INTERVIEW | Ibrahim Mohamed Solih | International

Malé makes no apology for ties with India, says Maldivian President Solih

Maldivian President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih rose to power in 2018 promising democratic governance and justice to citizens. While the two years he has completed in office have seen major policy changes – including progressive legislations and a reset in foreign policy – his incumbent government faces many challenges, both political and economic, only heightened by the pandemic. In an email interview to The Hindu, President Solih speaks on economic revival plans, regional cooperation, and responds to criticism over his government’s “over-reliance” on India.

Mr. President, you have completed over two years in office. How would you evaluate your performance?

This Administration has accomplished much in the past two years across every major policy sphere. To list some of them: we have made education free up to the first undergraduate degree; initiated a health sector reform programme which has seen the upgrading of medical centres, while work has begun to establish tertiary hospitals in regions outside the capital region; we’ve strengthened our decentralisation legislation to empower local communities and reverse decades of over-centralisation. We have strengthened our social protection frameworks, including by expanding health coverage to encompass mental health services, ratifying a new education act, and introducing comprehensive child rights legislation through the child rights act and juvenile justice act. We have also demonstrated our commitment to gender equality by legally mandating that 1/3rd of our local councils be comprised of women and by appointing the first ever women justices to the Maldives’ Supreme Court.

We have repealed regressive legislation such as a defamation act that criminalised speech critical of the government, and we have shown a genuine willingness to engage with journalists, especially those critical of us. On the international front we have reinvigorated our relationships with our global partners, re-entered the Maldives into important organisations such as the Commonwealth of Nations, and reiterated our ambitions towards mitigation and adaption against the climate emergency.

The last year has been difficult for us because of the COVID-19 pandemic, in light of both its adverse impacts on our health system, and on our largest economic sector, tourism. Nonetheless I am proud of the efforts we made to contain the crisis, through a proactive response heeding the advice of our medical professionals and greatly assisted by our frontline workers, which has brought us now to a recovery phase. Overall, I am very proud of this Administration’s record.

Like the rest of the world, the Maldives too is reeling under the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. How do you plan to revive your economy?

Our economy has long been reliant on tourism. The pandemic and the consequent restrictions on global air travel have adversely affected this industry and the overall economy. With the reopening of our borders, and stringent health measures in place at our resorts in accordance with guidelines developed by our health authorities and tourism ministry, the tourism industry is now slowly recovering, as is our economy. In fact, the Maldives was crowned the World’s Leading Destination this year and is on the wish lists of many.

However, the pandemic has also made clear the danger of our economy being overly reliant on a single sector. As a result, diversification plans outlined in our strategic action plan have had to be expedited, and we have changed regulations and increased investment to facilitate and incentivise the agriculture, fisheries and maritime sectors. Working with international partners like the Blue Prosperity Coalition under the ‘Noo Raajje’ [blue Maldives] programme, we are focussing on strengthening our Blue Economy to ensure our development needs are in line with environmental sustainability.

We will also need international assistance and support for our recovery efforts, to shore up our depleted foreign currency reserves, and reduce our debt burden. On that last note, we call on the international community to take

heed of the particular vulnerabilities of small island states such as the Maldives, especially to crises such as Covid-19, and to positively consider our requests for debt-forgiveness, which would go a long way towards helping revive our economy. We are thankful for the support already provided to us by our international partners and friends, including the budget support and relief measures provided to us by India.

The Maldivian Auditor-General recently voiced concern over your government’s “heavy reliance” on a single country for grants, alluding to India. Given that Male-New Delhi bilateral relations improved drastically after your election, how do you respond to that?

We appreciate the proactive role that India has taken in economic relief efforts and providing financial assistance to the Maldives, as well as for its continued development assistance. We are also very happy that bilateral relations have improved with India, as it has between the Maldives and many of our partners across the globe. The Maldives is keen to engage with all our partners and reinvigorated relations with the international community under my administration has demonstrated that many states and parties are interested in investing and cooperating in the Maldives.

It is significant, because the political opposition and critics of your government have been accused your administration of “selling off Maldives” to India, taking out rallies on Male’s streets and leading ‘India out’ campaigns on social media.

Moving away from an isolationist foreign policy and engaging with our neighbours strengthen our national security and increase respect for us as a sovereign country. The Maldives makes no apologies for our positive engagement with our largest neighbour, and one of our closest international partners, India. We note that we are happy to take forward several of the development cooperation projects signed between the Government of India and the preceding Administration of the Maldives. We welcome constructive criticism of our foreign policy, as well as other aspects of our governance. Our international relationships are vital, especially so during a time of global crisis. Undermining relationships that are in the interest of the Maldives for the sake of demagoguery and cheap political points is irresponsible.

One of your key election promises was that your government will revisit the deals signed by the Yameen administration with China - loans and infrastructure projects - if elected. Have you been able to restructure the debt - over $ 1.4 billion - Male owes Beijing?

China is a close and valued partner to the Maldives. We welcome their participating in the G20’s DSSI [Debt Service Suspension Initiative], and appreciate that we have been able to positively engage with them to renegotiate the terms of ongoing development assistance and economic projects, in a manner mutually beneficial to both countries, and consistent with our friendly relations.

Your government recently signed a defence deal with the US, and another agreement with Japan to strengthen your Coast Guard. Last month, the Indian Foreign Secretary visited your capital. Given that these are significant, high-level engagements with three of the four ‘Quad’ members, could we read them as Male leaning towards the bloc?

The Maldives’ priorities lie in a peaceful Indian Ocean region. Our international engagements are to enhance our commercial cooperation, strengthen regional peace and security, facilitate economic prosperity for our country, and voice out on issues important to us on the international fora, such as climate change and environmental preservation. We will pursue our goals alongside our partners who share our mutual priorities.

The geopolitical contest in the region has escalated this year, especially after the border tensions between India and China. How does this impact the Maldives and your foreign policy choices?

Not at all. The Maldives believes that differences between international partners can be settled peacefully through dialogue and mediation. While this is ongoing, it does not hinder our ability to constructively engage with our partners on issues of mutual interest

What, in your view, are the prospects for regional cooperation, including through SAARC, in the Indian Ocean Region in this difficult climate of the pandemic and persisting bilateral tensions between India and Pakistan?

I reiterate that regional differences should be settled amicably through means and solutions agreeable to all concerned. While it is not in the Maldives’s policy to comment on disagreements between two sovereign countries, we also believe that such disputes are best resolved through strengthening multilateral and regional cooperation mechanisms, and using such channels for frequent dialogue and mediation. While the pandemic may be a challenge towards realising such ends in the immediate future I believe it has made especially evident that major global issues and crises cannot be contained to borders, and will thus help galvanise efforts to strengthen regional cooperation frameworks in the long-term. The Maldives is happy to be part of such efforts.

What, in your view, are the prospects for regional cooperation, including through SAARC, in the Indian Ocean Region in this difficult climate of the pandemic and persisting bilateral tensions between India and Pakistan?

I reiterate that regional differences should be settled amicably through means and solutions agreeable to all concerned. While it is not in the Maldives’s policy to comment on disagreements between two sovereign countries, we also believe that such disputes are best resolved through strengthening multilateral and regional cooperation mechanisms, and using such channels for frequent dialogue and mediation. While the pandemic may be a challenge towards realising such ends in the immediate future I believe it has made especially evident that major global issues and crises cannot be contained to borders, and will thus help galvanise efforts to strengthen regional cooperation frameworks in the long-term. The Maldives is happy to be part of such efforts.

Your party colleague and former President Speaker Mohamed Nasheed has questioned some of your government’s moves and accused a Minister handpicked by you, of corruption. How do you view his criticism and how does it impact your government politically, when you’re leading a coalition of diverse actors?

You are right, our coalition is certainly diverse. There are inevitably disagreements and disgruntlements, but we remain united on what matters – ensuring the establishment of the ‘Jazeera Raajje’ [island nation] we pledged to the people of the Maldives when they elected me as President in 2018. We have been able to maintain the coalition and have overcome immense challenges by working together. I am confident that we will be able to resolve all such issues with the dialogue and goodwill that brought us all together in the first place. Further, addressing corruption and strengthening our independent institutions and other mechanisms devoted to holding the government accountable is one of the highest priorities of my administration. The State will not hesitate to investigate any individual, including senior officials, suspected of wrongdoing - as we have already demonstrated.

You vowed to strengthen laws and security structures to keep a check on potential terrorist activity in the Maldives. Where do those efforts stand?

National security is the highest priority of any administration. This administration has been working hard to strengthen our ability to respond to terrorist threats while addressing the violent and extremist ideologies that motivate such acts. Towards these ends we have been strengthening the coordination between our national security agencies, enhancing strategic cooperation with our international partners, and reforming our security services, most significantly through a revised Police Act which we intend to ratify soon. We have also passed a revised Anti-Terrorism Act that enhances our ability to quickly respond to terrorist threats, and severely penalises individuals who attempt to join radical militant efforts abroad in foreign conflicts. We have also opened a National Reintegration Centre under the Ministry of Home Affairs, to deal with the issue of violent extremism and returning foreign terrorist fighters, and we have endorsed and carried our exercises under a National Terrorism Response Plan, to improve our multiagency emergency response mechanisms in response to a terrorist incident. Whilst strengthening our national security mechanisms we are also strengthening our social protection frameworks so that youth and marginalized groups have prospects, and do not turn to radical or violent ideologies.

Human rights defenders and activists, who backed your government, are concerned at the very slow progress in the probes of the murder and enforced disappearance of dissident journalists and bloggers. What would you tell them?

We understand the concerns of all those who are eager for justice in response to these brutal crimes. We share these concerns. However, justice also demands a thorough investigation so that we have a full picture of what transpired and of the motivations that let to these murders and disappearances. We are committed to ensuring that everyone who had a part in these crimes are held accountable and we want to ensure that such actions never again occur in the Maldives. In response to requests from some of the victim’s families, we have strengthened the investigative process by securing an international expert to aid the Presidential Commission. Throughout our efforts we remain in close contact with the families of the victims and provide them updates on the status of investigations.

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