The Return of the Pirates
    Category: Issues & Ideas By : Ikaika Ramones Read : 1473 Date : Tuesday, August 06, 2013 - 06:30:00

    Michael S. Yamashita / Corbis

    The pirates are back. “The World's Most Dangerous Waters” was one headline to describe Indonesia's seas, which last year had the dubious distinction of overtaking Somalia and the Gulf of Aden as home to the most pirate attacks in the world. In 2012, there were a total of 297 pirate attacks worldwide, of which 81 were in Indonesia against only 75 in Somalia and the Gulf (together they accounted for 53% of the world total), according to the global monitoring body, the International Maritime Bureau's Piracy Reporting Centre.

    These figures are made worse when put into context: global piracy overall has actually been on the decline, down from 439 incidents in 2011, while Indonesia's numbers have been rising since 2009, with the trend continuing into this year. Indonesia was the global leader in piracy with 25 incidents out of 66 worldwide in the first quarter of 2013, according to the Piracy Reporting Centre. Somalia and the Gulf? Only six cases.

    What's behind the upsurge? The issues are complicated, says Eric Frécon, author of “Chez les Pirates d'Indonésie,” a book on Indonesian piracy and an assistant professor at the French Naval Academy. For one, he says, the pirates have shifted away from the traditional bases in the Malacca Strait between Indonesia and Malaysia. “Generally, pirates are either migrating to the south, towards more secretive places in the vicinity of Jambi  province, or moving further to the east, in the open seas and far from the coasts and patrols,” he says. The move is driven by pragmatism, given increased naval activity in the Malacca Strait. As opposed to Somalia's clear-cut coastline with high visibility, Indonesia's thousands of islands, coastal mangrove forests, and shallow estuaries are perfect harbours from authorities.

    Military authorities that are supposed to root out the pirates have not kept up with the changes. “The [Indonesian] Navy focuses too much on the Malacca Strait and forgets the surrounding zones—the Malacca Strait is increasingly safe for international shipping,” he says. A few years ago, the governments of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore launched a well publicized campaign pledging to cooperate on the piracy issue, including dramatic photos of large warships patrolling the Malacca Strait. Eric points out that real cooperation between navies has so far been problematic, thus impeding a “united front” against the pirates.

    In addition, he notes that the warships in the publicity photos are too big to track the pirates back to their bases, usually hidden in mangroves. Those who could track at a local level, he notes, are generally ill-equipped to take on the pirates. Many local authorities in these coastal areas might not have much more than a few wooden boats with small outboard motors.

    Instead of the Malacca Strait, the pirates have increasingly moved to isolated island groups close to international shipping lanes, such as the Anambas islands and Natuna islands, located in the middle of the South China Sea.