The Sri Lankan government says a solution has been found to the dispute that led to ethnic violence flaring in Columbo over the weekend, after a mob of Buddhists attacked a mosque and injured worshippers there. Special police units were deployed to deal with the unrest and a curfew was imposed. Despite the supposed resolution, serious security issues remain in light of simmering tensions between Sri Lanka’s majority Buddhist population and minority groups, and come in light of significant clashes between Muslims and Buddhists throughout parts of South East Asia over the past year.
Trouble began on Saturday, August 10th, when a mob of Buddhists attacked a mosque in the Grandpass area of the capital, Columbo during evening prayers. Hundreds of local Muslims responded by taking to the streets, some armed with sticks, while the authorities sent in police reinforcements, including the Special Task Force commando unit, to try and maintain law and order. A curfew was imposed from Saturday evening until Sunday morning in order to disperse the crowds. 12 people were injured in the disturbances, including 2 police officers.
Muslim ministers in President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government released a joint statement saying “The lukewarm and ineffective measures taken by law enforcement agencies on previous occasions…seem to have emboldened some extremist groups who seem determined to create chaos in the country”. Police Inspector General N K Ilangagoon called on the populace to “support the police to maintain law and order”. A spokesman for the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) (or “Buddhist Power Force”), a hardline group that has been trying to win over Sri Lanka Buddhists to support its anti-Muslim campaign, denied his organisation had any involvement in the events.
The incident stems from a dispute surrounding the relocation of a mosque in the area. The old mosque was earmarked for destruction to make way for new construction and after protests from hard-line Buddhists, and the new mosque had only been open a month. It had already seen protests from Buddhist monks, who had however purportedly agreed Muslims could continue praying there throughout Ramadan. Muslims in the area say the Sri Lankan government’s religious affairs ministry had given them permission to continue using the site, and had provided special police protection. Following the weekend’s disturbances, a solution has been reached that allows a return to the site of the old mosque.
However, despite a resolution of this particular issue it is extremely unlikely this will see a reduction in the continuing ethnic disputes in Sri Lanka. The country is 70% Sinhalese Buddhists, with Muslims making up 9% of the population. They were seen as remaining broadly loyal to the state during the war with the Tamil Tigers; however attacks on Muslims have been increasing over the past year led by hard-line groups of monks such as the BBS, which promote an ultra-nationalist ideology that claims Muslims are fostering anti-Sinhalese extremism and attitudes. The president of the Sri Lanka Muslim Council says over 20 mosques have been attacked since last year, while recent months have seen major ethnic unrest surrounding the distribution of halal food and similar. Christian buildings and worshippers have also been attacked.
Muslim community leaders have so far remained broadly conciliatory and have stood on platforms with moderate Buddhists, while many Sinhalese express disquiet about the activities of the BBS. However, there is evidence that the strident nationalism the BBS promotes not only resonates with large parts of the population but enjoys top – level political support – powerful defence minister Gotabhaya Rajapaska (brother of the president), was a guest at the opening of a BBS training school and said in a speech “It is the monks who protect our country, religion and race. No one should doubt these clergy. We’re here to give you encouragement.”
The incidents in Sri Lanka also come in light of continuing ethnic trouble across the broader South East Asian region. Major ethnic violence continues in Myanmar (Burma) between the majority Rakhine Buddhist people and minority Rohingya Muslims which has left many dead and caused chaos across numerous provinces. Last month, a bombing at one of Buddhism’s holiest sites, the Bohd Gaya temple complex in India, was attributed to Islamist extremists and explicitly connected with the broader religious conflict across SE Asia.
Currently, there is no direct threat to individuals, including Muslim ones, in Sri Lanka. It is worth noting that no one has so far been killed due to the ethnic clashes in the country, unlike incidents in Myanmar. The underlying threat from terrorism in Sri Lanka is also currently low. However, an awareness of the potential security risks should be maintained at all times. Any and all demonstrations should be avoided, and local news stations should be monitored in case of unrest or the imposition of curfews.
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.
Between 0400 – 0500 local time yesterday (10th June, 2013), unknown individuals successfully boarded a bulk carrier waiting for loading in Taboneo Anchorage, Indonesia. While on board, they remained undetected and succeeded in stealing stores from the ship and escaping.
This is the fourth similar occurrence in a little over a week throughout Indonesia, with two incidents taking place at Belawan anchorage on the 3rd and 8th of June and one at Muara Jawa anchorage also on the 3rd. While yesterday’s robbery was successful, the other three in the past week were foiled by the alertness of the ship’s duty crew.
These incidents demonstrate some common characteristics. The robbers used small boats to approach the ships in harbour, and then used either the anchor chain or ropes to board the vessel, with the apparent aim in all incidents of gaining access to the ship’s stores. Reports suggest that the individuals were usually also armed with knives or machetes, though in all of these incidents they fled when confronted by alert crew. While the authorities were notified, as of writing no individuals have been arrested in connection with these incidents.
Poor security at Indonesian ports has remained a recurring cause for concern in recent years. From 2004 onwards many Indonesian ports were placed on the U.S Coast Guard’s Port Security Advisory list as a result of failures in security practices, a ban only lifted in December last year following some American investment and training. However, despite these nominal improvements it is worth noting that the US Coast Guard’s primary concern was with poor counter-terrorist performance, not with piracy or armed robbery prevention.
In fact, reporting suggests there is a growing problem with security in Indonesian anchorages. The International Maritime Bureau strongly criticised Indonesia’s performance at the end of last year after a reported 81 occurrences of robbery – the highest following year on year increases since 2009. So far in 2013, reporting from numerous sources suggests the trend will continue to increase this year as well. Indeed, due to the problem of significant underreporting, the actual number of incidents is almost certainly much higher that officially recorded.
The reduction in piracy in South East Asia, particularly the Straits of Malacca, following extreme highs in 2003 is touted as a successful example of regional cooperation. However evidence shows that the problem of piracy throughout the region is now on the rise again and that many gains may be on the verge of reversal. In particular, the Indonesian National Security Sea Coordination Board has reportedly dismissed the IMB criticism of its performance against armed robbery in ports and argued the incidents are not a serious concern despite the dramatic increase in incidents.
Opportunistic armed robbery targeting vessels in Indonesian anchorages is now a problem that is steadily on the increase. Small groups of robbers seek to steal stores or cargo and are normally prevented by the actions of alert crew instead of port security authorities. These individuals are often armed, typically with knives and machetes but also reportedly with firearms in some past incidents. While they normally flee when confronted, some past incidents have involved hostage taking and violence.
Belawan port in particular is prone to these incidents, accounting for over an eighth of the total in 2012 and a similar level so far this year. Nevertheless, vessels in all anchorages throughout Indonesia should remain aware of the high levels of armed robbery against anchored ships and the need for vigilant security.
Asia – Pacific Summary
Incidents Occurring in April, 2013
There were 18 reported incidents in the Asia- Pacific region in the month of April, 2013. All of these occurred in the South East Asian region, with no incidents in North East Asia or the Pacific reported.
The most notable incidents appear to be the boarding of HUB 21 on the 24th of April, which involved violence directed at crewmembers, and the sighting of the ENG TOU 266 on the 22nd April, a stolen barge that is yet to have been recovered.
Most incidents involved armed robbery targeting ships anchored in ports throughout the SE Asian region, particularly in Indonesia.
Incident Occurrences by Country
30th April, Indonesia – KOH-I-NOOR boarded at Belawan port, robbed during customs operations.
29th April, Indonesia – CREST 2821 boarded 3.2 NM northwest of Pulau Batam, robbed.
27th April, Indonesia – FAIRCHAM MAVERICK boarded at Belawan port, robbed.
24th April, Indonesia – NADIYA MELISENDE boarded 16 NM north-northeast of Bintan Island, robbed.
24th April, Indonesia – HUB 21 boarded 53 NM north-northeast of Bintan Island. 15 pirates in 3 speedboats boarded vessel armed with knives and guns, took nine crew members hostage and assaulted some, before stealing cash and properties.
22nd April, Malaysia – ENG TOU 266 observed off Tanjung Ayam. This stolen barge was being towed by an unidentified tug, and has yet to be recovered.
23rd April, Indonesia – AD PHEONIX boarded 15 NM north-northeast of Bintan Island. Armed pirates boarded and robbed vessel.
19th April, Indonesia – SINGAPORE RIVER boarded at Dumai Anchorage. Armed robbers tied up crewmember at knifepoint, and escaped with stolen property.
17th April, Vietnam – IVS MAGPIE boarded at Cam Pha anchorage, attempted robbery.
13th April, Indonesia – DENSA JAGUAR boarded at Surabaya Port, attempted armed robbery.
9th April, Vietnam – WESTGATE boarded at Ho Chi Min Port, robbed.
6th April, Indonesia – MAERSK BERING boarded at Belawan port, robbed. Robbers later contacted shipping agent offering to sell back stolen items.
5th April, India – NEW CENTURY attempted boarding at Visakhapatnam Anchorage.
4th April, Indonesia – GARDEN CITY RIVER boarded at Dumai Anchorage, robbed.
3rd April, Indonesia – IVER EXACT attempted boarding at Dumai Anchorage.
3rd April, Indonesia – SHER E PUNJAB boarded at Adang Bay Anchorage, armed robbers took crewmembers hostage and stole stores.
2nd April, Vietnam – WEHR BLANKESE boarded at Ho Chi Min port, robbed.
1st April, Bangladesh – CRANE boarded at Chittagong anchorage, armed robbers fled before stealing anything.
1st April, Indian Ocean – CONDOR observed suspicious activity in form of a group of boats, sent crew to citadel and took evasive action. This incident is not included in above figures.