Maldives to Sri Lanka : Shape your own foreign policy

* Don't let any third country influence you against us - Dunya Maumoon


by Zacki Jabbar in Male

In a surprise move Sri Lanka for the first time publicly criticised the Maldives recently, expressing concern about the situation in that country vis-a-vis regional instability .

Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera said that Sri Lanka was deeply concerned about recent developments in the Maldives and events that had impacted on it, including the arrest of two of its nationals in the Maldives, the questionable removal of a Maldivian social media activist who was in possession of a valid Sri Lankan visa, the stabbing of a Maldivian national in Colombo, the State of Emergency declared in the Maldives ( which has since been lifted) and impeachment of its Vice-President.

While urging Male to ensure that recent developments were not allowed to escalate into a source of regional instability, Samaraweera observed it was deeply disturbing that Sri Lanka, a country which had always maintained the closest friendly relations with the Maldives had been used to initiate dubious action against political and social media activists.

The Island caught up with the Maldivian Foreign Minister Dunya Maumoon for an exclusive interview at her office in Male last week, to ascertain her views on being censured publicly for the first time by a time tested friend and if they were hurt that it had to not been done behind close doors.

"We, acknowledge being subjected to international scrutiny at present, and are working hard to further develop democracy within. Any advice and assistance that Sri Lanka may be able to provide is valued , especially given its longer tradition in democratic governance", Minister Dunya said adding that an early interaction at the highest levels, to clear any misunderstandings that may have arisen would be welcome.

She pointed out that there had been suggestions by some observers in the Maldives media that certain countries had pressured the Sri Lankan government to publicly express concerns about the Maldives. " What I would say is that Sri Lanka should not be influenced by any third country in shaping its policies towards the Maldives. "

Excerpts of the interview

Q- How do you view the state of bilateral relations between Sri Lanka and Maldives?

A – The Maldives and Sri Lanka have enjoyed strong bilateral relations prior to and since independence and there is a lot of commerce between our countries. A large number of Maldivians live and study in Sri Lanka , while there are many Sri Lankans employed in the Maldives in various professions, including in education where a significant proportion of our teachers are Sri Lankan.

Only recently President Maithripala Sirisena participated in our Golden Jubilee celebrations held in Male, symbolizing the importance that the two countries place on their relationship.

Q - Any specific plans to strengthen bilateral exchanges?

A- There are a range of agreements between our two countries, including in health and education, where the Health and Education Ministries of the Maldives have been discussing with their Sri Lankan counter-parts, ways to further expand cooperation in these areas.

We also work closely together in tourism, and the Maldivian High Commission in Colombo, is working to expand cultural cooperation.

Q - What about trade and tourism ?

A – Both are essential to our respective countries. There is much that we can learn from each other to ensure our respective industries continue to grow from strength to strength.

As far as trade is concerned, Sri Lanka has always been an important partner for the Maldives. The items that we look to export and import compliment each other well.

Q - A Sri Lankan Minister has alleged that a ship chartered by Avant Garde Maritime Services , a Galle based Floating Armoury company had while passing Maldives last month switched off its Global Positioning System in violation of international laws. He, also raised the possibility of Avant Garde being involved in the recent problems that the Maldives had faced. What is you information on this?

A – The bomb blast that took place in the Presidential speedboat on September 28 this year, is being investigated. And we thank the Sri Lankan government for sending experts to Male to assist our Police in their probe. On the question of Avant Garde ship, I understand that the matter is being investigated by the authorities in Colombo and we would await their findings.

The Maldives police is conducting its own investigation into incidents that have occurred . Here too we need to wait until their inquiry reports are out, before commenting.

Q - Following the recent deportation from Sri Lanka of Ahmed Ashraff, a Maldivian national and close associate of former Vice President Adheeb Abdul Gaffoor, the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry summoned your High Commissioner in Colombo over what was said to be a failure to follow proper protocol?

A - The Maldives High Commission formally requested the Sri Lankan Government, as per the normal procedure, to send Mr Ashraff back to the Maldives, and we are highly appreciative that it acceded to the request.

The law enforcement agencies of the Maldives and Sri Lanka have a strong working relationship that has been further enhanced with the signing of an MoU between the police services of the two countries last year, enabling greater collaboration and therefore assisting with the security of both countries.

Q - There is also the allegation that the recent murder of a Maldivian national in Colombo, was linked to the failed assassination attempt on President Yameen?

A – I understand that the Sri Lankan authorities are investigating the case fully, and therefore it would be inappropriate to comment until that process has been concluded.

Q - Sri Lanka has also expressed concern about its soil being used to settle disputes and rivalries between Maldivians?

A – Sri Lanka has always been a special place for Maldivians, and that is one reason why there are a large number of them living there and most of them, most of the time are law-abiding. Mr.Ashraff who was sent back to the Maldives by the authorities in Colombo, was a person wanted by the Maldivian Police in connection with the ongoing inquiries into the attempted assassination of President Yameen. I am sure Sri Lanka would not want to be the place for those Maldivians who evade the law, to hide. We , would hope that all of our citizens lead law abiding lives wherever they may choose to reside.The close relationship that our two countries have, and the recent MoU between the two police forces will re-enforce that cooperation, and strengthen our respective ability.

The Maldives and its government acknowledges that it is subjected to international scrutiny at present, and is working hard to further develop democracy within.We value any advice and assistance that Sri Lanka may be able to provide, especially given its longer tradition in democratic governance.

Q - America's FBI has said that there was no bomb blast on board President Yameen's speed boat?

A- What the FBI said was that from the samples they analyzed, they did not find conclusive evidence to attribute the explosion on the Presidential launch to an IED. The FBI was, of course, one of the three foreign expert teams that carried out analyses. The Sri Lankan investigators concluded that the explosion was an IED, and the Saudi team also found evidence of RDX or high explosives being used. The Maldives Police is convinced that there is sufficient evidence to prove that the remotely detonated bomb was an attempt to either kill or incapacitate the President. It, was targeted at one person - President Yameen and that explains why not much explosives had been used, to make it look like an accident. When the explosion occurred, the first lady was seated on the seat where the President would normally sit, resulting in her suffering serious injuries.

Q- Are you hurt that the Sirisena- Wickremesinghe government had publicly censured the Maldives?

A - Sri Lanka is one of our most valued partners, and we welcome any advice and assistance that they may be in a position to provide, and further, would welcome the opportunity to discuss any concerns so as to resolve any perceived issues.

There have been suggestions by some observers in the Maldives media that some countries are applying pressure on the Sri Lankan government to publicly express concerns about the Maldives. What I would say is that Sri Lanka should not be influenced by any third country in shaping its policies towards the Maldives.

Q - Which countries are you pointing your finger at?

A – As I said earlier, there have been suggestions by some observers, and it is not my place to speculate. But I look forward to an early interaction at the highest levels, to clear any misunderstandings that may have arisen. As I have noted above, the Maldives welcomes any suggestion that Sri Lanka seeks to offer and the opportunity to discuss issues.

Q - Two of your Vice Presidents have been impeached within the last six months. Does this augur well for a young democracy?

A – The very specific circumstances that gave rise to the instances of impeachment must be considered. Investigations carried out into two very specific acts lead to concerns being raised that demanded action be taken. The instances of impeachment, and the continued development of democracy are two very different issues and in these circumstances ought not to be linked.

Q - Former Maldivian President Mohammed Nasheed was in March this year given a 13-year jail term by Court, for allegedly abducting a judge when he was in power. But in June , he was transferred to house arrest leading to allegations that it was part of a political deal that the government had worked out with the MDP led by Nasheed.Yet,two months later he was sent back to jail ?

A - Former President Nasheed was found guilty under the Terrorism Act for abducting the Chief Criminal Court Judge Abdullah Mohammed and sentenced to 13 years in Prison. On Medical advice he was in June transferred to house arrest for two months. At the end of that period, Nasheed was taken back to prison to serve the rest of his sentence. There was no change in the sentence nor was there any permanent commutation. It was only a temporary measure based on doctors advice.

Q - Your Constitution has been amended to debar those who are over 65 years of age, from contesting for the Presidency. The Opposition alleges that it was specifically aimed at keeping out the Jumhooree Party leader Qasim Ibrahim, who by the time of the next election would be over the age limit placed.Is it good for a democracy to impose such strictures?

A – It should be noted that a majority of Parliamentarians voted for the Constitutional amendment.It, is reflective of the population which in itself is young and many of its members are active in politics or in senior government positions.

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