Recent months have seen the resurgence of piracy in the region, leading one United Nations agency to call Southeast Asia a ‚Äúpiracy hotspot‚Äù. In fact, there were about eight armed piracy-related attacks at the start of 2014 in the Strait of Malacca, according to a report by the Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability.
Piracy in Southeast Asia is not a new phenomenon. From the 14th to 19th centuries, pirates plundered trading ships loaded with goods from the lucrative spice trade, seeking to boost their own coffers as well as signal their resistance to European colonialists.
Up until 2004, over a third of all pirate attacks in the world took place in Southeast Asian waters. However, strong government and military intervention on land and sea helped to stave off the problem, at least on the surface. Countries like Singapore and Malaysia collectively coordinated sea patrols, increased the number of surveyor airplanes, and collected information on pirates. This transnational effort increased the costs of continuing operations for pirates and halted their involvement in the region.
At the same time, in the Indonesian region of Aceh, the implementation of a peace accord helped remedy conflict between the Indonesian military and a local Islamic separatist group, the Free Aceh Movement. The group was for many years, reportedly a key source of pirates who plundered the Strait of Malacca. In addition, more interdependent regional mechanisms for maritime security were set up to counter piracy, such as the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) Regional Forum on Maritime Security.
Unfortunately, these earlier fixes have crumbled while deep-rooted factors remain. The Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability attributes piracy in Southeast Asia to a multitude of reasons, including ‚Äúover-fishing, lax maritime regulations, the existence of organised crime syndicates, the presence of radical politically motivated groups in the region, and widespread poverty‚Äù.
To complicate matters, the rise in trade in Southeast Asian waters adds further incentive for pirates seeking bounties. Overall trade in Asean increased by 16.8 per cent to US$2.1 trillion (S$2.6 trillion) in 2011 from 2010. In particular, Asean exports of mineral fuels and oils as well as their distilled products were worth US$228 billion in 2011. These figures only serve to tempt the return of piracy in Southeast Asia, luring it back to the waters it once called home.