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Piracy or Not, Danger Exists; A SE Asia Problem

August 31, 2015 - 10:25:41 UTC

Piracy or Not, Danger Exists; A SE Asia Problem

SOUTHEAST Asia piracy and robbery at sea are rising once again, but not according to some regional States.

Much has been written, commented and spleens vented on the topic of the increase in piracy and armed robbery at sea against ships in Asia recently. Whilst the increase is greater than initial reporting may indicate, the crop of incidents involving six back-to-back attacks on ships in 24 hours has catapulted the issue of piracy back into the mainstream maritime news.

8 Incidents in Indonesia waters Map: OCEANUSLive

In fact, what most commentators appear to have overlooked is that there were actually eight (8) attacks against ships in the Indonesian waters of the Singapore and Malacca Straits within a 48-hour period - Click HERE for map and report details.

It has been surmised that a gang of pirates, or robbers depending upon your bent and the application of a legal basis differentiating between piracy and robbery at sea, of maybe 4 to 5 persons targeting various types of shipping transiting the vicinity of the Philip Channel, the Eastbound lane of the Traffic Separation Scheme (TSS) in the Straits of Malacca and Singapore. It may be suggested, however, that on taking into consideration the timings of the incidents and the distances covered to enable the boardings, there were possibly 1 or 2 gangs at work during the 48 hour period.

Southeast Asia pirates Image: Asia News

Following the high-profile hijacks of Orkim Victory and Orkim Harmony in June - resulting in 8 pirates being arrested by Vietnamese authorities - July was somewhat of an hiatus for pirate activity, however, the most recent incident, the hijack of the tanker Joaquim in the Malacca Straits this August, along with the spike of eight attacks, demonstrates that the pirates and robbers have no desire to give up their lucrative venture and are back with a vengeance. As increasing energy demand means both crude oil and oil product trade is expected to grow, and failing oil production combined with the demand means the stronger volumes for tankers may see an increase in attacks. 

The dispersion of the attacks where weapons were sighted during the (6) incidents would indicate that it is most likely the perpetrators carried weapons whilst boarding the other targets. These targets were not inconsiderable in their size with 225-meters the average length of the tankers, container ships and bulk carriers boarded. The weapons carried, in cases where sighted, were knives, which are clearly carried to intimidate, and if confronted, the easy option to deter any crew from reacting to the unwarranted threat to themselves and their livelihood. The incidence of attacks on seafarers, even at a lower level in terms of violence, in the Gulf of Guinea, remains worrisome, as highlighted in the Oceans Beyond Piracy annual report, The State of Maritime Piracy 2014.

"Petty Theft" or Simply Opportunistic?

The six - or eight as it were - incidents were well within territorial waters and consequently are not classed as pirate attacks, but are robbery at sea. Some have termed such incidents as "petty theft" or unbelievably, "insignificant" as no crewmember was reported harmed, nor was any vessel taken. This, we find astonishing as the same incidence of basically unauthorised 'breaking and entering' when applied to say a residence or a place of business would not be considered petty or insignificant. As American transporttion risk analyst, Michael Frodl of C-Level Global Risks, points out, "All the events as described in back-to-back attacks on the 6 ships last weekend made the crimes VERY significant, and not just for common sense reasons, but also under Indonesia’s criminal code:

  • Weapons were used to commit a theft, so that’s grand theft or 5 years prison if convicted; 
  • 2 or more men were involved - so that’s even more time - perhaps 9 years under Indonesian law;
  • They attacked at night - that’s another aggravating circumstance - so more prison time, perhaps 12 years;
  • And they boarded a ship for the purpose of committing grand theft - that should add to the penalties;
  • While if a crewmember had been attacked by any of the armed men, that’s added time in prison - up to 15 years in Indonesia. 

Furthermore, some comments claim that many of the attacks in SE Asia are opportunistic in their manner. This too is disputed.

We refer, once again, to Michael Frodl - who is also a lawyer - "Opportunistic" is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary online as: 'taking advantage of opportunities as they arise'. Floating around for 2 to 3 days, and risking arrest, while hunting down targets - that's not "taking advantage of opportunities as they arise".

In response to a comment by a Singapore-based authority warning that the gang was hovering in the vicinity, Frodl continues, "Hovering takes premeditation, persistence, and is premised more on making opportunities, and risking big to make them happen." "'Opportunistic' gangs usually stumble onto an opportunity, something not of their making, strike and then move on."

Permanent Security Presence

Commentators have called for a more permanent security presence in the region, particularly at night, but may be considered a little off the mark to expect similar international naval coalition force to operate in the many sovereign waters of SE Asia. Since 21 August, the Royal Malaysian Navy and the Indonesian Navy have formed a joint rapid deployment team, special task and rescue (STAR) team, which will see one helicopter from Malaysian base in Johor and two helicopters from Indonesia in an effort to secure the Malacca Strait, as part of the more permanent security presence to combat piracy. This joint team is in addition to the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA), similiar to coast guards. The Maritime Institute of Malaysia (MIMA) chief stated that Malaysia could only afford 2 warships to patrol all of the Strait of Malacca, and he also conceded that was simply not enoughRecommendations for increased patrols and greater vigilance have been made by the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) and Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP) for a number of months. Best Management Practices, (BMP) or ship hardening measures adopted for Somali piracy in the northwestern Indian Ocean, are recommended by many flag registeries and shipping companies and cherterers, however, is yet to be wholly endorsed in SE Asia, indeed, it remains a recommendation for other HRA.

Disaster Awaits

There is another twist to the issue in hand that is only mentioned by a few maritime risk experts. The matter of the potential for an environmental accident, or massive insured event which could have a disproportionate impact on international shipping lanes in the region may arise from a ship that is boarded by robbers, or pirates. A ships' crew may be tied up or ensconced in a citadel (one without ship control)with the ship left on a course that is not only dangerous to shipping but could lead to a collision or vessel running aground.

There is no scaremongering here. In a report seen by OCEANUSLive, it was reported that a tanker in position East of Pulau Karimun Besar at 0340 LT on 21 Aug reported 4 perpetrators on board while transiting in the vicinity of Phillip Channel. At 0525 LT, almost 2 hours after the boarding initially occurred, it was reported that the perpetrators had left. No injuries to the crew were sustained and nothing was reported stolen. Worringly, later reporting states that the vessel was involved in a collision with a barge at 0445 LT on the same day - with due regard to the time the perpetrators were on board the tanker, almost 2 hours encompassing the time of the collision. The barge was partly submerged and the vessel later proceeded to her NPOC in Japan. Surprisingly, the vessel failed to call into Singapore port to assess the damage to the hull, allegedly, as originally planned. Imagining a worse case scenario takes little effort.

MT Lapin Cabins Ransacked - Photo courtesy of ReCAAP

As many reports state, robbers were spotted in the engine room or steering gear room of the ship when first noticed (at least on 60 occasions where details are included). If the crew are herded into the accommodation area, tied up, the vessel is ransacked (MT Lapin cabins in above photos), communications equipment is destroyed before the robbers depart with their illicit haul, no matter how much it may be worth, there is no guarantee that the crew will be able to regain control of the vessel before disaster strikes.

There is precedence for such disasters. In September 1992, in the Malacca Strait, the 96,000-ton Liberian-registered Nagasaki Spirit, carrying oil to Brunei from Saudi Arabia, was in collision with the 27,000-ton Panamanian-registered container ship Ocean Blessing at 32 minutes after midnight, about 10 nautical miles off Indonesia's Sumatra Island. The tanker's 25-man crew abandoned ship whilst the container ship is described as 'gutted' by those at the scene. Lloyd's earlier reported that three oil tanks aboard the Nagasaki Spirit were ablaze and that it was leaking oil into the sea. Of the 46 crewmen of the two ships only two had been reported rescued. Malaysia's Maritime Rescue and Coordination Centre (MRCC) said earlier that the tanker captain reported his vessel had also been fired on. Back then, robberies and violence by hit-and-run pirates on commercial vessels around Singapore, the world's busiest port, had been reported with increasing frequency in recent years.


No matter what metrics are used to measure the severity of the boardings, attack or hijacks, the key to rapid reaction remains the integration of multi-stakeholder information sharing. Without it, cooperation cannot occur in a timely manner, nor can authorities, navies and coast guards be tasked to coordinate the response without duplciation of effort or delays due to lack of accurate information held by other stakeholders. However, the ability for ships to report incidents or suspicious activity requires greater vigilance and lookouts whilst passing through the riskiest and busiest waters of SE Asia. But can the crew sustain such awareness over a protracted period? Will it require supernumerary security personnel to bolster ship hardening measures? As ever, cost is always the first hurdle, but the prospect of loss, delay or injury may be the fundamental reason to enhance security measures. Predicting where attacks will occur in SE Asia, beyond the Straits of Malacca and Singapore, will take more than collating figures from previous incidents; the protagonists have more ingenuity which they have proved time and again.


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Information, Security, Safety; Shared

Submitted by Team@oceanuslive.org

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