By Manzoor Ahmed
Pakistan Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa on Sunday (2nd April this year) became the first foreign dignitary to visit the Maldives after the 45-day emergency was lifted last month. Bajwa paid a “courtesy call” on President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom at the latter’s office. Noting that Pakistan and the Maldives are two brotherly Muslim nations, Bajwa underlined the need for further cultivating existing ties of friendship and deepening cooperation in all fields. General Bajwa was accompanied by the Ambassador of Pakistan to the Maldives, Vice Admiral Waseem Akram, PS (C) to the Chief of Army Staff, Brigadier Ifukhar Hassan Cahuhadary, and Defence Adviser, Colonel Sajjad Ali.
In February President of the Maldives Abdullah Yameen declared emergency in the country after the Supreme Court (SC) of the island nation had ordered the release of opposition leaders. President Yameen also arrested two SC justices who gave this order and sent his Foreign Minister to Pakistan to explain reasons for the emergency and invited Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi to visit the Maldives. Prime Minister Abbasi reportedly declined the invitation because President Yameen’s actions reminded him of those taken by his country’s former President Gen Pervez Musharraf in 2007.
But these actions of President Yameen were no issues for Pakistan’s Army Chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa who visited the Maldives in the first week of April at the invitation of the Maldivian Defence Forces Chief Gen Abdul Shiyam. Gen Bajwa met President Yameen and other ministers. Gen Bajwa’s visit amounted to sanctifying President Yameen’s decisions – something Prime Minister Abbasi has been facing for last few months in Pakistan. The present government in Pakistan reportedly considers a threat to democracy from Army and judiciary threat and that was the reason that the situation did not permit Abbasi, morally and politically, to be seen to approve the dictatorial steps taken by President Yameen in the Maldives.
Gen Bajwa had gone to the Maldives when back home a long playing record of ‘The Bajwa Doctrine’ was loudly on. Reading between the lines, the Bajwa Doctrine leaves an impression that the power of the United States is declining which Pakistan can now challenge. And with the US decline, democracy, as a mode of governance, is becoming corrupt and an absolute concept. This is what the Army and judiciary are trying to prove in Pakistan. If both the Army and the higher judiciary in Pakistan are able to drill this fallacy in the minds of Pakistanis, the common Pakistanis will stop looking to Indian democracy for inspiration. President Yameen will lap up this message. His biggest threat comes from the inspiration the people and the judiciary get from Indian democracy and judiciary. That the common people do not like spreading involvement of China in their country is another threat which the opposition in the Maldives will certainly exploit for the Presidential election.
The Election Commissioner of the Maldives has fixed early September for the first round of the Presidential election. It is not clear if the jailed opposition leaders will be released to take part in the election. However, the government of the day says: “free, fair and credible elections are the foundation of our democracy…” and invites “all international stakeholders to observe the electoral process and….urges the international community to provide support in bringing back normalcy in the Maldives.” The election was due in August last year but they were postponed fearing the opposition would win.
The Maldivian government says it had to impose emergency (for 45 days from February 05) to frustrate a plot to overthrow it. Whether or not there was any such plot, it is true that within the government there is a strong resentment against President Yameen’s way of ruling and allowing China to grab parts of the island. Apparently, President Yameen feels himself most secure under the wings of China.
Former President of the Maldives Mohammed Nasheed, currently in exile, says the government has allowed China to grab at least 16 islands. He says Chinese loans for three projects account for nearly 80 percent of national debt. He wrote in an Indian newspaper: “The cost of these projects to the Maldives are outrageously inflated allowing regime cronies to line their pockets, while future generations of Maldivians are saddled with gigantic debts they will never be able to repay”.
A former Maldivian Foreign Minister Ahmed Naseem, who was in Washington mid-March to brief Trump Administration officials on China’s interference in the internal affairs of his country, said it (China) was corrupting the ruling elite and encouraging an authoritarian President to double down on repression. He told an American top think tank, Atlantic Council: “China’s standard prescription for a land grab have been change state type to autocracy, dismantle transparency and democratic oversight, acquire infrastructure projects, very after vanity projects; roads that lead to nowhere, bridges that don’t bridge.”
A report of International Monetary Fund (IMF) says that Maldives’ external debt will hit 51.2 per cent of its GDP in 2021 from 34.7 per cent in 2016 because of Chinese loans to develop Maldives ports (for the Chinese One Belt-One Road initiative). The IMF report says that the Maldives’ total revenue in a year is only one billion dollars but the cost of servicing the external debts will average 92 million dollars a year for four years. The Wall Street Journal, quoting the IMF report says if returns on the projects fall short, the Maldives may find itself like Sri Lanka, which built the port of Hambantota with Chinese loans. In December 2017 Sri Lanka turned over operation of the port on a 99-year lease to a Chinese state-owned company to avoid default. Pakistan likewise lost control of Gwadar Port to Chinese for 40 years.
The above quoted statement of Maldivian Former Foreign Minister Ahmed Naseem to the America think tank in Washington in March gives some idea about the qualification a country must have to become part of China’s Belt & Road initiative (BRI). The foremost is that the aspirant country or its political elite must discard or weaken democracy and human rights and instead promote authoritarian rule. Secondly, the candidate member must have a begging bowl economy. One cannot imagine a country with strong democracy and economy wanting to join this BRI presided by a crudely authoritarian power where the dictator has recently engineered a lifelong lease.
It is quite possible that Gen Bajwa visited the Maldives at China’s suggestion to boost the morale of President Yameen when the Presidential election is near and the public sentiments for democracy and against China are high. People look to India for help. Worried China has warned India against interfering in the Maldives. But with the Doklam experience China may not want a confrontation with India at least now. It may, therefore, use Pakistan for a moral support to the Yameen regime. Gen Bajwa was best suited for this job.
According to observers, some political circles in Pakistan hold Gen Bajwa and Chief Justice of Pakistan Justice Saqib Nisar responsible for subverting democracy in such a way that the people seem to have lost interest in the coming general elections. They are making disqualified Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, a miserable example at a time when the country has no other political leader who has the masses’ trust. It was Nawaz Sharif who had led his Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) to a thumping majority in the last general elections in 2013 and also rescued the country’s economy.
Like the people of Pakistan, the Maldivians are also alarmed by China’s encroachment. But the Army’s control on the Pakistani media keeps criticism of China with manageable limits. In any case this criticism does not affect the Chinese work in Pakistan. The Army in Pakistan is, therefore, very confident that China will not be an election issue in Pakistan. But for the Maldivian Presidential election China may be a big issue. The purpose of Gen Bajwa’s visit might have been to tell President Yameen that he was not alone; that the opposition in the Maldives can be split as in Pakistan and the threat from India can be handled by using Islamist slogans to generate anti-India hysteria as has been going on in Pakistan. Boys from the Maldives study in Pakistani madrashas on scholarships given by Pakistan. There they can be brainwashed to spread hatred for India in the island, so that a culture of hatred for India can be percolated from one generation to another.
Therefore as it seems that the purpose of Gen Bajwa’s visit to Maldives was firstly to reassure the government of the Maldives that its steps to muzzle all democratic norms would be overlooked by Pakistan’s Army and its backer in Beijing and secondly to irritate India by announcing joint patrolling of Maldives’ exclusive economic zone.
(The author is geo-political analyst and the contents of the article are of his views and not necessarily be agreed by the newspaper.)