The political stalemate in the Maldives risks drawing China and India into conflict unless the tiny Indian Ocean island nation quickly receives international help to address the roots of the tensions besetting it.
The fight involves all the men who have ruled the country over the last 40 years: President Abdulla Yameen, who has been in power since 2012; half-brother Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, whose authoritarian rule lasted from 1978 until 2008; and Mohamed Nasheed, a former human rights activist and political prisoner who served as president between the two brothers.
On Feb. 5, the military, acting in Yameen's name, stormed the Supreme Court and arrested several judges. This followed the issuance of a court order for the release and retrial of nine political prisoners who had fallen afoul of Yameen's growing authoritarianism. The nine included Nasheed, even though he is in exile, as well as Gayoom's son Faris Maumoon and other former Yameen allies.
Maldivian domestic political intrigue has a habit of drawing attention in a way most other small holiday-resort island states do not. The archipelago sits at a strategic chokepoint in the Indian Ocean along oil shipping routes between Asia and the Persian Gulf.
India has long loomed as the biggest regional power and maintained good relations with Gayoom and Nasheed. China, however, has taken advantage of Yameen's growing isolation and has made significant advances in the Maldives, gaining influence by providing cheap financing for infrastructure projects and becoming the Maldives' biggest source of foreign tourists. Saudi Arabia has meanwhile underwritten organizations that have played a key role in a decade-long slide into Islamic radicalism.
Islamist groups have gained in influence and gangs of radicalised youth have abducted and murdered journalists and bloggers with apparent impunity. More fighters in Syria and Iraq have come from the Maldives, on a per-capita basis, than from any other foreign country except Tunisia. The U.S. and U.K. earlier this year warned of possible terrorist attacks on tourists and upgraded their travel advisories. The Chinese foreign ministry on Feb. 6 advised its country's citizens to postpone visits until the political situation stabilized.
Nasheed has publicly called on India to send a military-backed envoy to resolve the current standoff. "Saying 'Resolve things internally' is akin to asking us to escalate the revolt, which will lead to chaos," warns the former president, who was ousted in a 2012 coup orchestrated by remnants of Gayoom's regime.
As Nasheed well knows, India stood aside in 2012 and recognized the highly dubious transfer of power that paved the way for Yameen's ascension to the presidency. This did nothing to protect New Delhi's interests. Yameen's government summarily evicted several major Indian investors, ostracized most of the international community and bet heavily on support from China.
According to Nasheed, the Maldives owes China as much as $2 billion, or 80% of its outstanding foreign debt. If the island defaults, Nasheed claimed in an interview with The Nikkei that China will be in a position to take over infrastructure assets. He says it has already taken control of 16 unnamed islands in "a land grab."
Ominously, China has signaled that it may thwart any Indian intervention. "If India one-sidedly sends troops to the Maldives, China will take action to stop New Delhi," said an editorial in state-owned Chinese newspaper Global Times. "India should not underestimate China's opposition to unilateral military intervention."
Reports indicate that New Delhi has taken heed of Beijing and is talking to Saudi Arabia and the U.S. about possible diplomatic solutions.
However, the situation is precarious. Yameen is cornered and has lost his legitimacy, but has at least some of the security forces on his side. The Nasheed-led opposition is united against him, invigorated by vocal support from the U.S. and other international backers and the first whiff of hope after several years of oppression.
Time is not on the government's side. An invasion threat is the last thing an economy built on beach honeymoons needs and a flurry of travel warnings has seen thousands of tourists cancelling visits. If Yameen prolongs the stalemate, sanctions, travel bans and a foreign currency crisis will cripple the import-reliant country and could turn it into a failed state, with or without an India-China showdown.
That New Delhi and Beijing would rattle sabers over the tiny archipelago seems absurd. Indian paratroopers did rescue Gayoom from a coup by Tamil militants in 1988, but since then its diplomatic dealings in the Maldives have been timid.
Maldivians have been groomed by successive governments to be stridently nationalistic, and many opposition supporters are likely to take a dim view of Nasheed's call for foreign military intervention. It is also unclear what an Indian force would actually do: Depose Yameen? Oversee early elections? Nasheed's call is weighted more to rattle Yameen than show any semblance of practicality.
Yameen's Chinese backers would also do well to be wary, lest they back a losing horse and throw away their expensively bought influence. The paper guarantees they hold may be meaningless; the Maldives has a practiced habit of invoking sovereignty to evict investors, disregard contracts and ignore foreign arbitration proceedings.
What then to do? The Maldives desperately needs to regain democratic legitimacy, but early elections will not work. Even if Yameen had an incentive to hold them and the elections commission could be trusted, the courts would probably bow to Yameen's influence and overturn legitimate results as it did in the 2013 polls that brought him to power.
The U.S and other countries interested in helping the country resolve its own problems must therefore start with the courts. The corrupt, politically influenced judiciary sits at the heart of the Maldives' woes.
The bench was handpicked by Gayoom during his three decades of rule and used by him and Yameen to rubberstamp edicts, dispatch adversaries and overturn unfavorable election results under the pretence of judicial process. The courts remained loyal to Gayoom after his unexpected loss to Nasheed in the 2008 presidential election. Members of Gayoom's regime conspired to retain control of the judiciary to protect themselves from allegations of corruption and human rights abuses. They quietly sabotaged the process outlined in a new democratic constitution for reappointing the bench, and illegitimately awarded the old judges life tenure in 2010.
As a result, half the country's sitting judges today have less than a middle school education and a quarter have criminal records, including convictions for embezzlement, sexual misconduct and violence. It can be argued that every verdict issued since then should be suspect, as the entire institution lacks legitimacy.
The Supreme Court ruling on Feb. 1 against Yameen's interests was not a sign that everything had suddenly changed. The threat of arbitrary and unpredictable rulings remains, as does the court's vulnerability to political influence.
But the current crisis could be enough to persuade Yameen to work with Nasheed on plans for court reforms. If the president can no longer depend on the judiciary to bow to his will, perhaps he will see that he too needs fair courts. Certainly the vast majority of Maldivians would agree that the courts require urgent reform.
Restoring legitimacy is critical. International intervention would be very effective here. In the short term, there are constitutional provisions for appointing foreign judges. Then a foreign-led judicial reform commission, for example, one backed by the International Committee of Jurists and U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers, could reset the judicial appointment process.
The whistleblower on the judicial watchdog who first called for reform then, Aishath Velezinee, was stabbed three times in the back for her trouble and forced into exile. Willy Mutunga, a retired chief justice of the Kenyan Supreme Court, visited the Maldives in 2016 as special envoy of the Commonwealth, and called for "root and branch" judicial reform. Yameen responded by withdrawing the Maldives from the U.K.-led international group.
An independent judiciary would not solve all the political problems of the Maldives overnight. But it would be the most significant step since the arrival of multiparty democracy in 2008 and finally give the islands a fighting chance of peace and prosperity.
J.J. Robinson is the author of "The Maldives: Islamic Republic, Tropical Autocracy" andthe former editor of the independent Maldives news service Minivan News.