Speaking of sovereignty: US foreign policy in the Maldives

Illustration: www.greanvillepost.com Illustration: www.greanvillepost.com

It is misguided to focus the current Maldivian sovereignty debate on possible military intervention by a foreign power. The Maldives is a long way away from the kind of humanitarian disaster that today qualifies for foreign military intervention and such talk serves no other purpose than provide politically inflammatory rhetoric to be used in the current political crisis. If we are to discuss threats to sovereignty, it would be more fruitful to talk about the role that non-military foreign relations play in shaping Maldivian domestic affairs.

For the better part of the twentieth century, Maldives held little interest for global, and even regional, powers. This staus-quo of Maldives as inconsequential in international affairs changed shortly after the beginning of this century, not from its own doing, but due to two major changes in global politics: the dramatic change of world order in which several developing states—among them India and China—have risen to challenge the United States’ post-Cold War only-superpower status; and the United States-led global War on Terror.

Both matters made the Maldives, for the first time in its history, a country of interest to the United States, signalling an end to the days in which it could remain sheltered from the threat of becoming a pawn in global power games.

The rise of China: United States, India and the Maldives

China will overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy in 2016, according to a recent report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). India, too, is no longer just the strongest regional power, but is rapidly becoming a global force to be reckoned with.

US relations with India has been dictated by its own interests almost from the time of India’s independence. Throughout the Cold War, when India doggedly stuck to its non-aligned stance, US foreign policy vacillated wildly between favouring India and favouring Pakistan as best suited its fight with Soviet Russia. Once George W Bush’s declared the War on Terror and invaded Afghanistan, Pakistan once again became a premier ally, while India was made to take a backseat until US relations with Pakistan soured once again, and George W Bush signed a nuclear treaty with India in 2005. Today, as India’s foreign policy has gone from one of determined non-alignment to the formation of a strategic alliance with the US, America has begun to view India as ‘a swing state’ in Asia’s balance of power.

Control of the Indian Ocean, which connects West Asia, Africa and East Asia with Europe and the Americas is important to not just India and the US but also for China as it  rises to global preeminence. Maldives is strategically located 450 miles off the south-western tip of India, making it of significant strategic interest to all those fighting to maintain a dominant presence in the region.

Recent analyses predict that China will become the world’s largest importer of oil by 2017, and 80 percent of this oil is transported through the Indian Ocean (Kumar 2012). Given the long-existing US dominance in the Indian Ocean, China—not surprisingly—is keen to ensure that its vital energy routes remain open and have strengthened its military presence in the region. This is where China’s interest in the Maldives lies.

Countering China is thus one of the main reasons for United States increased interest in the Maldives and its expressed desire for a military presence in the country, even if it is not the boots on the ground as outlined in the draft SOFA as discussed here. The United States may have denied the draft SOFA and a possible military base, but it did not deny that negotiations for some sort of an arrangement — whether a lily pad or whatever other name it is called — is underway.

The geo-strategic alliance between the US and India helps both countries counter China’s expanding ambitions. The US has long been the dominant player in the Indian Ocean and will fight to maintain this at whatever cost. It will be US’ strongest card to play in stalling the unbridled rise of China if and when it needs to do so. Thus the increased maritime activity in the Indian Ocean region in general and, more specifically, the so-called Asia Pivot in US foreign policy.

With US as a strategic ally, China is less likely to confront India over the many disputes that exist between the two countries such as those over the borders of Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh and the continuing Chinese financial and military assistance to arch enemy Pakistan.The importance of India’s new alliance with the US is apparent from the fact that since 2005 India, which from 1995-2005 opposed the US in the UN in 80 percent of all its votes, has voted with them on sanctions against Iran, opposition to a Small Arms and Light Weapons Treaty and on the Kyoto Protocol (Chenoy & Chenoy :2007).

It should come as no surprise then that India and the US supported each other in the rapid recognition of Waheed’s presidency of the Maldives as legitimate.

The War on Terror: United States and the Maldives

When the US launched its global War on Terror, it force-created another bi-polar world: those with the United States and those against it. The Maldives, led by President Gayoom, was firmly ‘with the US,’ despite the War’s decidedly anti-Islamic overtones. This status of the Maldives—as an Islamic state willing to co-operate with the US in the War on Terror is how the Maldives first appeared in the American consciousness. Unfortunately for the Maldives, this is still her primary (and often only) identity as far as the United States is concerned. Unlike India, and even Britain, the US has no experience or knowledge of Maldivian culture and its long relationship with Islam that is so vastly different from the radical Islam that dominates its society identity today. Nor did it, until very recently, have any tourism or travel related interests in the Maldives, unlike other Western states.

If the United States was honestly interested in tackling the rapid radicalisation of the Maldivian society instead of its own counter-terrorism efforts in the region, it would have taken steps to understand the root causes and nature of extremism in the Maldives. Very little is known about how and why Maldivians have succumbed so easily to radical Islamist ideology. Neither is it known whether the people who outwardly show signs of radicalisation—change of religious practices, clothing, general behaviour— in fact have anything to do with the adoption of an ideology. Serious intent of curbing radicalistion would involve attempts to understand it, followed by a counter-radicalisation strategy custom-designed to solve the problems so identified.

The United States has a vast budget and plan for counter-radicalisation efforts that go beyond its borders, but it has not initiated or supported any research in the radicalised Maldivian community. Instead, it sends dubious US ‘terrorism experts’ to teach Maldivians about tackling radicalisation, according to what the Americans know and has defined radicalisation to be. Rather than tap into the vast potential for building a knowledge base on how an entire population can embrace radical Islamist ideologies after remaining far removed from them for centuries, the US tells Maldivians what their society is about, and implement actions governed not by what is at stake for Maldivians, but by a generic idea of what the US perceives should be done in a ‘rapidly radicalising Islamist society’.

US Maldives policy in action: PISCES and border control

This lack of knowledge and cultural disinterest has meant US foreign policy towards the Maldives is entirely governed by its own realist interests, which has had a largely negative impact on Maldivian attempts to consolidate democracy. These detrimental effects have been created by, and are manifest in, several characteristics of US engagement with the Maldives.

American view of the Maldives as a backward Islamic state which is a breeding ground for Islamist radicals and Jihadhis was made obvious, for instance, by its push to have the PISCES border control system installed in the Maldives. The PISCES, as explained here, is not a border control system but a system designed and installed in various countries designated by the United States as ‘terrorist hotbeds’.

That the Maldives would willingly participate in the invasion of privacy of its own people and millions of visitors without consultation or debate is bad enough; what is even worse is that the system has been installed ‘for free’, at the cost of Maldives’ authority and ability to control its own borders.

Attempts to implement the PISCES in the Maldives met with intense opposition from almost all senior local immigration officials. Their objections do not stem from corruption and bias towards Nexbiz [the Malaysian company originally contracted with designing and implementing a sophisticated border control system for the Maldives] as was widely portrayed in the media, but from what the PISCES does not do.

The system is so basic that Immigration officials who attended the training programme had a module on ‘how to use a keyboard.’ Anyone familiar with Maldivian culture would know the Maldives is also one of the most Internet and technology savvy countries in the region. Computer literacy among the youth must be close to a 100 percent, not to mention the complete saturation of the Maldivian market with smart phones and all other modern technological gadgets. For Maldivian immigration officials, used to operating the most advanced immigration control system in the region for years, the ‘Computers for Dummies’ class was an affront.

If only things stopped at imperial condescension.

The PISCES is unable to do even the most basic of border control work—it cannot, for instance, keep track of the number of tourists coming to the Maldives. There is no Drop-Down Menu to automatically select which resort a tourist is staying in. There is no way to automatically feed and calculate the number of days a tourist will be staying in the country by inputting dates. Now it is essential for immigration officials to keep pen and paper as well as a calculator beside them when manning the Immigration counters at various ports across the country. In addition, immigration officers need to have two other systems running simultaneously to the PISCES if they are to check visas and monitor the arrival and departure of expatriates for PISCES can do neither. Not only is this causing great frustration among officials highly trained in maintaining a sophisticated border control system, it is also leading to negligence of some of their most important responsibilities.

The most important thing for us is to compare the person standing at the counter and the passport that s/he presents to the official. Is it the right person? We can’t do that now because we are so busy punching the buttons on our culculators or manually typing in the person’s address in the Maldives. Of course, mistakes are being made (A senior immigration official, September 2013).

To circumvent  immigration officials’ resistance to PISCES, the Minister of Defence Mohamed Nazim—with whom the United States has been negotiating to have the PISCES installed in the Maldives—handed over their work to staff at the National Centre for Information Technology (NCIT). When Immigration officials resisted this handover, their senior IT personnel were summoned to the Defence Ministry, sat down with large numbers of uniformed military personal in a highly intimidating atmosphere, and told to agree to the new arrangement, or else.

One of the main problems that modern Maldives has to confront, flagged by the United States itself, is the issue of human trafficking. Tens of thousands of Bangladeshi labourers are in the Maldives illegally. They are heavily exploited by ’employers’  who make them work for little or no money, and regularly treat them inhumanely. The PISCES does not have the capacity to trace the movement of any foreigner in the Maldives—be they expatriate workers or tourists. The Nexbis system included the introduction of an ID card with a 3-D Bar Code that, even a photocopy kept by an expatriate, would allow immigration officials to trace their whereabouts, greatly reducing the opportunities for them remaining in the Maldives illegally and/or their exploitation by those running the slave labour trade in the country.

With PISCES, nobody knows where anyone is—it just counts the number of Mohameds and Ahmeds and other passengers with Muslim names [terrorists by default] who enter and leave from the geo-strategically important Maldives so that US’ Terrorist Database is kept up to date. There is huge corruption involved in the ousting of Nexbis and the Maldives’ agreement to accept the PISCES as our ‘border control system’, but that is for another day’s discussion. The relevant point here is that the US—which, by the way, does not consider PISCES to be a good enough system for monitoring its own borders—is quite happy for the Maldives to totally lose control over its own borders and become wholly inept at handling the human trafficking crisis that it confronts. What matters to the US is having an additional weapon in its ‘crusade’ against radical Islamists.

What governs US foreign policy in the Maldives?

Discussed above are two examples of how US has ridden roughshod over Maldivian domestic affairs and interests since it noticed the Maldives as important to its power play in the region. Common to both matters is the imperialist neo-colonial attitude with which the US conducts its business with the Maldives. These interests, and this attitude, very much contributed to the role that the United States has played in bringing the Maldivian democracy to its current crisis.

The US was the second, after India, to rapidly recognise the incidents of 7 February 2012 as a ‘legitimate transfer of power.’ Just as the United States designated the Maldives as a backward Islamic terrorist state without knowledge of the characteristics and nature of its radicalisation issues, it began meddling in the Maldivian democracy without a clue about Maldivian culture and traditions. Instead of attempting to find out, it brought into play its own preconceived notions of what a democracy, and what a leader of a democracy, should be.

Waheed and Ambassador Sison, Photo: sun.mv Waheed and Ambassador Sison, Photo: sun.mv

Mohamed Nasheed, according to a view widely propagated by US Embassy officials, and almost as widely accepted among the diplomatic community, is that he is ‘not a statesman’. Waheed, on the other hand, educated in Stanford, San Fransisco, and by all likelihoods the holder of a US green card and the father of children who are US citizens, is the embodiment of what counts as a statesman for the US. It does not matter that it is precisely the non-statesman like behaviour of Nasheed that has appealed to a majority of the Maldivian population. It is Nasheed’s willingness to get out of a suit more than his eagerness to get into one, his ordinary language, his fluency with Dhivehi vernacular and history, and his ease with people of every age that inspires people of all ages to unite behind him for democratic reform in the Maldives. For thirty years Maldivians had a leader who fit the international community’s idea of a statesman—he did nothing to empower the people. Why should they want another ‘statesman’?

But, US embassy officials—who swan into the country on a brief visit from their ‘Virtual Presence Post’ in Colombo, usually stay in the swanky five-star Traders Hotel where a room costs over US$300 a night [the monthly salary of an average Maldivian worker] for one or two working days, then speed off to a resort island for the weekend to sip cocktails and unwind before returning to their lives in Colombo—are adamant that what the Maldivian democracy really deserves is a ‘statesman’. They have no idea what a majority of Maldivians think of Nasheed. None of them stay long enough to watch the rallies, the street demonstrations, the Door to Door campaigns, and the hard graft of the grassroots based community efforts that have enabled Nasheed to wake a majority of Maldivians to dream of democracy.

So US ‘virtual’ staff in the Maldives quickly moved to have Dr Waheed [now widely known as Doctor Five Percent after gaining only that much of the vote in the elections held on 7 September] installed as the legitimate president. Ironically, US attitude towards Nasheed—enthusiastically endorsed by the current Obama government—is one that most closely resembles the Republican Tea Party attitude towards Obama with the mad Birthers and whatnot. It is totally ridiculous and out of touch with how a majority of domestic and international populations think of the leader in question.

Just as influential in shaping US policy towards the Maldives as its Orientalist condescension are the realist national security interests of the US discussed above. The US did not just stop at saddling the Maldives with an incompetent statesman, it capitalised hugely on Waheed’s presence to push its interests in the Maldives as rapidly as possible. Negotiations regarding the PISCES were initiated by Waheed who became the chief procuring agent of the PISCES system, having opened discussions about Maldivian border control problems with the US during a visit to New York in 2009.

US Ambassador Sison and Baaghee Nazim cosy up during Forth of July celebrations Photo: US Virtual Presence Post website US Ambassador Sison and Baaghee Nazim cosy up during Forth of July celebrations Photo: US Virtual Presence Post website

Once Waheed ‘rose to the presidency’, he appointed the dishonourably discharged former army general [Baaghee] Nazim as the primary go-between the US and the Maldivian government. Despite Nazim’s very public role in the forcible removal of Nasheed from presidency, he was quickly adopted as a darling of the US diplomatic community.[Dubious generals, it seems, are quick to win favour with Washington.]  Nazim is the main mover and shaker not just in having the PISCES implemented but also in securing a SOFA with the Maldives for the United States. Until the current political crisis, Nazim’s main preoccupation since early this year was to put pressure on all immigration staff to have the entire PISCES system up and running everywhere in the Maldives by a specific date—October 20th—for unspecified reasons.

It is not just the PISCES or the SOFA that have been pushed on the Maldives since he US, with its strategic ally India, helped Waheed the statesman and Nazim the General into top positions in government. US state department officials have since been given access to certain areas of the Maldives to conduct an ‘economic and social survey’, a US company—Blackstone—has bought out the entire seaplane industry of the Maldives, and it is also to a US company that the MNDF training island of Thanburudhoo, complete with a popular national surfing spot, has been sold. It is makes one neither an alarmist nor a conspiracy theorist to suspect there is a lot more we do not know about.

Since authoritarians began conspiring to disenfrachise Maldivians by cancelling the second ever democratic presidential election in the Maldives, most of the international community seems to have moved away from, if not officially revised, their assessment of the 7 February 2012 events as ‘a legitimate transfer of power’. Where a majority of the international community reacted with concern over the indefinitely postponed election, the United States’ first response was this statement.

We note the Maldivian Supreme Court’s ruling to delay the second round of presidential elections, scheduled for September 28, as Justices continue to hear arguments. While this judicial process moves forward, we encourage all political parties to work together peacefully and ensure that the democratic process can continue in a way that respects the rule of law and that represents the will of the people.

To describe the current farce in the Maldivian Supreme Court as ‘the judicial process’ and the ridiculous claims of opposition parties challenging the election results as ‘the democratic process’ is to know nothing—and/or to care nothing—about the current state of the Maldives and its fight for democracy. Despite a flurry of statements expressing concern over the Supreme Court behaviour from various other members of the international community, the second US statement was not much better than the first.

It is states like the US, and their realist national security interests that threaten Maldivian sovereignty today more than direct foreign military intervention. It is such interference that in the long run takes away from the power of the Maldivian people to have an independent country led by a leader of their choice in a government of their own. We are better off preparing for resisting such invasions of our identity and ‘sovereignty’ by foreign powers than inviting or contemplating the repercussions of armed military intervention. When ‘soft power’ is packed with so many dangerous explosives, who needs guns or boots on the ground?

    4 comments

    1. Humay

      Great work Azra. Very informative and coherent analysis. Of course the USA has a phenomenal record of destroying the lives and aspirations of weaker and more vulnerable groups of human communities around the world. The US government can barely care for its own people and their concerns. We cannot expect anything more than exploitation from them. They are indeed, masters at abusing the basic rights of other nations and peoples, in many different ways!

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