SINGAPORE: 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.
Early last 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 Strait of Malacca.
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.
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 media also has to play a critical role, as it did in the 2000s. Numerous articles on the Strait of Malacca 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.
> The writer is an assistant professor at the French Naval Academy.