By Sumon K. Chakrabarti
Democracy is rough road littered with potholes. Either you avoid them and play safe, or you fill them up for a smoother ride in the future. Mohamed Nasheed did both. First, he played safe and then he changed gears to take the problem head-on. But in doing so, he failed to avoid a collision that led to the toppling in a coup of the first-ever democratic government in the Maldives that he headed.
Clearly, Nasheed’s order to arrest Abdulla Mohamed, Chief Judge of Criminal Court, on January 16 was a political blunder. It brought a rainbow coalition of opposition politicians, mega-rich resort owners and radical Islamists out on the streets – united only by their opposition to a nascent, liberal democracy and the reforms it had brought about that are under genuine threat today.
Chief Judge Mohamed, appointed for life by former dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, was facing investigation by the Judicial Services Commission for political bias and persistent refusal to prosecute cases of corruption and human rights abuses against his mentor and members of his former regime.
Hassan Saeed, Gayoom’s attorney general and now special advisor to new President Dr. Mohammed Waheed, had accused him of making derogatory comments against women and even requesting an underage victim of sexual assault to re-enact her abuse in an open court.
Strange bedfellows are not unknown in politics. Judge Abdulla’s arrest galvanised the opposition led by Gayoom’s brother Yameen (who faces charges in a $800 million oil scam, the biggest corruption case in the island nation), the country’s richest businessman Gasim Ibrahim, and radical islamists led by Sheikh Imran of the religious Adhaalath Party.
Emerging details of the lead-up to the coup now point to a political deal struck on the night of January 31 between the former Vice President – and now President -- and these forces. On that night, in a press confererence, they had pledged support to Waheed and asked the army and police not to take any orders from Nasheed.
But the big question is: Why did these strange bedfellows come together? The answer, many believe, lies in Malaysia, where former dictator Gayoom -- who was defeated by Nasheed in the country's first democratic elections in 2008 -- has conveniently been based since the coup was in the throes of being executed.
That Gayoom, who ruled the country with an iron-first for 30 years, is the uniting force behind the coup-plotters was evident in the initial appointments that Waheed made on taking over the presidency within hours of Nasheed’s forced resignation.
The first two were loyalists of the Gayoom regime -- former Justice Minister Mohamed Jameel Ahmed, who was named Home Minister, and Mohamed Nazim, a former military officer under Gayoom, who is the new Minister of Defence and National Security.
Within days, he also appointed Gayoom's spokesperson, Mohamed Hussain Shareef (Mundhu), as his Minister for Human Resources, Youth and Sports. Gayoom's lawyer, Azima Shakoor, was named his Attorney General, while the former dictator’s daughter, Dhunya Maumoon, was appointed State Minister for Foreign Affairs.
There was more. Ahmed Mohamed ‘Andey’, CEO of the State Trading Organisation during the Gayoom administration, was named the Minister of Economic Development, while Ahmed Shamheed -- a Director at Villa Shipping and Trade, owned by one of the coup plotters Gasim Ibrahim, and the Ministry of Planning and Development in the Gayoom administration – became the Minister of Transport and Communication.
For more than 30 years, India had supported Gayoom, Asia’s longest-ruling dictator, whose rule was marked by a discourse of violence. Yet, in strategic terms, New Delhi hardly gained anything in the Indian Ocean from that relationship. In the same period, China managed wield influence in one of the tiniest nations in the world by building mosques, setting up museums and developing infrastructure.
And when democracy came, which New Delhi backed after much initial reluctance, thanks to some wrong assessments, the new government under Mohamed Nasheed allowed India to set up radars on the 10 atolls of Maldives – each integrated to India’s radar capabilities, giving us an immediate edge in the Indian Ocean. The Maldives, comprising 1,192 islands, stretches for 1,200 nautical miles from north to south and the radars help monitor activities across vast stretches of the ocean.
New Delhi was also allowed to permanently base two helicopters in the country to enhance its surveillance capabilities and ability to respond swiftly to threats. While the Southern Naval Command integrated Maldives into the Indian security grid, the Coast Guard also carried out regular Dornier sorties over the island nation to look out for suspicious movements or vessels.
Even the private sector benefited. Indian infrastructure major GMR bagged the multi-million dollar contract to rebuild the international airport, a decision that finally prompted religious extremists and known anti-India figures in Maldives to galvanise themselves and call for Nasheed’s head.
In the late 1990s, Gayoom had come to a secret defence agreement with China to provide an entire island for a submarine base, in return for enhanced arms supplies to the Maldivian army. That agreement, however, did not fructify because of lack of unanimity in Beijing on whether Gayoom could be trusted. But China continued to offer the nation blank cheques from China Development Bank, cultural cooperation via the Confucius Institute, and telecommunications contracts through front entities.
The Indian Ocean -- a crucial transit zone for maritime trade between eastern Asia and the Middle East – has been strategically and geopolitically high on the Chinese agenda for the past 15 years. Many Indian strategic experts have started fearing that China's “string of pearls” can soon become a reality and encircle India, after Beijing secured contracts to build ports at Gwadar in Pakistan and Hambantota in Sri Lanka, followed by the sealing of a deal with Seychelles in 2011 for the construction of a Chinese naval base.
Only a week before he was ousted, Nasheed was being pushed by top officers of his armed forces to sign a defence agreement with China, a pact he had been refusing to clear for three months. Those pursuing the Chinese agenda were led by Brigadier General Farhat Shaheer, now the Deputy Chief.
Given this background, many are wondering why India gave up on Nasheed so quickly after the coup. Clearly, the answer lies with the Indian Foreign Ministry
Analysts are asking whether India misread the ongoing political struggle for the second time in four years. On the eve of elections in 2008, the then Indian High Commissioner reported that Nasheed was hardly a force. He recommended continued support to Gayoom. Nasheed won.
Many say that, this time too, reports from the Indian High Commission shaped initial decisions – New Delhi recognised the new regime on February 8, within 24 hours. This was considered a show of undue haste, something the government indirectly hinted at later. Questions are also being asked about what Gayoom’s half-brother Abdullah Yameen, a long-time critic of India, was doing inside the Indian High Commission for over an hour on the morning of the coup, even as Nasheed was being forced by security forces to resign at the headquarters of the Maldives National Defence Force.
Interestingly, an Indian naval ship, INS Suvarna, was in Maldives from February 3. Strangely, the ship was allowed to leave on the morning of February 7, just four or five hours after information of the serious standoff and the plotting of the coup was received. Just the presence of the ship and some marines in the city could have stopped events from unfolding the way they did.
Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai soon arrived to Maldives to salvage the situation and called for early elections. The deal was that the new president, Waheed, would announce elections within 24 hours. Nothing happened. On February 28, Mathai again flew down to the Maldives. This time he proposed to all political parties in Maldives that the amendments to the constitution should be made within one month to pave the way for an early presidential election before December this year. But during the two-hour meeting, he was repeatedly reminded by many from the new government, including Yameen’s party, that the involvement of an outsider in what was an internal matter was not warranted. Even Gayoom’s daughther Dhunya and President Waheed’s spokesperson make some uncharitable comments.
This, after India had handed over $20 million on the evening of February 27 to Mohamed Ahmed, Controller of Finance of the Finance Ministry. Apparently, an additional $50 million is on its way so that Maldives can avoid a sovereign default. All this was happening even as the new government, including the President himself, has backed out from its promise to the Foreign Secretary on holding early elections. The President, Home Minister and State Minister for Foreign Affairs have openly said in the past two days that there is no question of early elections, and that no foreign interference would be tolerated in the matter.
India can, though, draw solace from the fact that all the Western powers, including the European Union, the Commonwealth, the United Kingdom and the U.S., have asked New Delhi to chart the roadmap for the archipelago in turmoil.
But with lost credibility and a history of dumping friends – from Burma to Bangladesh and now Maldives, the reality is stark -- India has, as the saying goes, lost the mango as well as the sack in the Maldives. It has lost the goodwill of every democracy-loving Maldivian and has not gained anything from the new dispensation – backed and aided by a cocktail of the military, police, mafia and radicals.
(Sumon K. Chakrabarti is the Chief National Correspondent of CNN-IBN and is writing a book on the Maldives. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)