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Maldives: Its Size, Strategic Importance and Vulnerability:

Paper No. 5821         Dated 14-Nov-2014
 
By Dr. S. Chandrasekharan
 
In reply to a question by the opposition MP Ahmed Nashid whether joining the Chinese initiative  of Maritime Silk Route would adversely affect the relations with the neighbouring countries, the Foreign Minister Dunya said that Maldives, as an independent and sovereign nation, is not obliged to consult other countries before making foreign policy.
 
This reply was to a specific point raised by the opposition whether Indian geopolitical interests would be threatened if Chinese naval activity is conducted in a Maldivian port. Dunya also added that the interest of any foreign country should not take precedence over Maldivian national interest. 
 
At one level one cannot take exception to the remarks of Dunya that the foreign policy of Maldives should be conducted in its best national interests, but should it not be balanced when the strategic  interests of a close neighbouring country are adversely affected?  
 
This question may be theoretical now but  the increasing Chinese strategic moves close to the Indian shores raise many issues which need to be carefully thought out by the planners in Delhi.
 
The 1988 Invasion:
 
This brings me to the question of the incident that happened twenty six years ago when the very existence of Maldives was threatened by a group of fool hardy Maldivian individuals with an armed group of Tamil militants.
 
On November 3, 1988, a small group of Maldivian dissidents led by Abdulla Luthfy with about eighty militants of PLOTE landed in Male and attacked the presidential palace and other nearby official buildings. It is said that Luthfy had promised the leader of the PLOTE Group Uma Maheswaran that the group would be given one or two uninhabited islands on a permanent basis for training and recruitment purposes.
 
The attacks were badly planned and the attackers had no clear idea  or plans to move to the next phase once the initial tasks were completed.  Added to this was the fatal mistake made by the attackers in not securing the airport situated close to the capital of Male in another island (Hulhule) as also the Tele communication facilities that connected Male to outside world from where help could be sought.  No attempt was made either to arouse the population in support of the attackers either, though there was some simmering discontent against the regime  perceived to be autocratic.
 
The attack was therefore doomed ab. initio. 
 
The security forces in Male that were not large enough, did manage to keep the militants at bay and did not allow them to go beyond a few buildings close to the harbour.  But they could not overwhelm the rag tag group of attackers either.
 
Indian Help
 
India promptly sent an expeditionary force that reached Male the same evening. When the militants saw the Indian forces landing, they hijacked a docked ship in the harbour and tried to escape.  All of them were eventually caught in the mid sea and handed over to the Maldivian authorities. 
 
Indian help came in handy and quickly with sufficient forces. It was spontaneous there was no wait for any ‘formal Request’.  Thus neighbours could be useful too.
 
Victory Day:
 
Every year, November 3 is celebrated as a “victory day” in memory of the incident and 19 people that included members of the security forces and the civilians who were killed.  In a sense, this incident was perhaps the only one in the history of Maldives that threatened the very survival of the nation.  
 
This year President Yameen in his victory day greetings called on the Maldivians to work together to foster the spirit of cooperation and defend the country’s sovereignty.  He noted that Maldives, its security forces and its people emerged victorious on that day and offered his gratitude and praise to the brave soldiers and members of the public “who fought for the independence, sovereignty and security” of the country. 
 
Not to be outdone, the former coalition and chief of Jumhoree who is now seen to be “tamed” and “muzzled” ( Recall his foolish attempt to get the Speaker’s post) declared that the people of Maldives displayed unity and harmony even when the enemies surrounded them!
 
There was no mention of the Indian support without which the crisis would have dragged on with adverse consequences to life, property and the very foundation and survival of the country.  This is unfortunate.
 
Political Twist:
 
It is unfortunate too that the incident is now being given a political twist with one of the leading members of the then foreign policy establishment and now a senior adviser of the opposition - MDP, Ibrahim Hussein Zaki is being accused of being a conspirator.
 
Haveeru on line in a three page report has accused Zaki of having prior knowledge even three months before the attack.  He is also being accused of having given out the schedule of President Gayoom that indicated that he will be out of the country on the day of assault.
 
 
The cases against Luthfy and his associate Sikka Ahmad Ismail Manik were thoroughly investigated as well as those  against all the militants who participated in the attack.  The question of Zaki of having been associated in a conspiracy never came up all these years.  
 
In fact, if I remember correct, it was Zaki who telephoned the Indian High Commissioner who was away in Delhi on a holiday of the need for Indian help.  To accuse him now of having prior knowledge is not only unfounded but spiteful. In fact he should have been rewarded for his initiative. 
 
Lessons for India:
 
It is granted that there could be no permanent friendships.  But India should be able to distinguish between long term friends who will never go against Indian interests than go to support others for short term gains.
 
The case of enthusiastic endorsement and the embrace of the new regime after the illegitimate coup in Maldives earlier is a case in point. I am reminded of the famous words of late Professor Raj Bahak of Nepal who in describing Indo Nepal relations, said that “India is harmless to enemies and useless to friends.”  
 
 
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