Muizzu’s legacy will be negative for Maldives

It is ironic that former President of the Maldives Mohammed Nasheed is apologising for the actions of the incumbent Muizzu administration that too on behalf of the Maldivian people. Maldives’ former president Mohammed Nasheed has said the “people of Maldives are sorry” for the anti-India narrative in the country and urged President Mohamed Muizzu to “put a stop” to anti-India discussions under his government. Voicing his concerns over the impact of India’s boycott on Maldives and its economy, Nasheed urged Indian tourists to continue to visit the island nation. The Nasheed statement comes President Muizzu shifted blame onto the previous Solih administration, accusing them of treacherously “selling off” Maldivian maritime territory to Mauritius. Asserting Maldives’ rightful ownership of the entire 95,563 sq km, Muizzu launched into nationalist rhetoric promising to reclaim of what has purportedly been ‘lost’.  Muizzu was referring to the 2021 ruling of the International Tribunal on Law of the Sea (ITLOS).

While political expediency lets Muizzu currently score brownie points, the fact of the matter is that he has not taken any steps to legally challenge the decision of the ITLOS after taking office. The primary peg of Muizzu’s presidential campaign, was the big deal he made about the ‘substantial’ Indian military presence in the Maldives, only to be confronted with the reality of a minuscule contingent of 77 personnel comprising mostly medical and technical personnel. Having been caught, Muizzu had no choice but to continue with his rhetoric of wanting Indian troops out of the Maldives. Lest we forget Indian forces were involved in crucial humanitarian and maritime operations under the Maldivian flag. This exposed the administration’s penchant for misinformation and exaggeration. Further, India’s position on the matter was admirably summed up by former President Nasheed who said recently “When the president of the Maldives wanted Indian military personnel to leave, you know what India did? They did not twist their arms. They did not display muscle, but just simply told the government of Maldives, ‘Okay, let’s have a discussion on that.’”

Nasheed also urged the Muizzu government to put an end to the anti-India narrative. He said “It’s very unfortunate that President Muizzu had these discussions. I would call him to please stop these discussions on the Dornier flight and the helicopters. They were brought to the Maldives for medical evacuation, and there is a need for medical evacuation.” He added that “Our islands are far-flung, and we don’t have developed hospitals on every island. So, there is very often a need to bring a patient to Male, and to do that quickly would be by air, so we need that.” Nasheed also said that Indian tourists boycotting his country had “….impacted the Maldives a lot, and I am actually here in India. I’m very worried about this. I want to say the people of the Maldives are sorry, we are sorry that this has happened. We want Indian people to come on their holidays to the Maldives, and there will not be any change in our hospitality.”

While Muizzu has moved ahead rapidly with getting Indian military personnel  out of the Maldives, recent protests by fishermen demanding overdue payments, underscore the administration’s inability to prioritize the welfare of its citizens, further eroding trust and credibility. In a recent demonstration, members of the fishing community staged protests demanding that the government pay them the unpaid dues totalling MVR 190 million. Further, Muizzu is yet to honour several key promises made during his election campaign, notably the pledge to increase the salaries of the personnel serving in the Police and the Maldives National Defence Forces.  This failure to fulfill campaign promises is also responsible for the growing disillusionment among the populace with Muizzu’s administration.

Despite the current stress on the economy, Muizzu has announced 18 projects to foreign investors. The lack of transparency surrounding agreements with China and Thailand has fuelled suspicions of ulterior motives, with the administration prioritizing short-term gains. The award of crucial development projects to foreign companies highlights the administration’s disregard for local entrepreneurship and economic empowerment. Maldives signed an agreement with Thailand’s Pan Pacific Corp for the development of an international airport in Thinadhoo and 12 resorts in uninhabited islands. It is well known that the Thai company is a proxy to the Chinese company to avoid the allegations of buying strategic assets in return for investments. Similarly, the Ras Male’ Reclamation Project, touted as the flagship initiative of Muizzu’s tenure, exemplifies this trend. The project was awarded to Sri Lanka’s Capital Marine and Civil Construction Company (CMC) without undergoing any competitive bidding process. As a result, CMC stands to gain a significant 70-hectare land lease as compensation for their reclamation efforts.

There is another worrying trend visible in the Maldives. Question marks have arisen over internal security after the recent street protests outside Parliament. The Maldives Police Service has revealed the involvement of gang members in protests outside the Parliament and this exposes a disturbing connection between government officials and criminal elements. Under President Muizzu’s leadership, law and order has deteriorated, paving the way for an alarming rise in Islamic extremism. This stands in stark contrast to the previous administration under President Solih, during which gang activity remained largely dormant.

Muizzu’s decision to implement the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with China, made during his visit to the country, is yet another misstep that will exacerbate the nation’s economic woes. The FTA will worsen the trade imbalance and drain the already scarce foreign exchange reserves. Additionally, it opens the floodgates for Chinese investors to dominate key sectors such as construction, tourism, and education, further eroding economic diversification and sovereignty. China’s emergence as the primary source of tourist arrivals in the Maldives is cause for concern, particularly considering that Chinese tourists spend less than their Western counterparts. Relying heavily on Chinese tourism at the expense of traditional sources like India poses significant risks to the country’s tourism sector and overall economic stability.

The Muizzu government’s apparent bias towards China, exemplified by its defence deal with the country, warrants scrutiny. Thus far the only details known are that China would provide free “non-lethal” military equipment and training to the Maldives and that it would be gratis. The speed with which this deal was signed shows the basic intention is to offend India. A quieter deal with China may already be on the cards for the transfer of lethal equipment. Highlighting this in the media is crucial so that the public is aware about the administration’s questionable allegiances and over-reliance on China, raising valid questions about the government’s priorities and motivations.