well use the Maldives, which has largely a Sunni Muslim population, to launch attacks throughout South Asia.
One instance when Islamic militancy raised its head was on September 29, 2007 when the Sultan Park bombing in Malé took place; the first ever Islamist terror strike in the Maldives. Though Islamic militancy isn’t entirely new to the Maldives — this started in the early 1980s under President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom — what is new is the clash between Salafi Sunni traditions versus the Shāfi’ī Sunni traditions. The latter is a culmination of the indigenous Maldivian culture whereas the former was imported through the return of students from the Arab world and Pakistan. Many of the “hardcored” Islamic motivated students are located in the southern atolls of the Maldives. They call themselves Super Salafis.
Small scale insurgency attacks started in the Maldives after it was believed that President Gayoom, who came to power in 1978 by citing his Islamic credentials polished at the Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt, ditched his Islamic agenda. Now with the more Western liberal Oxford educated President Nasheed in power, the fissures between the Salafis and the ruling establishment has only increased. It’s particularly evident in the southern atolls. Precisely for this reason, the Maldives’ government is engaging with India to set up underground radars on all of its 26 atolls.
There are reports which also suggest that there’s an increase in the number of tourists from Pakistan to the Maldives. Annually, the islands hosts about 700,000 tourists, most of them from Europe and the United States which is part of the reason why Western governments are so concerned that jihadists might imitate the 2002 bombing that occurred in Bali, Indonesia.
Politically in the Maldives the government and opposition started a dialogue to ease tension on the advice of US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, Robert Blake Jr. Blake traveled to Malé to mediate between the opposition and president while Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse visited the capital on July 7 on invitation from his Maldivian counterpart to help him out of the matrix that is the current political predicament. It’s to be noted that Rajapakse has political capital in the Maldives for successfully annihilating the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam last year.
As the great American poet Mark Twain observed, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” In the case of the Maldives that sounds perfectly apt as the islands descend into a political chaos much like it did twenty years ago. At the time, in November 1988, Abdullah Luthufi and some eighty armed mercenaries of the Sri Lankan People’s Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) attempted to overthrow the Maldivian government but failed when Indian forces intervened with some 1,600 troops send by air to restore order. This act helped seal Indo-Maldives relations and it was a classic example of the application of India’s Monroe Doctrine.
The present situation has not gone unnoticed in the capitals of today’s Asian giants. India considers the Maldives within the ambit of its Monroe Doctrine. In August 2009 a defense pact was signed between India and the Maldives. The last thing New Delhi wants is to have the islands succumb to internal power struggle with Islamic militancy on the rise around the Indian Ocean. China has active trade relations with the Maldives and it’s watching the ongoing political fiasco in Malé with great interest.
The seeds of the present discord in the Maldives go back to the 2009 parliamentary election when the Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) led by Maumoon Abdul Gayoom managed to get only a simple majority in parliament with the help of the People’s Alliance (PA) and some independents. President Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) has 28 representatives and the support of four independents in the 77 seat parliament.
The Maldives function under a multiparty system with the president assembling a cabinet with parliamentary approval. Parliament also has the power to remove a minister with a motion of non confidence. Though DRP gained control of the legislature it fell short of the twothirds majority needed to impeach the president. At the same time, President Nasheed can’t dismiss the assembly until it completes its full five year term. The outcome has been a political deadlock.
The crisis reached its height in June when thirteen members of Nasheed’s cabinet resigned. The reason cited was somewhat new in any parliamentary democracy: they claimed to have “working problems” with parliament. Though the ministers were reappointed at the insistence of Sri Lankan President Rajapaksa who undertook a one day goodwill tour to the Maldives on July 7 and managed to get the government and the opposition to agree to form a committee to address the political problem in the Maldives, the fissure is bound to last.
Historically, the Maldives had their first constitution in 1932. Since, the country was ruled as a constitutional monarchy. A republic was established in January 1953 but it was short lived and the monarchy was restored in August of that same year. A second republic was proclaimed in November 1968. Maumoon Abdul Gayoom became the second president of the republic in 1978 and held power till the decisive October 2008 elections when Nasheed secured the presidency.
The problem with the Maldives’ politics is multiplied by the paradox of its constitution. The constitution, which was adopted in August 2008, establishes a presidential system of government though vests significant power with parliament. It is a classic example of decentralization with extended checks and balances. This becomes problematic in case parliament is controlled by the opposition as is the case in the Maldives today. The opposition is then able to obstruct the core functions of the executive, such as raising taxes and providing subsidies.
The escalating political rift in the Maldives casts doubt upon Malé’s ability to host the 17th South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation Summit next year. The Maldives were supposed to host the 16th SAARC summit in July 2008 which the government was unable to facilitate because of preparations for the October elections.
Those elections led Mohamed Nasheed to victory against then President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. Gayoom was considered an oppressive ruler with a record of being Asia’s longest serving head of state; Gayoom was in power for thirty consecutive years.
In many ways, President Nasheed was thought of as the Maldives’s Barack Obama. Just like Obama won the November 2008 elections in the United States on a message of hope and change, Nasheed was able to overthrow Gayoom’s “regime” campaigning on a message of “audacity of hope.” Like Obama, in many ways, Nasheed comes off far too liberal in a conservative society as the Maldives however which is populated by 300,000 Sunni Muslims. It remains to be seen whether President Nasheed will be able to bring his dissents and opposition together in the young democratic nation.
In conclusion it must be noted that the Maldives are in great strategic location in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Traditionally, all great powers that aspired to control the sea have sought to establish a base there — Portugal, the Netherlands, Britain, the United States and more recently, the Soviet Union. The southernmost island of the Maldives, the Gan Island in the Seenu Atoll, served as a base for the British Royal Navy during World War II.
The last thing anyone wants is for the Maldives to become a safe haven for Islamic insurgents which why leaders as President Mahinda Rajapakse and Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake had undertaken a “shuttle diplomacy” to ease the tension.