Maldives President Muizzu seeks debt relief from India after insisting on withdrawal of military personnel

Maldives President seeks debt relief from India after demanding military withdrawal
Maldives President Muizzu
Maldives President Muizzu

Male | After his anti-India rhetoric, Maldives President Mohamed Muizzu has struck a reconciliatory tone, saying India will continue to remain his country's “closest ally” and urged New Delhi to provide debt relief to the archipelago nation.

The Maldives owed approximately USD 400.9 million to India by the end of last year.

Ever since he took oath as the president in November last year, the pro-China Maldivian leader has pursued a hardline stand towards India and within hours had demanded that Indian military personnel operating three aviation platforms be repatriated from his country by May 10.

On Thursday, in his first interview with the local media since assuming office, Muizzu said India was instrumental in providing aid to the Maldives and has implemented the “greatest number” of projects.

India will continue to remain the Maldives' closest ally, he said and emphasised that there was no question about it, Maldives news portal Edition.mv said in a report that carried excerpts of Muizzu's interview to its Dhivehi language sister-publication ‘Mihaaru.' Muizzu's comments praising India came after the first batch of Indian military personnel left the island nation this month as planned. By May 10, Muizzu had demanded that all 88 military personnel, manning the three Indian aviation platforms, should leave the country.

India has been providing humanitarian and medical evacuation services to the people of the Maldives for the last few years using two helicopters and a Dornier aircraft.

The Maldives' proximity to India, barely 70 nautical miles from the island of Minicoy in Lakshadweep and 300 nautical miles from the mainland's western coast, and its location at the hub of commercial sea lanes running through the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) gives it significant strategic importance.

During the interview, Muizzu urged India to accommodate debt relief measures for the Maldives in the repayment of “the hefty loans taken over consecutive governments.” “The conditions we have inherited are such that there are very large loans taken from India. Hence, we are holding discussions to explore leniencies in the repayment structure of these loans.

“Instead of halting any ongoing projects ... to proceed with them at speed, so I see no reason for any adverse effects (on Maldives-India relations),” Muizzu added.

Muizzu's conciliatory comments towards India came ahead of Parliament elections in Maldives slated in mid-April.

He said Maldives has taken significant loans from India, which are heftier than can be borne by the Maldivian economy. “Due to this, he is currently discussing with the Indian government to explore options to repay the loans to the best of the Maldives' economic capabilities,” the news portal said quoting him.

Muizzu, who expressed hope that India would “facilitate debt relief measures in the repayment of these loans,” also said that he has conveyed his appreciation to the Indian government for their contributions.

During the previous regime, headed by pro-India leader Ibrahim Mohamed Solih's administration, the total amount of loans taken from the Export and Import Bank of India (Exim Bank) stood at USD 1.4 million (MVR 22 million).

“Together with this, the amount owed by Maldives to India by the end of last year stood at MVR 6.2 billion, he said.

At the current rate of 1 MVR equal to USD 16, this is approximately USD 400.9 million.

“I also conveyed to Prime Minister Modi during our meeting that I did not intend to halt any ongoing projects. Instead, I expressed my desire to strengthen and expedite them” he said, referring to his discussion with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Dubai on the sidelines of the COP28 summit in Dubai in December 2023.

“I suggested a high-level committee be established, one designed for quick decision-making even in the bridge project to ensure speedy work. The same for the Hanimaadhoo Airport,” he added.

Answering a question about Indian military personnel, Muizzu termed it as “the only matter of contention” that arose with India about the presence of Indian military in the Maldives and added that India, too, had accepted the fact and agreed to withdraw the military personnel.

“It is not nice to dismiss or disregard aid from one country to another as useless,” he said and claimed that he had not taken any action or made any statements that may strain the relationship between the two countries.

“Even if they are troops of some other country, we will deal with them in the same manner. I have said so very clearly. It is nothing personal but rather a matter of our national security,” he added.

Muizzu stated that his government acted to find the swiftest and most prudent solution through deliberations to deal with the issue of the Indian military in the Maldives.

He defended his agreement with India to deploy civilians instead of military personnel to run the helicopters and the Dornier aircraft saying that the erstwhile Abdulla Yameen administration which demanded the Indian troops to be sent out has not succeeded as Indian personnel remained in the Maldives.

While the same goals were being worked for in both instances, Muizzu indicated that results can be achieved through discussions and deliberations. “Everything can be achieved through discussions and deliberations. That's what I believe,” he said.

Meanwhile, amid his tenuous ties with India, Muizzu had pursued an obvious pro-China policy starting with his January visit to Beijing. During his China visit, he signed a comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership besides signing 20 agreements to assist Maldives infrastructure after his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

China also announced a USD 130 million grant besides promising to send more Chinese tourists to the tourism-dependent Maldives.

After his return from China, Muizzu, without naming any country, said Maldives may be a small country, but “that is not a license for anybody to bully us.” Muizzu also terminated a hydrography agreement with India and has been claiming that the Indian Ocean does not belong to any particular country.

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