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Maldives: Going the Sri Lanka way
  • Mohammed Muizzu
    Mohammed Muizzu
To the cry of: "We are no one's backyard, we are an independent and sovereign state," Mohammed Muizzu, newly elected president of the Maldives, called on India to withdraw by March 15 the small contingent of about 90 military personnel deployed on the islands to assist in maritime surveillance, search and rescue operations and medical evacuations. He also canceled an agreement with the Indian Navy for a hydrographic survey and said he will review the more than 100 agreements of various kinds signed by the previous government with India. Muizzu also said the Maldives will also reduce its (almost total) dependence on India for health care and medicines, adding that there are other foreign countries where citizens in need of government-paid health care can go. "This Ocean (the Indian Ocean) does not belong to any particular country. The ocean belongs to all the countries that are in it," the president then continued: who would certainly have come across as more credible in his yearnings for sovereignty and independence if he had not given his speech as soon as he returned home from a state visit to China. A country with which he had declared on the campaign trail that he wanted to "cultivate strong ties," and where he almost immediately went, breaking with the tradition of newly elected Maldivian presidents going to India for their first foreign visit. Where he signed a series of agreements with Xi Jinping, and where he collected about $130 million in 'grants' in addition to closing a $50 million deal for the development of an integrated tourism zone in Hulhumale' and the construction of 30,000 social housing units in Rasmale'. China will also provide assistance for the development of a 100-bed tertiary hospital in Vilimale'. Chinese Ambassador to the Maldives Wang Lixin also said that the Maldives will receive Beijing's support for further development projects. The specter of Sri Lanka and the crisis into which the country has been plunged because of the 'debt trap' generated by Chinese investment evidently worries neither Muizzu nor his government. That they have enthusiastically ridden, instead, the delirious wave of indignation and outrage against India unleashed online by a photograph. A vacation keepsake photo, one in which Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi relaxes on a white sandy beach sitting on a wooden deck chair by an incredible turquoise sea with a backdrop of lush vegetation. One of the beaches of Lakshadweep, to be precise: a complex of small islands off the coast of Kerala, little visited and little known and, because of this, remaining almost untouched. After Modi's post, Bollywood stars and Indian cricket champions launched the hashtag #chaloLakshadweep (let's go to Lakshadweep) and travel agents were inundated with requests. No one ever mentioned the Maldives, not even by accident, least of all Modi. Yet, three senior Malé government officials felt compelled to respond via social media with heavy insults of various kinds, directed at Narendra Modi. The three officials were suspended, the Maldivian government apologized, but meanwhile the damage was done as the controversy was artfully stoked by hundreds of accounts and the usual Bots. In India as a result, the hashtag "Boycott Maldives" was launched and some agencies began to refuse bookings to the Maldives. No small detriment, considering that Indians accounted for the largest number of visitors to the islands' tropical beaches last year, accounting for more than 11 percent of tourists. And that tourism accounts for about a quarter of the Maldives' gross domestic product. The skirmish risks further straining relations between Malé and Beijing, and no one likes the prospect. Not even the residents of Malé, it seems. Who have just appointed a pro-Indian, anti-Chinese opposition member as mayor. Muizzu, in between sovereignist rants, had better rein in his officials. And to remember that his predecessor Abdullah Yameen, also closely tied to Beijing, is currently in jail for corruption and money laundering.