Piracy in Southeast Asia has sometimes been seen as an exotic nuisance. Not any more.
Of course, the problem is not new. It has a history in the region that stretches back centuries.
What distinguishes piracy past and present is that the contemporary skull-and-crossbone operators can, and increasingly do, exploit modern technology and weapons to attack ships in a way that serves as a signpost for terrorists.
Pirates in Southeast Asia have become bolder and started targeting bigger ships. This is worrying Japan and China, two of the major users of the Malacca and Singapore Straits where the latest attacks occurred. It is also putting extra pressure on Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore to agree on measures to make the straits safer.
The three coastal states share jurisdiction over the vital waterway which is the shortest route for most ships between the Indian and Pacific oceans. The straits are about 960km long but the two-way shipping channel narrows to not much more than 1km wide in several places as it approaches Singapore and could be closed, at least temporarily, to ships in an accident or terrorist strike.
Over a quarter of the world’s trade and half its oil pass through this artery, including about 80 per cent of Japan’s oil imports and 75 per cent of China’s. Even if the waterway were closed, ships could take the longer route through another Southeast Asian strait. But it would add significantly to the cost of oil for Asia’s two biggest economies, hurting the transport sector.
Piracy is a menace to shipping and safe navigation. Even when pirates board just to steal, they sometimes leave the crew tied up or locked in cabins while they make their escape. The vessel will continue on its way with the bridge unattended until one or more crew members can break free. There is a serious risk of collision or grounding in the narrow and crowded shipping channels of the straits.
And it is often impossible for law-enforcement agencies to know whether a ship has been seized by pirates or terrorists.
About one third of the 325 cases of armed robbery and piracy against shipping that were reported in 2004 were in Southeast Asia. Indonesian waters have more attacks than anywhere else. Last year, 93 incidents were reported. While this is less than the 121 in 2003, it accounts for over a quarter of the global tally.
Those preying on ships are becoming better armed and organised. They sometimes have satellite phones and can eavesdrop on the communications of vessels they are targeting. Automatic assault rifles are commonly carried and fired. Rocket-propelled grenades and hand grenades have reportedly been brandished in several attacks this year.
Assaults are becoming more violent. A total of 30 crew members were killed worldwide in 2004, up from 21 the year before. The hijacking of vessels - mainly slow-moving tugs, barges and small tankers with low freeboards that are relatively easy to board while under way - and the kidnapping of their officers and crew for ransom, are on the rise.
Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister and Law Minister Professor S. Jayakumar said in March that this suggested "organised elements are creeping into what was previously the domain of opportunistic thuggery. Piracy has become a high-tech international enterprise".
More alarming still, Southeast Asian pirates in the past few weeks have turned their attention to much bigger prey. At the end of March, they boarded a 26,000-tonne Japanese-owned bulk carrier in the Malacca Strait off Port Klang, Malaysia, held the master and crew at gunpoint, took the cash from the safe and fled. On April 8 in the Singapore Strait, pirates tried, unsuccessfully, to board a China-owned bulk carrier of just over 38,000 tonnes.
Just two days earlier, on April 6, in the same area, the Japanese-owned tanker Yohteisan - a leviathan of almost 150,000 tonnes carrying two million barrels (472,000 metric tons) of crude oil - reported an attempted boarding. The culprits were prevented from getting on to the vessel when the captain increased its speed.
In July 2004, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore launched co-ordinated patrols of their respective sections of the Malacca and Singapore Straits. However, this has not reduced the level of maritime crime. There were 37 attacks reported in the straits in 2004, despite the intensified operations of the three navies the second half of the year. There have been about a dozen attacks recorded in the first four months of 2005, about the same rate as last year. One result of this lack of security has been the emergence this year of several private companies, some of them based in Singapore, that offer armed security escorts through the straits for vessels fearing pirate attacks.
Still, Indonesia has not ruled out the future formation of a joint naval patrol force with Malaysia and Singapore and there have been several developments that suggest there is a better consensus among the three states about how to improve security in the Malacca and Singapore Straits and how to involve major users and international agencies in this process.
On May 27, Singapore started to share surveillance information with Indonesia about the Singapore Strait, enabling the Indonesian Navy to know the identity, speed and course of every ship passing through the waterway in real time 24 hours a day.
Meanwhile, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and the other seven members of Asean, the Association of South East Asian Nations, have agreed with China, Japan, South Korea, India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh to co-operate in combating piracy.
Co-operation could be enhanced when the three states and major user states meet at a high level for the first time in September in Jakarta at a conference on improving security in the straits to be co-hosted by Indonesia and the International Maritime Organisation, the United Nations agency responsible for safety of shipping at sea.
* Michael Richardson, a former Asia editor of the International Herald Tribune, is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.