Washington: Ruling out military base or having permanent boots on the ground in Maldives, a top Obama Administration official said that the US has consulted India on the Status of Forces Agreement which it is negotiating with the island nation and is likely to be signed soon.
“We do not have any plans to have a military presence in Maldives,” Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Robert Blake told PTI in an interview, adding that Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) is an effort to provide a framework to the ongoing joint military exercises that the US has with Maldives.
“I want to reassure everybody that this SOFA does not imply some new uptick in military co-operation or certainly does not apply any new military presence. It would just be to support our ongoing activities,” Blake said when asked about the concerns being raised in both India and Sri Lanka after a Maldivian news website reported about it and posted an alleged leaked copy of the draft SOFA agreement running into eight pages.
Blake, could not verify the authenticity of the alleged draft of the SOFA agreement posted by a Maldivian news website.
“I haven’t seen the draft agreement. So I can’t comment. But we are in the process of negotiating one now. These are standard text round the world, nothing very secret about them,” he said.
“I do not foresee that this (SOFA) is going to be difficult negotiations (with Maldives). These are the things we do with partners around the world,” he said adding that it might be very well should be able to signed very soon.
According to unverified draft copy of the SOFA agreement, Maldives would allow US forces access to ship bunkering facilities, as well as sea ports and other facilities in the Indian Ocean island nation.
“I would like to reassure all our friends in India, what it is and what it isn’t. We have status of forces agreements with more than 100 nations around the world. And these are basically agreements we have with partners where we have significant military activities, typically exercises,” he said.
“So for example, with Maldives we have coconut grove, which is an annual marine exercise. So the status of forces agreement helps to provides framework for those kinds of cooperative activities.
“And they are desirable things to have. But it does not in any way signify an expansion of our military presence or some major new development in the US-Maldivian military co-operation. It’s simply more of a framework to provide for (ongoing) co-operation,” Blake said.
“Yes” Blake said if the US has been consulting India on SOFA with Maldives. “We always try to be transparent with India about everything that we are doing in South Asia. But certainly on Maldives we always wanted to be transparent on our military activities,” he said.
“So is India ok with the SOFA agreement?” he was asked. “Well, I do not want to characterise their (response)? you would have to ask them. Hope they are. They should not see anything ?,” he said.
No, Blake said, when asked if India has expressed any concern on the SOFA agreement. “No they (Indians) have not (expressed their concerns). But it is not for me to characterise their views about it,” he said.
“There are no plans to establish a US naval bases in Maldives. So they (Sri Lanka) should not be worried about that,” Blake said when asked about the reported Sri Lankan concerns on SOFA with the Maldives.
“Not permanently. No,” he said when asked if he visualises any US boots on the ground in the Maldives. “As I said, we have exercise programs very frequently and we anticipate that those would continue. But we do not anticipate any permanent military presence. Absolutely no bases of any kind,” Blake said.
On the current situation in Maldives, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia and also the former US Ambassador to Sri Lanka and Maldives, noted that he is happy to see that things have stabilised a little bit since earlier this year and all the parties seems to be very much focused on preparing for these very important elections that is going to take place on September 7.
“We see this as a quite an important election in Maldivian history. 2008 marked for the first time in 30 years, they had free and fair elections and I think there was quite a lot of progress for President Nasheed to be elected and it was quite important that the then President Gayoom to step down peacefully and there was an orderly transfer of power,” he said.
“So we want to try to work with our friends in the Maldivian Government and all the parties to ensure that there would be free and fair elections and we will soon be announcing a quite substantial program to help provide for free and fair election,” he said.
“For example, we will be implementing civic and broader education program in several of the voter areas, we would helping with the dispute resolution, training for community leaders, we would be training staff at the election complaint bureaus, we will be doing training on social media and how to do social media to encourage voter registration.
“We would be doing some training for the Maldivian police service on election law and we would be doing capacity building for community based organizations, particularly about voter education and voter registration,” he said. (PTI)