Number of Indian military personnel cannot be revealed over fears of diplomatic issues: Defence Ministry

MNDF soldier seen near one of the helicopters given by India | Photo: MNDF

Male’, Maldives – Ministry of Defence has stated that they cannot reveal any information regarding the Indian military personnel who are in Maldives.

Ministry official had said this during the open hearing by Information Commission of Maldives over a Right to Information matter filed at the commission by local news media outlet “Dhiyares”. The news outlet had submitted Right To Information (RTI) forms to the ministry on January 29 of this year to get the information on the number of Indian personnel and the amount of expenditure on them by the government. These Indian military personnel are in Maldives to operate the two helicopters which had been donated to the Maldivian government by India.

The ministry had initially replied to the RTI application stating that the information which had been requested cannot be revealed under the Armed Forces Act (1/2008) Section 24 (b) which stipulates that “Any information which might implicate the national security and safety of the Maldives should not be shared with irrelevant parties, and anyone who does so shall be penalized under this Act”.

They had also stated that under the Right to Information Act (1/2014) Section 25, (b) which states that “Where the information was sought or received or known through a relation formed with another country or through an international body by an agreement or by an exchange of verbal or written correspondence, and where disclosing that information would or may adversely affect the relation established by Maldives with that country of body” as by disclosing such information would result in irrevocable damage to the state, the state has the discretion of non-disclosure to such requests.

The ministry had also taken up Section 29 of the Right to Information Act (1/2014) which states that “Where disclosure of a piece of information, containing details that would endanger national security as interpreted within the scope of the Constitution, would result in irrevocable damage, the State Institute has the discretion of non-disclosure” as a justification for not releasing the requested information.

“Dhiyares” media had filed the case with the Information Commissioners Office after the ministry denied the information and the hearing of this case was held on October 6, 2020. During the hearing, the information officer of the ministry repeated the answer which the ministry had given to “Dhiyares”.

The Defence Ministry’s information Officer, Mohamed Shimaah said that “danger to national security” is declared by the advisory committee formed under the Armed Forces Act based on the present situation, and that the information requested by “Dhiyares” falls under this category and that the advisory committee had advised not to share this information on these grounds.

“Everyone in it (advisory committee) are top officers of the military. No political people would be in it. Highest ranking officers of the defence force are in there. Once they have finalized about it we did not question them about it,” Shimaah said.

After Shimaah’s answers, the Information Commissioner Hussain Fiyaz asked if there was a non-disclosure clause in the agreement made to operate the helicopters which had been signed. The Information Commissioner told that if that there was such a clause in the agreement he could not do anything further about the matter.

“Everyone would know that the relationship between Maldives and India is very strong. From the beginning the relationship has been strong. While the relationship between Maldives and India is so strong and even if the agreement states so or not, if we release the information, if we release information on an agreement made between the two countries, I believe that it would implicate the relationship between the two countries” Shimaah said.

Shimaah also said that Maldives is a very diplomatic country and that the government does not want to do anything which would cause issues with the relationships with neighboring countries. Replying to this, the Information Commissioner Fiyaz asked the threat which revealing this may cause and that if the ministry states that it is a threat to national security then that the ministry should base this justification on something factual.

Information Commissioner Fiyaz also highlighted that information is being suppressed under the excuse of national security and that the proper information can be received by individually meeting with the people in higher ranks than the information officer of the ministry.

The Information Commissioner also highlighted that the question being asked by “Dhiyares” representatives cannot be answered by the ministry’s information officer as it was above his pay grade and that he would meet with the senior officials of the Defence Ministry individually regarding this matter.

The issue of Indian military personnel staying in Maldives to operate the two helicopters has come under public debate recently after the current opposition started to talk about the topic and an online campaign to remove all such personnel has been going on under the hashtag “IndiaOut”.

The opposition has been accusing the current government of allowing India to build their military bases around the country as well. The main controversy began as the number of Indian pilots and crew who are stationed in Maldives to operate the two helicopters which the Indian government had donated to MNDF grew larger.

The first helicopter was gifted in 2010 and in 2011 when the current speaker of parliament, Mohamed Nasheed was president. Since the first one was brought to the Maldives, MNDF has been saying that they were training Maldivian pilots to fly the choppers which until now has not happened. MNDF has denied to give out any information regarding the number of Indian personnel in Maldives nor the amount being spent by the Maldivian tax payers money on these personnel stating that it would be a risk national security.