Piracy around the Malacca Straits is very much back in the news, with the United Nations saying the region has now surpassed West and East Africa to become the global hotspot for piracy. In particular, small product tankers have been targeted by robbers in the past three months. In the final week of June alone there were five reported incidents.
Piracy in Southeast Asia is nothing new. What is new, however, is the jump in numbers and the very specific targeting of certain types of ships.
This spike in hijacking and cargo theft has been brought about by the black market demand for marine fuel oil in Southeast Asia, says Steve McKenzie, a senior analyst at the UK firm, Dryad Maritime. There have been crimes similar to these for many years, the majority of which were from bunker barges and small tankers with only small amounts of fuel being stolen. A large number of these incidents went unreported, however, over the last three or four years reporting of these incidents has increased as the criminals have targeted larger vessels. The common denominator for all of these hijackings and cargo theft incidents this year has been Singapore. All the vessels that have been targeted had prior to being boarded called at Singapore, McKenzie notes.
“The stealing of oil products in the region is targeted product theft, which results in the stolen cargo being sold on the black market,” says Gerry Northwood, the coo of security firm, GoAGT.
Recent successful hijacks of tankers whilst underway, coupled with a rise in the average number of pirates involved in a single attack may suggest a partial evolution in the typical trends of the industry, notes Harry Pearce, an intelligence analyst at Ambrey Risk
“We assess that these crimes will continue unabated until the black market in marine fuel oil is curtailed and the crime syndicates who are controlling the gangs who carry out the crimes are dealt with,” the Dryad analyst reckons.
While the greatest concentration of incidents undoubtedly lies adjacent to Indonesia’s often marginalised communities in the Riau Archipelago, they are shaped by their proximity to Malaysia and Singapore and aided by long-standing boundary disputes.
Indonesia’s forthcoming election is also likely to centre on economic nationalism and delivering energy self-sufficiency. A concentration of piracy in the Makassar Straits may threaten investor confidence in upstream developments across Kalimantan where reserves are falling and the unrealised deepwater potential of local concessions is increasingly important.
To build domestic savings and finance energy initiatives, President Yudhoyono’s successor may be required to curb long-standing subsidies on fuel products, which is likely to put pressure on more remote regions, already dissatisfied by a decade of widening income inequality.
“Without a viable alternative provided to those seeking redress for an expanding social divide and continued inflation in Indonesia, many agitators will be compelled to target commercial assets with relative ease,” says Pearce from Ambrey Risk.
The piracy model currently used in Southeast Asia is very similar to that used by Nigerian gangs, who in recent years have been hijacking large product tankers across West Africa and then stealing fuel oil. These crimes are intelligence led and well-coordinated. In Southeast Asia the vessels targeted have tended to be local small product tankers and not the large ocean going vessels hijacked in the Gulf of Guinea. In recent weeks, however, as the number of attacks has increased, so too has the breadth of ship types – car carriers, containerships and LPG vessels have all been victims in the past few weeks.
So then, what’s the way to deal with this scourge?
GoAGT’s Northwood admits that finding a way to solve to the maritime criminality and piracy problem in Southeast Asia is not going to be straightforward.
“Most of the incidents are occurring inside territorial waters, which makes the legal use of weapons as a means of deterrent very difficult to achieve without the enlistment of government military or navy,” he explains.
The primary solution is to end the black market for the stolen cargo, says Dryad’s McKenzie. The syndicate that is controlling the gangs must have good connections within the fuel business in Singapore, he reckons. If these links were broken it would be more difficult to target specific vessels.
Shipowners and Masters need to introduce stricter policies on shipping movements and cargo details. It is possible that some crewmembers are in collusion with crime syndicates, McKenzie thinks.
Kevin Doherty, who heads up Nexus Consuting, observes that stealing oil cargo from a ship is a very complicated operation. It requires both deck and engine officers to be involved in the ship-to-ship (STS) operation.
“The focus area for the recent Asia piracy acts should be on those who have the skills and training for STS and those who have the connections to move the diverted cargo on the black market,” he suggests.
It’s also important to note that this model seems to be very cyclic. Some 10 to 15 years ago the region was awash with the same pirate model.
“This lends to the possibility a recently released criminal may be involved as well,” Doherty muses.
Scott Bernat, an American maritime security expert says affected countries must work together. Especially important is the reporting and sharing of information, such as that which is being accomplished through the International Maritime Bureau’s Piracy Reporting Centre and the Singapore-based ReCAAP Information Sharing Centre. Response to reported incidents must be planned, trained for and coordinated among all responsible parties. Criminals must also be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the applicable legal jurisdiction and law, utilising a process protectant of human rights and transparent to all.
“This teamwork and deference to the rule of law will highlight the region’s commitment to countering piracy and send a clear message to those involved that it will not be tolerated in any form,” Bernat says.
The shipmanager’s viewpoint
Finally, Vijay Soman, director of Safety and insurance at Wallem Ship Management, has this piece of advice for product tankers transiting the region.
"The focus of attacks in Southeast Asia has been product carriers so we have advised all Wallem product carriers in the region to take defensive measures in line with BMP4 standards, which includes rigging razor wire, additional look outs and regular testing of communications equipment,” he says. Vesels which are asked to anchor at OPL anchorages may also be vulnerable, Soman warns, and may be asked to take such precautions on a case by case basis, including avoiding remaining at anchor and instead drifting well away from land.
Every part of the maritime supply chain can do its bit to help defeat piracy in the region – now is the time to act.