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India expresses a desire to “work closely together” with the Maldives in tackling regional issues such as transnational crimes and disaster relief. This sentiment is shared even as President-elect Mohamed Muizzu emphasizes that the most urgent matter to be addressed after he assumes formal office is the state of relations with New Delhi.
After winning the elections this week, Maldivian President-elect Mohamed Muizzu declared on Wednesday his intention to promptly withdraw all foreign soldiers, including 75 unarmed Indian military personnel, from the islands. However, in order to uphold a stable relationship with New Delhi, discussions will be held, and any potential withdrawal will be carried out gradually, as outlined by Aditya Gowdara Shivamurthy, an associate fellow in the Strategic Studies Program at the Observer Research Foundation.
Muizzu, who won the Maldives presidential election with 54% of the votes, had promised not to allow Indian military presence in the Maldives. This was a key aspect of the ‘India Out’ campaign by the opposition, which believed Indian troops were active there. After his victory, Muizzu reaffirmed his commitment to begin removing Indian military personnel from his first day in office, starting November 17.
The Indian Ministry of External Affairs emphasized the need for close collaboration on regional security challenges. They highlighted the partnership’s focus on capacity-building and addressing shared concerns like security, transnational crimes, and disaster relief. The Indian Prime Minister was the first to congratulate Muizzu on his victory.
The Indian High Commissioner met with the president-elect, discussing various aspects of bilateral cooperation, including development projects. Muizzu expressed his intent to restore relations with India based on respect for sovereignty. He stated that Maldivians voted in favor of safeguarding their country’s sovereignty and expressed confidence that India would honor this decision. He also brought up the issue of repaying loans taken during the Solih administration.
The Indian High Commissioner assured that India would fully respect Maldives’ independence and sovereignty and expressed readiness to negotiate debt repayment. In an interview, Muizzu highlighted that the most pressing matter to address upon taking office is his country’s relationship with India. He mentioned concerns about the significant debt owed to India and the presence of Indian troops in the Maldives.
Muizzu clarified that if there were no foreign troops, there would be no issues. He emphasized the importance of Maldives speaking for itself globally and suggested that civilian personnel could handle projects instead of military personnel. He clarified that the problem lies in having soldiers present, regardless of whether or not they wear uniforms. The previous Solih administration consistently denied any Indian military activity in the Maldives.
India and the Maldives have had a longstanding partnership in defense cooperation. According to the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF), India has maintained a military presence in the Maldives for several decades. This presence includes 75 unarmed troops, as well as two helicopters and a Dornier aircraft. The Indian personnel consist of military engineers, trainers, and pilots responsible for operating the aircraft and helicopters.
In 2010 and 2013, India reportedly leased two Dhruv helicopters to Malé primarily for emergency medical evacuation and search and rescue operations. The lease agreements for these helicopters expired in 2018. At that time, the Maldivian president, Abdulla Yameen, requested New Delhi to take them back. However, when President Solih came to power later in the same year, these demands were revoked.
Notably, it was during Yameen’s administration that the two countries signed a Comprehensive Action Plan for Defense in 2016. Under this plan, President Yameen requested the use of the UTF harbour and a Dornier aircraft, as stated by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA). However, when India provided the Dornier aircraft in September 2020, Yameen, who was then in the opposition, initiated the “India Out” campaign along with other leaders, alleging that New Delhi was encroaching on the sovereignty of the Maldives. The Dornier aircraft significantly enhanced the MNDF’s surveillance capabilities over the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the Indian Ocean archipelago.
Presently, seven MNDF personnel, including pilots, air observers, and engineers, are undergoing training by Indian troops to operate the Dornier, in accordance with the 2016 action plan. Numerous agreements between New Delhi and Malé involve the training of Maldivian personnel by Indian troops. However, logistical challenges on both sides have resulted in many of these commitments not being fulfilled.
Based on the advice received by Muizzu thus far, it appears that he aims to keep the equipment and infrastructure but remove the troops, which he perceives as a potential threat to Maldivian sovereignty, as noted by Shivamurthy. Defense and security have been crucial areas of collaboration between the two nations for many years. In addition to stationing troops, India has played a significant role in the construction of a naval facility and port in Uthuru Thilafalhu. This facility is designed to serve as a maintenance and repair hub, enabling the MNDF to bolster its maritime security capabilities and conduct repairs on ships and other vessels that were previously sent to India and other countries.
In May, India also handed over a fast patrol vessel and a landing craft to the MNDF. However, these facilities and vessels are operated by the Maldivian Coast Guard, rather than Indian troops.