Amantha Perera reports on the recent Maldivian poll and China’s grip on the archipelago

About three weeks before Maldivians went to the polls, a rather cheeky headline appeared in the Maldives Independent. “Massive erection of Maldives President spotted in the capital,” claimed the feisty newspaper known for its critical coverage of Abdulla Yameen’s presidency.

The article was about a giant cutout of Yameen that had been set up near a new bridge funded by China that linked the main island of Malé with its airport. It was symbolic of Yameen’s tenure, which was tilted to China and Saudi Arabia while moving away from New Delhi’s orbit.

And the similarities with Sri Lanka both pre and post-January 2015 don’t end there…

During the early hours of 25 September, a grainy video appeared on the web showing a group of men tearing down a giant Yameen cutout in the capital since his presidency had come tumbling down the night before.

Yameen had secured only 96,142 (42%) of the votes compared to opposition candidate Ibrahim Mohamed Solih who polled 134,616 (58%). Solih never wanted to be the presidential candidate but like what happened in Sri Lanka nearly four years ago, he was forced into contesting due to the high-handedness of the Yameen regime.

Mohamed Nasheed, Yameen’s main rival, was first jailed and then forced into exile. He was also barred from contesting the polls and many observers felt that Yameen was making sure that his own reelection would be a mere formality. He also jailed his stepbrother and the man who ruled the Maldives for three decades – Abdul Gayoom.

Yameen’s rule had seen the Maldives increasingly shift towards China’s ambit.

That country’s lending to the Maldives stands at around US$ 1.3 billion, according to the US based Center for Global Development. While it’s a fraction of Sri Lanka’s debt to the Chinese (which is estimated to be over 10 billion dollars), the Maldivian loan portfolio is more than a quarter of the archipelago’s GDP.

The China tilt was quite evident during an event held shortly before the election. Yameen was to declare open a new bridge constructed with Chinese funds and expertise. However, the envoys of Sri Lanka, India and Bangladesh boycotted the opening, which was confirmed by the media as well as the Foreign Office in Colombo.

The reason for the boycott was apparently because ofthe high-handedness of the presidential security, which required the envoys to alight from their vehicles and walk some distance to the event while allowing the Chinese ambassador to drive right up to the main podium. Ironically, Colombo and New Delhi were among the first nations to recognise Solih’s victory even before the official results were announced. It was this kind of international recognition that allowed the victory to remain unchallenged.

Yameen’s rule had also seen the archipelago – better known the world over as a honeymooners’ haven – move closer to Saudi Arabia. In June 2017, when the latter started a diplomatic blockade on Qatar, the Maldives was one of the few countries outside the Middle East that supported the Saudis.

There is a massive King Salman mosque being built in Malé at an estimated cost of US$ 24 million and Nasheed has said he fears over 200 Maldivians may have joined ISIS.

Freedom of expression is also literally taking a beating in the Maldives. Maldivian journalists have been complaining that space for free expression is being limited due to extremist elements.

My work in the Maldives began as a media strategist training journalists. Soon I was drawn into a crowd of young journalists who were committed but well and truly out of their depth. A group of us in Sri Lanka set up networking meetings for them, and ensured that the Maldivian scribes stayed on the straight and narrow.

As the election approached, their anxieties deepened. I met the group three weeks before the poll when most were convinced that Yameen would rig it and win. Days before the election, a human rights activist told me that even though the opposition rallies were well attended, they feared the result was a foregone conclusion.

As counting began and the first results started trickling in from the resort islands, they showed the opposition holding a strong lead but the expectation was that Yameen would win. By midnight Colombo time, with almost 70 percent of the ballots having been counted, the lead held and the end of the Yameen administration was sealed.

The comparisons to Colombo’s dealings with China soon after the January 2015 presidential election were inevitable.

While China may take a back seat right now, it is unlikely to lose much of its sway in the Southern Indian Ocean region – for starters, there’s a matter of the US$ 1.3 billion debt owed by the Maldives. And no one has deeper pockets than Beijing; no one comes even close. China’s Belt and Road Initiative isn’t child’s play – it is a multi-nation global plan that covers 70 countries by some counts.

The Maldives and many other countries shouldn’t make the same mistakes that Sri Lanka did. ‘Exhibit A’: Don’t build an airport in the bush with the closest town being 20 kilometres away. ‘Exhibit B’: Don’t build highways linking that airport to civilisation when there’s nothing but scrub jungle on either side.

Nevertheless, the more worrying issue is whether the new Maldivian government can slow the slide towards extremism, which is far more dangerous to the region than Sri Lanka’s nonfunctional airport.