Male/Maldives: A former Maldives president jailed on corruption charges has returned to politics with a campaign against Indian influence in the country, worrying New Delhi, which is battling China for supremacy in its own back yard.
Abdulla Yameen wants to cancel defence deals signed with India, with which Maldives shares decades of close and friendly ties.
He alleges New Delhi has developed a major military presence in the archipelago off the coast of Sri Lanka – claims the ruling party denies.
But the growth of the campaign since a graft conviction against Yameen was overturned in November has drawn large crowds at rallies and galvanized his Progressive Party of Maldives, seen as being closer to Beijing.
“It not only endangers our national security but also impedes our progress and development,” Yameen told Reuters in a rare interview in the capital Male, referring to India's military presence.
“It's imperative that we get the Indian military out before the end of this year. We certainly don't like to play second fiddle here in our own country.”
“I don't want the Indian Ocean especially in our neighbourhood to be militarized. I like this area to be a demilitarized zone. We don't like to see any foreign power here,” he said, adding it could encourage other nations like China and the United States to build up its presence in the region.
Defence minister Mariya Didi told Reuters India's military presence in the country was limited to the operation and maintenance of three search-and-rescue and surveillance aircraft used by Maldives' defence forces, as well as a medical team at a military hospital.
"There is no additional foreign military presence in Maldives," she said.
Some of the deals with India Yameen is seeking to cancel were signed during his own time in power, she added.
A spokesperson for India’s foreign ministry declined to comment on Yameen’s claims. The ministry said last year that India “remains committed to deepening its traditionally friendly relationship with Maldives.”
Lying near strategic shipping lanes in the Indian Ocean, Maldives is critical in the battle for influence between India and China, which have repeatedly clashed along their disputed Himalayan border in recent years.
India’s Bollywood film industry and music are popular among locals, and the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party has pursued what it has called an “India-first” foreign policy, but China has made increasing inroads since Yameen’s five-year term.
Yameen said he was still considering whether to contest presidential polls due next year.
“I have returned. I don't think I ever left and I don't think people left me either.”
The half-brother of former dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, Yameen has long played a major role in the islands’ fractious politics.
He helped to oust the country’s first democratically-elected president, Mohamed Nasheed, in 2012, taking power in an election a year later.
During his term, he made Maldives a part of Beijing’s Belt and Road infrastructure initiative – a program the United States sees as a way to trap smaller countries into debt.
China financed and built a bridge linking Male to the international airport, as well as other critical infrastructure.
“Let's be frank with this. Europe or the U.S., they don't hand out parcels of money for development. It's only China that does that,” Yameen said.
Since his release, Yameen has been touring islands across the archipelago in support of his campaign.
Local media reported threats have been made to Indian teachers working on two different islands – a claim Yameen calls “total rubbish”.
'Trumped up charges'
After losing power in 2018, Yameen was sentenced to five years in jail and fined $5 million in 2019 for embezzling $1 million in state funds, allegedly acquired through the lease of resort development rights.
He was shifted to house arrest in 2020 and freed months later after irregularities in that case were found, though prosecutors hope to secure a conviction on two outstanding charges by the summer.
“Those are all trumped up charges,” Yameen said of the outstanding cases against him, a diamond-encrusted watch on his right wrist.