Pirates in the Strait of Malacca: An old problem that needs a new solution.

The realm of piracy is ever changing. The era of salty buccaneers with skulls and crossbones is in the far past. Even the better-known pirates in Somalia have been put out of action. The new threat, as addressed by the IMB International Meeting on Global Piracy, Armed Robbery and Maritime Security on September 14th and 15th, lies in Southeast Asia. The particular area of focus, the Strait of Malacca, is a long, narrow water passage through which one-third of global trade passes,[1]  and where 40 per cent of global piracy attacks have happened in the last year.  The littoral states of Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore are the areas in which this brand of criminal activity festers and are also the ones tasked with finding a solution.

Image Courtesy of U.S. Department of Defense © 2006, some rights reserved.
Image Courtesy of U.S. Department of Defense © 2006, some rights reserved.

Just as terrorism cannot be described in expansive stereotypes, the pirates of the Strait of Malacca are a complex and unique criminal faction as compared to their more popular Somali counterparts. The majority of men who turn to the illicit trade are impoverished regional migrants. In Indonesia, economic development has led to the marginalization of certain working populations whose skill sets are no longer relevant in the country’s new modernized economy.[2] This socio-economic situation spurs the development of local gangs drawn to the opportunity of easy plunder.  Once on the water, they display different tendencies from other pirating groups as well. Instead of capturing boats and demanding ransoms for the crew and cargo, this breed of Southeast Asian pirate pursues different spoils than hostages. Cash, jewelry, cellphones, and anything else that can be sold are the most common items of focus. In more advanced operations, entire cargo loads of oil or metals are stolen, placed on another skiff, and then sold through a criminal organization of clandestine customers.[3] Crewmembers oddly are more likely to be killed by Southeast Asian pirates than if captured by Somali pirates because the commodities are the main objection and people become expendable. The result, as apparent in previous outbreaks of piracy in the region, is insurance companies raising premiums for shipping companies, thus causing a disturbance amongst the business elites involved in the region.

From 2000 to 2005, a very similar spike in piracy plagued the Strait of Malacca and was solved with lessons that should be applied to the current crisis. On 20th June 2005, the Joint War Committee (JWC) of Lloyd’s of London deemed the entirety of the Strait of Malacca as a war zone.[4] This declaration from a formidable insurance market led to insurance companies raising their rates by as much as 30%.[5]  The new financial constraint mobilized Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore to change their piracy policy. Before this, poor communication between the different countries’ enforcement agencies allowed pirates to abduct boats in one state’s domain, strip them and then dump them in another state’s without interference. After the JWC declaration, the three countries were motivated by the new spike in prices for shipping as well as international shame to unite in joint naval communication and patrols. Alongside came the financial aid of $80 million from the paranoid post-9/11 US that allowed the establishment of 12 new costal surveillance stations.[6] In a year’s time, the region that had seen more than 1000 attacks from 2000 to 2005 reduced to a near “vanishing point”.[7]

Therefore, one temporary solution is to increase naval cooperation, improve anti-piracy equipment, and reduce the overall opportunity for pirates to attack.  However with the benefit of hindsight, this was by no means a perfect solution. The expensive cost of continual patrols and new technology mixed with the failure of cooperation has resulted in an anti-piracy policy that has faded from interest and effectiveness. After the issue deteriorated from popular attention after 2005, the lax implementation of the aforementioned solution allowed for a rebound of piracy in 2015. The same factor that created potential pirates, a marginalized working population, has remained relatively constant. Therefore, the new resurgence in pirates does not to come as a surprise. While the first solution is important for decreasing the opportunity and attractiveness for pirates to attack freights, it needs to come in combination with another solution that addresses this marginalized population.

The second solution of combating the impoverished areas is more tedious but should be considered for two reasons. First, developing programs that train the population of middle aged, unskilled men will deter a future resurgence in piracy. If history repeats itself, then the protocols put forth by the recent meeting of the IMB and the multi-lateral cooperation between Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore are likely to fade once their objective is complete. By targeting the population that feeds piracy, the issue will not be stifled until it is forgotten but remembered and transformed into a secure socio-economic group. This a solid, long-term solution protected against the typical pitfall of man’s short attention span. Second, incorporating this marginalized population into a modern economy that values personal merit and ambition is better on a humanitarian basis than a life of piracy. Instead of imprisoning captured pirates and intimidating potential pirates into poverty, a policy that seeks to alleviate the poverty itself will create better and more meaningful lives for would-be pirates.

The 200 delegates from 30 countries that convened in Kuala Lumpur at the IMB meeting have taken the initial step to achieving the first solution.[8] A global system of communication was proposed that would create a continually updated database of maritime crime. This development is welcomed and helpful for creating a better network in the Strait of Malacca. However, for there to be serious and stable reforms made to how piracy is handled, it will require the concentrated effort from Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore. An effort that focuses not only on the apparent hijackings and robberies, but also on the poor socio-economic structure that feeds so many into a life of piracy. A more constructive and compassionate approach is required lest we want piracy to remain a Ferris wheel that cycles back every ten years.

[1] http://www.straitstimes.com/asia/se-asia/south-east-asia-emerging-as-hot-spot-for-piracy-attacks-report Last paragraph

[2] Small boats, weak states, dirty money~ Book

[3] http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2015/04/petrol-pirates-proliferate-southeast-asian-seas-150426115129085.html


[5] Modern piracy~ Book  pg73

[6] Modern Piracy~Book pg 73

[7] Ibid

[8] http://splash247.com/imb-calls-for-global-reporting-mechanism-to-tackle-piracy/

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