The Maldives: Distinctive History; Engrossing Future

Cover Story

With the withdrawal of the British from East of the Suez in 1967, the Maldives ceased to house any of the British military assets. Till then, the Gan Atoll airstrip of Second World War vintage had the facilities to house some British aerial assets. But post 1967, the importance of Gan diminished

Marking the Golden Jubilee of its Independence from the British, the Maldives today is at a momentous crossroads in history. This Indian Ocean archipelago, unlike other nations in the vicinity, has had a distinctive contemporary history, while, at the same time, is scripting its future in a unique and engrossing fashion.

The Maldives is one of the few nations in this part of the world that was not subjected to colonialism of the bygone era by European nations, but was only a protectorate of Britain. Under the terms that were worked out, internal affairs of the Maldives were its own, whereas its external ties were to be guided by the British from Ceylon (current day Sri Lanka). The end of this arrangement on June 26, 1965 is celebrated as its Independence by this Indian Ocean archipelago. And since then, the two nations, the Maldives and India have established diplomatic ties. In fact, India, after Britain and Sri Lanka, was the third country with which Male established a formal diplomatic relationship.

Political Landscape

Since the days of the British Raj, the Maldives has come a long way and today it tops most of the social indices within the South Asian context. With near universal literacy and high life expectancy, the Maldives is a beacon of social progress in the region. This is indeed significant when one considers the fact that the Maldives did not inherit any of the administrative, political and civil society institutions from the British, unlike its South Asian counterparts.

This absence of a British legacy in matters of administration and polity has left its mark on the political landscape of the nation. The first decade-and-a-half since 1965 witnessed a degree of political instability and vibrant oligarchy that laid the foundations for the nation. It was also around this time when the nation was getting a toe hold on statecraft that the inherent complexities of politics made its presence felt. The first political shock was short lived, when the ‘First Republic’ was displaced by the Sultanate even before it could find its feet. In 1968, Ibrahim Nasir, the then prime minister, became the president of the ‘Second Republic’.

This Second Republic, unlike its predecessor, was here to stay. In 1978, Maumoon Gayoom eased out President Nasir to become the First Citizen. With Gayoom as the chief executive, the Maldives witnessed an uninterrupted era of political stability, social and economic progress. By the time Gayoom demitted office in the nation’s first democratic election in 2008, the Maldives had undergone significant transformation. Though Nasir in his time initiated a number of steps, Gayoom took them to their logical conclusion, which has made the nation a hub of international tourism and a society with near universal literacy and other high social indices.

Strategic Trajectory

On the strategic front, the trajectory that this nation took was a bit different. With the withdrawal of the British from East of the Suez in 1967, the Maldives ceased to house any of the British military assets. Till then, the Gan Atoll airstrip of Second World War vintage had the facilities to house some British aerial assets. But post 1967, the importance of Gan diminished.

The entry of the United States with its naval base in Diego Garcia in the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) resulted in the Maldives gaining centre-stage in the Indian Ocean base race during the Cold War. It was during the 70s that the Maldives was wooed by the Soviet Union and Libya, each hoping to settle in the Gan Atoll, but only to be declined. The United States also, on its part, hoped that the Maldives would provide a rest and recuperation facility for its troops that were stationed in Diego Garcia. Unfortunately, for the United States, its hopes were in vain since Male declined Washington’s overtures.

However, in the recent past, nations of the world have rediscovered the importance of the Maldives. During the height of the US led global war on terror, Washington was scouting for partner nations who would be willing to ease the burden of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility in Cuba. The possibility of Maldives accepting some of the detainees was declined by Male, even though a few Maldivians are known to have picked up arms for terrorist groups.

It was also around the same time that the Chinese involvement in the South Asian region was seen with suspicion, especially in the light of the theory of encirclement – the ‘String of Pearls’ theory. However, the ‘String of Pearls’ now seems to have been replaced by the Maritime Silk Route, which Beijing is vigorously promoting. India has welcomed this Chinese initiative.

Yet, in all these interactions over the ages with the comity of nations, the Maldives has always maintained a sense of sovereignty. At the same time, it is in this very light that the Trilateral Maritime Security Agreement between India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives needs to be seen, for the area of focus lies in non-traditional security threats like environment and piracy and falls short of the traditional defence arrangement. This agreement also comes at a time when the Maldives is deepening its economic and trade ties with China in a manner that takes a strategic tint.

The Maldives has pursued a foreign policy that reaffirms its sovereignty time and again. This is despite the opportunity and necessity dictating otherwise. Even after the failed coup bid by terrorists in the late 1980s and the Indian involvement in rescue efforts, Male limited the presence and role of New Delhi, despite the former being dependant on the latter for security.

In short, the Maldives has taken the effort to ensure that its concerns do not undermine its sense of sovereignty and foreign policy.

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Diplomatist Magazine was launched in October of 1996 as the signature magazine of L.B. Associates (Pvt) Ltd, a contract publishing house based in Noida, a satellite town of New Delhi, India, the National Capital.