Trouble in Maldives Paradise Could Become a Global Threat

Police officers detaining a protester who was demanding the release of political prisoners. Supporters of political parties that oppose the nation’s government have clashed with authorities in the capital.

The Maldives is a curious half-paradise, half-hell: The allure of its romantic island resorts often seems to be in inverse proportion to the sordidness of its politics. These could reach a dangerous new level if the political crisis that erupted last week is allowed to embroil India and China.

The current mess started as February began when the country’s Supreme Court unexpectedly decided to nullify sentences against nine of the many opposition figures thrown into prison or forced into exile by President Abdulla Yameen. Among those cleared was Mohamed Nasheed, a former president who won the only fair election the country has had, but was replaced by the corrupt and authoritarian Mr. Yameen.

President Yameen refused the court’s ruling, declared a state of emergency and ordered the arrest of two of the court’s five judges, several opposition members and his 80-year-old half-brother, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who had earlier ruled the Maldives for 30 years. The remaining judges then nullified the court’s ruling.

In a nation of about 430,000 people dispersed over an archipelago in the Indian Ocean — which could well vanish as climate change raises sea levels — that might not seem to pose a clear and present danger for the world. Years ago a coup attempt was snuffed when India, then the country with the greatest influence there, sent in paratroopers.

But in recent years, Mr. Yameen has cozied up to China and Saudi Arabia, raising concerns in India that its influence in the Indian Ocean is being challenged.

As the crisis ramped up, Mr. Nasheed asked India to intervene, while Mr. Yameen sent envoys to China, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. The United Nations and the United States assailed the state of emergency, effectively taking sides against Mr. Yameen.

There is no easy way out. Mr. Gayoom still commands loyalty in the security forces; Mr. Nasheed has his following, and having imprisoned his foes, Mr. Yameen knows where he’d end up were he to fall. But turning the islands’ turmoil into a proxy struggle would only make matters far more dangerous.

Elections scheduled for later this year offer the best way to restore legitimacy to the government. Mr. Yameen has little incentive in a fair election, but that is where international pressure must be focused.

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