Maldives: Indian Defence Minister’s low key visit

By Dr. S.Chandrasekharan

(August 27, Chennai, Sri Lanka Guardian) Amidst the hype of Indian Defence Minister’s visit from the Indian media and the resultant hysteria in Maldives from a few members from the opposition, the visit between 20 and 22nd August which should have been a high point in the Indo Maldivian relations, was deliberately kept on a low key. There was hardly any mention later in the Indian media during or after the visit and even the Maldivian press which is normally very active made only a brief mention of the visit. How did this happen?

That the Indian Defence Minister was visiting Maldives was well known in the Maldivian media in the beginning of the month itself. Two well known English news papers made it as if the Defence Minister was visiting Maldives to sign a Defence Pact ( Agreement). The papers added that Maldives will soon be brought under the Indian security net. Two helicopters will be provided for air surveillance cover and that radars will be placed in all the 26 Atolls of the country to keep a watch on all vessels and aircraft approaching the island country.( So many radars are never needed)

There was also mention that the agreement would place India’s military assets including radar to provide surveillance to Maldives and have Indian warships patrol its waters against terrorist attacks and sea pirates.

Following serious criticisms from a section of the public, the Foreign Minister Dr. Ahmad Shaheed had to publicly defend the agreement and condemn those who were spreading "misinformation". He said

* Agreement with India to expand the defence capacity would not compromise country’s sovereignty.

* The criticism of the opposition that the defence agreement with India would undermine the independence of Maldives has no basis.

* Just as Maldives cannot develop its economy without trading with other countries, it needs foreign assistance to develop a sophisticated defence system.

* Overall security would remain with MNDF. ( Maldives National Defence Forces)

* None of the territorial waters of Maldives will go under India.

* The present agreement is not like the agreement Maldives had with United Kingdom hundred years ago.

To the last point, the Special envoy of DRP Ibrahim Shareef said that the current proposed agreement was not "much different" from the agreement with the UK.

It is not clear whether the DRP as such or some members of the party were against the agreement. But enough hysteria about the sovereignty likely to be compromised by the agreement was seen in the media and otherwise in Maldives.

Officially the DRP distanced itself from opposition to the agreement but only later, after the damage was done.. The DRP leader Thamseen Ali said that he was confident that the Indian government would protect Maldives’ freedom, national security and sovereignty.

There was only a joint communique at the end of the visit that mentioned the provision of an Indian-made Dhruv helicopter and a 25-bed military hospital for the MNDF. Thus, no agreement as such was entered into at the end of the visit of the Defence Minister.

The Indian media would not have picked up terms like " security net" etc. unless there had been a semi official briefing or a deliberate leak. In either case the damage has been done.

The points that need to be kept in mind in seeking such a major agreement with a small country like Maldives dependent on India for its security are-

* There is no doubt that Maldives is dependent on India for its security. Similarly the stability of Maldives is very essential for the security of the Indian ocean and Indian security. Therefore, the needs are mutual.

* For an agreement like this one, enough "home work" should be done. The public on both sides ought to know what the Indian government is planning and why? When there were huge columns in the Indian press of Indian security areas being expanded in the Indian ocean to include Maldives, there should be some explanation from the government either by denying or by placing the whole issue on a proper perspective. Transparency, unfortunately is not a strong point with Indian policy makers.

* The multiparty democracy as we know is only one year old in Maldives. It would have been possible in the Gayoom era but now, there has to be a bipartisan approval on all major issues such as this one,particularly when it appears to some of having adverse consequences on their country’s sovereignty.

* India is surrounded by small countries and there is always the feeling in these countries that they do not have a "level playing field" in dealing with India. They are more sensitive to agreements with India and enough care and home work will have to be done here to ensure that Indian help is benign and mutually helpful.

As one commentator had said in Maldivian media, the relationship between India and Maldives should develop as a model for other big and small countries juxtaposed to each other.
-Sri Lanka Guardian