Despite great public discussion regarding recent political turmoil in the Maldives – where the president has this year jailed two Supreme Court justices and declared a state of emergency to investigate what he claims was a coup attempt – Sri Lankan tourists continue to flock to the tropical paradise.
“Everything from airline ticket sales to air cargo transport has seen an uptick in the past few months,” says Dino de Fonseka, senior partner of a travel firm in Colombo.
De Fonseka says it’s only natural to expect such an uptick – after all, the islands have a well-earned reputation as a sun-drenched holiday destination, he points out.
Hardly anybody who travels to the Maldives from Sri Lanka inquires about the political situation. “Nobody is interested in that,” de Fonseka deadpans.
That might strike some as a little strange, given just how heated that situation has become. In February President Abdulla Yameen ordered a state of emergency to investigate what he claimed was a coup, involving a Supreme Court ruling that ordered the release of imprisoned opposition leaders. If that wasn’t interesting enough, Yameen said at the time that the country was not facing a “state of war”, but “something more dangerous”.
Sri Lankans have more reason than most to know this – their newspapers have been giving ample coverage to Mohamed Nasheed, the former Maldivian president now exiled in Colombo who was among the opposition politicians freed by the Supreme Court and who now appears to be planning a political comeback.
Nasheed has upped the ante in this high-stakes game by calling upon India to intervene in proceedings by sending an envoy, backed by its military. He has also called on India to help save the Maldives from what he claims is a “Chinese land grab”. Nasheed claims Chinese interests have leased at least 16 islets among the 1,192 scattered coral islands and are building ports and other infrastructure there.
So on the surface of things, one might think that a stand-off involving coups, political putsches and the potential to pit two nuclear-armed powers against each other might be worth some consideration by beach-seeking Sri Lankan tourists.
But then Maldivian politics has long been tumultuous, and most Sri Lankans have seen this all before, like in 1988 when a mercenary group led by the Sri Lankan Tamil militant organisation the People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam attempted to topple the strongman president Abdul Gayoom.
Such events don’t faze Sri Lankans, who maintain a business-as-usual relationship with the Maldives and make a habit of visiting the neighbouring country for rest and recreation.
For them, political shenanigans in the archipelago are almost routine. The three decades of former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s rule, for instance, saw three major coup attempts. Tourists barely put down their cocktails, one wag pithily observed, when Nasheed himself was ousted in 2012 and managed to escape to Sri Lanka.
And they have little time for the endless discussions in scholarly publications and news magazines that link the country’s power struggles to growing Chinese influence.
Other issues genuinely bedevil the scenic isles – such as religious factionalism, questions over the legitimacy of the judiciary, abductions of bloggers and issues related to a law that dictates only Muslims are eligible for citizenship.
Of these issues, many analysts see religious factionalism as the major driver of unrest.
“Among the countries that produce recruits to the so-called Islamic State, the Maldives makes one of the highest per capita contributions. There are estimated to be more than 200 Maldivians fighting for IS in Iraq and Syria,” says Andreas Johansson, a senior political scientist attached to Lund University in Sweden.
Other analysts accuse Saudi Arabia of exporting a radical form of Islam – Wahhabism – to the Maldives, pointing to Riyadh’s investment in the country and its efforts to establish a shipping route to Southeast Asia with the Maldives as a supply stop.
It is hard to see what any of these issues have to do with the narrative of “Chinese dominance” or land grabs that Nasheed is peddling, even if China may inadvertently have helped foster this narrative by letting it go unchallenged.
Indeed, even Nasheed himself doesn’t always seem to buy his claims about China.
He was quoted in March this year as saying “the Saudis want a base here in the Maldives that would safeguard their trade routes, their oil routes and their new markets … to have strategic installations and infrastructure.”
That sounds like a clear acknowledgement that the politics of the Maldives is complex and that pinning the blame on Chinese influence as a trigger for the current crisis is at best reductionist, and at worst a ploy.
It appears that Nasheed hopes to resolve the political impasse by appealing to India in a gambit to set one big power against another to achieve his own ends.
“There is enough evidence to surmise that what’s happening in the Maldives is an internal power game. President Abdulla Yameen is the half-brother of former president Gayoom, who has now turned against him. Previously, they were both against the challenger Nasheed. These types of internal power plays are common in Asian countries and what’s happening in the Maldives is more of that,” says Jeevan Thiagarajah, a political analyst who heads an NGO in Colombo.
But the Beijing bogeyman dies hard. Some pundits remain convinced the Maldives’ problems have been precipitated by a government in Male that is beholden to Beijing. They say this is reflected in figures showing 70 per cent of the Maldives’ external debt is owed to China.
“External debt is no indicator,” says Palitha Kohona, a seasoned diplomat who was formerly the head of the UN Treaty Section. “Countries may be heavily in debt to the Chinese, but China has never pushed the Maldives or any other country to the wall to recover debt, so this assertion doesn’t ring true to me.”
China may be doing little to dispel any perceptions that it is a negative disrupter in the Maldives – and thereby doing itself no favours when it comes to accusations of undue influence.
But there is an alternative narrative equally worthy of consideration – one that Sri Lankan tourists seem to have grasped. That the current turmoil is a typically Maldivian problem – not a Chinese one. ■