Maldives sets deadline for India to withdraw its military personnel amid diplomatic spat

File. Maldives’ president Mohamed Muizzu (AFP via Getty Images)
File. Maldives’ president Mohamed Muizzu (AFP via Getty Images)

The newly-elected Maldivian president Mohamed Muizzu has asked India to withdraw its troops from the island nation by 15 March, a senior official in Male said on Sunday.

Removing India’s small contingent of 77 military personnel, as well as 12 medical staff from the Indian armed forces, was a key campaign pledge for Mr Muizzu who has called for the country to pursue closer ties with China instead.

Mr Muizzu requested the troops’ removal shortly after entering office two months ago, and set the 15 March deadline after returning from a state visit to Beijing.

Abdulla Nazim Ibrahim, the public policy secretary at the Maldives President’s Office said on Sunday: “Indian military personnel cannot stay in the Maldives. This is the policy of President Dr Mohamed Muizzu and that of this administration.”

The Indian government did not immediately comment.

However India’s foreign minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, referring to the recent shift in India-Maldives relations, said: “Politics is politics. I cannot guarantee that in every country, every day, everybody will support us or agree with us.”

Last year’s presidential election in the Maldives has turned the longstanding friendly relationship between it and India on its head.

This was particularly evident last week when three Maldivian ministers responded to pictures posted online by Indian prime minister Narendra Modi – showcasing the tourism credentials of India’s Lakshadweep islands – with derogatory remarks.

The ministers in question – Malsha Shareef, Mariyam Shiuna and Abdulla Mahzoom Majid – were suspended, but the episode has led to bitter arguments between people from India and the Maldives online.

Indian troops have historically been sent to the Maldives for training purposes, to assist in combat, reconnaissance, and rescue-aid operations for the Maldivian military.

With his “India Out” campaign, however, Mr Muizzu framed the Indian military’s limited presence in the Maldives as a potential threat to the nation’s security.

Throughout the election campaign, the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), led by Mr Muizzu, asserted that India intended to utilise the military base under construction on Uthuruthilafalhu Island, near Male, as part of a plan to seize control of the country.

Several factors contributed to the fear and apprehension about India in the Maldives. Observers say one was a controversy over helicopters provided by India for humanitarian purposes. Another was a perceived lack of transparency in dealings with India by the Ibrahim Mohamed Solih-led government and reliance on India for maritime security.

Yet another was suspicion surrounding the construction of a police academy with Indian assistance, and concerns about the Uthuruthilafalhu Island military base potentially turning into an Indian naval base in the Maldives.

Additional reporting by agencies