There is much amiss regarding the agreement titled 'Development, Support, and the Maintenance of the Maldives National Defence Force Harbour Sifavaru at Uthuru Thila Falhu' made between the governments of India and the Maldives on February 21, 2021.
To date, the government has done nothing to address the many concerns that have been raised about the Uthuru Thila Falhu (UTF) agreement. Instead, the government has responded with deception.
"Technicians", not Soldiers
During the first press conference held soon after the signing of the agreement, Dhiyares; the sister-newspaper of The Maldives Journal; had pointed out that the agreement stated that India would be tasked with maintaining the facilities, and then asked the spokesperson for the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) the duration for which Indian military personnel would stay stationed at the UTF facilities.
In response, the Vice Chief of Defence Force Brig. Gen. Abdur Raheem Abdul Latheef had said the UTF facilities would not host any military personnel. Instead, he had said, the only personnel stationed there would be engaged in providing the MNDF with "technical support". He had gone on to say that both governments had agreed that such technical support would be available for the MNDF at any time, and for any duration of time.
Dhiyares had followed-up their question by asking for the Institution or Organisation to which these technicians belonged. Brig. Gen. Abdul Latheef had no response to the question. He had pretended that he could not hear the question and had decided to take a question from another reporter present at the press conference.
The word "technician" has been previously abused by high-ranking officers of the MNDF to refer to Indian military personnel. On a previous occasion, the Chief of Defence Force Maj. Gen. Abdulla Shamal had claimed that the Indian military's helicopters based in the Maldives would be operated by "technicians", not soldiers. The reality is, however, that all technicians involved in operating the helicopters are fully-trained soldiers of the Indian Armed Forces.
Three Different Answers to One Simple Question
Brig. Gen. Abdul Latheef had refused to give a clear answer to any questions asked about the length of time for which the UTF agreement would stay in force.
Instead, he had said that it would take 3 years for the UTF facilities to be developed as per the agreement made. After that period, he had said, the Indian government would provide technical support to the MNDF if necessary, whenever requested, and for as long as the MNDF needed.
"This is in 2 phases", he said. "The first phase is to develop the location. We have 3 years to finish the place and open it up. Once 3 years are over, and this place is done and all of the services are done, this place will be in service in 3 years."
"After that", he said, "if we need technical support: our agreement with the Indian government has it such that we can get as much technical support, for whichever duration we want".
However, on the more recent press conference held by the MNDF on 16 March 2021, Brig. Gen. Abdul Latheef had lied by stating that he had previously disclosed the duration for which the agreement would be in force. He had also claimed that the duration for which the agreement would be in force would be 15 years on that occasion.
Dhiyares had previously submitted a request for information on the UTF agreement's duration with the Ministry of Defence, through the Right To Information Act. The Ministry's written response had been that they could not reveal that information as disclosing the duration of the UTF agreement posed a threat to national security.
The fact that one government office had given 3 contradicting answers to one question poses serious questions about the validity of any of the answers their representatives had given.
Straw Men and Dangerous Secrets
On the 16 March press conference, the Chief of Defence Force Maj. Gen. Abdulla Shamal had repeatedly claimed that the UTF agreement contained nothing that warranted the public's distress. However, he had said, the agreement could not be disclosed.
Maj. Gen. Shamal's reasoning was that military training and exercises, as well as technical information pertaining to the military, did not conform to "international best practices".
Maj. Gen. Shamal beat a "straw man" down, characterising the public's requests for transparency about UTF as a demand to publish the blueprints of the facilities to be developed there. He had, perhaps deliberately, failed to understand that the only demand had been that the Ministry of Defence and the MNDF make certain that no clause of the agreement made between the elected government and a foreign power would put Maldivian sovereignty in jeopardy.
No country in the world keeps their military agreements secret from their parliaments. The only exceptions tend to be autocratic monarchies and military dictatorships.
The Public in the Dark
Despite public concern, the government is persistent that there is no need to worry about the agreement. Maj. Gen. Shamal had tried to downplay the importance of the UTF facilities by claiming that it was simply a transit harbour and platform.
If there was nothing to hide, and if the UTF facilities are so unimportant: why the secrecy?
Why can't the agreement be disclosed to a parliamentarian elected by the people?
None of what had been said on the Majlis floor by MDP parliamentarians, however, gave any indication that bringing the agreement to be reviewed by the Majlis was forthcoming. The Majlis Speaker, Mohamed Nasheed, had declared that since the UTF agreement was primarily about construction: there was no need to bring the agreement for Majlis review.
MP Rozeina Adam (Meedhoo) had totally different concerns. She had claimed that classified information could leak if the agreement were to be brought in for review by the Majlis. Why would there be any concern about leaking a document that allegedly contains no text that poses any threat to national security or sovereignty?
During the last press conference, the Chief of Defence Maj. Gen. Abdulla Shamal had said that he would answer any question asked about the UTF agreement. However, the Ministry of Defence's written response to Dhiyares' RTI request had stated that all information regarding the UTF agreement posed a threat to national security, and therefore none of it could be disclosed. The Ministry's response did not specify why clarifying the institution or organisation to which the Indian "technicians" stationed at UTF belonged would pose any danger to national security.
If the document leaked by Dhiyares is illegitimate, the government can share a copy of the actual agreement with elected representatives of the people at the Majlis.
Uthuru Thila Falhu is national property, and the $50 million USD loan granted by India will be paid back from the national treasury.
Therefore, the Maldivian people have a right to know what the UTF agreement contains, and why it poses such a threat to national security