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    Southeast Asia
     Apr 9, 2005
Pirates mock Malacca Strait security
By Ioannis Gatsiounis

KUALA LUMPUR - Pirates are making a mockery of the half-hearted efforts of Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore to make the Malacca Strait safe for shipping.

When the three littoral states launched a plan last July to coordinate patrols of the strait, they were determined to make two points. One, the waterway through which a third of the world's trade and half its oil passes was not vulnerable to terrorist and pirate attacks. And two, the littoral states themselves were up to the task of securing the strait and assistance by foreign militaries was unnecessary.

But four brazen pirate attacks in the strait in the past month alone have put paid to the littoral states' pretensions.

One saw 35 armed pirates hijack a gas tanker, something that it has long been feared might be converted by terrorists into a floating bomb and spearheaded into a port, severely disrupting world trade. Another attack saw three crewmen of a Japanese tugboat kidnapped, marking an incident in which a non-littoral state became a victim of a pirate attack.

In a race to allay fears and defend its sovereignty, the Malaysian government announced on April 1 that it would place armed police officers on board selected tugboats and barges traversing the strait. Singaporean officials say they are setting up a 24-hour information center that will begin operations next year.

"The [littoral state] authorities realize the importance of beefing up patrol," said Noel Choong, head of the Piracy Reporting Center of the International Maritime Bureau (IMB). "Indonesia and Malaysia don't want foreign intervention, but if this keeps going on, they will have a harder time resisting it."

Those two states are betting that better coordinating patrols will do the trick - such patrols, in Choong's words, being in essence a matter of "you control your waters, we control ours". But many observers have their doubts as to the effectiveness of this method.

Iskandar Sazlan of the IMB said the question is no longer whether the coordinated patrols are working - "clearly they're not" - but whether it is safe to sustain them. It is widely contended that the only way for coordinated patrols to be effective is if all parties involved are pulling their weight.

Indonesia, even by its leadership's admittance, is not. Of 325 reported pirate attacks worldwide in 2004, 93 occurred in Indonesian waters (compared with nine in Malaysia and eight in Singapore). The country's defense capacity is spread thin, with the government trying to quell separatist movements in Aceh and maintain stability elsewhere across the sprawling archipelago.

Complicating matters is an ongoing border row between Indonesia and Malaysia over two reputably oil-rich islands. Leaders on both sides play down the possibility this might impair joint efforts to monitor the strait, but both nations have become pronouncedly less hospitable toward one another of late. On Tuesday, Indonesia asked that all Malaysian troops involved in aid work in Aceh leave the region - this after the Malaysian government threatened to jail, cane and fine the estimated 1 million Indonesians working illegally in Malaysia. After the illegal-worker crackdown began last month, the Malaysian government announced that it would import 100,000 Pakistanis and nationals of several other Asian countries to help fill the labor shortage (see Malaysia's enduring labor pains, March 16).

Suspicion and indignation that the two countries traditionally have reserved for non-regional "imperialists" are increasingly being directed at each other. This, said Iskandar, may hinder security efforts. If, for instance, one side were to deploy dozens of warships to patrol its waters, "it will raise questions about whether it's an act of aggression", Iskandar noted. "Perceptions have very quickly changed."

The tensions are likely to stymie any calls to elevate coordinated patrols to a joint-patrol arrangement. Joint patrols would allow for "hot pursuit", whereby any littoral state chasing a pirate could cross over into the territorial waters of another littoral state. Some say hot-pursuit rights are vital to fight piracy effectively in the strait. Others say patching gaps in the current arrangement would help, and that this is something Malaysia and Indonesia could do without feeding suspicion or sacrificing sovereignty.

Part of the current problem, according to an official with the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore, is the extent and timeliness of information sharing between the littoral states; often by the time information is transferred, it's of little use. That, he said, should be helped by the information center, which several countries inside and outside the region are expected to sign on to soon.

Another helpful measure, he said, is a Japanese-sponsored regional cooperation agreement, which is "a first-of-its-kind legal framework to combat piracy". This agreement was endorsed in November by the 10 member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), along with China, Japan, South Korea, Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka, the maritime official said.

But a legal framework hardly addresses what others see as an unraveling situation. Indeed, reported pirate attacks worldwide dropped from 445 in 2003 to 325 last year, and from 121 to 93 in Indonesia over that same period. But the numbers don't reflect the nature of recent attacks.

According to the IMB's annual piracy report, of the 37 incidents in the Malacca Strait in 2004, "Many of these attacks were serious and involved crew being fired upon and crew kidnapped for ransom." The 35 pirates who attacked the gas tanker were said to have been carrying machine-guns and rocket launchers. Those who boarded a Malaysian tugboat in February reportedly shot an engineer in the leg and kidnapped the captain and chief officer. Both were later released.

Malaysian Defense Minister Najib Razak has openly acknowledged the severity of the situation, as well as its implications. "We have requested ... more cooperation from the Indonesian government in this matter," Najib recently told the state-monitored New Straits Times newspaper.

Echoing Choong from the IMB, he said, "If we fail to act, then I believe the international community will have more reasons to pressure us on the issue of security in the Malacca Strait."

Some of that pressure is coming from within the littoral triangle itself. Unlike Indonesia and Malaysia, Singapore has long been an advocate of greater international support, as its port is the busiest in the world and the city-state may stand to lose the most from a terrorist incident. This stance was reiterated in March when Singapore's defense minister, Teo Chee Hean, told a conference on maritime security that collective cooperation should include states outside the region. The city-state got a boost two weeks later when the Japanese crewman were kidnapped, given that the victims were not of the littoral states.

According to the Singaporean Maritime and Port Authority official quoted earlier, international intervention need not jeopardize national sovereignty. He pointed out that Japan, highly dependent on the strait, has been helping Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore secure the strait for the last 30 years. "But we haven't had a problem yet. Japan knows how to work well with local authorities. First, they recognize that they have a responsibility to the region. Secondly, they haven't stepped on anyone's toes."

The same could not be said last April, when US Admiral Thomas Fargo announced that the United States was considering deploying special forces on high-speed vessels along the Malacca Strait to compensate for some of the littoral states' seeming nonchalance toward safeguarding against a terrorist incident. The Malaysian government vociferously rejected the offer.

In light of the recent attacks, a Western diplomat treaded carefully on the question of whether the US government would make a stronger push to assist in strait security. "Ideally [the littoral states] will begin to cooperate more closely with each other," said the diplomat, who claimed the surge in attacks was not necessarily cause to sound alarm bells: "Pirate attacks are kind of cyclical in nature."

But clearly the international community is watching the developments in the strait very closely, if only from a different angle than the littoral states.

Ioannis Gatsiounis, a New York native, has worked as a freelance foreign correspondent and previously co-hosted a weekly political/cultural radio call-in show in the US. He has been living in Malaysia since late 2002.

(Copyright 2005 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us for information on sales, syndication and republishing.)


Malaysia, Indonesia stir friendship pot
(Mar 24, '05)

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

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

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

 
 

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