A highly mobilised campaign of distortion and falsification of facts by president Yameen about his deeds in the Maldives does not hide his obvious plan to turn the country into a dictatorship modelled on China.
For China, the Maldives under Yameen is an ideal place where Xi Jinping, Chinese president (now possibly for life) could test out his apparent plans to coerce the world into a new order shaped by China’s economic might.
Where does that leave India? There is no definite answer and Indian foreign policy tends to reflect that ambiguity.
China on the other hand is loud and assertive. Being a dictatorship, it has naturally preferred local autocrats in South Asia, offering them development incentives in place of the privileges they can return such as the lease or freehold sale of parts of their territory to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
The outcome for such local leaders has been the chance to consolidate their autocracy while someone else supposedly takes charge of their country’s development.
This has been the bedrock of the so-called policy of looking to the East, which government leaders in South Asia, including the Maldives, keep relishing. It has enabled them to openly defy international concerns about their suppression of democracy and abuse of human rights as China has done for many decades.
In recent decades, closeness to China by any of the governments of the region - from Myanmar to Sri Lanka, from Bangladesh to Nepal and the Maldives - has been coupled with more repression against the opposition, less respect for the rule of law, and politicisation of independent institutions such as election commissions, anti-corruption commissions, human rights commissions, and the judicial bodies.
This is no less visible in the Maldives where elections have been engineered, the constitution hijacked, MPs have lost their elected seats for crossing the floor, journalists face abduction, fatal attacks, and beatings for covering anti-government rallies, lawyers are banned from practice for calling on the courts to exercise impartiality, peaceful demonstrators including MPs are beaten on the streets and pepper sprayed, at times to the point of losing consciousness.
Yameen’s repressive measures began when he took office in 2013. His initial targets were his political opponents in the Maldivian Democratic Party led by former president Nasheed. Then he arrested his own allies one by one and had them sentenced under bogus charges to long terms of imprisonment. The Supreme Court under Yameen’s pressure blocked their release and Yameen conveniently said he could not intervene because the court was independent.
When on 1 February the Supreme Court showed a degree of independence and ordered the their release, Yameen arrested the chief justice, another justice of the Supreme Court and his own half-brother and former president, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. He imposed a 15-day state of emergency on 5 February and got parliament to endorse an extension of it by another 30 days. This was in breach of the constitution because it was passed by fewer MPs present than the required number.
India has been critical of the initial state of emergency and its continuation, expressing concern about the arrests, showing dismay at the “delay in the resumption of the political process and the continuing suspension of the functioning of democratic institutions including the judiciary”.
China has steered clear of criticising Yameen, saying, “The situation in the Maldives was an internal affair of the island nation, which should be resolved by relevant parties in the Maldives through dialogue and negotiation”, as if that was possible when all opposition leaders are either in detention under Yameen or could be so if they returned to the Maldives.
Prompted by Nasheed’s call on India to intervene and restore democracy in the Maldives, China warned that it “firmly opposes outside interference” and will “take necessary measures to stop India if New Delhi moves to intervene militarily.” This is at a time when China itself has been accused of planning to build a naval base in the Maldives.
China’s tacit approval of Yameen’s rule may have lulled him into thinking that the big brother would shield him should his own repression of the people’s demands for freedom and the rule of law not work. But that would run against China’s non-interference claim, which it does not seem set to abandon just now.
China cannot support Yameen all the way and might be open to persuading him to step back. This puts India in a stronger position to seek China’s agreement for respect for the rule of law and the release of political prisoners in the Maldives.
* Abbas Faiz is an independent South Asia analyst and senior researcher at Amnesty International.