COLOMBO: Lawmakers in the Maldives have voted to allow foreign ownership of land for the first time, triggering concern over a possible landgrab in the honeymoon islands.
Dozens of foreign companies already run luxury resorts on islands that they lease from the government of the atoll nation for a maximum of 99 years.
The new law, which has yet to be ratified by the president, would allow foreigners who invest more than $1 billion to own land in perpetuity, provided 70 percent of it is reclaimed from the Indian Ocean.
The bill passed easily on Wednesday after a brief debate, with 70 members voting in favour and 14 against, the assembly said in a statement.
But opposition lawmakers reportedly expressed fears that the move could clear the way for the Chinese to set up bases in the Maldives, which straddles vital international east-west shipping routes.
Regional superpower India is already wary of increased Chinese involvement in the area, which it considers to be within its sphere of influence.
The Maldives is seeking aid and investment from Beijing to build a 1.4 kilometre (0.87 mile) bridge linking the capital island Male with the nearby airport island.
Ahead of the vote, President Abdulla Yameen s half brother Maumoon Abdul Gayoom — the country s former strongman leader — had urged further public debate on the controversial move.
“I have appealed to president to seek public opinion on proposed constitutional amendment re land ownership before ratification,” he tweeted.
The Maldives, made up of 1,192 tiny coral island s scattered across the equator, has been plagued by political unrest since the toppling of the country s first democratically elected president Mohamed Nasheed in February 2012.
Since his conviction earlier this year on terrorism charges there have been regular protests on the streets of Male.