Maritime crime declines in Southeast Asia as countries adjust strategies to discourage sea bandit activity and prevent piracy
Shipping crews and maritime officials who routinely navigate waters across Southeast Asia received a bit of good news as the first quarter for 2016 ended, when a team of analysts reported that piracy in the region had fallen to its lowest point in a decade.
“The first three months of 2016 have visibly demonstrated the dynamic nature of maritime crime and how effective action to combat it can turn the tide in favor of the good guys,” said Ian Millen, chief operating officer for Dryad Maritime, an England-based team of maritime operations and intelligence specialists who examine activity across the maritime environment. It released the first quarter figures. “There are some welcome causes for optimism in certain regions, notably the Indian Ocean where Somali piracy remains broadly contained, and in Southeast Asia, where we have seen a remarkable turnaround in a little over six months to deliver our lowest first quarter figures in a decade.”
Dryad reported 13 cases of maritime crime in the first quarter of 2016 compared with 35 incidents during the same period for 2015 — a more than 50 percent decline. The most serious incident occurred in March 2016, when sea bandits hijacked an Indonesian-flagged oil ship carrying coal from Indonesia to the Philippines, then held its 10 crew members prisoner and demanded a U.S. $1-million ransom. Authorities believed the criminals to be members of the terrorist organization Abu Sayyaf Group.
Other agencies have also captured and presented data on the downturn in reported incidents, but some — like the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) — evaluate such information cautiously. The IMB, which established a reporting center in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in 1992, said a key factor in this recent global reduction was the drop in attacks against small fuel tankers around Southeast Asia’s coastlines.
“IMB particularly commends the robust actions taken by the Indonesian and Malaysian authorities in the arrest and prosecution of two gangs that hijacked tankers. We also applaud the subsequent arrest of some of the alleged masterminds,” IMB Director Pottengal Mukundan said in a February 2016 statement on IMB’s website.
According to IMB data, 15 vessels were hijacked in 2015 compared with 21 in 2014; 271 hostages were held on their ships in 2015 compared with 442 in 2014; and no hijackings were reported during the fourth quarter of 2015.
Despite reductions in what IMB calls “key areas,” bureau officials say piracy hot spots persist around the world. Mukundan cautioned shipmasters to maintain “strict anti-piracy and robbery watches” since Southeast Asia continues to account for most of the world’s incidents, according to IMB.
“Conditions can change quickly, for good and for ill, so we are by no means complacent. Without the comprehensive, international response to the Somali pirate threat, we wouldn’t be in the favorable position we find ourselves in today,” Millen said. “A great deal of credit must go to international naval forces and maritime security industry whose warships, helicopters and armed guards have deterred and defeated attempts at piracy, resulting in the remarkable decline from a high of 213 attacks on commercial shipping in 2011 to zero in 2015 and 2016 to date.”
Focusing too much on the numbers can lead to a false picture of exactly what’s taking place in the region, according to Sam Bateman, a retired commodore with the Royal Australian Navy who is now a research fellow at the Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security. He is also an adviser to the Maritime Security Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. He advocates delving deeper to assess the real issues.
“Absolute numbers of attacks give a misleading impression of the situation,” Bateman wrote in an April 2016 analysis titled “The True Story of Piracy in Asia” for Asia and the Pacific Policy Society. “It’s important to get behind the statistics and look at the nature of the attacks, what ships are being attacked, whether they are at anchor or underway, and where the attacks are occurring.”
Bateman commends the Singapore-based Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP) for classifying attacks based on level of violence used and economic loss incurred. Of the 200 attacks ReCAAP recorded in 2015, 153 were deemed minor incidents involving petty theft and no harm to the crew, Bateman wrote.
“Differentiating between incidents of ‘piracy’ and what the International Maritime Organization defines as ‘armed robbery against ships’ is important,” Bateman wrote. “Piracy occurs on board ships on the high seas, while armed robberies against ships occur in waters within a state’s sovereign jurisdiction — its internal waters, archipelagic waters and territorial sea. Most incidents in Asian waters are in fact ones of ‘armed robbery against ships’ and thus the responsibility of the relevant coastal state to take enforcement action. The strict definition of piracy establishes piracy as ‘a crime against humanity’ outside the jurisdiction of a coastal state against which any state is entitled to take action.”
Rear Adm. Achmad Taufiqqoerrochman M., commander of Western Fleet Command for the Indonesian Navy, agrees that properly labeling an incident of maritime crime makes a difference when it comes to a region’s reputation on how local authorities manage sea bandits and pirates.
“We must use the right terminology,” Taufiqqoerrochman told FORUM in January 2016 while attending the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium in Bangladesh.
The admiral said he used to read reports detailing issues with piracy in the Malacca Strait. His Navy took the accounts seriously and investigated only to determine that by United Nations definition, what was taking place amounted to criminal incidents — not piracy.
Terminology aside, Indonesian officials weren’t happy with the activity they did uncover.
Taufiqqoerrochman described the Malacca Strait as narrow. For some time, criminals had an advantage over Indonesian authorities because their boats were faster and smaller, making it easier for them to navigate the strait. Indonesia equipped its Navy with similar boats to match the speed and agility of the sea bandits, Taufiqqoerrochman told FORUM.
In addition to the capability change, Indonesia began working closer with Malaysia to exchange information on suspected sea bandits, and hopes to increase cooperation with Singapore. The admiral said increased regional cooperation helps naval officials obtain evidence to prosecute the criminals, who often disperse money to banks in Malaysia and Singapore.
The Indonesian Navy is also working more closely with police and the Coast Guard to track down tips about sea bandits who escape to shore before naval authorities can capture them. Taufiqqoerrochman said tips and interagency cooperation have allowed the Indonesian Navy to pursue criminal charges against more sea bandits.
The good news of declining incidents is no reason to relax. In fact, as security concerns rise regarding terrorist groups targeting shipping lanes, Southeast Asian officials continue looking for ways to increase joint patrols and maintain safer passages for all vessels.
Experts encourage countries to remain as vigilant on issues of sea crime as they did during the height of the problem.
“Despite the good progress in some regions, we should remember that criminal enterprises — maritime or otherwise — are adaptable, flexible and unconstrained by ethics, morality or international corporate law,” said Millen of Dryad Maritime. “We know that they are no less business-savvy than legitimate, law-abiding enterprises and will adapt to changing market conditions, finding new, less risky and more profitable ways of acquiring their ill-gotten gains. Keeping one step ahead of the criminals is the key to success, and the foundations of success lie in understanding the threat and engaging in ways of mitigating the risk that they may pose.”
The definition of the crime of piracy is contained in Article 101 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Piracy consists of any of the following acts:
A. Any illegal acts of violence or detention, or any act of depredation, committed for private ends by the crew or the passengers of a private ship or a private aircraft and directed:
- On the high seas, against another ship or aircraft, or against persons or property on board such ship or aircraft;
- Against a ship, aircraft, persons or property in a place outside the jurisdiction of any State.
B. Any act of voluntary participation in the operation of a ship or of an aircraft with knowledge of facts making it a pirate ship or aircraft.
C. Any act of inciting or of intentionally facilitating an act described in subparagraph A or B.