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.
There were 16 reported incidents during the month of June, 2013. This represents a notable increase compared with May, which was relatively quiet, and highlights the continuing trend of increased piracy in the region. This is over triple the number of incidents occurring in June 2012 and 2011, and is the highest rate of incidents in the month of June since 2008.
All reported incidents occurred in the South East Asian region, with none in the North East Asia or Pacific regions.
Incident Occurrences by Country
Indonesia – 12
Malaysia – 3
India – 1
3rd June, Indonesia – SPAR LIBRA boarded at Maura Jawa anchorage. Unsuccessful attempted robbery.
3rd June, Indonesia – attempted boarding of ATLANTIC CANYON at Belawan Anchorage.
8th June, Indonesia – BANDAI V boarded at Belawan Anchorage. Unsuccessful armed robbery.
9th June, Malaysia – tug PU2417 boarded 6nm off Terengganu. Robbers armed with knives and firearms stole fuel and belongings.
9th June, Malaysia – an unnamed tug 30nm east of Kerteh, Terengganu was boarded by armed pirates, who took all crew members hostage before stealing property.
10th June, Indonesia – ANNA BARBARA boarded and robbed at Taboneo Anchorage.
12th June, Indonesia – attempted robber of SENTOSA RIVER at Senipah Tanker Anchorage, Balikpapan.
13th June, Indonesia – armed robbers boarded EAGLE SAN JUAN and stole property.
13th June, Indonesia – CSK BRILLIANCE boarded at Maura Jawa anchorage. Armed pirates took crew members hostage and stole property. One crew member was injured.
15th June, Indonesia – attempted boarded of EMERALD STAR at Taboneo Anchorage.
16th June, Indonesia – attempted armed robbery of CMA CGM KAILAS at Jakarta Cargo Anchorage.
17th June, Malaysia – KING RIVER boarded 8nm west-northwest of Lutong, Sarawak. Aggressive pirates took hostage and beat most of the crew before escaping with property.
19th June, Indonesia – OCEAN GARNET boarded by armed robbers at Muara Jawa anchorage. Property stolen.
20th June, Indonesia – SENNA JUMBO boarded by armed robbers at Nipah Transit anchorage. One crew member threatened with a knife and property stolen.
27th June, Indonesia – attempted boarding of unnamed tanker at Jakarta Tanker Anchorage.
30th June, India – successful robbery of unnamed tanker at Kandla Inner Anchorage.
The weekend bombing in India of one of Buddhism’s holiest sites showcases the growing problems between Muslim and Buddhist communities throughout South East Asia. Visitors should be aware of the growing troubles across the region and potential for related terrorist incidents, particularly given that the Buddhist pilgrimage season begins in September.
This recent incident happened on Sunday, July 7th at the Bohd Gaya temple complex in Bihar state, a historic religious site. There were a reported 10 blasts in total throughout the complex between 5:30 and 6am during morning prayers, targeting both statues and areas of religious significance as well as a bus stop. Official sources said the bombs ranged from low to high intensity, and the explosions injured two monks (one from Tibet, another from Myanmar). The temple itself was not seriously damaged. A further 3 unexploded bombs were found at the site over the following days and defused. Security at Buddhist sites in India and throughout the region has been increased as a result.
New Delhi was quick to condemn the incident as a terrorist attack, and blamed the notorious Indian Mujahedeen (IM) organisation, though no group has as of yet claimed responsibility for the attacks. The IM has been responsible for several terrorist attacks throughout India since 2008. It is reportedly related in some fashion with the banned organisation Student’s Islamic Movement of India, and also has connections with Pakistani based Lashkar-e-Taiba, one of the most active terrorist organisations in South Asia. It has been classed as a terrorist group by the British and American governments as well as the Indian authorities.
So far, 1 local person has been arrested in connection with the attack due to his identity card having been found at the scene. Police have however released CCTV images and sketches of two others they are looking for. Named as brothers Sahidur and Saifur Rehman (originally from Bihar but now living in Scotland and Saudi Arabia respectively), authorities believe they are IM members who have slipped into Bihar within the last two months. Currently their whereabouts are unknown. Controversy has also emerged in India about the response of the authorities to intelligence received in the days prior to the incident, with suggestions from opposition politicians that warnings were not heeded and that the attacks could have been prevented.
The Bohd Gaya complex is one of Buddhism’s holiest sites, and includes the Mahabodhi temple, where the Supreme Buddha is said to have gained enlightenment and a UNESCO world heritage site. Yearly, Bohd Gaya attracts many visitors from Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Nepal, China and Japan while the Dalai Lama makes frequent trips to the area. This is the first time Bohd Gaya has been successfully attacked, though police say they have foiled attempts in the past.
Nevertheless, attacks on Buddhists are rare in India, and Bihar state is more known for Maoist activity than Islamist attacks. This has led numerous commentators to draw an explicit connection between these attacks and recent problems between Muslim and Buddhist communities throughout the region, particularly in neighbouring Myanmar (Burma).
Myanmar has seen extreme unrest in the past year between nationalist Rakhine Buddhists and the minority Rohingya Muslim people, leaving destruction, chaos and many dead across large swathes of the country. Many Rohingya, not recognised as citizens of Myanmar and officially stateless, have been attempting to flee Myanmar to other countries in the region. There are Muslim militant groups active in Myanmar, and these have been connected with Al-Qaeda and other jihadist terrorist organisations in the past. These ethnic tensions have begun to have a regional impact, particularly in Malaysia and Indonesia who have majority Muslim populations. Ethnic tensions between Muslim and Buddhist communities are also on the rise in Sri Lanka, with the end of the 26 year civil war failing to bridge divides between communities. Further moves attacks on Buddhist sites in India could have extremely serious implications for regional security and stability, risking further exacerbation of ethnic tensions throughout South East Asia.
There are many Buddhist holy sites in India, and they could be potential targets of future attacks, particularly as the Buddhist pilgrimage season begins in September and will see hundreds of thousands of visitors to many sites. Caution and a high degree of security awareness should be maintained at all times.