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Sri Lanka and Maldives are mere pawns in the great game to dominate Southern sea routes

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by Charitha Ratwatte

Hello Friends,

The “mutiny” in the Maldives and its aftermath is of vital concern and interest to Sri Lanka.The sequence of events in the “necklace of Islands” has serious implications for the “pearl of the Indian ocean”.

President Mohammed Waheed Hassan Meets U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, Feb 11, 2012-pic: Anas Mohamed

It may not be an exaggeration to state that the Maldivian thespians currently hogging the limelight in the unfolding drama on the Archipelago stage are all mere pawns in the great geo-political chess game that is being played out on another level.

A recent article by Charitha Ratwatte in the daily “Financial Times”published by Wijeya newspapers provides a penetrative focus from a Sri Lankan perspective into the history of the Maldives within a geo-political context.

As many of you know, Charitha Ratwatte a lawyer by profession is a former Secretary of the Finance ministry and is currently the managing director of the Sri Lanka Business Development Centre.

I am reproducing Charitha Ratwatte’s insightful article on my log with due acknowledgement to the Financial Times.

Here it is Friends-DBS Jeyaraj


by Charitha Ratwatte

The Islamic Republic of the Maldives is Sri Lanka’s close neighbour. Originally seagoing people from Sri Lanka’s west coast are said to have settled in the necklace of islands.

Buddhist artefacts are found all over, including the remains of a Vatadage, and in the capital city Male, the museum is full of Buddha statues and other historical items. The famed British colonial archaeologist H.C.P. Bell did a study of these artefacts which has been published.

Divehi, the language of the Maldivian people is similar to Sinhala, and has a number of Sinhala words, e.g. ‘Pavahan’ for shoes, ‘ge’ for house, etc. It is now written in the Arabic script.

Before rice was imported into the Maldives, the staple food was bread fruit (dhel) and tuna (balaya) fish cooked in coconut milk, which are plentiful in the Maldives. Indeed, the little shade that is found in the atolls is provided by only coconut and bread fruit trees.

It is said that, just prior to the European penetration of South Asia, an Islamic saint and his entourage from Saudi Arabia when travelling by sailing ship to Indonesia were shipwrecked by a South West monsoon storm, near the Male atoll and when brought ashore, convinced the Raja to convert to Islam and the Raja thenceforth became the Sultan. All the islanders were converted to Islam.

Even after the Portuguese established themselves in Goa, South India, Male was a base for Muslim traders contesting the effort of the Portuguese to wrest control of the Muslim monopoly of the cinnamon export trade to Europe from Muslim traders from West Asia. Seafaring Muslim raiders basing themselves in Male harassed the Portuguese ships sailing from Goa to Portugal around the Cape of Good Hope in Africa.

Indeed it is said that the first Portuguese to visit Sri Lanka, was a fleet sent out by the Portuguese Captain General of Goa, de Almeida, commanded by his son Lorenzo, which was tasked with attacking Islamic pirates operating out of Male, who were raiding the Portuguese transport ships, carrying cinnamon, pepper, cardamom and other spices from Goa to Lisbon.

The fleet was battered by a South West monsoon storm and Lorenzo’s flag ship lost a mast and limped into a Sri Lanka’s Galle harbour. The rest, as we know, is history!

Close ties with Maldives

After the Dutch ousted the Portuguese from Sri Lanka’s maritime provinces and the British East India Company ousted the Dutch and later the British Government took over the coastal areas, the British were quick to establish their influence over the Maldives and Sultan was forced to pay tribute to the British Governor of Ceylon.

A fleet of sail-powered Maldivian Dhonis would sail into Colombo Harbour annually carrying dried tuna (Maldive fish – balaya), bolafiyadu and other Maldivian produce.

The British developed a Royal Air Force base in a Southern Maldivian atoll called ‘Addu’, which was used as a stopover for their aircraft traversing the Southern ocean.

Sri Lanka's Ambassador Dixon Dela Bandara meets with President Mohammed Waheed Hassan on Feb 14,2012-pic: Mohamed Ali

In time Sri Lanka developed close ties with the Maldivian people, especially in the fields of health care and education. Sri Lanka teachers were the main stay of the Maldivian school system until the Maldives trained their own teachers.

Maldivian students were regulars at Sri Lanka schools like C.M.S. Ladies College, Colombo, Zahira College, Colombo and Trinity College, Kandy. Over time India also developed close contacts with the Maldivians, especially after the education in Sri Lanka switched to the national languages.

After top-end luxury tourism developed in the uninhabited Maldivian atolls, Singapore became a major trading partner and Sri Lankans were employed in large numbers in the leisure industry. Sea planes fly tourists from Male, where the Sri Lanka Public Works Department built the Hululle International Airport on a neighbouring atoll, to the other remote atoll resorts.

Islamic Sultanate

The Maldives, after gaining independence from the British was an Islamic Sultanate for many years. The Sultan was ousted and a Republic was declared and a ‘non royal’ so called but elitist ‘plebeian’ dictator rules for many years.

The Maldivian autocrat developed close links with other Islamic nations over time. Many of their elites after their senior secondary education in Sri Lankan and Indian schools went on to Al Azhar University in Cairo Egypt.

The Sultan of Brunei donated a mosque with a golden dome, which dominates the Male skyline and is visible when passengers fly in to Hululle airport. The Saudi Arabian Government also spread its influence, especially their ‘Wahabbi’ type of fundamental Islamism, minarets on West Asian type Mosques and all. The Islamic Republic of the Maldives also joined the Commonwealth of Nations, SAARC and the UNO.

Over time Maldives became the space for a type of ‘great game’ for influence, similar to what the British and the Russians played in India North West Frontier in the past, and NATO, the USA, India and Pakistan are today engaged in Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s ISI, India’s RAW, the CIA, the Russian successor to USSR’s KGB, Britain’s MI5, China’s secret service, the Saudi Arabians, the Iranians and even Al Qaeda were reported to have their agents in the Republic.

Strategic importance

The Maldives became of strategic importance after the super tankers which moved crude oil from the Gulf of Arabia to Japan and China had to sail past the Maldives on the southern sea route.

Foreign aid became a powerful tool in powerful countries trying to influence the Maldivians. Britain’s DFID, US AID, Japan’s JAICA, India, China and Islamic countries bent over backwards to provide assistance.

As is the case whenever such donated ‘fungible’ money flows freely into any country, which does not have a transparent, accountable, open type of liberal governance, there were allegations of crony capitalism and also allegations of corruption in the allocation of atolls for development as tourist resorts, etc.

Finally some years ago, the dictator of Maldives was thrown out, after 30 long years in power, and after free and fair elections, an activist human rights worker Ibrahim Nasheed (popularly called ‘Anni’) , who had been imprisoned and tortured by the dictator was installed as President of the Republic.

A few days ago, Anni(Ibrahim Mohammed Nasheed), the President, was ousted in what he says was a coup d’ ‘etat by the Maldivian Army and Police. The Vice President took over. A junior Judge whom Anni had ordered the Army to arrest, due to him allegedly protecting the former dictator’s cronies from facing charges of corruption, was reinstated and promptly issued a warrant for Anni’s arrest.

The warrant, said to include 40 charges, has not been enforced up to the time of writing and Anni is a free man, still, holding rallies and calling for his former Vice President, now President, to step down and hold fresh elections.

Anni got 54% of the vote at the last elections, and he seems confident that he has the people’s support. In outlying atolls including the strategic Addu, his supporters have chased out the Police and the Government administrators and taken over power. The Government clams they have got back control; the situation seems fluid. The new President has agreed to an international inquiry into the legality of Anni’s ouster.

Panic mode

The world is in panic mode. The British Ambassador in Colombo accredited to the Maldives has flown over and is ‘camping out’ in Male, as the Indian press quaintly puts it! The US Assistant Secretary of the State Department for South Asia, Blake, former Ambassador to Colombo and Male, has flown in.

At first the US seemed to accept the transition of power, until Anni declared later that it was under threat at gun point. The US then retracted. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India has sent in a special mission.

Anni’s wife and family have flown to Colombo for their protection. The President and Leader of the Opposition of Sri Lanka have spoken with the Maldivian President and with Anni and expressed concerns for the latter’s safety.

A UN Assistant Secretary for Political Affairs is in Male, trying to negotiate a peaceful end to the crisis. The Pakistanis have expressed concern over the situation. The situation the Maldivians have gotten themselves into is a very useful basis on which to analyse the power play of various blocks of influence which are interplaying in today’s geopolitical context and to analyse how it affects strategically placed small countries like the Maldives and Sri Lanka.

India’s power

Today’s world as a political reality consists of various power blocs trying to asset their influence either in concert or on their own over various parts of the world. If we consider the influence over Sri Lanka and the Maldives, the most real power in the sense of geographical proximity is India.

India is an emerging power. It is an economic and population powerhouse, with a powerful military. India expansionism is one of the subjects which was one of the five lectures which was the core of the JVP indoctrination in Sri Lanka prior to the 1971 insurrection, which was put down with Indian support.

The people of Tamil Nadu state have an empathy with the Tamil population of Sri Lanka’s Northern and Eastern Provinces. India has always been concerned with their fate; I need not reiterate the painful consequences of RAW working with Tamil insurgent groups and the activities of the IPKF, the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, etc.; they are very fresh in our minds. In Male too, the Indian Army had to intervene when Sri Lanka Tamil insurgents tried to take over the islands some years ago.

Malahaya Tamils

The plantation population of the Sri Lankan highlands, of recent Indian origin, they call themselves the ‘Malayaha (hill country) Tamils’ is another area of Indian interest. Recently at the launch of a book about the Malayaha Tamils in Colombo, India’s Deputy High Commissioner, who was Guest of Honour, said he had ‘come to express his solidarity’.

The Malahaya Tamils say they constitute 5.1% of the population. India is also a powerful trade partner of both Sri Lanka and Maldives. High level Indian tourists are visiting Maldivian resorts in numbers and also Indian tourists to Sri Lanka are increasing. Sri Lanka Buddhists visits the sacred Buddhist sites in India in vast numbers. The cricket pitches provide a more peaceful battleground for India and Sri Lanka. Maldivians rely on Indian facilities for higher education and healthcare.

Necklace of states

Clearly both Sri Lanka and the Maldives fall within what could be described as the Indian sphere of influence in geopolitical terms. India is concerned about encirclement. Historically this fear has its roots in India’s pre-history, when the first Aryan immigrants came over the Hindu Kush Mountains and settled on the Indo-Gangetic plain, they feared their isolated settlements would be surrounded by hostile indigenous people.

A necklace of states, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Pakistan, Afghanistan, China, Bhutan and Burma surround India. India’s ambivalent attitude to SAARC is based on this fear. Three of these are Islamic; admittedly the Maldivian brand is comparatively laidback, three predominantly Buddhist.

Pakistan and India have fought wars. Partition from India and continuous hostility to India is the justification for the existence of the Pakistan armed forces. The Pakistani ISI operates on the basis that a client state in Afghanistan is essential for Pakistani strategic depth in a future war with India.

India would go all the way to avoid that happening to the Afghans and cooperates with NATO and the US there, while the Pakistani ISI is helping the Afghan insurgents. The Kashmiri situation ensures that an Indo/Pak war is a real possibility at any time.

Burma was a military dictatorship, albeit Buddhist, with which India seemed complacent, but now seems to be opening up to a liberal democratic system which would be unpredictable. Bhutan is a Buddhist kingdom, but India has an Army brigade garrisoned in Thimpu, to make sure it remains so.

Relations with China are at best icy, with border disputes in Arunachal Pradesh and the Tibetan Dalai Lama (whom the Chinese accuse of ‘splittist’ tendencies for having the temerity of asking for autonomy for Tibet) in exile in Dharmashala, India.

India is battling for influence over Sri Lanka with the Chinese. A malfunctioning Norochcholai coal power plant on the West coast, against a much-talked-about Sampur coal power plant on the East coast. A Southern Highway against another highway, yet to nowhere! For the railways supply of carriages, engines and construction of rail tracks. Harbour construction – e.g. Hambantota offered to India, no interest shown, given to China! Kankesanturai given to India.

This is the ‘Afghan’ prototype of competitive horse trading which India and China are indulging in with us. No one underestimates the support China gave Sri Lanka during the insurgency and still gives in the world’s human rights forums. But India is concerned about Sri Lanka falling into the Chinese sphere of influence.

William Avery, a former US diplomat in a recent book on the possibility of India becoming a world power, has boldly stated that India should get China out of Sri Lanka!

China is being very liberal with both confessional and expensive market rate (Libor +) loans to the Government of Sri Lanka. Chinese Government construction corporations and Chinese workers are on ground at sites in Sri Lanka. India has recognised the new Maldivian Government, which has strong links to the old dictator.

China’s reach

China is expanding its worldwide reach. She is developing a white water capable Navy, with her first aircraft carrier. China is engaged in multiple territorial waters disputes with neighbours such as Philippines, Viet Nam and Indonesia.

Some 70 million ethnic Chinese live outside mainland China. The overseas Chinese are the biggest investors in mainland China. Chinese entrepreneurs are big in the USA. Africa and West Asia are dotted with Chinese malls that sell gadgetry from Guangdong factories at bargain prices. Confucius Institutes are spreading Chinese culture to the world.

In Addis Ababa, China has built a US$ 200 million headquarters for the Organisation of African Unity. On the audio system for translation of speeches, Channel One is Mandarin!

China is one of the world’s biggest donors to and investors in poor countries and does so without preaching platitudes on human rights, transparency, etc. Copper mines in Zambia, agricultural land in Ethiopia and coal mines in Mongolia have all seen Chinese investors.

In this expansionist mode, keeping the sea lanes of the Southern ocean free and open is a major Chinese interest and the Maldives, between which there is no other land mass until the South Pole, is of key strategic importance.

A total of 80% of China (and Japan) bound crude oil and natural gas from West Asia and natural resources from Africa sails past the Maldives and Sri Lanka. India does not want the Maldives to leave the sphere of her influence and come under the Chinese sphere of influence, and vice versa!

Anglo Saxon sphere of influence

Sri Lanka and Maldives also fall with the Anglo Saxon sphere of influence. Both are Commonwealth countries and are proud to be so. Witness the vast amounts of taxpayer’s money expended in a vain effort to get the Commonwealth Games in 2018 to Hambantota.

The 2014 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting is in Sri Lanka, either Hambantota or Colombo. Britain, the USA, Canada, Australia, Europe and NATO will be much vexed over the Maldives falling out of their sphere of influence.

The Commonwealth Secretary General has convened a tele conference of its crisis committee – the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) – and they are sending a ministerial mission to Male to ascertain whether Anni was ousted in a military coup. Witness the British High Commissioner ‘camping out’ in Male and Assistant Secretary Blake flying in pronto.

The USA has a strategic military base, Diego Garcia nearby. Intelligence sources say that Somali pirates who have played havoc on the East African sea lanes, requiring the world’s navies to be deployed on anti piracy patrols, may be sheltering with their mother ships and pirate skiffs, on uninhabited Maldivian atolls. The Indian Coast Guard is keeping watch.

Fundamentalist Islam on the march

The Maldives is also an Islamic republic. Fundamentalist Islam is on the march. Pakistan is in internal conflict. In Afghanistan the Taliban is sucking in foreign infidel troops and driving them out, as it has done throughout history.

Iran is busily growing its nuclear teeth, defying world opinion. Israel is threatening an air raid on Iran’s nuclear facility. Muslim minorities in China (Iughurs) are being suppressed by the majority Han.

In the former Soviet Union, the now-free ‘Stan ‘countries – Kyrghistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, etc. – are virtual Islamic Sultanates. Within Islam itself, the Sunni and Shia are at each others’ throats, witness Bahrain. The Maldivians are Sunnis, and Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states will be wary of Iran or other Shias getting a foot in.

All over Africa Islamic fundamentalists are asserting themselves, witness the chaos in Nigeria. The Maldivian Government a few weeks back summarily ordered the massage clinics and saunas on their luxury atoll resorts to be closed down saying that they promoted un-Islamic behaviour. Abruptly the decision was reversed.

The fundamentalists also want pork and alcohol banned in the resorts. After Anni was disposed, some Maldivian fundamentalist invaded the Male Museum and smashed some Buddha statues and pre-Islamic artefacts found there. When they came back later for more mischief, the Police apprehended them.

Anni, when he hosted the SAARC summit meeting (Maldives is the current Chair of SAARC), put up some statues to represent SAARC countries, the Islamic fundamentalists in Male opposed this saying they were un-Islamic.

The world will have some concerns if the Maldives goes fully into Islamic fundamentalism. Some politicians in Male are cleverly manipulating fundamentalist Islam to build up opinion against the liberal Anni.

Mere pawns

Sri Lanka and Maldives are mere pawns in this current great game or contest to dominate the Southern sea routes. The Indians, the Chinese, NATO, Europe, the USA, the Commonwealth and the Islamic fundamentalists all have their own agendas.

Small countries have to live on their wits to outwit the might of the big power blocs, and play one against the other. The recent events in the Maldives bring this ‘work in progress’ great game into close focus. Will the liberals win or will the Maldives revert to a dictatorship under the umbrella of one of the many emerging spheres of influence? Pro West, Chinese, Indian, Islamic or otherwise? That is the question. The answer is vital for peace and tranquillity in South Asia.

As the Economist newspaper succinctly put it, with a clever play on a Broadway hit musical, will the problem be solved without ‘Anni’ having to ‘get his gun’?

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  1. Now that its a geo-political matter, people of Maldives and Sri Lanka will see their affairs being palyed according to the preferred time table of the larger powers.

    Maldives has provided an easy test case for potential regime change in Sri Lanka. That is to strengthening oppositions by a variety of measures, this could be IMF policies to action at UNHRC.

    Tamil side felt and acted that ‘internationalition’ of the matter will bring lime light to Tamils’ plight, and quest for political rights.

    Sinhala side went from denial, low intensity warfare, war on terror to humanitarian rescue operation amidst continued the belief that as Tamils leave Sri Lanka or die fighting the ‘problem’ will go away.

    Now all blame geo-politics.

  2. Well well Sri lankan nationalists and patriots are always quick to blame the rest of the world rather than take responsibility for their own short comings. The simple fact is that if there was decency in politics in Lanka it would not be in the mess that is in and as vulnerable to great power games!

  3. Sri Lanka has paid in blood for 30 years as a result of JR Jayawadena’s adventure of moving with the west ignoring India.

    Now Percy Mahinda Rajapakse is doing the same for China.

    What is awaiting is obvious!!

  4. Very nice article. Very fascinating ; all the things the author wrote are true in terms of the situations both inside and around the Maldivian Islands.

    Recent actions of India, over throwing a democratically elected progressive leader in Maldivies, and its support to Sri-lankan regime in the final stages of war which resulted in slaughter of thousands of innocent civilians raised eye burrows in the western democracies. This kind of meddling will lead India to no where. India will pay a price for this diplomatically. Its ambition to become a permanant member of the UN security council will remain as a distant dream.

    One thing we have to understand, The military strength of the US is that of India,China and Russia combined. Their military expenditure is more than that of Russia,China and India combined. US taught so many lessons to India when It gave military and economical aid to Pakistan, when It was about to dispatch the 7th fleet to help Pakistan during the Bagladesh war. Now the US comes terms with Pakistans activities, and US needs a solid loyalist in the Indian Ocean. That could be any bodies guess.

    When I was flying from Colombo to Dubai years ago the pilot decided to make an emergecy landing in Male airport, because one of the engines of the aircraft was struck by birds. I spend almost 24 hours in a luxury hotel where the chef and other staff are Sri-Lankans mostly Sinhalese. The people looked similar to Sri-Lankans. I had a chance to have some sight seeing in Male. And i enjoyed it.


  5. One becomes “the pawn in others hands” when he cannot manage his own affairs in order. It applies to the Sri Lanka Govt. and the outsted Maldivian President as well. You may be popular and be elected at elections but do not meddle too much with the systems that ensure good governance.

  6. Hi John Wayne could you tell me in which country you have fair and decent politics and politicians?In USA Al Gore was beaten by George W Bush using corruption IE.. Without counting Florida votes because of a technicality.In UK 83 parliamentarians were abusing the rules and using Government money for their own use and one minister’s husband “WATCHED PORNOGRAPHY” by using cable TV and then send the bill to goverment to pay.Ex PM Tony Blair misused 10,000 GB Pounds to repair his roof illegally.Want more?……

  7. [Buddhist artefacts are found all over, including the remains of a Vatadage, and in the capital city Male, the museum is full of Buddha statues and other historical items.]

    This then is actually a sinhala buddhist country and the lion flag should be planted on it without delay.The maldivian muslims of course can continue to live there as well behaved guests.Once the lion flag is planted all these protests and demonstrations will have to stop,unless they want to be shot or abducted in white vans.

    If anyone thinks we will have to have army camps one day on our west coast in order to protect us from infiltration and attacks from the maldives,they are living in cukooland.Militarisation will be done by us in the sinhala bhuddhist land of Sri Maledeepa itself where 2500 years ago vijaya brought in bhuddhism and settled there,but had to shuttle back and forth from srilanka because governing two kingdoms was not easy for him.

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