Foreign Minister assures safety of Indians working in the multi-island country

A few days after an Indian was beaten up and robbed in Male, Maldives Foreign Minister Abdul Samad Abdullah assured his interlocutors here of his government's willingness to ensure the safety of an estimated 23,000 Indians working in far-flung territories of the multi-island country.

However, Mr. Abdullah, speaking to The Hindu at a time when the Maldives is in the middle of a political stalemate of sorts, called upon strategic analysts not to drag his country into their vision of an India-China rivalry playing out in the Indian Ocean, because “we are too small.”

The Minister also spoke of anti-corruption investigations into the money spent for the SAARC summit, the emptying of the Central Exchequer and liberal grant of islands which were subsequently sold to foreigners, all of which took place during the previous President Mohd. Nasheed's watch and could inflame political acrimony between his Maldives Democratic Party (MDP) and the others who have formed a unity government.

Mr. Abdullah gave the interview after meeting External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna and discussing the situation in his country with senior MEA officials. India has helped shore up Maldives foreign reserves and extended an agreement to supply essentials like pulses, vegetables and rice. It is also insisting that the warring parties settle their differences, preferably through polls towards the end of this year. Mr. Nasheed, who now says he didn't want to resign but was coerced into demitting office in February, is making efforts to meet Prime Minister Manmohan Singh but there has been no word so far from the PMO. “There are 23,000 Indians in the Maldives including doctors, teachers and nurses. They have been of tremendous help and obviously we will continue to have security arrangements,” Mr. Abdullah said, pointing out that after Mr. Nasheed ‘resigned' as President in February, the government did not change in technical terms. “It was just a change of the President. The policies of the government by and large towards international relations will continue as before.”

“Positive thing”

On Indian strategic analysts making much of China being the first non-South Asian country to open a mission in Male, the Minister's plea was plaintive — “It is not in the interest of Maldives to be pulled apart. We are too small for that,” he said while describing the opening of the embassy as a “positive thing.” Mr. Abdullah gave a down-to-earth explanation to those suggesting that the embassy was part of Beijing's ‘string of pearls' strategy to encircle India — “China you got to recognise is a superpower. It continues to have good ties with most countries including Russia and the U.S., so don't read anything more.”

The Minister was combative when contesting the claim that Mr. Nasheed had expressed his disappointment with India for recognising a new government despite his having “stuck his neck out” by signing unprecedented security agreements with New Delhi. “Security arrangements between the two countries were there before Mr. Nasheed was born. The first comprehensive security agreement was struck in 1974. Dosti, the joint military exercise, is 20 years old. Any training course that the top military brass in Maldives attended has been in India.”

Mr. Abdullah said: “If India has strengthened its security ties with Maldives, it is not because of Mr. Nasheed but because Maldives is located at a very important place where many superpowers will be taking interest. I would not say special security ties were developed because Mr. Nasheed was the President. Indians, I am sure, would not like to deal only with one faction of Maldivian politics.”

External debt

The Minister said the anti-corruption department was investigating why external debt ballooned to over 23 billion Maldivian rufiyaa, from 9 billion three years ago; the enormous sums spent on construction in a remote island for the SAARC summit; the hundreds of high salary-drawing political appointments; and the 400 islands allegedly given to MDP supporters for developing resorts.

“The government did not get anything from the grant of islands and shallow reefs, and these were sold to foreigners. Now how do we deal with the foreign buyers? Maldivian courts don't have the capacity. The Tourism Ministry is very upset because it wanted to make better use of the functioning 100 ones and another 60 that haven't been able to take off. We are investigating and so far there is no conclusive evidence. The whole idea is not to go to court or convict some people.”