BY ERIC FRECON
South-east Asia’s pirates are back in the headlines. Some of them hijacked the tanker Budi Mesra Dua on June 7 when it was on its way from Singapore to Labuan.
And early Sunday morning, a combined force of Malaysia, Singaporean and Indonesian navies fought off the attempted hijacking of a tanker in the South China Sea off Malaysia’s east coast.
In recent years, this kind of news has mainly come from the Horn of Africa, where the Singapore Navy has been busy fighting piracy as part of the multinational Combined Task Force 151.
Indeed, while the activities of Somali pirates were being reported on the front pages of the newspapers, Asean countries were celebrating a dramatic decline in the number of similar incidents in the Strait of Malacca.
Only one such attack was reported last year, down from 38 in 2005.
But it was presumptuous to consider piracy had been virtually eliminated.
After all, the number of attacks in Indonesia rose from 15 in 2009 to 106 last year.
In March 2010, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore raised terror alert levels after a tip-off that terrorists were planning to attack vessels in the Malacca Strait.
But while terror risks have to be taken seriously, equally if not more pertinent are worrying factors on the ground, such as the legal impediments for fully effective Malacca Strait sea and air patrols.
The law on the sea, coupled with the reluctance of the littoral states to allow foreign patrols, has made the prevention efforts very difficult.
The lack of reliable military equipment, especially in Indonesia, did not help either. Today, the national election now taking place in Indonesia may also be diverting Jakarta’s attention away from such maritime issues.
Former and prospective pirates still exist, waiting among the taxi boats in the kampungs or warungs (small shops and family-owned businesses) of Nagoya and Jodoh in Batam.
They may have done their best to find safer and more respectable jobs. Twenty years after the upsurge of piracy in the early 1990s, and now in their 40s, former pirates may no longer be keen to attack ships at night.
But many have not got what they expected in their new professions. The resulting bitterness and the persistently high unemployment rate have pushed them back into illegal activity.
Many former pirate chiefs returned to the Riau Islands after short retirements.
One of them tried to launch a pepper plantation business in Sulawesi; another opened a Quranic school in East Java. But eventually, both came back just when the number of pirate attacks began to rise.
After having engaged in petty theft, targeting merchant vessels at berth or at anchorage in 80 per cent of incidents last year, criminals are hijacking tankers again and siphoning oil cargoes. And they do not hesitate to take crew members hostage in the process.
In responding to this, the focus should not only be on the necessary diplomatic and naval steps, including efficient patrols and intelligence sharing systems, but also on legal, economic and social factors.
Cooperation between Asian police forces and coast guards, as well as the ReCAAP Information Sharing Centre in Alexandra Road, and the navy international liaison officers at the Information Fusion Centre at the Changi Naval Base, is the first critical step.
But, as football fans know, it is difficult to win by just defending. Thus, it is time to adopt a holistic or total approach, understand local challenges and deal with root causes.
The comprehensive approach of the European Union in Eastern Africa, for example, is a possible model. Established in July 2012, under the Common Security and Defence Policy, the Eucap Nestor was designed to enhance the maritime capacities of five countries in the Horn of Africa and the Western Indian Ocean.
This involves various initiatives, including measures to keep young boys away from recruiters and deter pirates while preventing money laundering and strengthening penal systems.
The media also has to play a critical role, as it did in the 2000s.
Numerous articles on the Malacca Strait Patrols frightened many pirates.
Now more than ever, the fight against piracy is a collective task. To rely on only one method would be a major mistake.
It is also important that the littoral states maintain the pressure on their respective enforcement organisations.
Pirate attacks taking place in under-reported areas such as Jambi and East Kalimantan also require attention.
Pirates often shift their operations from place to place in an attempt to dodge anti-piracy efforts.
The writer is an assistant professor at the French Naval Academy.