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Maldives tryst with Islamist militancy and Chinese shadow

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Message James Duglous Crickton

Independence Square (JumhooreeMaidan) in Male
Independence Square (JumhooreeMaidan) in Male
(Image by (From Wikimedia) User:(WT-shared) Jpatokal, Author: User:(WT-shared) Jpatokal)
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Undoubtedly the 28 September explosion on President Yameen Abduk Gayoom's speed boat at Male jetty has shaken the island nation out of its slumber though it is still unclear whether the blast was an accident or a terrorist strike. Some reports say that a mechanical fault could have set off the explosion. Frankly, it is difficult to buy these reports for two reasons.

One the Maldives leader had received threats to his life from a terrorist group reportedly aligned with the Islamic State (IS) towards end August. In a video posted on the internet, this hitherto unknown group had threatened to kill President Gayoom within 30-days.

Two the Army maintains the Presidential speed boat. And the Army is known to walk the extra mile to keep the boat in 'perfect' working condition, and an explosion in the engine room due to mechanical failure is, therefore, something that can be ruled out. More over a mechanical fault cannot set off such a massive explosion.

"It was a relatively large blast. The explosion could be heard a few blocks away. Part of the roof, the speedboat's housing fell in", Mohammed Hussein Shareef, a minister at the president's office, told the Guardian.

Hence the suspicion that the blast could either be an insider's job or the handiwork of an outsider, who had managed to infiltrate. India has offered assistance to Maldives to investigate the explosion, according to Shareef, who is also the acting Foreign Minister. The probe is going to be an international effort to ferret out the truth, he said. This does not come as a surprise since Male lacks the forensic facilities, for instance.

Yameen Abdul Gayoom (56) came to power in a controversial election two years ago. He has since consolidated his hold on the country and put his bitter rival, Mohamed Nasheed behind bars on what are no more than trumped up charges. Yameen-Nishad feud has strained India-Maldives relations and about it a little while later.

Known as Abdulla Yameen, he is the half-brother of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who was president for 30 years until 2008. The elder Gayoom's regime was marked by authoritarianism as I noticed during my visit to Male in 1989. It also gave birth to Islamic militancy in the predominantly Sunni island nation with Pakistan based jihadi groups recruiting young Maldivians. Colombo emerged as the transit point with an occasional stop in Chennai or Thiruvananthapuram for the Karachi bound prospective jihadis from Male. These days radicalised Maldivian youth are enrolling in ISIS for fighting in the Middle East.

Abdulla Yameen shot into prominence largely on anti-India platform; his rival Nishad has identified himself with India. Of late he has been trying to mend fences with India, which was amongst the first nations to recognise the Maldives after its independence in 1965. This November marks the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between the two countries.

Speaking at the India-Maldives Cultural Confluence function held in Colombo on 27 September, Vice President Ahmed Adheeb Abdul Ghafoor went lyrical in describing friendship between the Maldives and India. "Alliance, trust and mutual understanding best describe Indo-Maldives relations", he said in an apparent bid to bring curtains down on the bitterness that had crept into the ties in recent times.

"The Maldives commends India's pre-eminence in global politics, and will continue to support India on issues of regional and international interest", Ghafoor said noting that while India has proven itself to be "a loyal ally to the Maldives in times of both triumph and tragedy" the Maldives has always "supported India, and demonstrated our solidarity in every way possible".

The real turning point in India-Maldives relations was in 1988 -- the year when a coup threatened to overthrow President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. He frantically called up the then Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and asked for help. Within hours, IL-76 carrying army paratroopers and naval ships were on their way to save Gayoom.

The present day successor to Gayoom has acknowledged the 'help' to elder Gayoom. Significantly, he made the mending fences gesture from Noonu Landhoo, which is historically linked to India. This place is home to ruins from the Maldivian Buddhist era. There is an ancient mound known as "Maabadhige Haitha", which are the ruins of a Buddhist Stupa.

Perhaps, this is Yameen's way of signalling to New Delhi a desire to move forward brushing aside his very first act as President - packing off a leading Indian company, GMR from the Male airport project.

"As everyone will be aware, India provides assistance even for our basic needs. India provided crucial and speedy assistance during the most sensitive situation, 1988 terrorist attack (by Tamil Tigers). At that most critical instance, it is to be acknowledged that India's aid was swift, yet invaluable. If they had not come to our rescue, we would have lost independence during the past 50 years"Indo-Maldives is an unbreakable bond," Yameen said - something that none of his predecessors had done so far.

In the same breath the Maldives President conceded the fall out of GMR imbroglio. "There were some tensions due to the issue regarding GMR Company and the airport (but) it did not shake up the bond at all. Maldives is looking to welcome Indian businesses and investment", he added.

Right from the word go, Yameen's government has not been exactly Delhi friendly. And the Gayooms appeared to be taking Maldives closer to China.

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A blogger since July 2008 James Duglous Crickton is a London based consultant working with a consultancy firm focusing on Asia, particularly South Asia and East Asia. Political Research is his functional focus area. While his interests are (more...)
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