Dr.Mohamed Muizzu assumed office as Maldivian President on November 17, 2023 with a promise to put the country on the path to rapid economic development and set it free from the undue influence of external powers, to wit, India and China.
But in the two and a half months he has been in power Muizzu has been dogged by controversies in both domestic and foreign relations.
He alienated India by demanding the withdrawal of 88 Indian military personnel operating an aerial evacuation service with two helicopters and a Dornier aircraft donated by India. Muizzu said that the Maldives did not want foreign military boots on its soil, even as his government acknowledged the good work done by the Indian evacuation team. But to Muizzu, the removal of the foreign military was an electoral promise he had to fulfil.
Even before initiating negotiations with India on this issue, Muizzu gave March 15 as the deadline for the Indians to quit. Wanting a military presence in the Maldives to keep a check on Chinese activities in this part of the Indian Ocean, the Indians said that a joint high level core group will deliberate on the issue before taking a decision.
But the Maldivians unilaterally stopped the use of the Indian aerial evacuation service. Subsequently, a 13 year-old sick boy in an outlying atoll died because the indigenous air evacuation service was not available.
While the Indian military presence issue was hanging fire, three of Muizzu’s junior ministers tweeted impolite remarks on Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. They had misjudged Modi’s promotion of India’s Lakshadweep islands as a tourist destination as an effort to damage the Maldives’ reputation as the best destination for island tourism.
The Indian media, film celebrities and the travel trade called for a boycott of the Maldives to cripple the Maldivian tourism industry.
Noting the bad reaction in India, Muizzu suspended the errant ministers but did not sack them. New Delhi was not pleased.
The Maldives has witnessed a sharp decline in the number of Indian tourists, who till recently topped the list of visitors to the island nation. From being the top tourist group visiting the Maldives, Indians have slipped to fifth position in the last three weeks.
In the last three years, over 200,000 Indians visited Maldives annually – the highest from any country post-COVID. The Maldives received over 1.74 lakh tourists till January 28 this year, of which only 13,989 were Indians. Russia topped the chart with 18,561 tourists from the country visiting Maldives, followed by Italy (18,111), China (16,529) and the UK (14,588).
Recently, India’s Foreign Minister, S.Jaishankar, appealed to Indians to visit Sri Lanka as Sri Lankans appreciate the fact that Indian gave them US$ 4 billion to tide over the 2022 economic crisis. He was hinting that, in contrast, the Maldivians have been ungrateful.
Links With China
Muizzu avoided going by the tradition of visiting India first upon taking over as President. On the contrary, he visited Turkey and China, countries with which India is at odds. In China, he concluded 20 agreements including one on forming a “strategic alliance” and cooperating on the Blue Economy, which raised the hackles in New Delhi.
When India asked Sri Lanka and the Maldives not to entertain the Chinese research vessel Xiang Yang Hong 03 on the grounds that it is military spy vessel, Sri Lanka obliged, but the Maldives said that vessel was coming only for replenishment and therefore it would be welcomed.
However, the vessel could not proceed to the Maldives because the Indonesian Coast Guard detained it saying that it had switched off its automated information system while being in Indonesian territorial waters.
After his return from a visit to China, Muizzu stated that the Maldives is not in the backyard of any particular country, asserting the country’s independence in foreign relations. His statements alluding to India triggered political reactions. Gasim Ibrahim, the leader of the Jumhooree Party (JP) called for an apology from Muizzu.
The Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) and The Democrats condemned the President’s remarks, and expressed concern over the deteriorating relations between the Maldives and India. The Democrats led by former President Nasheed issued a three-line-whip against the parliamentary confirmation of the Minister of Foreign Affairs, citing issues in the relationship with India.
Boycott of Indian Republic Day
Amidst high tension with India, President Muizzu, Vice President Hussain Mohamd Latheef, and Foreign Minister Moosa Zameer, boycotted the Indian Republic Day function in Male on January 26.
According to Ibrahim Khaleel, the Minister for Strategic Communications at the President’s Office, the dignitaries had “time constraints.” The government sent Sheryna Abdul Samad, the State Minister of Foreign Affairs, to represent the Maldivian government at the reception.
Opposition to Impeach Muizzu
In the domestic sphere, Muizzu is on a collision course with the nations’ parliament. The opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) and the Democrats, which have the majority in parliament, are planning to move an impeachment motion against him.
The ruling coalition’s disruption of Sunday’s parliamentary session on the President’s controversial appointments to his cabinet led to the opposition’s collecting signatures for an impeachment motion against President Muizzu. They collected 34 signatures—eight more than the required 26. With a majority in parliament, the MDP and The Democrats can impeach the President and Vice President using only their votes. They would require the votes of 54 MPs to pass the impeachment motion and they have 57.
Controversial Cabinet Appointments
Muizzu had brazenly defied parliament when he reappointed two cabinet members, namely, Islamic Affairs Minister Dr Mohamed Shaheem Ali Saeed, and Housing Minister Dr Ali Haidar Ahmed, even though their appointments had failed to secure parliamentary approval.
Article 129 of the Maldivian Constitution stipulates that cabinet appointments must be sent for parliamentary confirmation within seven days of appointment.
The reason why parliament did not approve the appointment of Dr.Mohamed Shaheem Ali Saeed as Islamic Affairs Minister is that he is a Salafist (radical Islamist).
In 2019, Dr Mohammed Shaheem Ali Saeed and the Jamiyyath Salaf were investigated by a Presidential Commission for an alleged role in the murder of Dr Afrasheem Ali, a former Member of Parliament and an Islamic scholar with moderate views. Dr. Ali was murdered in 2012.
The Presidential Commission appointed by the Ibrahim Solih government stated that Dr. Afrasheem Ali was harassed and tormented on multiple occasions, and that some religious scholars had told him that “it would be desirable if he repented,” for promoting a moderate Islam.
The report said the Dr. Shaheem Ali Saeed, who was the Islamic Affairs Minister in 2012, had acted as a mediator in the dispute between local religious scholars and Dr. Afrasheem Ali. The then Speaker of Parliament Mohamed Nasheed pointed out that Dr. Shaheem Ali Saeed left the country the morning after Dr. Afrasheem Ali’s murder leading to speculation of his role in the murder.
Nasheed further said that the Presidential Commission showed how funds amounting to MVR 4 – 6 million were spent to arrange Dr.Afrasheem Ali’s murder. Nasheed warned that the Maldives would be ‘ruined’ if the actions of radical organizations like the Jamiyyathu Salaf were not put an end to immediately.
President Muizzu himself has close family connections with an NGO called Jamiyyath Salaf, an Islamic radical organization. The President of Jamiyyath Salaf, Sheikh Abdullah Bin Mohammed Ibrahim, is the brother-in-law of President Muizzu. It is alleged that Jamiyyath Salaf was a recruiter in Maldives for the Lashkar-E-Toiba, Al Qaeda, and the ISIS.
Assault on Prosecutor General
On January 13, two armed men on a motorbike assaulted the Prosecutor General Hussain Shameem with a hammer inflicting fractures in his hand. Former President Ibrahmih Solih tweeted to say that politically motivated acts of violence have no place in a democratic society and called on the government to be swift in bringing the perpetrators to justice.
But the Minister in charge of Homeland Security, Ali Ihusaan, tweeted to say that Solih’s saying that the attack was “politically motivated” suggested he has credible information about motive and people behind this attack.
“I would like to request former President to please share the credible information referred here with the Police immediately. I have asked investigators to coordinate with the former Presidents office in this regard. Police are treating this case as a top priority and will bring perpetrators to justice.