Piracy at sea figured prominently during a two-panel event on Pan-African Maritime Goals for 2050 hosted by New York-based International Peace Institute (IPI) on Thursday, where one of the questions, although discussed peripherally, pertained to the possible resurgence of piracy in other regions, including Southeast Asia, particularly the Straits of Melaka.
The IPI event, following the 18th Plenary Meeting of the UN Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia (CGPCS), served as a prelude to the Extraordinary Summit of Heads of State and Government on Maritime Security and Development for Africa, being jointly organised by the African Union and Togo in Lome, Togo, from Nov 2 to 7, 2015.
The event, invariably, made comparisons between the piracy situation in and around the waters of Somalia and other regions, including Southeast Asia.
Prominent participants representing NGOs and non-NGOs, including Togo's foreign minister Robert Dussey, highlighted not just the losses incurred in terms of ransom money and lives but also the huge impact on the economies of countries in the region.
The decline in Somali piracy has turned attention to other regions, including the Straits of Melaka. Oceans Beyond Piracy, a Colorado based organisation which annually assesses the cost of maritime piracy – both economic and human – to the international community, released a couple of weeks back its latest report called The State of Maritime Piracy 2014, highlighting that 2014 was a "year of improvement in the Western Indian Ocean".
The incidents of piracy attacks in the Western Indian Ocean have apparently come down drastically because of higher surveillance, deterrent factors as strong naval presence in the waters of the region, private armed guards on board the ships, etc.
The report also includes this year, for the first time, a section on the human cost of piracy in Southeast Asia. According to the International Maritime Bureau, "there's a risk that the attacks and violence in Southeast Asia could increase if left unabated" since 93 per cent of all attacks resulted in successful boarding of the victim vessels, significantly increasingly the risk of direct, often violent, interaction between pirates and seafarers.
This is, particularly, true of incidents where pirates attack a vessel with the goal of stealing its cargo, thus requiring them to stay on the vessel for a prolonged period of time.
According to information on Southeast Asian piracy provided by the ReCAAP (Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia) Information-Sharing Centre (ISC) and the IMB Piracy Reporting Centre, 3,654 seafarers were subjected to attacks, with 800 seafarers subjected to violence or the threat of violence; 51 per cent of such attacks involved the use of weapons.
The OBP estimates that 40 per cent of the seafarers affected by piracy were from countries within the Southeast Asian region. Physical abuse of seafarers was reported in 28 per cent of the incidents while kidnapping for ransom was absent in Southeast Asia – this was in contrast to the money demanded for release of seafarers kidnapped in the waters in and around Somalia – pirates often showed a callous disregard for seafarers in Southeast Asia which last year saw a total of 185 attacks, with 64 per cent of the attacks taking place near the Melaka Strait with a 93 per cent rate of pirates successfully boarding victim vessels.
"The complex nature of maritime jurisdictions in the region presents many challenges for the reporting and classification of events; Southeast Asia recorded the highest rate of successful attacks of the three regions OBP assessed in this year's report (the other two regions being Western Indian Ocean and Gulf of Guinea)," says the OBP's annual report. One reason for the higher number of incidents in Southeast Asia, according to the OBP, is the large geographical expanse of the region; Indonesia alone spans more than 2,800 NM. By comparison, the coastline between the Horn of Africa and the Cape of Good Hope in Southern Africa is 3,300 NM long.
A massive amount of vessel traffic flows through the Southeast Asian region – over 4,000 ships can be seen in the Melaka and Singapore Straits at any given time. The OBP report suggests that unlike Somali piracy, which occurred almost entirely in international waters, attacks on vessels in the Southeast Asian region took place primarily within the territorial seas, archipelagic waters, and the Exclusive Economic Zones of at least nine different countries. Piracy and armed robbery against ships in Southeast Asian waters follow three primary models which, besides its varying economic impact, usually involve differing levels of violence and abuse.
The three models consist largely of theft, aggravated robbery with the use of firearms or knives and cargo theft and hostage-taking. Insisting on anonymity, experts spoke to Bernama on the sidelines of the IPI event about a recent attack on a Malaysian oil tanker; the pirates fled after a Malaysian naval ship intervened.
Malaysian naval chief Tan Sri Abdul Aziz Jaafar was quoted as saying that the eight pirates, wielding guns and machetes, and believed to be Indonesians, abandoned the MT Orkim Harmony but all 22 crew were safe, except for an Indonesian cook who was shot in the thigh (Abdul Aziz tweeted).
The ship was carrying 7.5 million liters of gasoline worth some RM21 million. Deepak Shetty, an Indian expert on mercantile shipping, who is the director general of shipping and an additional secretary in India's Ministry of Shipping, told Bernama that Somalia was the epicentre of piracy until three years ago. "Somalia no longer dominate piracy which is migrating to other regions," he said.
Indian seafarers had also been kidnapped in the past but they were released; the last abducted Indian seafarer was released in November 2013, after spending a staggering four years and one month in captivity.
Shetty emphasised that the Indian Government maintains a strict policy of not negotiating with pirates, terrorists, etc. Commenting on piracy in Southeast Asia, Shetty said that the region was largely safe. "Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore are responsible nations, and they are capable of reacting effectively (to combat piracy). African nations are asked to pay attention to enforcement and bring to justice the pirates and their kingpins.
One deterrent against piracy is to forfeit and freeze financial assets originating from piracy, and thus also prevent money-laundering and financing of terrorism," he said.