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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - MALE — "We don't want any foreign military boots on Maldivian soil... I promised this to the people of the Maldives and I will live up to my promise from day one."
Dr Mohamed Muizzu, who won the Maldives presidential election last month, is wasting no time in asking India to get its troops out of the country.
The president-elect, who is due to be sworn in later in November, told the BBC in an exclusive interview that he met the Indian ambassador a few days after his victory and "told him very clearly that every single Indian military personnel here should be removed".
The Maldives has long been under India's sphere of influence and Mr Muizzu's demand is likely to trigger diplomatic tensions between Malé and Delhi.
In fact, when Muizzu won the Maldives presidential poll, that was seen as a setback for India -- especially as his opponent, the incumbent Ibrahim Mohamed Solih -- had drawn his country closer to Delhi since taking over in 2018.
The alliance backing Muizzu portrayed this relationship -- strengthened by Solih's India-first policy -- as a threat to the Maldives' sovereignty and security.
Muizzu's alliance favors closer ties with China, which has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the Maldives in the form of loans and grants for infrastructure and development projects.
But India, which wants a foothold in the strategically located islands to monitor a key part of the Indian Ocean, has also provided about $2bn in development assistance to the country.
If its troops are forced to leave, it will be a blow for Delhi.
But a furor over "gifts" that Delhi gave the Maldives -- two helicopters received in 2010 and 2013 and a small aircraft in 2020 -- has given the "India out" campaign a huge boost.
Delhi said the craft were to be used for search and rescue missions and medical evacuations.
But in 2021, the Maldivian defense force said about 75 Indian military personnel were based in the country to operate and maintain the Indian aircraft. This fuelled suspicion and anger as many felt the reconnaissance aircraft were being used as an excuse to put Indian boots on the ground.
Muizzu also says that the presence of these troops could put the Maldives at risk -- especially as tensions between India and China escalate along their Himalayan border.
"Maldives is too small to get entangled with this global power struggle. We will not get entangled into this," he said.
Speaking to the BBC before the presidential poll, the outgoing president Solih said fears about the presence of Indian troops were exaggerated.
"There are no militarily active overseas personnel stationed in the Maldives. Indian personnel currently present in the country are under the operational command of the Maldives National Defense Force," he said.
But it's not just the aircraft. Muizzu said he wanted to review all the agreements the Maldives has signed with India in recent years.
"We don't know what's in there. Even in Parliament, some of the MPs during the debates said that they didn't know what's in there. I am sure we will find it out," he said.
Soon after his victory, observers noted that the Chinese ambassador in Malé was quick to congratulate Muizzu.
Chinese President Xi Jinping also weighed in, saying he attached "great importance to the development of bilateral relations and stands ready to work with President-elect Muizzu to carry forward the traditional friendship, deepen practical cooperation".
Muizzu has also spoken highly of Chinese infrastructure projects in the Maldives, saying the investments had transformed Malé city and brought benefits to its residents.
However, he has denied being a "pro-China" candidate as opposed to the "pro-India" Solih.
"I am a pro-Maldives person. For me, Maldives comes first, our independence comes first," he said. "I am not pro or against any country."
Despite this, however, his opposition alliance includes the party of former president Abdulla Yameen who was instrumental in moving the Maldives closer to China.
When India and Western lenders were not willing to offer loans to Yameen's administration due to allegations of human rights violations, Yameen -- who is currently serving a 11-year prison sentence for corruption -- turned to Beijing who offered him the money without any conditions.
He then joined President Xi's Belt and Road Initiative -- which aims to build road, rail and sea links between China and the rest of the world.
Muizzu was seen as a proxy of Yameen -- who was barred from contesting the election.
Soon after he won the election Muizzu asked the current administration to move Yameen from a high-security prison to house arrest in the capital Male.
But given Yameen's uneasy and tense relationship with Delhi, it could well be a struggle for Muizzu's new alliance to balance ties with India.
Muizzu sounds keen to emerge out of the shadows of Yameen and is all set to charter a new path both domestically and in the country's foreign affairs.
Given his decisive victory he may not face much resistance internally, at least in the initial stages.
He sounds determined to take the Maldives out of India's orbit but convincing Delhi to withdraw its troops may be his first big challenge. — BBC
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