One year on, the Arab Spring continues to spread even as the early hopes raised by the uprisings wither. Democratisation is neither easy nor has it historically been a linear process, even in older well-established democracies. So while Tunisia appears to be in a relatively more peaceful transition, Egypt is riven with disappointment and frustrations. Libya is, as anticipated by everyone except its willfully blind benefactor, NATO, descending into regional and tribal chaos.
The media, focused on regime change in Syria, has lost interest in Yemen as the US and Israeli drumbeat for military action against Iran rises to a crescendo. Meanwhile there has been a regime change in the tiny Indian Ocean Republic, the Maldives.
The circumstances surrounding the change become daily more ambiguous with ousted President Mohamed Nasheed claiming that he was forced to resign at gunpoint. The televised resignation on the 7th of February was preceded by weeks of unrest on the street as Nasheed’s secularising and democratising agenda brought the conflict with religious conservatives and the elite supporters of the previous government, especially the appointees in the judicial, police and armed forces, to a head. So poorly has Nasheed managed the Maldivian political establishment that his entire cabinet had been forced to resign in 2010 by the threat of a vote of no-confidence from former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s Maldivian People’s Party (DRP), which had more representation in the 77 member Majlis and enough other Members of Parliament willing to vote against Nasheed. According to the press, he had managed to stay on as President only because of the support extended by the Government of India.
This time it was not to be. Unusually, all the major players were quick to extend support to the new government. The day after the ouster, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh wrote and assured Dr. Mohamed Waheed Hassan that India remained committed to working with the Government of the Maldives. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake pronounced that this was not the right time for new elections “because the police, the Election commission and the Judiciary are not prepared for a vote.” The UN Assistant Secretary General told the press in Male that “the Maldives cannot afford a descent into violence and protracted instability that would jeopardize the progress achieved by the country since 2008.” Therefore there was an urgent need for all sides concerned to come to an agreement on forming a government, based on the principles of inclusiveness and national unity. Even normally reticent China said that “as a friendly neighbor of the Maldives China respects the Maldivian people’s choice and sincerely hopes that the country can realize national stability, social harmony and economic development at an early date.” The slowcoach Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG), a nine-member committee, will send a Ministerial mission to probe the circumstances of the change of Government in the next few days. This rare unanimity underscores the stakes involved for everyone. That is that Maldives not disturb the peaceful flow of trade from the oil-rich Middle East to the energy-hungry growth magnets in East Asia, or that it become a haven for terrorists, as happened in Somalia and to a lesser extent in Yemen.
The Maldives occupies a strategic position in sea lanes in the Indian Ocean, with Sri Lanka and India as its nearest neighbors. China’s entry into the Indian Ocean on the back of ‘legitimate’ concerns regarding piracy in the Persian Gulf and its aggressive investment policies is a new and destabilising factor in the region. Therefore, internal stability is not important just to the Maldives, but also to the international community, and most of all, to India. Lending substance to these concerns, Nasheed has told the Indian Express that the Maldivian National Defense Force (MNDF) had sent him a document that constituted a security agreement with China. He claims that his security ministers told him “you have to sign the agreement” but that he refused because his Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) was pro-India by ideology.
Despite its own problems with strengthening democratic institutions, Pakistan has long sought to play a role in the Maldives. In an unintended irony, it underwrote the building of the ‘Majlis’ (parliament) in Male and has provided training to the Maldivian armed forces. More worryingly, Maldivian students seeking a university education in Pakistan often returned radicalised after encountering Wahhabist Islamic ideologies in the madrassas. Despite its small size, the ‘long beards’ of the Adhaalath or ‘Justice’ party have wielded the same agenda setting influence in the Maldives as the extremist parties do in Pakistani politics, with their demand for Sharia to be the law of the land.
The events in Maldives highlight some important aspects of the process of change. In countries where politics has been frozen for decades under dictatorships that the rest of the world accepts and works with, Nasheed recklessly, as it turned out, took on the religious establishment. He even tried to amend the school curriculum on religious instruction, without having neutralised important parts of the old establishment. He thought his record as an agitator for human rights and democracy would see his agenda through and retain the support of the outside world, especially its democracies. This can also be seen in the fragility of the ‘democracy’ that the West leaves behind in Iraq after eight years of mayhem and bloodshed. The same is playing out in Egypt today as it surely will in Syria or Libya.
The second important caution is contained in the statement of Indian Special Envoy, Mr. M. Ganapathi, which asserted that India will remain engaged but will not interfere. Instead of looking for reasons to intervene, as can surely be found in countries with 30-year-old dictatorships, it might allow a more harmonious outcome if the internal dynamic is allowed to play out and find a better balance.
Neelam Deo is India’s former ambassador to Denmark and Ivory Coast, and served in Washington and New York. She is the director and co-founder of Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations.
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