A new draft law targeting a movement critical of Indian influence in the Maldives follows previous alleged attempts to silence dissent.

A new draft bill criminalising Maldivian political movements or slogans that affect foreign relations is the latest escalation amid increasing tensions between the pro-India ruling coalition and the pro-China opposition in the small island nation.

The draft bill is set to effectively outlaw the controversial India Out movement, which has been critical of India’s military presence and political influence in the Maldives. The campaign, which started last year, has been gaining steam in recent months, and is increasingly associated with the opposition. 

Quoting an opposition politician, local media reported that the new law, if passed, would punish anyone making allegations that the Maldives is under the economic, military and political influence of a foreign nation with a MVR 20,000.00 ($1,300) fine, up to six months in jail, or house arrest, for up to one year. 

TRT World approached the Maldivian government and the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), which according to reports is drafting the bill, for comment and clarification on the bill’s contents, but did not receive a response at the time of publication. The opposition is set to boycott the opening of the next parliamentary session on Thursday.

The opposition Progressive Congress Coalition says the bill is “in reaction to the India Out campaign” and is “directly intended to suppress the public’s calls for the removal of Indian military forces in the Maldives.”

“The current administration has adopted authoritarian measures to curtail the constitutional rights of freedom of assembly and freedom of expression by brutal attacks at the hands of the security forces and now through unconstitutional laws,” the Coalition said in a statement earlier this week.

Dozens of people have been arrested at regular India Out protests in recent months, usually released on the same day. Eleven people were arrested in early January, including nine women and a former MP. 

Transparency Maldives, the local chapter of the anti-corruption organisation Transparency International, also expressed concern over the reports.

“Freedom of expression, including the freedom to express dissent and criticism of foreign policy, is a fundamental right enshrined in our Constitution,” the group wrote in a tweet.

“Any bill that seeks to limit this freedom, is an undemocratic, unconstitutional interference to restrict a fundamental right.”

India First, India Out

“India Out” protests have stepped up in recent weeks, particularly after the Maldives’ Supreme Court overturned a money-laundering conviction against the former president and opposition leader Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom of the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) – who has made frequent appearances at rallies wearing the trademark red t-shirt featuring the slogan printed in large capital letters in English. 

Yameen was sentenced to five years in jail and fined $5 million in 2019, accused of embezzling $1 million in state funds. The overturning of the conviction means he’s free to campaign towards the country’s next presidential elections, scheduled for 2023.

During his five years in office from 2013 to 2018, Yameen was criticised for silencing critics, the media, and purging dissenting voices from institutions including the Supreme Court.

The Maldives has historically enjoyed close ties with India. But that relationship took a different turn from 2013 to 2018, when Yameen – who was sentenced to five years in prison in 2019 - started adopting a pro-China foreign policy. 

During Yameen’s tenure, the Maldives became the second South Asian country after Pakistan to sign a Free Trade Agreement with China, which has also become a major source of income from tourism for the archipelago country. China has funded major infrastructure projects including a $200million, 2.1-kilometre bridge connecting two of the archipelago’s main islands. Critics said the Maldives has walked into a “debt trap” with Chinese loans.

 The current government led by Mohammed Solih of the MDP, whose foreign policy leans towards India and its Western allies, made it a priority of his administration to mend those ties with an “India First” policy that led to strengthened economic and defence cooperation.

But some Maldivians have taken issue with the cosier relationship, which they believe has gone too far. Supporters of the India Out movement question Indian military presence in the country, which they say threatens its sovereignty, and what they see as interference from a foreign power in the country’s politics. 

For its part, the government has accused the campaign and its backers of “spreading false information.”

“The Government firmly believes that these views are not the sentiments of the general public, but rather that of a small group of individuals with the objective of tarnishing the country’s long-standing cordial ties with India,” a statement posted in Maldivian government’s website last November reads.

A giant cut-out of former Maldivian President Yameen Abdul Gayoom stands on a road ahead of elections in Male, Maldives, in 2018.
A giant cut-out of former Maldivian President Yameen Abdul Gayoom stands on a road ahead of elections in Male, Maldives, in 2018. (Eranga Jayawardena / AP)

A newspaper in the eye of the storm

Journalist Ahmed Azaan and his newspaper, Dhiyares, have been facing backlash for supporting the movement and questioning the transparency of some of the deals the Maldivian government signed with India. A backlash that has left Azaan, who is the co-founder and editor of the paper, fearing for his own safety.

He told TRT World he has received dozens of online threats in recent months. 

“We get threats from anonymous accounts on Twitter,” Azaan said, adding that a police intelligence assessment found there were some credible threats against him. 

“Especially after the RSS news outlet circulated my photo on their websites and Whatsapp groups,” he claimed, referring to the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) movement, of which Indian prime minister Narendra Modi is a longtime member.

The storm around Azaan and his newspaper began brewing last March, when Dhiyares leaked a document it claimed to be the draft of a bilateral agreement between the Maldivian government and New Delhi for the development of “maritime security” and a “coastguard harbour” in a strategically-located atoll near the capital Male.

The government pushed back saying the draft was a “fake”, but others have since expressed concern about the transparency of the same agreement, including prominent figures in the ruling coalition. 

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi hugs Maldives’ former president Mohamed Nasheed during the swearing-in ceremony of President elect Ibrahim Mohamed Solih in  Male, 2018.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi hugs Maldives’ former president Mohamed Nasheed during the swearing-in ceremony of President elect Ibrahim Mohamed Solih in Male, 2018. (Mohamed Sharuhaan / AP)

In June, the Indian High Commission wrote a letter to the foreign affairs ministry of the Maldives, drawing its attention to how “certain sections of the local media” had been responsible for "recent, recurring articles and social media posts attacking the dignity of the High Commission, the Head of the Mission, and members of diplomatic staff."

“Although they don’t mention our outlet by name, they are talking about us,” Azaan said. 

“The Indian High Commission requested the government to take action against our newspaper because we have been writing about the protests, we have been writing against these military agreements.”

While many Maldivians took to Twitter to brand the request an attack on media freedom, the ruling MDP accused the paper of being part of a “well-funded, well-orchestrated and premeditated political campaign with the express purpose of whipping up hatred against the Maldives’ closest ally, India.”

“Such campaigns of hatred carry real security concerns for the safe[ty] and security of diplomats in our country,” the MDP wrote.

India has provided generous financial assistance to the Maldives in its bid to whisk it away from China’s orbit, including $250 million to recover from the coronavirus pandemic. But Azaan and other critics say the episode against his newspaper should have rang alarm bells, and that ultimately, protesters are against excessive interference. A member of the Maldives Media Council, who refused to be named, also expressed similar concerns with regards to media freedom.

“It shows [India is] interfering in our domestic affairs, and that is what people are against,” he added. 

Source: TRT World