As a sign of the international community’s change of heart after the presidential elections, Maldives has now become the latest member of Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) after India managed to convince naysayers that the new government in Malé should be given a chance.
However, Myanmar’s membership, which had been previously agreed upon by senior officials, was stopped at the last hurdle by South Africa, the chair of the 18th meeting of the council of ministers in Durban on Friday, November 2.
The saga of the Maldives membership reflects the recent history of the Indian ocean nation.
In July, the IORA Committee for Senior Officials (CSO) had approved Myanmar, but not Maldives.
As The Wire had reported, when Maldives’ application came up for consideration in July, Mauritius and some other countries had pointed out that there had been no communication from Malé for support to any member since it applied for membership in May 2017. India had also not spoken up in support of Maldives, but just called for its postponement.
This was supposed to have been the recommendation to IORA’s highest authority, Council of Ministers, but the presidential elections in September changed the whole scenario. The incumbent Maldives president Abdulla Yameen was defeated by the joint opposition candidate Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, who obtained over 58% of the total votes polled on September 23.
With the scheduled change of government, there was also a change of attitude among IORA members.
Before the IORA foreign ministers’ meeting, senior officials met to give finishing touches to the agenda from October 30 to November 1.
At that meeting, it became clear that the Maldives and Myanmar would both be recommended as two new members to the Council of Ministers.
However, after the senior officials met, Mauritius indicated that it was planning to put a spoke in the wheel by making a formal objection at the Council of Ministers. Since decision-making at IORA is done through a consensus, opposition from even one country can derail any proposal.
Sources said that the Indian delegation had to informally negotiate with Mauritian officials, who pointed out that they had received instructions from their headquarters.
Mauritius has had a prickly relationship with Maldives, especially after the latter voted against a resolution in the United Nations General Assembly which called on the International Court of Justice to give an opinion on the sovereignty of the Chagos question.
Following informal talks between the Indian delegation and their Mauritian counterpart, they backed down and raised no objection at the Council of Ministers.
“It was pointed out to them that they should take into account that there is a new government in Maldives which should be given a chance,” said a diplomatic source, adding that the newly-elected president should certainly not be seen through the same lens as his predecessor.
India’s pro-active support for Maldives was in contrast to its stance at the July meeting, when New Delhi had suggested that the membership application could be taken up at a later date.
This also marks the first time that Maldives has joined a new international association in recent years. President Yameen’s government had eschewed several other groupings – like the Commonwealth – after being criticised over human rights concerns.
While Maldives got the green flag, Myanmar, whose membership had also been approved by the senior officials, failed to get into IORA at the “last minute”.
Bangladesh, along with Somalia, had previously opposed Myanmar ahead of the CSO meeting in July over the Rohingya issue. However, India had convinced Bangladesh and others to drop their objection, with the argument that bilateral issues should not be brought up on a multilateral platform.
There had been no further objection again raised by any delegation at the senior officials meeting this week.
However, Myanmar’s membership got barred at the Council of Ministers. “At the last minute, South Africa blocked Myanmar,” sources told The Wire. South Africa’s opposition was apparently spurred due to pressure from voluntary groups working on the Rohingya issue, they added.
Meanwhile, the number of dialogue partners increased from seven to nine with the inclusion of South Korea and Turkey.
IORA foreign ministers also approved the ‘Declaration on Guidelines for Enhancing Interaction with Dialogue Partners in IORA’, which had been in the pipeline for several years.
The document received much attention at the drafting stage as a number of major powers, like China and United States, have been looking at ways to step up their involvement with IORA.
According to diplomatic sources, India has been vocal in expressing caution about the involvement of dialogue partners in dominating the policy direction of the association.
From next year, UAE will be the new chair of IORA, with Bangladesh taking over as vice-chair.