“U.S. setting up base in Maldives could upset balance of power”

Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who ruled the Maldives for 30 years and is today a sprightly 76-year-old, feels that it is the U.S. rather than China that could upset the balance of power in the Indian Ocean by seeking to set up a base in his nation.

“I am not happy. I didn’t want that to happen,” he said, reacting to reports of the U.S. and the Maldives discussing a Status of Force Agreement (SOFA) that envisages a foothold for American forces in the heart of the Indian Ocean.

“There are no such moves from China,” Mr. Gayoom said, when he was asked about reports from think tanks from Australia to Europe predicting a Chinese Navy presence now that Beijing has opened an embassy in the Maldives.

The leaked draft SOFA being discussed by Male and Washington “incorporates the principal provisions and necessary authorisations for the temporary presence and activities of the U.S. forces in the Republic of Maldives and, in the specific situations indicated herein, the presence and activities of United States contractors in the Maldives.”

Acknowledging that the discussion had taken place, the U.S. embassy in Colombo has, however, clarified that there are no immediate plans for a permanent military base in the Maldives.

“SOFAs are normal practice wherever the U.S. cooperates closely with a country’s national security forces. SOFAs generally establish the framework under which the U.S. personnel operate in a country when supporting security-related activities and the United States is currently party to more than 100 agreements that may be considered a SOFA,” it said.

Mr. Gayoom appreciated the role played by India, third major player in the region. “I am happy with India’s role in my 30 years of presidency. There is no threat from the Indian side. I appreciate what it has done in the social and economic sectors,” he said in an exclusive interview to The Hindu on the last day of his three-day visit during which he met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid.

But on cancellation of the GMR-led consortium’s contract for modernising and running the airport at Male — the biggest single-ticket FDI proposal in the Maldives — Mr. Gayoom blamed Muhammad Nasheed, former President who had defeated Mr. Gayoom in the archipelago’s first multiparty polls in 2008.

The multibillion-dollar contract was scrapped by Mr. Nasheed’s successor, Mohammad Waheed Hasan. But Mr. Gayoom says it was Mr. Nasheed who inked the deal without taking Parliament into confidence.

“This was a mistake. Had he consulted all political parties, the public would not have formed the impression that corruption had taken place. Then we told the next President Mr. Waheed that he should hold discussions with the GMR Group and the Indian government to arrive at an acceptable solution, after which the government was free to act on its own. Unfortunately, this was not done and suddenly there was this unhappy ending.”