Search Asia Times

Advanced Search

Southeast Asia

Part 1: Southeast Asia's modern-day pirates
By Eric Koo

The unipolarity of the United States and its near domination of the world's oceans by its naval fleets ensure that no other nation could build a navy with enough strength to rival the US in the near future. Washington's unchallenged dominance is an obvious strategy in view of the strategic situation that currently favors the US.

Since the Korean War, the US Navy has been reduced to what are in essence support and transportation roles for US ground and air forces fighting their conflicts on land. The recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have further increased these protectionary maritime roles along sea routes that deliver oil to the United States and its allies. The use of the navy in opposing other potential enemy naval fleets is almost moot. The last major naval engagement was a short, one-sided operation between the US fleet and Iraqi naval assets in the 1991 Gulf War. Thereafter, the US Navy largely played a deterrent role, as seen in the Taiwan crisis in 1996 when China fired missiles in the waters around Taiwan. This was reaffirmed once again by US Admiral Thomas Fargo in a message to Beijing, stating that US naval forces would be used in defense of Taiwan should war break out over the Taiwan Strait.

Thus the world's strategic naval situation is one of uneasy balance and inactivity. Naval forces will not likely have opportunities to pit their firepower against each other in the future. But navies will need to remain strong as another threat requiring the use of naval power now lurks in the shadows.

September 11, 2001, highlighted terrorism as a new worldwide security threat, and modern terrorist groups have already demonstrated a capacity for creative horizontal escalation, with possible development toward terrorist operations at sea.

Southeast Asia in particular is a region where maritime security is of foremost importance to its seaborne trade and commerce. Geographically, Southeast Asia is in essence a maritime region dotted with thousands of islands and islets amid larger landmasses and peninsulas. At present, Southeast Asia is divided politically into a number of nation-states with growing economies and industries and an ever-widening middle class. National self-interests and different social priorities and agendas, however, dictate that regional partners do not usually see eye-to-eye with regard to maritime-security policies.

The threat of piracy and maritime terrorism remains real and ever-present. Thus it is of great interest to the 10 member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) - in particular, Singapore - seeking to devise a maritime policy with some permanency, one that will benefit the security of all state players concerned.

It is not enough to limit maritime security to just brown-water (shallow) security patrols, as is evident by the history of piracy in Southeast Asia and modern cases of maritime terrorism, seen through the acts of the militant Islamic group, the Abu Sayyaf, among others.

History of piracy in Southeast Asian waters
Piracy has long plagued the waters of Southeast Asia. During the 19th century the Malacca Strait was already an important waterway for ships traveling from India and the West to China. Today, a third of the world's trade passes through the narrow sea channel bordering Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. The region and the surrounding seas of the Malay Archipelago are dotted with thousands of islets, narrow straits and sheltered rivers, all of which make perfect hideaways. This geographical fact, along with other factors, favored the rise of piracy: the geography of the Malay Archipelago makes effective sea patrol a daunting, if not impossible, task.

Pirate crews included the local Malay aborigines, or the Lanuns, a seafaring people. They hail from surrounding coastal villages in what make up the territories of Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines today. There were also substantial numbers of Chinese pirates from the north, usually outcasts from the mainstream Chinese society of the old Ching Dynasty, who found a niche for themselves by preying on trading ships plying the South China Sea in their seafaring junks.

Piracy then was regarded among Southeast Asian rural societies as a form of social mobility, as it brought easy wealth to its perpetrators and also entailed bravery, tactical and navigational skills as essential virtues. This brought about an entire sub-class or caste in Southeast Asia's rural social structure.

Also, the coming of European colonizers abruptly upset the old traditional trades of Malay society, when restrictive monopoly systems of trade were imposed, causing certain sections of society to suffer economic downgrading. Economic necessity drove many individuals to pursue piracy as a form of living.

To a certain extent as well, piracy was a form of irregular warfare waged by local peoples to resist European encroachment. To curb piracy, the British and the Dutch drew an imaginary line of demarcation separating the Strait of Malacca, with agreements to pursue and annihilate pirates within their spheres of influence.

Incidentally, the British-Dutch demarcation line is now the modern line of separation between Malaysia and Indonesia, and like the dividing line, the problems of administering the Malacca Strait have persisted to contemporary times. Ideally, it would be best to place the strait under the control of a single political entity; this would ensure a more unified form of maritime policing. But political realities dictate otherwise.

Still, early European efforts to curb piracy had the intended effect. Piracy declined in the late 19th century because of three factors:
1) the increased frequency of naval patrols by colonial powers;
2) established political control of Malaya (now Malaysia and Singapore) by the British, leading to better political stability and improved economic conditions that caused piracy to steadily lose its appeal as a way of life;
3) naval superiority in the form of steamships against wind-powered pirate sailing ships.

Modern piracy
Pirate and merchant ships during colonial times could carry cannons aboard a form of defense. That was possible because weapons such as muskets, pistols and cannons then were regarded as normal commodities for trade in the same manner as silk or spices. In modern times, only ships belonging to state navies or maritime authorities can be armed with heavy weapons - ie, high-caliber guns, missile launchers, or torpedoes capable of sinking other vessels. Also, only state authorities have a license to either commission the manufacture of such weapons, or obtain them by purchase from foreign arms merchants. All other ships possessing such arms do so illegally.

Modern piracy is a form of organized crime on the high seas. Pirates utilize light arms such as assault rifles, pistols or hand-held rocket launchers. Their vessels generally do not have guns of a large caliber capable of engaging in naval combat. In fact, pirate ships masquerade as ships performing a variety of other innocent roles, including cargo transport or fishing, in order to escape suspicion from maritime authorities.

In Southeast Asia, measures for monitoring ships' seaworthiness remain relatively inadequate. Drowning and losses of sailors at sea are fairly common, and many incidents go unreported. This is particularly so for unregistered, privately owned vessels, which may be used for piracy. Pirate vessels, however, may have their shipboard engines augmented for the optimum speed achievable for their class of ship, to enable them to pursue a target or flee from pursuers. In the case of smaller vessels, sometimes ship stability and necessary safety measures such as ballast are sacrificed for the acquisition of higher speeds. A typical pirate operation would involve the pirate ship intercepting or catching up with its designated target ship; its crew would then openly display their light arms and threaten to open fire unless the target ship halts and allows boarding parties.

The following acts constitute piracy, under international law:
1) kidnapping of the crew or passengers of another ship, for purposes of ransom;
2) robbery;
3) murder;
4) unlawful seizure of cargo or other shipboard valuables;
5) hijacking, again for purposes of ransom;
6) sabotage, resulting in the ship subsequently sinking.

As in most crimes, criminals seek to wipe out evidence or traces of their activities. In fact, the difficulty of locating evidence lost at sea accounts for the apparent callousness involved in maritime crimes as compared with land-based crimes. It is not uncommon if the above-mentioned acts are committed in a consecutive fashion, with the victimized ship eventually being sunk and the bodies of its victims thrown into the sea. Robbery, for instance, may be followed up with murder so no witnesses are left behind to testify against the perpetrators.

Investigations by the International Maritime Bureau show a disturbing trend of increased frequency of violence at sea, with 50 attacks of piracy within Indonesian territorial waters out of 182 reported worldwide for the first six months of 2004. That is a substantial statistic that does not reflect well on the security level of Southeast Asian waters.

Commercial shipping
The modern equivalent of merchant ships, commercial shipping vessels, perform a variety of functions that represent international maritime trade. The most common functions of modern shipping include the transport of cargo, passengers or supplies to other ships. Two factors, time and cost, determine the dynamics of commercial shipping and influence the routes from one destination to the next.

Time especially is greatly important in directly affecting global commerce in other industrial or commercial sectors of the economy. That is why there has been so much concern over sweeping maritime security checks to be carried out in compliance with the anti-terror standards set by the International Maritime Organization (IMO). Such security measures, while helping to deal with the piracy problem, increase transport times and costs. In particular, the delay for security checks for oil tankers may result in further skyrocketing of the price of petroleum. Commercial ships, therefore, spend as little time as possible out at sea, taking the shortest and most direct routes to their destinations.

Unlike naval shipping, where ships are deployed according to where they are required (the proximity to flash points or areas of conflict), commercial ships usually use pre-determined sea routes calculated to give the shortest traveling time, with allowances for wave and weather conditions. The planning of ship routes is based on the following factors:
1) linear routes of sail where possible; ie, ships travel in straight lines instead of curves;
2) sailing near coasts and port locations whenever possible, for the purpose of safeguarding against unexpected contingencies at sea; 3) utilizing narrow straits or sea channels that cut down on traveling distance. The Suez Canal is an example of saving on nautical distance from Europe to Asia.

Thus it is possible for resourceful pirates to make simple but sound plans for ambushing a selected target ship, based on information about the ship's sailing timetable. Such details may be obtained by bribery - or by direct inquiry from various sources.

The threat of piracy, of course, is of concern to shipping companies and ship owners. However, piracy alone does not deter merchants from continuing to send their ships along well-established, logical trade routes instead of round-about sea routes to avoid pirates. Such rationale has justifications. The oceand are immense, and even in narrow sea straits, the odds of encountering pirates is small. If encountered, evasion is still possible because the sea, unlike land, allows vessels to maneuver in almost any direction desired.

There is also the question of cost. Running long, round-about sea voyages to avoid pirates is simply not cost-effective. Shipping companies, therefore, will logically take the calculated risk of sending their ships along old trade routes, knowing full well the possibility of being prey to pirates and maritime terrorists.

The responsibility of protecting sea lanes, therefore, lies with state governments.

TOMORROW - Tides of terror hit Southeast Asia

Eric Koo has a bachelor's degree in materials engineering and a master's degree of science in strategic studies from Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. He is currently writing commentary and analysis articles about international events, security issues and terrorism for newspapers.

(Copyright 2004 Eric Koo.)

Oct 19, 2004
Asia Times Online Community

Malacca Strait: Target for terror
(Aug 11, '04)

How it could happen ...
(Aug 11, '04)

Straits security reflects hazy dividing line
(Jul 14, '04)

Divisions over terror threat in Malacca Straits
(Jun 16 '04)

Fighting maritime terrorism
(Jun 16, '04)


No material from Asia Times Online may be republished in any form without written permission.
Copyright 2003, Asia Times Online, 4305 Far East Finance Centre, 16 Harcourt Rd, Central, Hong Kong