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Tackling S-E Asia piracy from all angles

The Straits Times | Eric Frecon | Friday, Jun 20, 2014

A Japanese oil tanker which was raided by armed pirates sailing in Port Klang, outside Kuala Lumpur, in April.

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.

And early 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 Malacca Strait.

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.

Former and prospective pirates still exist, waiting among the taxi boats in the kampungs or warungs (small shops and family-owned businesses) of Nagoya and Jodoh in Batam.

They may have done their best to find safer and more respectable jobs. Twenty years after the upsurge of piracy in the early 1990s, and now in their 40s, former pirates may no longer be keen to attack ships at night.

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