Piracy on rise in South East Asia amidst continuing security challengesAugust 27, 2013 in Asia, Piracy
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.