By Amitabh P Revi and Ajmal Jami

Mariya Ahmed Didi is the Maldives’ first woman defence minister. She is also the country’s first woman lawyer and the first female to be chosen as her party(MDP) chairperson. In her first interview since being elevated from the post of President Ibrahim Solih’s spokesperson, she speaks freely to SNI’s associate editor Amitabh P Revi about the nadir ties with India reached, how China is not part of the Indian Ocean region and whether the new coalition will hold. In this Exclusive interview, Mariya Didi also outlines how India can help depoliticise the Forces.

Amitabh P Revi: Mariya Didi, thank you for giving us so much time. Congratulations first of all for the new government and your new position.

Defence Minister: Thank You very much

APR: You’re already down to business. We’ve seen a lot of celebration. Lovely to see, the people out on the streets, the President, the former Presidents. It doesn’t happen in any other country. But, you’re already down to business. Cabinet meetings have been held. You’ve been held briefings. How is your new job moving?

DM: It’s moving well in the sense; I get a lot of help from the ministry as well. They’re professional people here. They’ve also learnt to deal with the change in circumstances, I suppose. They know every five Years-We may stay, we may go. But, the institution remains. The ministry remains. The service remains. Everything else remains. What we’re trying to do is deliver our mandate which we have brought with our manifesto to the people and then to deliver. That’s my main aim.

APR: When we spoke to you just after the election results were announced-it was still unclear what would really happen. But, when we talked about the frostiness or iciness between the regimes in the Maldives and India-you mentioned the helicopters-which you’ve been talking about even since then- 164 Maldivians have been saved. So what was the need in any way to return the gift.

DM: You’re right about it. You know, we in the Maldives have traditionally not been a people who return gifts to our neighbours. It’s not in us. We also have a tradition, culture and they’re nice ways of doing things. I’m sure we can find many more ways of cooperating with each other and doing so many things. Not only the helicopters. In 2008, our people said they wanted a democratic society. We moved to democracy, to rule of law. We have to have a disciplined force. They have to do their work despite the politics. The politics happens on one side; the forces do their work regardless. It may be me, it might be my predecessor Adil Sharif, it could be anybody. That shouldn’t matter to them. What we see is our Neighbours-India is the world’s largest democracy. They have huge security forces. But, they’re not politicised. They do their work as per the law and they deliver. It doesn’t matter-it can be Modi one day; it can be the Congress party the other day. It can be smaller parties- a coalition one day, but the forces they are professional. They do things in accordance with the law. I’m sure we can learn a lot. The Indian Army is an old army-in the sense-am not talking about the age of the People-I’m talking about the age of the institution and the professionalism of the institution. I’m sure we can learn a lot from the Indian Army about how they operate in a democratic society. This is what we gave as a mandate to the people and this is what we want to do. Even in our inauguration speech, our President said, he wants to see our forces as a service that is loved by the people. That they accept the services of the people. The Forces are presented in a more people-friendly way. We have to find ways of doing that. I totally agree that the forces themselves work very hard, they work for the people, they do rescue missions, they do many things for the ordinary person. The other day when there was a fire in Male’, they went there and they put out the fire. They would be a lot of public (dis)gruntlement also-It takes a long time for them and why is it like that? But, the Forces have never come out and explained to the public-why it is late. The streets of Male’ are so narrow, the water hydrants not being there where needed. So, naturally they’re doing a lot of work-the first thing for them is to rescue the people, put out the fire. When they tell me I can understand. What I’m saying is they should tell the people their difficulties, yeah, interface with the people. I hope during our tenure, during our 5 years, we are able to make the service more public-friendly. That they know we have rule of law. It’s not a rule of man, it’s a rule of law and our governments are there because we are mandated by the constitution. We stay when we have the peoples mandate and we go when the people tell us to go.

APR: You’re saying it’s not just the helicopters, it’s been a period of very frosty relations between President Yameen’s Government and India. PM Modi did not come to the Maldives, neither did Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj. The moment of the swearing in of president Solih, he accepted the invitation and came. How do you see the transition from what India was treated as over the last 5 years and now? It’s already been a huge change.

DM: It would have been very difficult for PM Modi to have come see President Yameen because the philosophies of the governments- Your ideology-that you want peoples power, adhere to the needs of the people, the democratic principles are there-that was being trampled upon in Maldives. So, for him to come and be seen with the dictatorial regime that was of President Yameen would have been very difficult situation for him and it would have sent the wrong signal to those people in the Maldives-the young, the old, the reformists, who were aspiring to democracy and people power here. The movement was built at a fast pace; we were seeing a lot of development here because we as a government were accountable to the people. The previous regime was accused by the public of being very corrupt. There was no accountability, transparency. There was the infringement of the executive on the judiciary, the Parliament as well. In that kind of situation if PM Modi had come to the Maldives, we the ordinary people, the reformists also, a majority of the people as we have shown in this election- would have been very disappointed. On the other hand, we were chuffed, very pleased when he came for the inauguration because we saw it was the right signal. Our neighbours were giving the signal that what we aspire to as the Maldives-we might- perhaps we will be the world’s smallest democracy-you’re the largest-we’re the smallest. Even though we are small as a country, with very less people, we still want the democratic principles, to grow as large as your democracy.

APR: One of the signals was also that President Yameen was being seen as getting too close to China. President Solih has talked about the treasury being looted. There are reviews going on. Is there going to be a change in what’s happening.

DM: We have promised the people that our government will be transparent, accountable, will not infringe on the powers of the other institutions. We will push the independent institutions such as the ACC, the HRC. We will not interfere with their decisions. We will facilitate and encourage them to do their job. If we do that, we feel there will be less corruption.

APR: What about the past? You’re already reviewing projects with alleged corruption in them?

DM: If there is corruption involved it will have to take the legal course. If there are any funds that have gone outside, we will try to-governments- bring it back in to the country because it belongs to the people. We hope to have clean government during the next five years.

APR: President Nasheed has gone on record on the Free Trade agreement. Almost 99% of trade is Chinese exports and nothing else going out of the Maldives. Is that something you would be looking at, has the Cabinet discussed it?

DM: We’ve just had one cabinet meet. We’ve spoken about corruption. They’ll be zero tolerance on corruption. So that’s what we’ve discussed at the Cabinet. You know Sunday was a holiday, today is a holiday.

APR: 2 commissions have already been set up.

DM: 2 commissions to look into. It will work very independently. They won’t have political interference. They have their independent mandate and they will go ahead with it.

APR: Cooperation on the military-military front which had been stalled because of President Yameen’s administration. Helicopters-you said won’t have to return. The men-you’ve said won’t have to return. That’s something you’ve said will be reversed. You do need more interaction between the 2 militaries.

DM: Very soon, in the course of next week, they’ll be the dosti exercises with India. Coast Guard with Lanka trilateral. The goodwill will be there. We hope to send senior officers to India to learn how you all operate in a democratic society as a professional army.

APR: That would be a new aspect? Not just military training, you’re trying to depoliticise the army by learning lessons?

DM: We have always aspired to depoliticise the army. At the moment, under President Yameen, they’ve had to deal with too much politics. That’s not how we want our army to be. They should be professional.

APR: Physically, India will be able to help-not necessarily training militarily personnel but also to learn how to not be involved in politics.

DM: We are hoping to send our senior personnel to see how they operate in India as a professional Army away from politics.

APR: December Army exercises

DM: Dosti. They’re planning to have it in the next week or so.

APR: Sri Lanka Maldives Indi Coast Guard Is there any other equipment you need, considering the vast area, over 1900 island and atolls. The Economic Zone you would have to look at, fishing-straight way one of the first decisions was not to allow foreigners fishing permits- drugs-there is such a vast area. Do you need any more training and equipment?

DM: Yes of course, I think even the joint statement spoke about combatting terrorism, maintenance of peace and security in the Indian ocean region. I’m sure we’re looking at a new era of more friendly relationships and ties with our neighbours.

APR: For eg I visited the Seychelles recently-different countries but some similar issues that have to be dealt with in terms of the area, the sea that has to be watched. India has gifted 2 Dornier aircraft which are used for surveillance. Are you looking for more equipment like that?

DM: Yes, we would, the Dornier aircraft-there has been some initial discussion. We shall be looking into it for training of pilots as well. We have spoken about an air ambulance, medical evacuations. We will be talking about it with India when our foreign minister visits and see how we can get those things also sorted out and perhaps some aid to help us with medical air evacuations as well.

APR: As you have pointed out the helicopters have already saved about 164 lives. The military in India is always on hand to help. In the Maldives, they’re going beyond their stretch of duty in helping normal Maldivians. It’s not just military, people to people contact?

DM: We’ve had much people to people contact with India. Till very recently our families go and live in India for education as well. Indians come and work in the Maldives-we have a shortage of manpower- we have had a symbiotic relationship with India and there is no reason why we shouldn’t help each other in these many areas. India is the 2nd largest economy in Asia, India has developed. I can remember when I went to school in India in the late 70s, it was totally different then-there was no TV then- We got TV in Maldives before India. Now look at the amount of channels, amount of tv series. In Maldives the most popular series is Kasauti. When we campaign also we make sure we don’t go into a house when kasauti is on. People follow these series. People have learnt the language by looking at the movies. And Hindi songs, now even tamil songs, Malayalam songs. There are many Maldivians who identify with Malayalam as well now. They’ve been in Kerala and Trivandrum and stayed there. Even in the tourism area, the southern tip of India in Kerala is a tourist place, so we can do so many partnerships together. India can become our development partner.

APR: There’s already been so much movement, whether it’s visas, work permits-though you’ve had so little time in office. There has been a worry in New Delhi that Pres Yameen was going closer to China and that would culminate in giving military naval facilities to the PLA Navy. Is that something you’re aware of or you have to reverse?

DM: I Have only had one day in office, so I don’t really know. I have to look at it. Pres Yameen’s government was not media savvy, they were not close to the people though they were discharging a function on behalf of the people. Se we will have to look and see whether there has been any such arrangement taken or given. But, with our government and your government-whatever development aid or whatever projects you take on you have to be accountable to the people. And transparent as well. What happens with Pres Yameen’s regime is there were so much allegation of corruption, allegations of money laundering, lacking of accountability, parliament oversight was lacking. They took majority as overriding anything. They had military go into the courts and Parliament. That was a difficult time for us and I don’t think India-people of India would have tolerated a Government that deals with this kind of people on their doorstep.

APR: As your policy, your government how does it balance between India and China, How does it view the whole Indian Ocean Region?

DM: China is Pacific isn’t it(Laughs heartily) So the Indian ocean region as I told you, we want to maintain peace and security. There will be cooperation in that field and we will always see China as not part of the Indian ocean-geographically, so…as you say we will deal with our neighbours in a neighbourly way, friendly way, and hold on t the cultural and traditional ties that we have had with our neighbours.

APR: You’ve had so much experience as a politician, 40 years as a Member of Parliament, you’ve seen so many governments. The coalition partners-you’ve seen them on totally the opposite side to the MDP, to President Nasheed, How are you going to keep this coalition together.

DM: I think we’ve all learnt from the political experiences that we’ve had. We all know Maldivians want coalitions. Since we amended the constitution we have not had one single party winning the election. ( No coalition has stayed together either) But you have to understand this is the 3rd time we’re having elections in the country, every time we’re learning from it. We’re hoping our coalition partners have also learnt from this experience. They have always said they want the coalition to survive. That has been at the top leadership level. We’ve had this coalition going for the last 3 years. We’ve lived through it. It’s not very easy to come 3 years with coalition partners do so before we came into government, we’ve had this relationship going and we hope the relationship will survive the 5 years. I see a lot of political will in the leadership to make it survive. It’s been many compromises. We have to have even more compromises.

APR: Hopefully not on principles?

DM: With all that I’m confident that people of Maldives see me as a person more than my gender. I’ve been there long enough to know that I think. I’m Confident. Confident that people of Maldives see me as a person more than my gender. Not on principles. Not only presumably, I don’t think anyone of us is going to give up our principles. We will keep our principles intact and agree to disagree. In the coalition they will be times when we won’t agree, but when we won’t agree also it will be an agreement not to agree.

APR: You were the first woman lawyer in the Maldives, First woman defence minister(1st woman chairperson of the MDP. There’s been a lot of firsts. Too old(laughs heartily). When you talk about defence ministers, probably the 3rd in south Asia. Current Nepalese President, Nirmala Sitharaman and Indira Gandhi may have also held the Defence portfolio when she was PM. How does that make you feel internally and the message you would want to send to Maldivian women and the women of the world.

DM: I’ve been the first chairperson in our party. You can only become chairperson after having a common vote among members of the party. They had the faith to appoint me as chairperson. Having faced elections where the constituency placed its trust on me (5 times) 4 times. Then for the President to hand me defence, gender is not an issue. They have never seen me and I think the forces won’t see me as incapable of looking after defence. (your reputation precedes you) It’s not somebody placing me in a position to get the female vote. I feel I have come all this way, have learnt a lot, catered to the public needs, the MDP calls me ‘MDP Mumma’ With all that I’m confident that people of Maldives see me as a person more than my gender. I’ve been there long enough to know that I think. I’m Confident.

APR: Mariya Didi, again Thank You. And all the best to you and your government.

DM: Thank You Amitabh Thank You.

This article was originally published in Strategic News International