Maldives President Ibrahim Solih is likely to make his first overseas trip in office to India on the first anniversary of his swearing-in on December 17. Deals on immediate economic assistance to tide over a potential Chinese debt crisis, Dornier aircraft being gifted are being worked out. On his first visit as current Foreign Minister, Abdulla Shahid tells SNI’s Associate Editor an estimated $ 3.2 billion in Chinese debt has to worked out, the Free Trade Agreement could be reviewed and India’s helicopters are not a backdoor entry for the military. He added, the Maldives will not get entangled in International tension in the Indian ocean, a Chinese port is out of the question and Male’ will choose New Delhi’s gift of a Dornier over a loan for the aircraft that Pakistan has offered.
Amitabh P Revi: Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid. We’re hosting you this time. We’re just back from Male’. The hospitality that we got there, we hope to reciprocate to you. Thank you so much for giving us time.
Abdulla Shahid: Always a pleasure to be here in Delhi and received by the people of India.
APR: There has been so much change over the months. Since we’ve been there, we’ve sensed a shift completely from President Yameen’s presidency tn terms of the distancing, the frostiness, the iciness that was prevalent between Male’ and New Delhi.
AS: I was there to receive PM Modi on arrival and the warmth with which he arrived to the country was again displayed when the PM arrived in the stadium where the inauguration was taking place. And the vigour with which the people received him showed that PM Modi’s visit was all worth and the Maldivian people wanted him at the inauguration. The culmination of the inauguration was the arrival of the PM.
APR: That’s a clear signal. There’s a clear shift both in the campaign that President Solih ran and his India First policy and you yourself have arrived here barely seven or so days after the inauguration, the naming of the Cabinet, You were named as Foreign Minister.
AS: It’s a difficult time to be away from the capital-the formative days of the new Government. But, president Solih wants the relations between our two countries to be of utmost importance. That is why the President has asked me and two of my cabinet colleagues -the Finance Minister and the Economics Minister to come to Delhi and meet with our counterparts to discuss ways in which we can make progress in our relationship.
APR: You’re mentioning the high level delegation with you. The progress that you’re talking about-Ex President Nasheed has already gone on record and he spoke to us. He said there was an invoice that was presented by the Chinese for over $ 3.2 billion. That is an extreme worry for 1) auditing the projects that have been done, figuring out how much is debt, how much is Government to Government debt, how much is sovereign guarantees that have been given by the previous Government to banks. What is the situation in terms of Chinese debt?
AS: Our Finance Minister was in parliament on Thursday to wrap up the debate and discussions of the 2019 national budget. He was asked this question by parliamentary colleagues. And he has told us that the figures don’t tally. The different figures that he is getting from different departments, ministries of the Government and the state owned enterprises-they don’t tally with what the Finance Ministry has. It is too early to put a definitive figure on how much we owe not only to China but also to other countries and other banks. So, It’s unfortunate that the country is in such a terrible situation. But, it has been done purposely by President Yameen and it has been done in secrecy Lat five years I was a Member of Parliament and we have not had any access. The Parliamentary Finance Committee, the Public Accounts Committee have had no access to any of these Government figures. Now when we are in Government, we are seeing that departments themselves have no definitive figures on how much has been borrowed. That describes President Yameen’s Presidency. It’s shrouded in secrecy, in corruption and underhand deals.
APR:But, it is a situation that you’re worrying about. President Solih in his inauguration itself was talking about looting of the treasury. There is a problem?
AS: There is definitely a problem. president Solih has now established a Commission to look into financial crimes. We are hoping to get expert assistance from other countries like the USA, India and Japan and also hire international auditors to assist us in getting the proper investigation underway and getting to know exactly what the dictatorship of Yameen has done to the country.
APR: You’re talking about auditors from the U.S or India. is there any further assistance you’re looking at. They are reports that you would need an immediate $ 300 million to tide over the crisis.
AS: We have an immediate budgetary crisis. * We need $ 250-350 million in order to handle the difficult budgetary situation we’re in. We’re left in a situation where the country is facing real hardship. When I meet my counterpart tomorrow, I’m going to share this information. This information was shared with PM Modi immediately after the oath taking ceremony by President Solih. We’re hoping that we will once again be able to get the generous assistance of the India Government.
APR: What is the situation vis-a-vis that. There was a credit line offered that was probably frozen – $ 50 million. What is the situation vis-a-vis assistance that India is financially giving the Maldives?
AS: The credit facility has been released. PM on his first day informed President Solih that the credit facility would be released and we’re moving ahead with it. But, we also need immediate budgetary support in order to sustain the services of the Government-that it has ti essentially provide. We also came into office with a lot of pledges of providing infrastructure to the people- basic infrastructure- like fresh water, sewerage, housing, and access to islands, harbours. These are pledges we will have to deliver. In order to deliver these we need generous assistance of India and many of our other friends in the international arena. I’m travelling to the UAE and Saudi Arabia after my trip to Delhi. I’m also hoping to travel to China during my tour of friendly countries.
APR: India has already given you a line of credit that you that was unfrozen after PM Modi’s trip, but you’re still looking for more assistance to tide over the immediate situation.
AS: Indeed, the budgetary support that we’re seeking is $ 250-350 million required immediately for the gap in providing facilities.
APR: The pledges that you were talking about- fresh water…
AS: We came into office, making a lot of pledges. The people need this infrastructure. Fresh water, housing, sewerage systems and access to the Islands. For that we need the assistance of countries like India, Saudi Arabia, UAE and many other countries with whom we have had excellent relations and who have been very generous in their assistance. I will travel from here to the UAE and Saudi Arabia and also to China.
APR: When you meet the Foreign Minister, you will raise this issue of financial assistance needed immediately.
AS: I will be raising this. I’m also hoping to raise(WALK ACROSS FRAME OF 2 SHOT 12:37) the issue of visas so that Maldivian nationals who come to India for educational, medical purposes get more easy access to these institutions and establishments. We are ready to provide more easy access to Indian expatriate personnel-the experts who are working in the Maldives who have immensely contributed to the development of the country. I think it’s important we move forward in this direction. We are hoping to have President Solih make his first, maiden visit outside the country to Delhi and we’re hoping during that visit agreements could be signed and it would be a signal, a symbol of a new era of relationship that we have between the tow countries.
APR: You mentioned you will also be travelling to China. president Nasheed has talked about an audit of all Chinese projects. He also told us about an invoice that had been presented. Are you going to raise the issue of not being able to pay back anything that is not is not asset driven or revenue generating in terms of the money that has come in from China(WALK ACROSS 2 SHOT CAM 14:12) How will you deal with the situation with China?
AS: As I mentioned before, I’m waiting for the Finance Minister to come out with the exact figures. Without the exact figures and the clear picture of what President Yameen has done with the assistance that has been given by China, it will be unfair for me to say anything. Once we have a clear picture, the Government will be in a much better position to respond to the question at hand
APR: The tilt towards China under President Yameen was clearly visible-as you mentioned, PM Modi only came for the inauguration. He had not even spoken on the phone to President Yameen during his tenure. The Foreign Minister has not visited. The Maldives was the only country that both had not visited in the SAARC region. That has changed. You were mentioning visas. It’s much easier-even for us journalists to get into the Maldives. The tilt apart from economically-from the money that was coming in from China was also seen as the potential development of a naval port facility for the Chinese. Is there going to be a reversal of that policy under the new Government?
AS: *President Yameen tried to play India against China and China against India. He thought he was the puppet-master. What he forgot was that neither India nor China would be his puppet. They have better relations. There are high-level visits between the two countries. There are investments that was carrying on while Yameen was trying to do these things. Ultimately, it was Yameen and the Maldives which lost greatly. We’ve wasted five years of our time and of our country where we could have made much more progress. We have had good relations with both India and China. The new foreign policy will be based on the principle of having good relations with all countries which want to have good relations with us.W e will not play one against the other.
APR: It’s a balancing act. But, specifically in terms of a Naval port, is that something you will be looking at-either with India or with China or are you ruling it out.
AS:A military port is out of question. Our constitution doesn’t not allow for a military presence or to be in the country without parliamentary approval. It’s the intention of the Government of the Maldives , President Solih’s government to have any military port or any other facility to be in the country. We don’t want ourselves to be entangled in international tensions. We have issues that we need to address more urgently. We need to address development, the hardship that our people are going through. We need more housing, infrastructure, health, education-you name it-we need it. Our focus during President Solih’s time will be to focus on these issues so that people will see a difference.
APR: One of the things that was being feared is- if you follow the model that China has-we saw what happened in Sri Lanka- a huge debt that was unable to be repaid, then lands, ports are taken on lease- Pakistan, Thailand has been pulling back. The Maldivian government is aware of that trap and is not going to get into it or how do you extricate yourself if you’ve been put into it by the previous regime?
AS: We are quite aware of the possibilities. It’s not something we can let happen. We will prevent it. We will find a way out of it. We will talk to the Chinese Government if need be. I have confidence that the Chinese Government will not try to run over the smallest of the small countries in the middle of the India Ocean. We will let sense prevail and generosity prevail.
APR: The 2 Indian helicopters that were gifted. Since then the new defence Minister has said they will not be returned. Nearly 200 lives have been saved through search and rescue operations as well. Indian personnel will remain. Does that continue, does that get enhanced in terms of whatever the Maldives needs? 1900 islands and atolls, the sea area you cover, anti-piracy, fishing, drug running, human trafficking that you need to watch the oceans. Do you need more assistance either in equipment or in personnel?
AS: The assistance that we have received in terms of these two helicopters is a generous gift. They have helped save many lives. It’s a humanitarian mission. I think the machines are adequate and together with more training to our personnel, I think we will be able to do the job in the foreseeable future.
APR: President Yameen wanted those two helicopters returned along with the personnel. There are some in the Maldives, possibly in the opposition, raise the point that you are raising-why has India not trained pilots to fly these machines-in effect its a backdoor entry for military presence-India keeping their personnel there instead of letting Maldivians fly the helicopters themselves.
AS: As we speak, even today, the joint Dosti exercises are on its way. We should not look at these issues-joint operations on a single isolated basis. These are all joint operations and missions that go towards the development of our country. I am hoping India will in the not too foreseeable future train our personnel on this venture and then it becomes like the Dosti exercises a venture, mission where joint personnel will operate it.
APR: I do believe there are talks that are on for fixed wing aircraft- Dorniers. Training of their pilots is on?
AS: WE have Maldivian pilots that can fly Dorniers. We have Dornier aircraft being flown by Maldivians. India very generously agreed to gift one. But, president Yameen’s government decided to ditch that proposal and buy one from Pakistan on a loan. Yameen’s government loved loans.There you can get a commission out of it. And the people involved can line their pockets. * So we will not do that. We will rather go for the Dornier that has been gifted by India. *
APR: Lot of foreign policy changes habe already started. Cabinet ratifying the return to the Commonwealth. Reestablish ties with Qatar. There will be policy reversals on the international front as well?
AS: On the international front, the decision to rejoin the Commonwealth has already been taken. On a decision to re-establish ties with other countries, we will be reviewing it.
APR: You have vast experience, FM before under President Gayoom, handled international organisations, what is your focus going to be immediately in terms of Maldivian Foreign policy.
AS: Our foreign policy as President Solih has highlighted in his inaugural speech is going to be the promotion of democracy and human rights. We will also re-establish ourselves as the leader of climate change and environmental issues. Last few years, Maldives has been the chair of the small island states. But, it’s two years that have been wasted. Maldives’ name did not come up internationally all these years. These are the issues that we will try to get engaged and establish ourselves as the leaders.
APR: President Solih has already assigned Ex-President Nasheed to lead the delegation at COP 24, Poland. President Nasheed, in our interview, said, the signal will be to show the world that the Maldives is back and that climate change is real.
AS: Climate change is an issue that is linked to the survival of our country. If we can’t talk about it internationally, what is it we need to talk about, then? 2 years have been wasted as chair of the small island states, is such a shame.
APR: In terms of the coalition-there is a lot of worry on whether with disparate ideologies, different parties, parties and personalities that have been against each other coming together. How significant is it in terms of keeping the flock together?
AS: It is essential and the people of the country gave the vote of confidence to the coalition. It’s incumbent on the leaders of the coalition to make sure it functions. If we don’t then the chance for democracy to flourish is dimmer.
APR: Specific assistance, you said you will be raising with India and also look at the UAE, Saudi Arabia and the U.S. China possibly to get your debt issue resolved. Specifically you will be asking for money in terms of assistance or grants from these countries?
APR: How confident are you this government will last. We’ve seen coalitions not even last a 100 days because of the personalities involved.
AS: President Solih is a person who has managed a coalition in the past many years. When we first engaged ourselves as an united opposition, there were many I met both locally and internationally who said no this won’t work. You guys have done this before and you’ve fallen apart. This is not going to succeed. But, we did. mainly because President Solih ahs this capacity of listening and dealing with a diverse coalition. He has vast experience in parliament. We count on him to lead this coalition and I think the country is counting on him. * The Cabinet is a very diverse group of people-they are behind him. So is the Parliament. So far the leadership of all parties have pledged their unreserved support. I have every confidence that we will succeed.
APR: China has been seen as extending its economic muscle through military might in the IOR. Djibouti. India has shared concerns about being surrounded by what we call China’s string of pearls. What do you think is China’s role in the IOR since its shores are in the Pacific and South China Sea.
AS: Indian ocean should be free from military rivalry. For us small islands , it is essential we have an Ocean of peace. If rivalry persists, its smaller countries like ours that stand to lose the most. Our economy is based on tourism. They come to Maldives for peace of mind. WE don’t want international disputes to be brought to our shores. * . We will do everything possible to avoid it.
APR: You have talked about President Yameen and his administration and all the issues-corruption, money-laundering, investigations are on, commissions have been set up. How does that progress, When an administration changes its either seen as bringing someone to justice the other side is a witch hunt. How do you balance between finding out if there has been any illegality and then taking action and not falling into this vicious circle of one administration taking action against the previous.
AS: WE are not a revengeful government. We do not want to go after any individual. That is why we have established an independent presidential commission. Once the commission finishes its work. It will be up to the Prosecutor General to doo whatever she has to do under Maldivian law. We came into power pledging rule of law. it would be improper for the government to say we will prosecute a person A or Person B . We don’t know. That’s why we have established these commissions. It will be up to the commissions, the officers of law to see who is going to be prosecuted and on what charges.
APR: You have vast experience. Not just in foreign relations, have been in the ministry before. in Parliament, Speaker, you have a mass following. Where do you see yourself, because there was a lot of buzz that even for this coalition, you could have possibly been a candidate that was put up instead of President Solih. Or maybe the next time?
AS: It’s too early to talk about a next time. Today my job is to back President Solih and his Government. I want to be a committed member of the Cabinet to make sure President Solih is a successful President.
APR: Thank you so much spending some time with us in Delhi. Like we said, the hospitality of the Maldivian paople was absolutely fabulous. We hope we are reciprocating that to you. Thank You again.
AS: Thank you so much. It’s a pleasure to be here in Delhi.
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