Piracy’s Decline in the Strait of Malacca

Piracy has been eradicated in the Strait of Malacca whereas elsewhere in the world it rises. Regional cooperation, coordination and a Tsunami, account for this.

Image courtesy of thienzieung, © 2008, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of thienzieung, © 2008, some rights reserved.

Piracy in the Strait of Malacca, unlike off the coast of Somalia and against the global trend, has effectively been eradicated. Increased cooperation and coordination in anti-piracy operations among littoral states is an important factor. However, of equal, if not greater significance to the regional decline of piracy is the massive impact of the 2004 Tsunami.

The Strait of Malacca is a waterway 600 nautical miles long between the Malaysian peninsula and the Indonesian island of Sumatra. The Strait is a vital shipping route transited every year by over 50,000 ships carrying approximately 40% of the world’s trade. This includes a majority of the oil tankers that supply the economies of East Asia. A mere 1.7 nm wide at its narrowest point, the Strait is listed as one of the world’s major maritime chokepoints. Given the volume of shipping, the Strait has been plagued by piracy for centuries. Following the Asian financial crisis of the late-1990s, piracy became particularly prevalent. In 2004 there were 38 actual or attempted pirate attacks in the Strait which at the time was the second-highest in the world. These attacks took many forms including robbery, kidnapping and hijacking. By 2008 the number of pirate incidents in the Strait had fallen to 2, as globally piracy reached a record high. By 2009 only one incident was recorded as the global number rose to 102 attacks 1. The global trend of piracy has been a significant year on year increase but contrary to this, the Strait of Malacca has gone from a piracy hotspot to a piracy free zone. What accounts for this change?

The rolling back of the tide really began in summer 2004. Several factors explain this shift; the first is an increase in anti-piracy cooperation and coordination among local states and the second is the devastating impact of the 2004 Christmas Tsunami.

Firstly, further cooperation and coordination among the littoral states has increased the effectiveness of anti-piracy operations. This has heightened the risk to pirate and acts as a more robust deterrent. One such example of said cooperation is the ‘Trilateral Coordinated Patrol’ between the Indonesian, Malaysian and Singaporean navies. Another cooperative initiative is the ‘Eye in the Sky’ (EiS) mission whereby the littoral states operate airborne anti-piracy patrols multilaterally. Both of these involve an increased element of coordination and information sharing among the states involved, especially since the two were brought together as the ‘Malacca Strait Patrols’.  Another significant anti-piracy initiative is ReCAAP (Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combatting Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia), although Malaysia and Indonesia are not signatories. Why have these states started to cooperate after years of military mistrust and insistence on absolute sovereignty?

One reason is that piracy had reached unacceptable levels and was impacting trade. Another factor is external pressure. Given the importance of the Strait to international trade and given increased fears of maritime terrorism post 9/11, major powers put increased pressure on the littoral states to better combat piracy or threatened to do it themselves. For Malaysia and Indonesia, two countries who greatly prize their sovereignty and who continue to resist participating in multinational endeavours such as ReCAAP, the prospect of foreign navies policing the Strait was unacceptable.

However, was this increased cooperation the only or even the most influential factor in the decline in piracy? Despite the cooperative initiatives there was no immediate reduction in the incidence of piracy. Although a major step forward, the cooperative initiatives are constrained by both inherent flaws and capability gaps. The tri-lateral patrols are hamstrung by their inability to pursue pirates across territorial boundaries as a result of Malaysia and Indonesia insisting on territorial integrity. Anti-piracy operations are also constrained by a capability gap. According to the Indonesian Navy’s Admiral Soebijanto, Indonesia needs another 262 ships to adequately patrol its 17,000 islands. Additionally, only 25% of Indonesia’s current ships are serviceable at any given time 2.  Similarly multilateral EiS patrols require upwards of 70 sorties a week to be effective compared to the 8 currently undertaken 3. Encouragingly though, the EiS aircrafts are allowed to cross territorial boundaries to a distance of 3nm which represents a major softening of the hard-line attitude to borders. Finally ReCAAP, involving only Singapore of the littoral states, is stunted by the absence of Malaysia and Indonesia. Given these flaws and limitations and given the lack of an immediate reduction in the number of pirate incidents, perhaps the increase in cooperative endeavour was not the key factor.

Killing, capturing or deterring pirates at sea only addresses part of the problem. It confronts only the symptoms of a deeper social malaise. A very large number of pirates hail and operate from the Aceh region of Indonesia. The three-decade long conflict between the Islamic separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM), and the Indonesian military has led to intense poverty in the region and pushed people into piracy. Patrolling the seas could stem piracy but it would not eradicate it, given the desperation of those undertaking it to survive. Poverty was the ultimate source of the piracy and the cooperative initiatives did little to reduce it. Nature, however, did. The Boxing Day Tsunami in 2004 hit Aceh particularly hard, devastating coastal regions and killing over 70% of inhabitants in many coastal settlements. In short, many pirates were killed onshore and their vessels wrecked. Piracy in the Strait ceased in the immediate weeks afterwards and fell considerably over the year4. However, it had another important impact, being that it facilitated the end of the local conflict. The need to coordinate disaster relief efforts brought together GAM and the Indonesian military. From these talks, a series of negotiations developed which concluded with the demilitarisation of GAM and the withdrawal of large numbers of Indonesian troops. This allowed Aceh to normalise, and as poverty lessened, fewer people were pushed into piracy. The Tsunami therefore had a dual impact by both reducing the numbers of existing pirates and reducing the numbers becoming pirates.

The Tsunami as provided a vital shock to the system. Given the inadequacies and limitations of the anti-piracy initiatives I doubt that they alone would have been successful. However, they could perhaps be sufficient in preventing a resurgence of piracy. I liken the situation to a forest fire. A bucket of water (representing anti-piracy operations) would have little effect against a raging forest fire. But after that fire is extinguished (in this case by the Tsunami), that bucket of water would be sufficient to extinguish those few flames that leap from the embers.

1)     http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1893032,00.html

2)     http://www.usnwc.edu/getattachment/7835607e-388c-4e70-baf1-b00e9fb443f1/Piracy-and-Armed-Robbery-in-the-Malacca-Strait–A-

3)     Ibid.

4)     Ibid.

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