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Maldives opposition leader stresses "tougher stand" by govt to repair ties with India amid row

Ismail admitted that the current government has more favourable and stronger relations with China amid strained ties with India. A diplomatic uproar erupted following disparaging remarks against PM Modi, which led to thousands of people boycotting the Maldives as a tourist destination.

Edited By: Aveek Banerjee @AveekABanerjee Male Published on: January 11, 2024 8:05 IST
Fayyaz Ismail, Chairperson of the Maldivian Democratic
Image Source : ANI Fayyaz Ismail, Chairperson of the Maldivian Democratic Party.

Maldives opposition leader and chairperson of the Maldivian Democratic Party Fayyaz Ismail called for a "tougher stand" by the government to repair relations with India following a diplomatic row after deputy ministers in Male used disparaging remarks against Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Ismail said the racist comments were isolated individual opinions of those unfortunately given positions in the government.

"I personally believe the government should take a tougher stand on that because this goes beyond government to government. Now, because of the easy accessibility of social media, this has reached a lot of Indians and to a lot of Maldivians," he told news agency ANI, adding that the spat will impact India-Maldives relations as well as the revenue generated by the high number of Indian tourists coming to the island country for years.

"This relationship between India and Maldives has been nurtured and fostered over a long period of time by very mature leaders, past leaders of our country and yours as well. So just one or two tweets derailing this entire relationship is very sad," the minister said.

Ismail, who was also the former Minister of Economic Development of Maldives, noted that India has been a very strong development partner, while Male has been a "strong, staunch ally of India across the international spectrum". "Yes, some people, nationalistic people from both countries, may say that Maldives may say, we can do without India, and Indians may say that you are a very small country. But no, that's not the correct approach. We will be here. India will be there. So we need to work together in tandem," he added.

The opposition leader also admitted that the current government has more favourable and stronger relations with China. "With the change in the political spectrum in Maldives, with the change in political parties, there will be always shifts in the intensity of engagement with different partners, obviously. And in this case, you're seeing more robust engagement with China rather than India," Ismail added.

The India-Maldives diplomatic row

The uproar began a few days ago when Mariyam Shiuna, Deputy Minister of Youth Empowerment, Information and Arts, while commenting on the photos of PM Modi's recent visit to Lakshadweep, dubbed him as a ‘clown’ and a ‘puppet of Israel’. In fact, several of the ministers even claimed that Indian beaches could not meet the cleanliness level of the Maldives beaches.

This triggered a major row on social media platforms, wherein the former President and Foreign Minister of Maldives denounced their country's leaders' comments. Apprehending the consequences, the government of Maldives issued a statement saying it was aware of derogatory remarks on social media platforms against foreign leaders and high-ranking individuals and added it did not represent the views of the government.

Three ministers - Mariyam Shiuna, Malsha and Hassan Zihan - have been now been suspended indefinitely, according to Maldives President's Office Communications Minister Ibrahim Khaleel. The remarks caused a full-flown backlash as thousands of people cancelled their trips to Maldives and called for a boycott of the island country while choosing alternative locations in India.

Muizzu meets Chinese President Xi Jinping

Amid the diplomatic tensions, Maldives President Mohamed Muizzu met his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping as both countries upgraded their relationship to a comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership amid strained ties with India. Xi called Muizzu "an old friend" as China intends to expand investment in the island country.

"China and the Maldives' relations are facing a historic opportunity to carry forward the past and forge ahead into the future," Xi told Muizzu. The current Maldives President, widely considered a pro-China leader, came to power in November and immediately ordered the withdrawal of Indian military presence from his country in an apparent bid to woo Beijing.

"20 key agreements were signed today between the Government of the Maldives and the Government of China this afternoon and both the Presidents witnessed the signing ceremony," Maldivian President's office said in a post on X.

Muizzu earlier urged Chinese tourists to visit Male in more numbers. His statement was seen as a counterbalance with Indian tourists who are currently following the boycotting trend after the contentious remarks passed by three of the ministers.

Data from the Maldives Tourism Ministry shows that the highest number of tourists there come from India. Out of the 17, 57,939 tourists in 2023, India led the number of tourists with 2,09,198 arrivals, followed closely by Russia  (2,09,146) and China (1,87,118).

Why is Maldives pivoting towards China?

The Maldives owes China $1.37 billion, or around 20% of its public debt, according to World Bank data, making Beijing its biggest bilateral creditor ahead of Saudi Arabia and India, which it owes $124 million and $123 million, respectively. Chinese firms have invested a further $1.37 billion in the Maldives since its decision to join the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2014, according to data from the American Enterprise Institute think tank.

Xi said he backed increasing the number of direct flights between the two countries, in a potential boon for the Maldives' travel and tourism sector, which constituted 79% of economic growth in 2022, according to the Asian Development Bank.

The World Bank in an October development report on the Maldives warned further cosying up to China could spell trouble as a "build-up of sovereign exposure" had taken place during the pandemic and there was a "lack of domestic investment opportunities".

(with inputs from agencies)

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