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The Maldives are in political upheaval. Why do we care?

February 10, 2012 |  4:30 am

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Google “Maldives” and you’ll get glimpses of impossibly blue seas and gorgeous white beaches. The string of islands is best known as a tourist paradise. It has fewer people than the city of Anaheim.

Now Maldives is making headlines for political upheaval; the president says he was forced to resign at gunpoint in a de facto coup d’etat. Why should we care about this tiny chain of islands?

Though the Maldives is tiny, it is located in a prime spot in the Indian Ocean. Ships carrying billions of dollars of oil pass on their way to China and the rest of Asia. That has made the Maldives a closely watched spot for Asian rivals China and India.

“Depending on who would be in charge, there could be possible disruptions of commerce and transit,” said Karl Inderfurth, who was U.S. assistant secretary of State for South Asian affairs from 1997 to 2001.

Some in India fear that the Chinese will use a “string of pearls” strategy to establish bases in the Maldives archipelago, giving them more strategic and economic power over India. China, in turn, wants to make sure that India can’t interfere with its supply chain if the two nations clash in the future.

The ouster of the Maldives' president, Mohamed Nasheed, could open the door for China to make a play for more influence there. Last year, Nasheed called India a “friend” and told journalists that “there is not enough room in the Indian Ocean for other nontraditional friends." Now that he’s out, that could change.

India has also fretted that the Maldives could become a stomping ground for Islamic extremists. Terrorists bombed a popular tourist destination five years ago, which led to the arrests of about 50 extremists, according to Maldives researcher Ahmed Niyaz.

The islands are dispersed and difficult to govern, which raises concerns that radical groups could use them for training or even as a staging area for an attack on India, said Richard Ellings, president of the Seattle-based National Bureau of Asian Research. Depending on who leads the country, that could become more or less of a threat.

Drug trafficking is another worry for India. “No one would want to see the Maldives become major players in the drug trafficking that goes through the region,” Inderfurth said.

All of those things make the Maldives important to India. Things that are important to India, in turn, are important to the United States, Ellings said. India is a democracy with a booming economy in a region that is often not so welcoming to the West. It cooperates with the U.S. on nuclear issues.

Beyond the geopolitical wrangling, the Maldivian crisis could also be a blow to democracy if Nasheed was forced out of office by the military, as he now claims. The country became a democracy only four years ago after decades of autocracy. A novelist once dubbed it “a beach dictatorship.”

The toppling of Nasheed could be seen as part of “the ongoing disillusionment with democracy,” said Don Emmerson, director of the Southeast Asia Forum at Stanford University. Decades ago, it seemed like the world was heading inevitably toward democracy, but now “it’s clear there are second thoughts,” he said.

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Maldives: Paradise threatened?

Maldives president resigns after weeks of protests

Arrest warrant issued for former president of Maldives

-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: An antigovernment protester throws back a tear gas canister in the Maldives' capital, Male, on Wednesday. Several thousand supporters of former President Mohamed Nasheed clashed with police and troops a day after his resignation. Credit: Ishara S. Kodikara / Agence France-Presse

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