Monday, 23 January 2017


Known as paradise for pirates, Indonesia waters and the Straits of Malacca have claimed 40% of the worldwide pirate attacks in 2004. Although sea piracy has tripled in the past 10 years around the world, the Straits of Malacca was ranked as the most dangerous sea route, according to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB). With 200 to 600 ships crossing the Straits daily, this narrow channel with forested shorelines and islet hideaways offers pirates amble opportunities to ransack, kidnap or kill the crew, and worse still, hijack the vessel. The high-sea criminals seemed to increase their daring assaults at will for almost a year - outrunning, outmaneuvering and even outwitting the concerted military patrols of three nations: Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Linking the Indian Ocean with the Pacific Ocean, the 621-mile Straits of Malacca lies between Malaysia and Sumatra of Indonesia while stretching to the southern entrance of Singapore with one-and-a-half nautical miles wide at its narrowest point. As the shortest sea passage between some of the world's most populous and wealthy countries, the Straits hosts one of the busiest maritime lanes, carrying about a third of global trade and nearly all oil imports for Japan and China. For sea robbers, the Straits represents a treasure trove either found on vessels or paid in ransom for kidnapped victims.

The Straits of Malacca has a long history of sea piracy, dating back to the arrival of European colonizers. In those days, piracy plagued the waters of Southeast Asia as a form of rebellion against the foreign rulers. Social poverty drove many Southeast Asian individuals to pursue piracy to make a living. In defense, the British and the Dutch drew a demarcation line dividing the Straits of Malacca, with the agreement to hunt down pirates within their own spheres of influence. To this very day, the British-Dutch demarcation line separating Malaysia from Indonesia remains a border problem in combating piracy.

Indonesia, an archipelago of more than 17,000 islands, has been thrown into limelight after the catastrophic tsunami in December 2004, followed by two destructive earthquakes in Sumatra in 2005. Still reeling from the natural disasters, the nation has been plagued with increasingly perilous piracy in its waters, drawing international outcry for more security and effective measures to protect tankers, container and cargo ships, yachts and fishing boats. However, during the presence of international relief operations for tsunami victims in the Aceh region, piracy actually ceased for two months but later resumed more violently after the departure of the foreign naval ships.

The IMB believes from eyewitness testimonies and reports that the vast majority of pirates in the Straits of Malacca are Indonesian in origin. Apparently, the Indonesian Navy seems to be far from adequate to curtail the sea menace - lacking modern equipment and sufficient ships for pursuits (only 30% ships are considered seaworthy), and short of resources for patrolling Indonesia's sprawling territories. Nevertheless, the Indonesian Navy has positioned six battleships in the Straits with more than 20 ships and 10 aircraft to conduct daily traffic patrols.

Bordering on both sides of the Straits, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia share the responsibility in safeguarding passage for all vessels and protecting the vital waterway from marauders. Last July, these three nations joined efforts in military patrols along the Straits - without much success. The IMB 2004 report highlights 93 out of 325 pirate attacks occurred in Indonesia, with a drop in the number of incidents but a hike in kidnappings and killings of the ship's crew.

One major cause cited for the trilateral collaboration failure to eliminate piracy was due to navies not having the jurisdiction to chase pirates out of their national boundaries - Singapore and Indonesia supported such limited "hot pursuit" rights. Another cause might lie in the possible corruption of Indonesian patrols. For some reason, pirates seemed to know the time schedules and patterns of the navy patrols. In addition, pirates appeared to roam unhindered - having access to increasingly sophisticated equipment and weaponry (radar-tracking system, automatic weapons, and rocket launchers) and in-depth knowledge of the shipping industry (false identity papers for the crew and vessel, fake cargo invoices, and a broker network to resell the stolen goods). In fact, only 1% of pirates had ever been caught raises suspicion of renegade navy or coast guard units working in conjunction with crime syndicate. To dispel any notion of the military's involvement with piracy, the Indonesian naval chief recently gave the order to shoot dead on sight any armed pirates.

Piracy occurring either at sea or in ports falls under three categories, all of which exist in the Straits of Malacca - opportunistic pirate seizing a chance to make a quick profit; "gang" pirate belonging to an organized crime syndicate; and "political" pirate associated with a terrorist or secessionist group. The first type operates in small groups with fast boats going after easy targets - often robbing the ship and crew of money and valuables. The second type coordinates an ambush with sophisticated arms and equipment - stealing a large cargo load, kidnapping the crew for ransom, or hijacking the ship, which requires careful planning, skilled seamanship, significant funding, and some cooperation from port authorities. In recent years, fish piracy has been connected to the organized crime in Asia. Due to the depletion of some fish stocks, the value of some species has soared, resulting in pirates taking over fishing boats with their prized catch or poaching shellfish, such as abalone, in the Pacific Ocean. The third type seeks funding or political statement in an act of pirate terrorism - conducting similar operations as the organized crime gang with the objective of sustaining terrorist activity. The members of Free Aceh Movement, an Indonesian separatist group, have been hijacking vessels and taking hostages in exchange for ransom to procure arms or for the captured rebels detained by the government. The worst scenario of the third type is for pirates to hijack an oil tanker to be used in terrorist acts as a way to disrupt world trade. The fear of such pirate terrorism is not without justification. In 2002, al-Qaeda terrorists rammed a boat rigged with explosives into a French tanker stationed off Yemen.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) estimates only half of pirate attacks were ever reported due to the following reasons - fear of ship's reputation being marred; protracted, time-consuming investigation; and raising ship's insurance premiums. For commercial shipping vessels to run smoothly, whether transporting cargo, passengers or supplies to other ships, depends mainly on two important factors: time and cost. Therefore, the ship always takes the shortest path to its destination, for delays would result in skyrocketing price of cargo or extensive operation cost.

As for the present precarious environment at sea, individual vessels can seek on-board solutions to provide for their own security. Besides the current use of floodlights and fire hoses for defense on vessels, many methods are promoted to fight against increasingly dangerous pirates. Electrified railings and automatic water shields would make it more difficult for pirates to climb aboard. Bridges equipped with cameras and voice recorders could assist in identifying the high-sea criminals. Shiploc, a technological device, uses a satellite tracking system to monitor the ship's location and alert proper authority when the ship's under an attack. UAV (unmanned aerial vehicles) could be used to monitor large areas around the ship. Moreover, sea marshals and non-lethal weapons, such as stun grenades, pepper spray, slippery foam dispensers, electromagnetic or pulse weapons, could be employed to battle against the pirates. 

In conclusion, piracy in the Straits of Malacca is not just a regional menace, but a global problem for it involves world trade. It is paramount that the Indonesian government undergoes military transformation, enforces anti-piracy policies, and improves intelligence to penetrate crime syndicate or terrorist group. Corporations and other governments could assist the Indonesian government with much needed finance, military personnel and up-to-date equipment essential to combat piracy. A secured passage through the Straits of Malacca not only saves the international shipping industry but also sends a foreboding message to sea pirates in other parts of the world.

(First published on; May 2, 2005)