Purge in Maldives: What’s behind Defence Minister’s sacking?


Moosa Ali

In the second incident of the kind in nine months, Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen has sacked his Defence Minister, former army chief, Maj-Gen Moosa Ali Jaleel (retd), but without naming any immediate replacement this time. The presidential office’s tweet about the midnight sacking clarified that no further information could be shared at this stage; indications are that it might have had something to do with the boat-blast a fortnight ago, when President Yameen was onboard.

Ali Jaleel was Maldives’ envoy in Pakistan, when he was flown in almost overnight, to take over from sacked incumbent, Col Mohammed Nazim (retd) after a midnight raid on his wife’s home. He is at present serving a 11-year, court-ordered jail-term, on charges of conspiring to overthrow the government and targeting government leaders. Like former president, Mohammed Nasheed, his one-time political bête noire, Col Nazim is now said to be considering UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, after the Government had permitted him to travel twice overseas for medical treatment in Singapore, and also facilitated his confinement in his Male home, for similar reasons, for set periods.

Jaleel has been in the news even otherwise. He is possibly the only Minister, particularly in the Yameen Government, to have faced a serious ‘anti-terrorism’ case, along with President Nasheed, and another former Army officer, Brig-Gen Ibrahim Didi (retd), at present a parliamentarian belonging to the Opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP). Neither did Jaleel step aside during the pendency of the trial into the ‘illegal abduction’ of Criminal Court Chief Judge Abdulla Mohammed when President Nasheed was in office (January 2012), nor was President Yameen known to have asked him to do so.

Jaleel was the army chief at the time of Judge Abdulla’s ‘abduction’ and Didi, the Male zonal commander. Jaleel stood the trial and was acquitted while Didi was allowed to travel overseas for medical treatment. By the time he returned home, the trial court had acquitted Jaleel and other army officers of any wrong-doing in the case. No further proceedings were hence launched against Didi.

Purge of a kind?

Jaleel was not alone in going over the boat-blast, and it is unclear as yet, if his would be the last one over the blast. President Yameen has already revamped the security apparatus, replaced the heads of the presidential security division, police intelligence and the armed forces’ armoury, among others. The list also included two body guards of his trusted Vice-President, Ahmed Adeeb, who have since been suspended. VP Adeeb himself volunteered a news conference, denying any role for the self.

Possibly following up on the forensic reports presented by experts’ teams from five different nations – India, Sri Lanka, Saudi Arabia, Australia and the US — the Maldivian Police Service (MPS), investigating the case, has since arrested two soldiers attached to the armoury. According to reports, the two were seen entering the damaged presidential launch after the blast, without authorisation. The police also raided two close aides of VP Adeeb in recent times, but it’s still unclear if it had anything to do with the blast-investigation.

In a way, the post-blast reaction of the government would seem like panic and paranoia, going beyond nation-wide shock and disbelief, as would have been the case elsewhere, too. With the result, the sackings and shake-ups border on a purge, which it is otherwise not. The government’s concerns are, however, not unexpected.

If the boat-blast was reminiscent of the 2007 ‘Sultan Park blast’ in capital Male, the current top-level sackings and replacements brings back to memory the ‘purge’ that followed the 1987 coup-bid, also against then President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom — but aborted with the timely, India-aided ‘Operation Cactus’ military assistance. In the present-day context, when purported ISIS cadres appearing on the social media had held out open threats to the life of President Yameen and other government leaders only weeks ago, the vastness of the seas and the woefully stark lack of human and other resources would dictate that the Maldives cannot ensure, on its own, internal and/or external security that it might all entail.

Impact on tourism

It is thus a psychological victory that the state needs to score over those that were behind the boat-blast in the interim, before settling down to something more meaningful and permanent. There is also an economic angle to the blast, what with the Maldives being dependent on resort-tourism still as the mainstay of the economy – from which the Yameen presidency has been seeking to diversify, by seeking FDI in varied fields, from countries such as China in particular and India and the rest otherwise.

Given the adversarial domestic political conditions and disturbances attributable to President Nasheed’s imprisonment and the international community’s (read: West) continued backing for him, any incident of the kind has the potential to put off western tourists, in turn the mainstay of the industry. Their governments would have also promptly founded a further and more immediate reason to issue ‘travel advisories’, impacting in turn on the tourism industry as a whole.

It may be recalled that the government had initially attributed the ‘Sultan Park blast’ to efforts to derail the nation’s economy, that too in the background of the ongoing pro-democracy protests against the Gayoom leadership. Subsequent analyses, particularly by Indian anti-terrorism expert, the late B Raman, showed similarities with the ‘London subway bombings’. The Maldivian authorities soon arrested some religious fundamentalists from an island, on evidence, and against local protests.

‘Plot’ thickens?

Maldives boat attack

Initially considered as an accidental explosion in the boat’s engine, international forensic experts have reportedly found evidence to the presence/use of external object. Sri Lankan media reports, quoting forensic sources from the country who had worked on the blast-site, are often quoted in this regard, and the reports have not been denied. However, subsequent developments seem to indicate a pattern, whose depth and width remains unclear as yet.

Though some government spokesmen had indicated a plot immediately after the blast, they soon corrected themselves. In particular, they were at pains to explain that the political Opposition in the country, protesting against President Nasheed’s imprisonment and against President Yameen even otherwise, were not a suspect. The government seemed waiting for the forensic experts’ reports before coming to any conclusion. “The political Opposition would resort only to street-protests and not acts like this,” was the refrain.

The government has not as yet linked the boat-blast, in which First Lady Fathimath Ibrahim suffered spinal fractures requiring hospitalisation up to one and half months, to the purported IS threats or other groups or individuals. More recently, Foreign Minister Dunya Maumoon, in an interview to Voice of America, described the boat-blast as an ‘act of terror’.

Fisheries and Agriculture Minister, Dr Mohammed Shainee, who was aboard the ill-fated boat at the time, has since opened up, saying that they could feel it was not a mechanical failure when the blast occurred. He attributed the blast to a parcel kept under the seat reserved for the President, but on which the incumbent was not seated at the time.

At the eye of the storm since has been Vice-President Adeeb, who had stayed away from the airport-reception for President Yameen and the First Lady on their return home from Haj pilgrimage. Adeeb himself lost no time in pooh-phooing social media speculation in this regard. Parliamentarians belonging to the ruling Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), after their first meeting with President Yameen after the blast and days later, indicated that the latter had given a clean-chit to VP Adeeb.

However, Minister Shainee, the latest to speak on the subject, without naming names, said that people who were supposed to have been there were not there. Otherwise, VP Adeeb has been engaged in a wordy duel with Home Minister Umar Naseer on the one hand, and his impeached predecessor, Dr Mohammed Jameel Ahmed, now living in the UK, on the other.

Naseer heads the presidential commission inquiring the blast, and is tasked with submitting recommendations for avoiding recurrence. Sacked Defence Minister Moosa Ali Jaleel was a member of the presidential commission. So was the Intelligence chief, since replaced, whom Naseer has since certified. Independent of the police and the presidential commission, a parliamentary committee too has commenced investigations into the boat-blast and has summoned various security heads of the government, thus giving a politico-legislative angle.

Fending off fundamentalism

For the medium and long-terms, the boat-blast has raised concerns, not only over VVIP security but over a host of related issues and concerns, particularly pertaining to religious fundamentalism and militancy. As is known, a dozen or so Maldivians, not all of them ‘youth’ as commonly understood, are known to have smuggled themselves into Syria, where they have fought and died for the IS.

Notwithstanding political opinion nearer home and international concerns otherwise, successive Governments, including the incumbent, has been trying to fend off international religious militancy from making inroads, through preventive action and preaching the ‘right Islam’. The efforts have borne only limited success. So has been the case with the rest of the world, which is also faced with infiltrations of the IS kind.

The ‘IS-threat’ against President Yameen over social media, which the government got blocked on the Y-Tube, referred specifically to the continued detention of religion-centric Adhaalath Party (AP) leader, Imran Abdulla, and the delayed trial against him for organising a political protest for the common Opposition earlier in the year. Post-blast, the government has shifted Imran to house-arrest in Male, and is reported to have sought fast-tracking of his trial.

At a meeting with visiting India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, President Yameen was reported to have assured cooperation with the rest of the world in fighting terrorism. His government, which has consistently and so-far successfully resisted ‘international intervention’ in the internal affairs of Maldives, in relation to President Nasheed’s trial and imprisonment, does not have any hesitation in acknowledging the global reach of terrorism – anti-terror coordination and collaboration, as should flow from Foreign Minister Dunya’s qualifying the boat-blast as one.

(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the New Delhi-headquartered Observer Research Foundation, ORF, This article has been written for India Writes Network)