Maldives: High-level visit from India to ease bilateral tensions?
N Sathiya Moorthy
Chennai, 31 December 2017
Serious efforts are on to repair the recent reversals in bilateral relations, with a high-level visit from India to Maldives. Though Indian media reports in this regard have not mentioned the level, there are enough indications of a ‘soul-searching’ on either side after the pro-Government Vaguthu web journal in Maldives launched a scathing attack on India, before withdrawing it, possibly under directions from the office of President Abdulla Yameen.
Bilateral relations hit a new low after the Male Government rushed a proposed FTA with China through Parliament, just days before Yameen went to Beijing for an accord-signing ceremony involving President Xi Jinping, after a last-minute announcement. Bilateral relations with China have peaked under Yameen, and his leadership should have celebrated what was Maldives’ maiden FTA with any country, but the avoidable secrecy did not help.
Though Indian Government did not react to the China FTA or Yameen’s visit, a section of the strategic community, often ignoring and being ignorant of the smaller neighbour, once again became nervous, more because of the secrecy than may be because of the ‘China angle’. In between came the Vagathu condemnation of India, and bid to strain India relations from within Yameen’s close circles became obvious.
It is unclear if the Vagathu’s withdrawal of the objectionable article had formed a part of the original script, or if it flowed from genuine concerns flowing from absence of prior knowledge about the impending publication. Any structural changes within the Vaguthueditorial set-up, for instance, may throw some light – if not to what is obvious but at least as a measure of the seriousness with which he Maldivian leadership was attempting the repair the avoidable damage to begin with.
India did not react to the Vaguthu article, and so there was no question or need for New Delhi to take note of the withdrawal, either. Even on the China FTA, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) only reminded Maldives of India’s concerns, and said they could not comment on the arrangement without seeing the document.
However, the recent events did seem to have stirred some soul-searching in other levels of Establishment India. As The Hindu reported on 26 December 2017, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj faced searching questions on the Maldives ties from MPs at the regular meeting of the Parliamentary Consultative Committee for her ministry. “Why is India unable to address the concerns of a nation equal to the size of Maharani Bagh?” The Hindu quoted one MP as asking Minister Swaraj.
The reference to a neighbourhood in India’s national capital should not be misunderstood or misconstrued in Maldives, for the Opposition MPs were quizzing the Government on what they perceived as challenges to and strains in the nation’s South Asia relations. The implication was obvious: If India could not work out the strains in relations with a small yet sovereign neighbour with whom there were no great challenges earlier, how does it hope to iron out differences with other neighbours, where there are real issues?
Interestingly, on the same day as The Hindu report appeared, another national daily, TheTimes of India reported that a high-level visit from India was on cards, and could come about early 2018. As may be recalled, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi cancelled the Maldives leg of his historic, four-nation Indian Ocean neighbourhood visit, which also included Mauritius, Seychelles and Sri Lanka, in March 2015.
In the case of Sri Lanka, an Indian VVIP was visiting the country on a bilateral for the first time since the infamous Rajiv Gandhi visit of 1987, when he signed the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord with President J R Jayewardene and a Sri Lanka Navy rating tried to attack him with the butt of his rifle at the ceremonial guard-of-honour. In between, Prime Ministers Atal Behari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh did visit Colombo for the customary SAARC Summit, but a bilateral leg was not attached to it, unlike in the case of Maldives during the latter’s visit at the 2011 Addu SAARC Summit.
After shying away for a time, India has since acknowledged that Modi’s cancellation of the Maldives visit owed to the prevalent political situation in Maldives. The Hindu report of 26 December said as much, adding that “India has always been there for Maldives, and will continue our commitment to be the ‘first’ friend.” As may be recalled, the unanticipated arrest of former President Mohammed Nasheed in the ‘Judge Abdulla abduction case’, leading to his mid-night conviction and sentencing in an unusual trial court session on an unlikely Islamic day of prayers on Friday, post facto implied that the day when Modi might have been in Maldives but ended up landing in Colombo, the domestic situation in the archipelago nation might have been on the boil.
Given the long and narrow streets of capital, Male, and also the fact that Nasheed’s MDP cadres and supporters, accounting for 40 per cent of the nation’s electorate as per official records, Modi’s security establishment could have well had a say in the matter. It is also anybody’s guess why Yameen also did not consider the possibility of using India’s good offices, and India’s new-found attraction in the immediate neighbourhood after a strong leader swearing by his ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy since taking over as Prime Minister, to help sort out matters nearer home without ‘interfering’ in the international affairs of a sovereign nation.
If the reference was to geography and unhindered Indian scheme of rushing whatever military/emergency aid was required by Maldives, as had happened since the days of ‘Operation Cactus’ (1988), and during the 2004 Boxer Day tsunami and more recently when Male went without drinking water for a few days from 5 December 2014.
In a way, the Indian reiteration of its ‘first’ friend commitment also served as a possible reminder to Yameen Maldives’ consistent claim to the nation’s own ‘India First’ policy. As the Times of India reported in this regard, Yameen has “now denied that the editorial reflected his government’s position in any way and called India the country’s ‘closest friend’ and ally.”
In an official statement, “Yameen reiterated that his administration would never entertain negative sentiments towards India, highlighting that Indian assistance formed an ‘invaluable contribution to the Maldives’ — further adding that the government was currently working towards a free trade agreement between the Maldives and India,” the Times of India said further.
According to the Maldives Independent, “addressing a series of public meetings in the North, Yameen said his administration would never entertain anti-India sentiments and that New Delhi’s help formed an invaluable contribution to the Maldives. He added the government was currently working towards a free trade agreement with India.” The SunOnline quoted Yameen saying that “Maldivians do not have to say thing to the neighbouring India since they are the closest friend of the country…He clarified that the ”articles on Maldives in Indian newspapers are those of the writer’s opinions and Maldivian journalists do not have to respond to them.”
The taste of the pudding is in the eating, and Yameen’s reiterated to commitment India being the ‘closest’ ally of Maldives would become clearer from the kind of agreements that the two nations may sign or commence negotiations upon during the expected ‘high-level visit’ from India. As is known, India has not stood in the way of immediate neighbours having strong economic and development ties with China, but is overtly and at times overly concerned about the possibilities of Beijing using their territory and sovereignty, against India’s interests and security, in ways they could not check, challenge or stop.
For Yameen, any high-level visit from the Indian side could mean a cause to claim ‘greater legitimacy’ for his leadership in the larger South Asian neighbourhood, what with his re-election becoming due in November 2018, through a directly-elected, democratic model, as introduced under the 2008 Constitution. At a time when the Joint Opposition in the country is seeking to replace him through democratic elections, the impact of the Indian visitor’s presence would be closely watched – and interpreted in ways convenient to different stake-holders in Maldives and outside.
In recent months, political opponents nearer home, starting with Nasheed, had used Indian hospitality and opportunity to address seminars in Delhi, to try and drive a wedge between the two Governments. In this background, the planned high-level visit from India could be expected to smoothen out ruffled feathers in Male, but without seeking to influence or interfere with the nation’s domestic affairs, one way or the other – where the Maldivian voters would and should have the last say.
(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter)
Myanmar: Forming a ‘federal union’ through 21st Century Panglong
In the last week of this month, the Myanmarese Government will be hosting the 21st Century Panglong Peace Conference for the third time. The annual conference is an initiative of the National League for Democracy (NLD) supreme leader and State Counsellor, Aung San Suu Kyi to bring together to the dialogue table armed ethnic groups that were fighting the government’s armed forces in a six-decade long civil war.
In the last meeting held in August 2017, an agreement was reached on the part one of the Union Accord. Out of the 45 points from four sections tabled for discussion, the representatives agreed on 37. All proposed 25 points under economic, social, and land sectors were agreed upon, while 8 of the 20 political points were not. The fifth sector, security, was not discussed.
Some of the sectors that saw the agreements included federal democracy, equal rights of all ethnic groups and decentralization of power to autonomous areas. However, there were certain issues of contention as well, notably, on points of succession and self-determination. The upcoming conference is expected to take up the unfinished fundamental principles as well as new principles on federalism. It is also likely that the fifth sector, security is likely to be taken up for discussion. The
The Panglong Conference would see the participation of the eight armed ethnic groups that have already signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Accord (NCA) in October 2015. Besides the signatories, the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) that includes five non-signatory groups is likely to join as well. But since the first conference was held in mid-2016 there have been certain development’s that need to be outlined to put in perspective ethnic reconciliation and peace in Myanmar.
The seven armed ethnic groups that formed the Northern Alliance and led by the United Wa State Army have outright rejected the government’s offer of signing the ceasefire accord. This group is new addition to the already existing five-member United Nationalities Federal Council who are already a part of the peace process and are negotiating with the government. The newly formed ethnic grouping claims to cater to the interests of the armed ethnic groups based in north-eastern parts of the country while the UNFC is said to represent the interests of the southeast.
In the August conference last year, the Northern Alliance attended a state dinner hosted by Suu Kyi. Like in the last edition, the alliance may make an appearance at the January conference, too. However, like last year there needs to be a strong pull factor too for bringing representatives of the alliance to participate in the conference. Last year, People’s Republic of China played an instrumental role in bringing representatives of the breakaway alliance to attend the 21st Century Panglong conference.
Besides, the government has been unable to hold the national-level political dialogue with the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) and the Arakan Liberation Army. These two armed ethnic groups have been nudging the Myanmar army despite being part of the peace process. The RCSS despite signing the NCA has clashed with the government forces. The ALP is challenging the government what seems like a two turf war in the Rakhine state.
The Arakan Army has added to the woes of the government since, the Rakhine State, especially the Northern parts have been reeling under the attacks by militant outfits in October 2016. Since then the army counter-offensive in the Northern Rakhine has allegedly led to the migration of thousands of inhabitants, who are well-known by the ethnonym, ‘Rohingyas’.
An atmosphere of mutual trust and reconciliation is a prerequisite for the 21st century Panglong to move ahead in its objective of creating a federal union based on democratic values. The Northern Alliance has already questioned the fallibility of the Nationwide Ceasefire Accord in preventing skirmishes between the army and the armed ethnic groups. Such issues need to be discussed for more armed groups to join the accord.
The government has to get past the last year, that has dented her reputation of a nation transitioning to democracy. It has to adopt newer strategies to pave the way for peace and reconciliation with its ethnic nationalities.
A roadmap for reconciliation and peace is already taking shape in country in the form of the peace accord that is claimed inspiration from the historic Panglong agreement signed in 1947. However, the epithet “21st century” in the name of the conference itself, calls upon taking newer strides in adopting principles of democratic governance, not just to suit the present but also plan, factoring in the future.
(The writer is a Junior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Kolkata).
US condemns blasts
A cultural and social centre in Kabul, Afghanistan was recently the victim of a barbaric attack by terrorists. As a result forty-one people lost their lives. The US, NATO and the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) strongly condemned this attack. US has promised to work even more closely with the Afghanistan government to punish the perpetrators. The UNSC has also requested other governments to offer support to Afghanistan. Talibans in Afghanistan have refused any responsibility of the blast.
Talibans killed in air-strikes
The Urzugan province of Afghanistan is home to multiple terrorist groups, including the Taliban insurgents, and is subject to their attacks. However, it recently witnessed air strikes carried out by the Afghan air force, assisted by A-29 Super Tucano light attack aircrafts. The operation killed eight Talibani insurgents and left five others wounded. It is one of the many counter terrorism operations ongoing in Afghanistan now. There has so far been no response from the Talibans in this regard.
Ata Mohammad Noor, Chief Executive of the Jamiat-e Islami party, opines that the present Afghanistan government is still continuing its policy of eliminating key political personalities. The next target, he warns, is likely to be the governor of the Kandahar province, General Abdul Raziq. Noor has pledged his support to Raziq. This has come while efforts are underway to introduce the new governor of the Northern Balk province, following Noor’s resignation. There has been no comment from the government.
To facilitate the return of the Rohingya refugees, the government this week finalised the draft of the physical arrangement agreement and planning to hand over the draft to Myanmar next week. The work of scrutiny of the Rohingyas is going on a war footing. Initially, the government wants to send back 100,000 Rohingyas. Earlier in November, Bangladesh and Myanmar agreed to work together on the repatriation of the Rohingyas who to refuge in Bangladesh following a conflict in the Rakhine state of Myanmar. More than 600000 Rohingyas have fled to Bangladesh from Myanmar due to the conflict.
Uniform currency with India
To strengthen ties with India, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s Media Affairs Adviser Iqbal Sobhan Chowdhury this week emphasised on introducing uniform visas and currencies for India and Bangladesh. Chowdhury made the observation during an event in Agartala capital of Indian state of Tripura. India and Bangladesh being close neighbours enjoy close socio-cultural-economic ties and the relationship between the two countries are growing steadily. Considering the upward swing in the relationship the two countries are working on improving movement of people and goods.
King stresses sovereignty
The auspicious 7th century A.D Lhakhang Karp, which is home to Haa’s main protective deity and one of Bhutan’s important protective deities, ApChhundu, served as the venue of the 110th National Day celebrations. As His Majesty delivered the important address and the nation listened with bated breath, the clear and main focus of His Majesty’s address was on the sovereignty and security of Bhutan.
Prime Minister TsheringTobgay, in response to a journalist’s question on tourism policy on curbing the practice of undercutting, said the current tourism policy is robust enough to prevent undercutting. “Our system is robust enough to prevent undercutting, but those who transgress, we need to catch them and who better can catch them than tour operators themselves,” the Prime Minister.
Lower House passes ‘triple talaq’ bill
Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad moved the Muslim women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) bill in the Lok Sabha that seeks to ban the triple talaq. The minister cited the urgency to pass the bill without sending it to a parliamentary select committee. The practice of triple talaq is prohibited in Islamic countries including the neighbouring Pakistan and Bangladesh, the government pointed out. The bill comes in the wake of August 22 Supreme Court order declaring the practice of triple talaq void.
MPs hit out at Pakistan on Jadhav kin issue
Cutting across party lines, Members of Parliament supported the government on the issue of treatment meted out by Pakistan to the wife and mother of Kulbhushan Jadhav. Minister of External Affairs, Sushma Swaraj said there was “serious and gross violation of human rights of the family members of Jadhav “. Mr Jadhav is on death row for allegedly carrying out spying activities in Pakistan. On December 18, Jadhav’s mother and wife met him inside the Pakistan Foreign Office inside Islamabad.
Bill to replace the MCI
Minister for Health J P Nadda introduced the National Medical Commission in the Lok Sabhathat seeks to ensure transparency and bring reform in the medical education system. Under the bill, four autonomous boards would be set up to conduct undergraduate and post-graduate education along with giving accreditation to the medical institutions. The board will be headed by a government nominated chairman.
ISRO to launch 31 satellites
The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) is set to launch 31 satellites including the Cartosat-2 series earth observation payload and 28 nano satellites from foreign countries including Finland and the US. The launch is scheduled for January 10 and will be the first Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) mission after the unsuccessful launch of the navigation satellite IRNSS-1H in August.
Maldives has sent out ‘friend’s request’ to India, and a high-level visit to Male is likely in early January, according to Indian media reports. Other reports spoke about India’s Opposition MPs quizzing the Government about strained ties with neighbours, including Maldives even as President Abdulla Yameen distanced himself from all anti-India sentiments expressed in the local media and otherwise.
Yameen criticises diplomats
President Abdulla Yameen criticised foreign diplomats for talking about foreign policy issues while travelling in the islands after the government banned island councils from meeting envoys without written clearance. He also criticised the political Opposition in the country saying that those seeking foreign intervention in the country were ‘making a mistake’, and hit out at the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) even as another Opposition Jumhooree Party leader Gasim Ibrahim slammed the Yameen leadership for ‘narrowing’ foreign policy.
Repatriation from Jan 22
Myanmar is beginning from January 22 repatriation of those families which fled from Rakhine State to Bangladesh during recent security operations, Minister of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement Dr. Win Myat Aye informed after the meeting between Myanmar government and Myanmar National Human Rights Commission.
The government has extended an invitation to the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang (NSCN-K) to join the third round of national peace talks in Naypyidaw next month. The Naga rebels, who did not attend either the first or second session of the Union Peace Conference, met with the government-backed Peace Commission on December 28.
New vessels of Navy
The Myanmar Navy has commissioned seven new vessels into service on the Navy’s 70th anniversary. The vessels included an offshore patrol vessel (OPV), named UMS Inlay (54), two 56 m landing craft utility (LCU) vessels (1614 and 1615), as well as four 29 m landing craft tank (LCT) vessels (1713–1716).
Poll clutter still on
Nepal is going through a phase of transition that is nonetheless proving to be extremely tumultuous for the country as well. Although the National Assembly Election Ordinance has already been corroborated by President Bhandari, the chaos still prevails on issues like holding the National Assembly elections and forming the new government. The flux lies in the consternating pressure on PM Sher Bahadur Deuba to quit on the one hand and speedy action on the part of the government on the other. The absence of Governors also makes the issue topsy-turvy.
Indian envoy meets PM
Indian Ambassador to Nepal, Manjeev Singh Puri, recently called on the Prime Minister to deliberate upon the evolving political issues of Nepal. This meeting was given much importance because it happened right after Puri left India and the Indian PM Narendra Modi, sent his best wishes on the successful outcome of the election procedures in Nepal. This might be the beginning of a new better chapter in Indo-Nepal relations after the new government in the latter country comes to power.
China is all set to collaborate with Nepal in establishing the eco-friendly, ‘China-Nepal Eco Industrial Park’ in Jhapa district. Hosting a wide range of industries, the site has been under observation and development for two years now. The recent visit of the Chinese team to the Lhasa Economic and Technical Development Zone, to scrutinise the project, makes it a much more anticipated one. This initiative is under the ‘One Belt One Road’ (OBOR) project and costs around Rs 333 billion.
China ties ‘unparalleled’
National Assembly speaker Ayaz Sadiq, while talking to Zhang Ping, the Vice Chairman of China’s National People’s Congress, said that there is no parallel in international relations to ties between China and Pakistan. Zhang Ping also reiterated his views, stating that Pakistan is China’s only all weather strategic partner and has unrivalled importance in Chinese strategic calculations. National Assembly speaker Ayaz Sadiq claimed that Pakistan was fully committed to completing all the projects under CPEC and appreciated China’s unfailing support for Pakistan’s socio-economic development.
New spat in Jadhav row
A day after Kulbhushan Jhadav’s mother and wife’s meeting with him under a glass wall, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs issued a statement where it accused the Pakistani government of breaking ‘four ground rules’. The MEA statement claimed that the meeting was held under ‘intimidating atmosphere’ that lacked credibility. A new round of spat was triggered between two countries when the Indian side alleged that Jhadav’s wife and mother were humiliated as they were made deposit their jewellery, religious symbols and even their shoes before meeting Jhadav. However, Pakistan’s Foreign Office denied these allegations to be baseless citing that the Jhadav’s mother had publicly thanked Pakistani government for arranging the meeting.
Do more, Af-US told
The Director-General of Inter Services Public Relations Maj Gen Asif Gafoor remarked in a press briefing on the national and regional security situation that Afghanistan and US should do more for Pakistan. Maj Gen Gafoor claimed that no banned terror organization is present in Pakistan and Pakistan cannot do anything for anyone. He added that no country than Pakistan is more interested in bringing peace to the turbulent region of Afghanistan and stressed that US should take steps to limit India’s role in that region.
Bond report handed over
The commission probing the Central Bank bonds scam handed over its report to President Maithiripala Sirisena on Saturday, who only days earlier reiterated his resolve ‘not to hesitate using the sword’ (even) against family members, to create a ‘clean, unstained and people-friendly political culture’. In this context, he said that he would hand over the SLFP reins to a young, educated and untainted leader, and not a family member – an dig at predecessor Mahinda Rajapaksa.
After ticking off Sri Lanka on the issue of arbitrary detentions, the UN panel for the purpose has since called for regulated guidelines for the Executive granting presidential pardon for prisoners on compassionate grounds. This, even as Tamil-majority Northern Province Governor Reginald Cooray claimed that local politicians had greater faith in ‘Sinhala policemen’ for personal security than their Tamil counterparts.
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Afghanistan: Sohini Bose
Pakistan: Mayuri Banerjee
Bangladesh: Dr Joyeeta Bhattacharjee
Bhutan & Myanmar: Mihiir Bhonsale
India: Ketan Mehta
Maldives & Sri Lanka: N Sathiya Moorthy
Nepal: Sohini Nayak