A Singapore-registered tanker sailing in Malaysian waters has been boarded by pirates and robbed of its marine fuel, Malaysian coast guard officials have confirmed. Port authorities lost contact with the ship late on 8 August, several hours after it had set sail from the Indonesian city of Tanjung Pinang. The ship, which was en route to the Malaysian island of Langkawi, was carrying a crew of ten and 3,500 tonnes of marine fuel when it was attacked. Two of the crew members sustained injuries after the vessel was boarded and they have since been hospitalised.
According to information from the International Chamber of Commerce’s International Maritime Bureau (IMB), over the past six months pirate attacks in Southeast Asia are the highest that they have been in twelve years. By contrast, there have been no reported incidents of piracy off the coast of Somalia, or in the Red Sea, Arabian Sea or in the Gulf of Aden. If this trend continues, 2015 could be the first year since 2006 that Somali pirates were prevented from claiming any prizes.
Worldwide, the IMB reported a total of 134 pirate attacks from January to June this year, an increase of 18 attacks over the same period last year but still below 2011’s record breaking 266. It is not, however, the relative increase in the frequency of attacks that is the most striking feature of the IMB data – it is the overall change in their geographic distribution. Indonesia, for instance, recorded 54 attacks over the reporting period, the highest number since 2010, while Vietnam and Bangladesh suffered 13 and 11 respectively. The Strait of Malacca, a notorious hotspot for piracy, has also seen an uptick in pirate activity.
Various factors have been attributed to the decline in Somali piracy – amongst them the increase in naval patrols and the “target hardening” efforts of shipowners”, who have gone to considerable lengths to make their vessels harder to board, including the use of armed guards. Nevertheless, shipowners’ have been warned against becoming complacent. While it is certainly unusual for there to have been no incidents of piracy reported over the first six months of the year, Michael Howlett, deputy director of the IMB said that the threat had not vanished. “We still advise masters to be aware. [The pirates] still have the capacity [to launch attacks]. It only takes one successful attack for this business model to be relaunched,” he said.
The regional measures that followed the spike of piracy in South East Asia in the early 2000s are widely, and rightly, hailed as a successful example of maritime security co-operation. However, piracy is now undergoing a dramatic increase again in the region, with Indonesian waters now suffering the largest number of attacks worldwide as the pirates increasingly adapt to the new security situation.
In 2003, piracy reached record highs in South East Asia, with 445 incidents reported in Indonesian waters and similarly high levels in other regional nations. Following this, the nations that border the strategically crucial Straits of Malacca (Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia, with some assistance from Thailand and India) made moves to improve their naval co-operation in order to deal with the growing piracy crisis. Well publicised publicity campaigns with dramatic pictures of large warships patrolling the Straits highlighted a significantly more robust security posture, which saw a drastic reduction in rates of piracy.
This attempt to present a ‘United Front’ masks many legitimate issues between the nations – extremely disparate geographical positions, economies, military expenditure and naval strength all continue to cause friction. However the attempt at regional co-operation was broadly successful for several years, and even now with piracy once more on the rise through South East Asia, the Straits of Malacca themselves remain broadly safe for international shipping (at least compared to the past).
However, with a 440% increase in piracy in Indonesian waters between 2009 and 2012, it appears that the security response is now proving less effective than previously. This is largely because pirates have adapted to the new security situation. Instead of attempting to attack and hijack vessels in transit in the Straits of Malacca, they instead focus on boarding and robbing ships berthed in the Indonesian harbours along the Straits. From 2004 to December last year, Indonesian anchorages were placed on the U.S Coast Guard port advisory list because of their poor security, a ban only lifted following some American investment and training. It is worth noting that the US was concerned primarily with counter-terrorist performance, and many nominal improvements directed at preventing piracy and armed robberies are likely ineffective.
Similarly, pirates have also moved their bases of operations to avoid the naval forces and attack ships entering or exiting the Straits. Instead of their traditional bases actually in the Straits of Malacca themselves, many are now based to the south, using secretive parts of Jambi province for their hideaways. Others have moved east towards the South China Sea, and operate instead on the open seas far from coasts and patrols. The isolated island groups in these areas, such as the Anambas and Natuna islands, are remote and located close to the major international shipping lanes entering the Straits. Another island, Pulau Batam near Singapore, has also emerged as another favoured base of operations – as a source of cheap manufacturing for Singapore, severe economic difficulties and influxes of poor migrants have provided both the motivation and a ready labour pool, including local fisherman, for piracy targeted at ships in the Malacca straits. These coastal regions are remote and covered with mangrove swamps and shallow inlets and estuaries – perfect locations for hiding pirate vessels.
So far, it appears the nations in this region, particularly Indonesia, are failing to make the necessary adaptations to the new environment, leading to the resurgence of piracy in the region. The authorities tend to focus purely on the military and political aspects of piracy, with no attempts to deal with the root economic causes. The large warships that protect the Straits of Malacca are in general too big to track pirates back to their bases, with this task usually left to lower level local law enforcement, often equipped only with small wooden boats. This problem is particularly pronounced in Indonesia, which has the weakest navy in the region and the largest coastline, and as the world’s largest archipelagic nation has over 18’000 islands perfectly suited to hiding pirate activity. Until a new security approach is taken that accounts for the now changed environment, it appears that the trend of increasing piracy in South East Asia will continue.