The International Maritime Bureau (IMB) 2004 annual piracy report released recently has exhibited the gloomy state of menace of sea piracy in the world's oceans. There were a total of 325 piracy attacks on shipping in 2004. Although, this figure is lower than the reported 445 attacks in 2003 the most harrowing part of the report is that the number of crew killed increased to 30 as compared to 21 in 2003. Besides, eighty-six shipping crew were kidnapped and pirates had demanded ransom for their release.
According to Captain Pottengal Mukundan, Director of the ICC International Maritime Bureau (IMB), which runs the IMB Piracy Reporting Centre, "Although the decline in the number of attacks is to be welcomed, there is concern that in some key hot spots the situation has deteriorated?. There is an increase in the attacks in the Malacca Straits. Violence in the attacks in Nigeria has increased. Attacks in Lagos accounted for the highest number reported in a single port. Balikpapan, a major oil port in Indonesia had the third highest number of attacks reported. Overall, vulnerable vessels such as tankers accounted for over a quarter of all attacks".
Indonesia continues to be the main hotspot recording 93 piratical attacks and the Malacca Straits ranked second highest with 37 incidents. Many of these attacks were serious and involved vessels being fired upon and crew kidnapped for ransom. As many as 36 crew were kidnapped, four killed and three injured in the Malacca Straits. In the Indian context, Chennai and Kandla continue with their dubious distinction of piracy prone seaports. Interestingly, Bangladesh waters witnessed significant reduction with only 17 attacks as compared with 58 in 2003. Sri Lanka remained relatively free from piracy attacks, which are normally carried out by the LTTE.
The 2004 annual piracy report has once again highlighted the continuing menace of piracy at sea particularly in the Indonesian waters and the Malacca Straits. In July, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore began joint patrols of the Malacca Straits, and extended cooperation to include possible hot pursuit into each other's territorial waters. However, the attacks continued unabated. In November 2004, Teo Chee Hean, Singapore's Defence Minister, had mooted Regional Cooperation Agreement on Anti-Piracy as a step towards Asia's initiative to combat piracy and deter terror strikes in the Malacca Straits and surrounding seas by linking communications among navies of 16 countries included Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Bangladesh, China, Japan, India, South Korea and Sri Lanka. Teo had noted "A significant feature... will be the setting up of an information sharing centre, which will provide more accurate reports of incidents of piracy and armed robbery against ships in the region".
Although this Singapore initiative is a welcome development, it appears to undermine the existing Piracy Reporting Centre (PRC) located at Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, that coordinates dissemination of piracy related incidents to regional maritime forces and shipping at sea. Its relevance has been well demonstrated by the capture of MV Alondra Rainbow, a 7000-ton Panama registered vessel, belonging to Japanese owners apprehended by the Indian Navy. The PRC had announced through a worldwide broadcast that pirates had captured the vessel and was expected to turn up in any Indian port to discharge cargo. What followed was a drama on the high seas leading to the arrest of pirates who are now serving jail term in Mumbai.
During the last few months, the Malacca Straits has been a centre of tension between the South East Asian states and the United States. In April 2004, Admiral Thomas Fargo, Commander-in-Chief, US Pacific Command, (CINCPAC), announced that the US military was planning to deploy Marines and Special Forces troops on high-speed boats in the Malacca Straits to combat terrorism, proliferation, piracy, gun running, narcotics smuggling and human trafficking in the area. The deployment was being conceptualised under the Regional Maritime Security Initiative (RMSI). In response, Malaysia had reacted to this initiative and had noted that the US should get permission from regional countries as it impinged on their national sovereignty. Likewise, Indonesia too was averse to the US initiative and wanted that the US must consult regional countries before any effort to fight terrorism in Southeast Asia. Singapore, a close US ally in the region, had supported the US initiative.
It is evident that regional countries are sensitive of incursions in their maritime territories and careful about who is allowed to transgress it. Some even consider it as a challenge to their sovereignty. This has been well demonstrated during the Tsunami disaster when the Indonesian government set a deadline asking all foreign militaries to vacate their territory. What is needed is a more dedicated effort by regional maritime forces to undertake intensive sea patrolling particularly in the Malacca Straits.