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In its first reaction on the political crisis in the Maldives, India on Tuesday evening said it was 'disturbed' by the declaration of an emergency by the Abdulla Yameen government there and described as a matter of "concern" the arrests of the Supreme Court Chief Justice and political figures.
India is concerned about the safety of 25,000 of its nationals living in the Maldives, and also has security and economic interests in the Indian Ocean archipelago of 1,100 islands. The Maldives has a population of 400,000.
Earlier in the day, exiled former Maldivian president Mohamed Nasheed asked India to intervene militarily to resolve the ongoing political crisis in his country. In November 1988, India through ‘Operation Cactus’ had successfully foiled a coup attempt to overthrow the Maumoon Abdul Gayoom government. Gayoom, now an opposition leader, was also arrested on Monday.
However, China called for a resolution of the crisis in the Maldives through dialogue without external intervention. President Yameen is closely allied with China, and had visited Beijing in December. During his tenure since 2013, Chinese investments have increased in the Maldives and some of the islands have been leased to China.
India had issued an advisory to its nationals on Monday advising them against traveling to the Maldives. The advisory had come within hours of President Yameen having imposed a 15-day Emergency in the Indian Ocean archipelago. He had sent in security personnel to arrest the chief justice of the Maldivian Supreme Court and former president Gayoom.
"We are disturbed by the declaration of a State of Emergency in the Maldives following the refusal of the government to abide by the unanimous ruling of the full bench of the Supreme Court on February 1, and also by the suspension of constitutional rights of the people of Maldives," the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) said in a statement. "The arrest of the Supreme Court Chief Justice and political figures are also reasons for concern," South Block said.
Chief Justice Abdulla Saeed and another judge, Ali Hameed, were arrested hours after Yameen declared a state of emergency on Monday. On February 2, the Supreme Court had ordered the release of all political prisoners.
Nasheed is living in exile and is currently in Colombo. Gayoom and Nasheed are part of an Opposition alliance. Elections are scheduled in the Maldives later this year. Yameen, who has eroded civil liberties in the country after narrowly defeating Nasheed in 2013 elections, is said to be losing popularity.
On Tuesday, United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres urged the government of the Maldives to lift the state of emergency, uphold the Constitution and guarantee safety for its citizens, "including members of the judiciary."
Not just India and some of western countries, China has also asked its nationals to not travel to the Maldives. Tourism is biggest industry in the Maldives. In 2016, the sector was worth almost US$ 9 billion, a fifth of its gross domestic product.
Almost 1.4 million people visited the Maldives in 2017. Of the 1,100 islands, only half are inhabited. Most others have tourist resorts. Chinese tourists comprise a fourth of all tourist arrivals in the Maldives, while Indians account for only 6 per cent. About half of all tourists to the Maldives are from European countries.
The Spring Festival holiday, which includes Chinese New Year celebrations, is peak season for Chinese citizens to travel to the Maldives for tourism. China's travel advisory to its nationals could affect the revenue of its tourist resorts, which mostly attract affluent travellers.
The Chinese, however, continue to back Yameen. The Maldivian President had visited Beijing in December and signed a number of deals to allow Chinese investments and inked a free trade agreement (FTA) that has New Delhi concerned. On Tuesday, Beijing said it believed the Maldives government, political parties and people have the wisdom and the capability to deal with their current situation on their own.
The Maldives on Tuesday sought to reassure tourists that they would be safe. Government spokesman Ibrahim Hussain Shihab said no curfew had been declared and the safety of tourists in the upmarket holiday paradise was assured.