New Delhi: A day after asking India to withdraw its military personnel from the Maldives, the new government headed by President Mohamed Muizzu in Malé on Sunday vowed to annul any decision taken by his predecessor Ibrahim Mohamed Solih’s administration if it undermined the sovereignty of the island nation.
Muizzu’s government in Malé on Sunday revealed that 77 military personnel of India were at present stationed in the Maldives. It reaffirmed the new government’s commitment to “address public concerns regarding the presence of foreign military forces” within the territory of the Maldives. It also started reviewing nearly 100 bilateral agreements the Maldives inked in the past five years with foreign countries, including India.
Malé asked New Delhi to withdraw military personnel amid concerns in India over the possibility of its strategic rival China taking advantage of the change of government in the Maldives and once again using the archipelago for its continuing effort to expand its geopolitical influence in the Indian Ocean region.
Uz Mohamed Firzul, the under-secretary for public policy in the office of the President of the Maldives, revealed the number of India’s military personnel deployed in the archipelago during a press conference in Malé. He told journalists that 24 Indian military personnel were assigned to run the operations of one of the two helicopters, while 26 more were deployed to operate the other. Besides, 25 more military personnel of India were engaged in running the operations of a Dornier 228 aircraft, added Firzul.
India had provided the Dornier 228 aircraft and the two helicopters to the Maldives for evacuations of people from the remote islands of the archipelago as well as to run operations against the drug cartels, which had been using sea routes for narcotics trafficking.
Muizzu on Saturday formally conveyed to New Delhi his ‘request’ for the withdrawal of India’s military personnel. He had a meeting with India’s minister of earth sciences, Kiren Rijiju, who had represented Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the ceremony held in Malé to administer the oath of office to the new president of the Maldives on Friday.
Muizzu’s campaign for the presidential polls saw him opposing and promising to reverse his predecessor Ibrahim Mohamed Solih’s ‘India First’ policy of treating India as a preferred partner for the Maldives. He had vowed to start the process of removing all military personnel of India from Maldives immediately after taking oath.
A source in New Delhi, however, said that Muizzu had acknowledged during his meeting with Rijiju the contribution of the helicopters and the aircraft provided by India for the medical evacuation of citizens of the Maldives.
Muizzu was a candidate of the Progressive Congress, a coalition of his own People’s National Congress (PNC) and the incarcerated former president Abdullah Yameen Abdul Gayoom’s People’s Party of Maldives (PPM). He defeated incumbent president Solih of the Maldives Democratic Party (MDP) in a runoff on September 30.
Yameen, who was voted out in 2018, had led the Maldives into a debt trap by awarding China’s state-owned companies lucrative contracts to build several infrastructure projects – mostly on unsustainable loan terms – ignoring the security interests of India. Though Beijing’s influence over Yameen’s regime had resulted in strains in New Delhi’s relations with Malé, it saw a reset after Solih and former Maldivian President Mohamed Nasheed led the MDP to victory in the November 2018 elections.
Yameen, however, led an ‘India Out’ campaign over the past few years, setting a narrative against New Delhi. It helped him and Muizzu set the narrative against Solih’s India First policy during the campaign for the presidential polls, leading to the change in regime in Malé.
The “India Out” campaign gained momentum in Maldives after New Delhi on February 21, 2021, signed an agreement with the Solih Government to “develop, support and maintain” a harbour at Uthuru Thila Falhu naval base in the island nation. Though the new harbour is being built officially for the use of the Maldives National Defence Force Coast Guard, it is also being seen as a strategic asset that could give India an edge over China, which has been trying to spread its tentacles in the Indian Ocean region.
The 2023 presidential elections saw the parties of Yameen and Muizzu campaigning that the naval facility the Solih Government allowed New Delhi to build would eventually be turned into India’s military base in the Maldives, thus undermining the sovereignty of the archipelago. Solih and his party countered it, claiming that the naval facility would rather enhance the capability of the Defence Forces of the Maldives in exercising jurisdiction and undertaking maritime surveillance of its exclusive economic zone and the islands.
Yameen and Muizzu have been criticizing the Solih Government’s decision to keep the two Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopters New Delhi gifted to Malé in 2010 and 2015, although the erstwhile Abdullah Yameen’s regime was keen to return both the choppers. India last year also completed the installation of a coastal radar system, comprising 10 radar stations, in the Maldives to help keep watch in the Indian Ocean.
Not only had the defence cooperation between the two nations expanded over the past five years but India had also announced, launched and completed several infrastructure projects in the Maldives over the past few years to stop and reverse its drift towards China.