A presidential decree has effectively banned an opposition-led movement against Indian influence and military presence in the Maldives, drawing criticism for stifling dissent.

Maldivian president Ibrahim Mohamed Solih has issued a decree that will effectively ban a movement critical of Indian influence in the country.

The decree issued last week, defines the ‘India Out’ movement, led by opposition leader and former president Abdulla Yameen of the Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM), as a “threat to national security.” The decree says the “campaign against India” exploits the freedom of expression and freedom of assembly guaranteed under the constitution” and that the campaign is aimed at “disrupting the long-standing bilateral relations between the Maldives and India.” 

It cites the 1966 International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination and other national and international law as the basis for the decree, adding that the “hate campaign against India has reached levels that threaten national security.” 

The opposition coalition rejected the accusations of hate speech, and instead slammed the President for issuing a decree that “suspend[s] the  people’s right to freedom of expression in voicing [their opposition] against the illegal stationing of Indian military forces in the Maldives.” 

“This marks a dark day in the history of the Maldives as for the first time a sitting president has actively elected to abandon his own people and protect the interests of a foreign military,” said a statement by the opposition Progressive Congress Coalition.

The move by the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) follows a decision by the country’s National Security Council that the campaign constitutes a threat to national security. 

According to local media reports, the police also removed India Out banners from Abdullah Yameen’s office and personal residence.

Earlier this year, a draft bill that would have criminalised political movements or slogans that affect foreign relations was shelved. The bill had been harshly criticised by the opposition, as well as by the Maldives’ chapter of Transparency International, as an “undemocratic, unconstitutional interference to restrict a fundamental right.”

A tussle of foreign powers

The India Out movement 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 – particularly after the Maldives’ Supreme Court overturned a money-laundering conviction against Abdulla Yameen, the opposition leader. With presidential elections scheduled in the Maldives for 2023, the overturning of his conviction now leaves the former president, known for silencing critics and dissenting voices during his time in power from 2013 to 2018, free to run for re-election.

The movement criticises the current government’s “India First” policy that led to strengthened economic and defence cooperation with India. Its supporters argue that India threatens the Maldives’ sovereignty and unduly interferes in the country’s politics. 

The Maldives has historically enjoyed close ties with India. But that relationship broke down during Yameen’s 2013-18 tenure, when the archipelago nation became the second South Asian country after Pakistan to sign a Free Trade Agreement with China. China has funded major infrastructure projects including a $200million, 2.1-kilometre bridge connecting two of the archipelago’s main islands. Critics say the Maldives has walked into a “debt trap” with Chinese loans.

Source: TRT World