Maldives, Sri Lanka and the "India Factor"

Colombo has been a "traditional friend" and New Delhi a "friend in need" of this strategic yet vulnerable republic, the smallest member of SAARC.

by Ravinatha Aryasinha


There is no record of when the first settlers arrived in the Maldives. It is thought that an original Dravidian population from South India settled here as early as the 4th century BC, and that two millennia ago a second wave of settlers, Aryans from India and Ceylon, eventually dominated the islands. The Maldivian language, Divehi, is Indo-Aryan in origin, and Buddhism was the religion here till AD 1153, when the king was converted to Islam by a travelling Moroccan saint and the entire country adopted the Muslim religion.

Unlike its nearest neighbours India and Sri Lanka, the Maldives has suffered little direct foreign domination. Over the centuries, the islanders repulsed attempts made by the Portuguese, the Malabar potentates and others to control their atoll. All along, the contact with the outside world tended to be through Sri Lanka, although the Maldive sultans enjoyed good relations with the Moghul empire as well.

In December 1887, confronted with internal skirmishes fanned by Indian Bohra merchants based in Colombo, the Sultan of Maldives signed an agreement recognising the suzerainty of the British. Patterned after the treaties the British signed with some Indian princes and the Himalayan kingdoms, the agreement recognised British monopoly over foreign affairs but provided for non-intervention in domestic affairs. The British authorities in Colombo left this protectorate in "splendid isolation" until 1932, when, following a court rebellion, Sultan Muhammad Sams-ud-Din Iskander III renounced some of the royal prerogatives held for 800 years. He introduced the Maldives' first written constitution, which largely resembled the Donoughmore Constitution of Sri Lanka of 1931.

On the eve of Sri Lanka's independence in 1948, Male was eager to assert its independent identity vis-a-vis Colombo. The rulers were particularly conscious that about 90 percent of the country's trade was with Sri Lanka, in particular the export of Maldive Fish ('Blood fish', coated in ash and dried in direct sunlight, which is used in Sri Lankan cuisine along with spices) and import of rice. Besides the excessive economic dependence on Colombo, Male also feared that Sri Lankans would try to play the role of king-makers in the atoll.

The Maldivian fear of "Indian penetration", going back to the harassment suffered in previous centuries from the Malabar coast, may also have weighed in favour of the decision to enter into a political alliance with a remote power. Thus, in 1948, the Maldives became a protectorate of Britain. (Back in World War II, the Maldives was an important link in allied defences and had hosted a British military base on Gan island.)

The Sultanate was abolished in 1953 by Amin Didi, who attempted to introduce a republican form of government under which he became President. Although he lasted less than a year in office, Didi is regarded as the "father of Maldivian nationalism" for having set the backward atoll's course for modernisation. A coup returned the Maldives to a sultanate in 1954, but three years later Ibrahim Nasir became President of the Second Republic. Nasir, who ruled with an iron hand until he stepped down in 1978, presided over an expansion of Male's relations with the world and also the diversification of the economy, including into tourism. He was succeeded by Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who is currently in his fourth five-year Presidential term and widely expected to run for Presidency for another term in 1998.

Maldives was granted independence by the British in 1965, and for the first time in a century the country was able to chart out her destiny on matters related to defence and foreign affairs. Initially, the country's involvement in the international fora was in a low key. Part of the reason was the continued lease of Maldivian 'Gan' island as a British military base, which became vital to the British following the Sri Lankan Government of S.W.R.D Bandaranaike seeking the withdrawal of British Bases in Sri Lanka in 1957. However the premature termination of the Gan lease agreement and closure of British bases in 1976, helped consolidate Maldivian independence and "self image" in no mean measure.

The credibility of the Maldives, as a small power eager to retain her autonomy and independent status, appeared to have grown due to its consistent refusal in later years to permit the use of Gan island for anything remotely resembling a militaristic purpose. In 1977, Male refused a USD 1 million offer from the Soviet Union to use the island for its fishing fleets, and later it rejected a suggestion of hosting a "recreational facility" for American troops based in Diego Gracia. Similarly, in 1982 Male rejected a Singaporean firm's bid to buy the Maldive fish catch only because it was to use Soviet ships.

Male followed this stance of strict non-alignment even on issues of regional security. Thus, she supported the proposal backed by Colombo and New Delhi to declare the Indian Ocean a Zone of Peace, the Pakistan-initiated Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone in South Asia, as well as the now-lapsed proposal to declare Nepal a Zone of Peace.

Male, Colombo and Delhi

Male's demonstrated abhorrence to extra-regional intrusions won it some degree of admiration in New Delhi, which is why India has assisted the Maldivian development efforts since the country secured independence. However, until 1988, India's involvement in the Maldives was limited and was confined to the socio-economic spheres, such as the offer of scholarships to students under the Colombo Plan, maritime cooperation, modernisation of transportation, cultural affairs, and so on.

The Indo-Maldivian relationship was devoid of irritants which affect India's relations with its other neighours, such as border problems, presence of persons of Indian origin, spillover of internal conflagrations, economic competition, or the fear of intervention. The only flutter recorded was over the issue of Minicoy Islands, when during the 1982 Independence Day celebrations President Gayoom's brother Abdullah Hameed declared it was part of the Maldives. Soon afterwards, the President had to clarify that the reference was to affirm the religious, linguistic and cultural affinity between the Maldives and Minicoy, and that the Maldives was not laying any political claims on the Indian island.

While Sri Lanka's role in providing economic and technical assistance to the Maldives may not have been as impressive as India's, Colombo, to quote President Gayoom, remained "the Maldives' gateway to the world". Male's greater emphasis on relations with Colombo rather than New Delhi is clear from the fact that other than for New York, Colombo was (and is) the only capital that the Maldives has resident diplomatic representation. Colombo was also the place where most affluent Maldivians had their secondary school education, and where they headed for holidays or medical treatment.

Sri Lanka dominated trade with the atoll state until the early 1970s, providing 65 percent of Male's imports from the South Asian region (India's share was only 32 percent). Further, 10 percent of the country's exports was to Sri Lanka, whereas India's share was a negligible 0.03 percent. As of 1988, it was Sri Lanka and not India that had a greater involvement with the Maldives—economically, diplomatically, politically and culturally.

Coup Attempt

The cathartic moment for the Maldives in the modern era was 3 November 1988, a week before President Gayoom was to be inaugurated for a third term. Two Colombo-based dissident businessmen from the Maldives, Abdullah Luthfi and Sagar Nasir, along with about 80 Tamil mercenaries belonging to the left-wing People's Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), one of the five major Sri Lankan Tamil guerrilla groups of the time, attempted to overthrow the Gayoom regime.

The Maldives had no army or navy. Its all-purpose National Security Service (NSS), 1400 strong at the time, was able to hold off the intruders to allow President Gayoom to phone Colombo and seek urgent assistance. Sri Lanka's preparations to fly 150 of its elite police special task force were abandoned, however, when it was known that an Indian force was already on its way to Male.

The takeover bid ended after nightfall the same day when some 1600 Indian commandos reached Male by air and sea. The mercenaries were captured while fleeing with hostages. Altogether 20 were killed in the coup attempt, and 68, including four Maldivians, were captured. Of them, 16, the Maldivians included, received death sentences which were later commuted to life imprisonment.

The motivation for the attempted coup is still not clear. Former President Ibrahim Nasir, living in Singapore since 1973, strongly denied his involvement. At his trial, Mr Luthfi claimed that he had been a "victim of circumstances" and that the coup was funded by the Marxists of PLOTE, who wanted a secure base from which to fight Colombo. In retrospect, the coup attempt may well have been an attempt by the Maldivian dissidents to capture the reins of power while giving PLOTE certain economic benefits and an operational base.

Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi told the Indian Parliament that he saw the event as having "provided an opportunity for India to assist a friendly country and frustrate an attempt to overthrow a democratically elected government." While the big powers, including the United States, endorsed India's intervention, the world media interpreted the action as indicative of "the scale of its ambitions in South Asia", as Time magazine observed, a confirmation of India's growing role as a regional superpower cum policeman.

In Sri Lanka, while the Jayewardene government breathed a sigh of relief that Male's ordeal had ended peacefully, The Island daily observed that "it would be ostrich-like to ignore the fear of small nations of South Asia, about current developments providing opportunities for what has been described as the spread of Indian hegemonism." Time also noted that, there was similar disquiet among India's other neighbours, although the governments of Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal endorsed India's action. Pakistan, however, was critical, even accusing India of having "stage-managed the coup attempt".

Indian diplomats and political analysts find such criticism unfair and point to the fact that it was Male that sought New Delhi's help. A.K. Banarjee, who served as India's High Commissioner in Male during the crucial 1987-1989 period, but was out of station in Delhi the day the coup took place, observes that "to the contrary, despite traditional cordial relations, the importance of the Maldives to India was not fully appreciated in Delhi until the coup, and it is the possibility that the Maldives could have turned elsewhere for help that subsequently established Male in New Delhi's psyche".

As Jasjit Singh, Director of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis, observes, "The lack of dramatic initiatives on Male in the past is consistent with New Delhi's attitude to act with a degree of hesitancy and caution not only in bilateral relations with her smaller neighbours but even in SAARC in general, so as to avoid being misunderstood as attempting to wield an over-bearing influence on them."

Game of Zero-Sum

If the coup attempt brought India and the Maldives closer together, it also inversely affected relations between the Maldives and Sri Lanka, if not at the official, at least at the public level. Following the overthrow attempt, Sri Lankans who had been integrally part of the country's development came under heavy suspicion. Many were required to leave, and a visa requirement was also imposed on Sri Lankans visiting Male.

President Gayoom made an attempt to quell anti-Sri Lankan feelings by telling Parliament that "although the mercenaries were a Sri Lankan terrorist group this would in no way harm the long and friendly relations between the two countries." He also observed elsewhere that the special relationship Male was developing with New Delhi should not affect the ties with neighbouring Colombo.

In spite of such pronouncements, in the immediate aftermath of the abortive coup, it was not possible to avoid viewing the improved relations between Male and New Delhi and the cooling off of relations between Male and Colombo as a 'zero-sum' affair. The stalemate regarding the venue of the Fifth SAARC Summit of 1990 (ultimately held in Male rather than Colombo) was also indication of the extent to which relations had soured. There was also dissatisfaction in Male about the Premadasa Administration's decision to release the convicted militants of the PLOTE group, who had been deported to Colombo to serve out their sentences at the request of the Sri Lankan government.

There was a sharp decline in Sri Lankan involvement in the Maldivian economy immediately after the coup attempt, as a result of the changed attitude towards Sri Lankans. Colombo's exports to the Male dropped in value terms from USD 8.2 million in 1988 to USD 5.8 million in 1989.

This apparent 'marginalisation' appears even more obvious when juxtaposed against the dramatic changes in relations with India since 1988. While in earlier times Indo-Maldives relations had grown largely within the broader framework of SAARC cooperation, since 1988 it has had a momentum of its own. In 1990, Male's Foreign Minister Fathulla Jameel went as far as to say that his country is keen to forge a "model friendship" with India, and President Gayoom said that the relationship with India was "unmatched by any other country".

There has been unprecedented growth in Indian projects in the atoll republic, including a 200-bed Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital, supply of Doordarshan programmes for rebroadcast on Maldives TV, increased frequency of flights to Male, and additional scholarships provided to Maldivian students. While only 382 Maldivians visited India in 1982, the number had risen to 6804 by 1989. There was a nearly four-fold increase in bilateral trade between 1987 and 1989, largely due to the increase of Indian imports, which increased in value terms from USD 1.4 million in 1987 to USD 5.3 million in 1989.

It is this seemingly conscious 'shutting out' of Sri Lanka from a country which had for a long period continued to draw sustenance on her, and the dramatic 'opening up' to Indian goods and services that made it unavoidable to view the Indo-Maldives and Maldives-Sri Lanka relationships as a zero-sum game.

Back to Old Times

The process of restoring normalcy in Maldives-Sri Lanka relations was facilitated by an exchange of visits between President Gayoom and President Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1991. As a first step, visa restrictions imposed on Sri Lankans were removed. Subsequent years saw a re-building of economic relations, which have also improved considerably following President Chandrika Kumaratunga's assumption of office in August 1994.

Colombo's exports have also progressively increased in value terms from USD 11 million 1992 to USD 15.2 million in 1995, though it is significant that Indian exports during the same period grew from USD 12.4 million in 1992 to USD 31 million in 1995. Sri Lanka is today the fourth-largest exporter to the Maldives, behind Singapore, India and the UAE. Lankan investments in the Maldivian garment, tourism and fisheries sectors have increased significantly and the Sri Lankan workforce has once again picked up in size and today stands at approximately 10,000 in the government and private sectors.

Bilaterally, the most significant achievement was the amicable resolution of the problems caused by Sri Lankan fishermen poaching in Maldivian waters. Colombo has gone to great lengths to educate Lankan fishermen not to venture into Maldivian waters, and, in January 1997, Foreign Minister Jameel confirmed that there has been no poaching in recent times. This act has been seen by the Maldives as an example of great sensitivity shown by Sri Lanka in a spirit of "good neighbourliness" to a serious concern of a neighbour.

It is fortunate that the 'marginalisation' of Sri Lanka in the 1988-1990 period was not to be a permanent feature, and with the current improvement in Indo-Sri Lanka relations it is no longer necessary to view the two relationships as zero-sum. However, there is no doubt that the momentum lost by Colombo subsequent to the coup attempt and the undue advantage derived by India in the process, are likely to take a considerable time to level off, particularly in the economic field.

Global Warming, Small State

As it moves towards the 21st century, there appears to be many a hurdle the Maldives will have to overcome, despite the socio-economic advances made. The economy is presently growing at almost 7 percent per annum. GDP has increased six-fold since President Gayoom assumed office in 1978, to a projected USD 191 million for 1996. GDP per capita during that period has risen five-fold to USD 768, among the highest in South Asia. However, the need for greater diversification of sources of income remains a priority, in this state where tourism and fisheries remain the key national industries.

Faced as it is with grave environmental threats resulting from global warming, which some experts fear could result in this nation being flooded out of existence 70 years hence, the Maldivian authorities are giving high priority to promoting "environment friendly tourism". Coral mining is banned, and certain marine species are protected to keep the atoll's reputation for good diving. Foreign Minister Jameel insists that "the Maldives is not sinking, but that it is the sea level that is rising". He is also emphatic that Maldivians are not contemplating running to some other country as environmental refugees. "All we can do is to sensitise the world population and governments and hope that action be taken to slow the global warming process," he says.

Still no doubt affected by memories of the 1988 coup attempt and also somewhat wary of dependence on a single country in an hour of crisis, Male's foreign policy concentrates on mustering support of the international community towards evolving a mechanism to protect small states in the event of external threat. A Maldivian resolution to this effect was adopted without a vote by the UN General Assembly in October 1989. The Maldivian position is that "the security and protection of small states must be accepted as an integral part of international security and peace".

The principal challenge before the Male regime, however, is handling the quest for greater modernisation coupled with economic liberalisation and democratisation. The Gayoom administration has in recent years come under increasing pressure from opposite sides, those who seek greater liberalisation of society as well as conservative forces who would like to emphasise the country's "Islamic identity".

The Maldives, which assumes the Chairmanship of SAARC in May 1997, would also wish to use this forum, where it has uncontroversial relations with all other member states, to further its own interests. This would include cushioning the ill-effects of the dangers it faces through collective regional action. President Gayoom's traditional ability as a "synthesist" will no doubt be put to its greatest test in meeting the many challenges before Maldivian society. In this quest, both Sri Lanka, a "traditional friend", and India, which came to be its "friend in need", would continue to play an important role.

R. Aryasinha is a scholar and diplomat, presently Spokesman of the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry. This article is an updated adaptation of an earlier one which appeared in the book, India's Relations with Her South Asian Neighbours Other than Sri Lanka, Colombo, BCIS/Swedeshi, 1992. The opinions expressed here are the writer's own.