Packing Proxies

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Some in the Maldives want to reduce the influence of India. The same people in the archipelago nation in the Indian Ocean might want to increase the influence of China in their backyard, too.

Lawmakers with the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) recently proposed a bill that would criminalize acts that harm the country’s diplomatic relations with foreign powers. The bill was clearly written in response to former President Abdulla Yameen, who has organized anti-Indian rallies in the country.

“There has been concern within the government and the MDP about the ‘India Out’ campaign hurting ties with a close friend and neighbor who has helped us many times,” MDP spokesperson Imthiyaz Fahmy told Nikkei Asia.

Last week, the legislation was dropped but the issue goes on. An “India Out” protest in the capital, Male, was banned soon after, the India Express reported.

Yameen, who was convicted of money laundering in 2019, was released from house arrest late last year. Known for his pro-China stance – the Maldives borrowed billions from China for infrastructure developments when he was president – Yameen is organizing anti-India demonstrations in order to stir up opposition to the MDP in the run-up to the presidential election in 2023. He is already expected to receive the endorsement of his Progressive Party for the Maldives.

Yameen, incidentally, is the half-brother of ex-Maldivian President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who ruled the country for 30 years as a dictator until 2008. Described by Reuters as a “ruthless operator,” Yameen even jailed Gayoom for allegedly plotting to overthrow him.

Meanwhile, incumbent President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih has stressed the importance of the Maldives maintaining good relations with India, which has offered financial assistance to help the country avoid China’s “debt trap,” wrote the Observer Research Foundation, a New Delhi-based think tank. Solih has also strengthened military ties between the two countries, Asian News International noted. This assistance, of course, fuels suspicions that Solih is giving India too much influence.

Still, it is India that has helped the small country of about 500,000 people that won democracy only in 2005, often with large infrastructure projects. A few years later, China began trying to dent that influence. Islamists have also found a hunting ground in the country, where Islam is the state religion.

Still, the bill that aims to crack down on the “India Out” movement is garnering critics who aren’t necessarily taking sides in the fight between the two politicians. The MDP’s recently proposed bill would impose fines of $1,300, jail sentences as long as six months or house arrest for as long as one year on anyone convicted of suggesting that foreign powers have too much sway in the country, explained TRT World, a Turkish state-owned English language news channel.

Transparency International complained that the bill was effectively squelching free speech. The organization has also warned that Solih’s government has failed to tackle corruption.

China and India, meanwhile, are jockeying for influence in the Maldives because the country lies in the path of shipping lanes between Asia and the Middle East, explained the Brookings Institution.

Who knows who will win while the Maldivian politicians fight each other? But, until they present a unified front to the world, their people might be the ones who lose.

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