Amid Domestic Strife, Maldives' Military Takes to International Stage

Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG
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Caught between China and India, the Malidves' military is becoming a power unto itself with international ambitions.

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By Dr. Vasabjit Banerjee and Dr. Prashant Hosur

The recent political crisis in the Indian Ocean island nation of the Maldives has attracted the international community’s attention due to its diplomatic and military-strategic implications for India China, and the Indian Ocean as a whole.

While the current Maldives President Abdulla Yameen is close to China, which may be seeking allies to contain India in the South Asian region, not all of China’s newfound friends are equally capable, which creates varying possibilities for conflict with India.

In the case of Maldives, the country possesses no capabilities of its own to balance against India at any level. Rather, the Maldives’ value to the Chinese "String of Pearls" strategy to contain India and prevent the U.S. and its allies’ domination of the Indo-Pacific is passive. It can provide China with a naval base and access to ground level intelligence on India’s activity in the region.

[The Maldives] can provide China with a naval base and access to ground level intelligence on India’s activity in the region.

Paradoxically, the Maldives’ own military irrelevance poses a problem for New Delhi because, as the Chinese presence grows, India will have to directly confront China in the Maldives, as opposed to facing off against an ally or proxy like Pakistan. This scenario was exemplified by the Chinese naval force -- including vessels capable of amphibious landings -- entering the Indian Ocean in March 2018, allegedly deterring India from militarily resolving a political crisis in the Maldives.

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Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG
Maldives President Abdulla Yameen and China's President Xi Jinping attend a signing meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, Dec. 7, 2017.

However, this already fraught scenario may become even more complex because continued political polarization and violence in the Maldives has prompted the country’s military to increasingly intervene in domestic politics.

Thus, proposed diplomatic maneuvering either by China or by the Quadrilateral Alliance of the U.S., India, Japan and Australia – which seeks to enhance India’s power projection capacity in the Indian Ocean region – will also have to take the Maldives’ military’s foreign policy preferences into account. Furthermore, its recent actions suggest that it seeks to undercut or deny Indian dominance.

Continued political polarization and violence in the Maldives has made the country’s military increasingly intervene in domestic politics.

The Maldives’ National Defence Forces’ (MNDF) entry into politics has been almost by default due to increasing political polarization and violence between civilian leaders. The Maldives’ descent into political instability began with demonstrations in 2012, which culminated in a policy mutiny and the ouster of President Mohamed Nasheed in favor of his Vice President Mohammed Waheed Hassan Manik on Feb. 7 of that year.

After a period of extreme mass mobilization, the presidential elections of November 2013 brought President Yameen to power, and Mohamed Nasheed, the leader of the opposition, accepted the outcome. Nevertheless, by March 2015 Nasheed was forced into exile in Britain by Yameen under trumped up terrorism charges.

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Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG
A supporter of former Maldivian president Mohamed Nasheed shouts slogans during a protest against the current president of the Maldives Abdulla Yameen, demanding the release of opposition political prisoners in front of the Maldives embassy in Colombo, Sri Lanka March 6, 2018.

Although he repressed the opposition, Yameen was unable to stop the dissidence in his own political party under the leadership of former dictator and president, Abdul Gayoom, who is also Yameen’s step-brother. With the ruling coalition in the national legislature threatened with fracture, Yameen had the 80-year-old Gayoom arrested in February 2018.

Given popular opposition, the loss of control over the legislature, and an intransigent judiciary, President Yameen is increasingly relying on the MNDF to retain power. Between declaring a state of emergency in late 2015 and then in early 2018, he ordered the MNDF to occupy the People's Majlis [the Maldive's parliament] in August 2017 in order to prevent a vote of no-confidence against Speaker Abdulla Maseed Mohamed. In February 2018, he ordered the army to disobey any Supreme Court decisions to remove him and had soldiers arrest the Supreme Court justices.

President Yameen is increasingly relying on the MNDF to retain power.

Budgetary allocations for the MNDF have been rising since the interim regime of President Mohammed Waheed Hassan Manik (March 2012- November 2013). The budget allocation for 2013 witnessed a 14 percent increase from 2012, for a total of US$60.3 Million, which was justified by the government as necessary to accommodate and equip the new air wing called the Aviation Security Command. Despite significant budget deficits, actual and proposed budget allocations have remained steady: Moving from a high of 5.2 percent of the national budget in 2013 to 4.0 percent in 2017.

Perhaps greater budgetary allocations have incentivized the MNDF’s continued deference to civilian authorities. Although President Yameen installed retired army general Moosa Ali Jaleel, as the defense minister in January 2015, after a terrorist bomb attack in September, the position was given to Adam Shareef Umar, a former education minister, in October 2015.

Despite these changes, the Chief of Defense Force Major General Ahmed Shiyam has continued to hold the position since February 2012. General Shiyam has been loyal to the increasingly authoritarian Yameen regime, and appeared on television along with the chief of police in support of the Attorney General who rejected the Supreme Court’s right to depose Yameen during the constitutional crisis in February 2018.

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Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG
Maldivian Defence Minister Mohamed Nazim (R) specks with new Chief of Maldivian National Defence Forces Ahmed Shiyam during a news conference in Male Feb. 9, 2012.

Concomitantly, the MNDF is seeking to expand its foreign policy role, which President Yameen may not be in a position to prevent. Under General Shiyam’s leadership, the MNDF is attempting to enhance ties with the Pakistani Armed Forces, and both countries were considering jointly patrolling the archipelago’s Exclusive Economic Zone. Parallel interactions with the Indian Armed Forces’ representatives have been cordial. Although Maldives refused to participate in India’s joint naval exercise "Milan," which was held in March 2018, India and Maldives conducted their eighth joint military exercise "Ekuverin" in December 2017 near the Indian city of Bangalore. In April and May, however, the long-standing Indo-Maldivian defense cooperation was clearly evidenced: the Indian Navy’s Special Forces conducted an asymmetric warfare training exercise from April 28 to May 15 in Maldives. On May 12-15 the Maldivian and Indian navies jointly conducted patrols in Maldives’ Exclusive Economic Zone where Indian forces trained MNDF personnel.

The MNDF’s above mentioned interactions with India and Pakistan indicates it is seeking a new foreign policy role via forging defense ties. Specifically, whereas it continues to collaborate with its traditional benefactor India, it supports the pro-China President Yameen and has begun exploring defense links with Pakistan -- India’s other nuclear rival and China’s ally.

Whether it leverages the Indian defense establishment’s fears of the Maldives’ current pro-China tilt in order to extract more resources and funding from India, seeks to balance India and China, or explicitly realigns the Maldives with Pakistan and China, it indicates a loss for India’s untrammeled predominance.

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TNL Editor: Morley J Weston

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