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Piracy: Can the War on the Seas Ever Be Won?
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After decades of decline, piracy has resurged as a modern security challenge in a globalized world increasingly dependent on maritime trade. Despite the advent of the airplane, large cargo ships remain the primary means of transporting the world’s goods from textiles to oil. Now, piracy threatens key trading maritime routes from the Gulf of Aden to the Malacca Straits. According to the 2000 Annual Report from the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), there was a 56% increase of reported piracy attacks in 1999 (Beckman, 2006, 317). The Malacca Straits, a critical link between Asian and European trade, accounted for 257 incidents in 2000 alone (Storey, 2008, 100). With roughly 30% of the world’s trade transits through its waters annually, piracy poses a significant threat to maritime security and trade (Alessi & Hanson, 2012). According to the IMB, piracy is defined as “an act of boarding any vessel with the intent to commit theft or any crime and with the intent or capability to use force in the furtherance thereof” (Beckman, 2002, 319).

In response to the rise of piracy, states have amassed navies to eliminate piracy from the high seas with an increased military presence. However, despite millions of dollars poured into the maritime industry, security on the seas seems as elusive as the pirates modern navies hunt. The Malacca Straits provide the perfect example of the inability and futileness of the current model of maritime security.

Despite popular notions, piracy is not an isolated maritime crime, but a symptom of greater socio-economic structures. Furthermore, piracy thrives in the gaps of weak or failed states, exploiting vacuums of state authority. Increased state efforts and collaboration may periodically suppress piracy in a particular hotspot. However, concentrated policing often only displaces hotspots from one region to another. At the same time, the current model of military deterrence has repeatedly proven political difficult and questionably effective. Ultimately, as long as the structural causes of marginalization and gaps in state control persist, piracy will continue to exist, thrive, and remain a reality of maritime security.

The Piracy Cycle

Piracy is best understood as a cyclical socio-political phenomenon. In the beginning, piracy usually is nothing, but a nuisance of small bands exploiting weaknesses in maritime trade. As successes accumulate, the frequency and intensity of piracy naturally escalates. Small bands evolve into larger, more organized outfits, striking farther from seaside communities. However, as piracy evolves, states often mobilize to police the oceans and exert state control over maritime trade and travel. Then, the vicious game of cat and mouse ensures, navies spending gold to end piracy, while piracy chasing gold across the seas. Eventually, state navies pursue, persecute, and weaken the leadership and infrastructure of piracy. Nevertheless, piracy has historically remerged as political attention drifts away from maritime security –– starting a new cycle of piracy.

For hundreds of years, piracy has existed, thrived, and evolved; the only difference being whether the rest of the world noticed or not. Piracy has transformed from simple theft of goods to include hijacking of entire ships and kidnapping of crews. Commonly, pirates board a vessel in the night using grappling hooks, stealing available cash, valuables, and anything else that can be carried away easily. Meanwhile, hijackings require a safe port, a significant amount of time, and a willing buyer. A variation of hijackings include creating a ‘phantom ship,’ where after the sale of the cargo, the ship is re-registered under a new name and false documents. Lastly, kidnappings can reap ransoms ranging from US$100,000 to US$200,000 (Raymond, 2010, 111). The constant evolution of piracy in their operations provides a key factor to the longevity of piracy as a criminal trade. When pressure is applied in one area, piracy adapts and shifts focus to exploit another weakness within the maritime security framework.

Piracy: A Symptom of Structural Failures

Maritime piracy does not exist within a vacuum. Crimes on the seas are explicitly connected to socio-political conditions on the land. Piracy commonly emerges from marginalized maritime communities living in subsistence-level poverty. As weak states fail to effectively redistribute wealth, periphery communities become disenfranchised from the centres of state authority and national identities. Yet, most regional governments are unable to assist the increasing number of people left behind in the processes of globalization. Hence, without a legitimate stake in the state or economy, piracy serves a tempting avenue for empowerment, wealth, and survival. Ultimately, piracy is merely a symptom of the greater structural failures on land of poverty, marginalization, and disenfranchisement (Young, 2007, 57-60).

Within the Malacca Straits, piracy has been contributed to the Indonesian territory of Aceh on the western tip of Sumatra and the Riau Islands. The dividends of the Asian Miracle of the 1990s have created vast disparities in wealth and access. After the 1998 Asian Financial Crisis, divides were only amplified as unemployment in Indonesia rose to 21% in 1998 from 4.7% the year prior (Storey, 2008, 107-108). At the same time, poverty rose from 11% to 40%, producing an increase in piracy (Storey, 2008, 108). The economic collapse trigged socio-political instability, “creating an environment where people could more easily pursue illegal methods of income generation” (Valencia, 2006, 87). In the Riau Islands, over 40,000 illegal immigrants have flocked to surrounding shantytowns in search of work (Frecon, 2006, 72). However, the tremendous displacement of population is met with unequal access to employment leading to a bludgeoning socio-economic divide. The physical disparity between the luxurious Novotel hotel looming over the Tanjung Uma, a desolate shantytown, is symbolic of the vast social divide.

Meanwhile, Aceh has endured thirty bloody years of conflict between the Indonesia military and a local Islamic separatist group. Consequently, the community has been politically and economically disenfranchised. Thus, “desperate Acehnese took to piracy as the only way to earn a living” (Schuman, 2009, 1). In many coastal communities, piracy commonly becomes synonymous with survival and wealth. Marcus Uban, a former Indonesian pirate, confessed, “Just like me, many came from miserable kampong. Singapore was rich; we were poor. So, we went to pillage the areas in the vicinity of Singapore” (Frecon, 2006, 71). Tragically, Marcus Uban is only one of countless young, unemployed men who turn to piracy as a means of survival.

Structural inequality is only exacerbated by weak state control and corruption, providing the political space for piracy to thrive. For instance, Indonesia lacks the adequate resources and funding to fully address piracy within its sovereign waters, which largely comprises the Malacca Straits. To effectively police Indonesia’s seventeen thousand islands, the navy requires roughly 376 vessels. Unfortunately, Indonesia only possesses 262 vessels, of which only 25% are believed to be serviceable (Raymond, 2010, 113-114). Concurrently, rampant state corruption compounds the degradation of political authority. State corruption enables an environment where “piracy may be ignored or even tacitly enabled by corrupt military elements who may share in the ‘booty’” (Valencia, 2006, 87). Piracy exploits these gaps within the state structure to escape persecution and create relationships of dependency.

Similarly, the sheer scale of maritime borders of singular states like Indonesia poses an impossible task for most developing states. The thousand of enclaves, coastal communities, and unpatrolled islands within the region creates physical gaps within the state. The plethora of sanctuaries beyond the arm of the state provides the infrastructure required for piracy operations. Thus, unsurprisingly, Indonesian waters are the host to the largest amount of pirates in the world. From 2002 to 2006, roughly 25% of all reported piracy incidents occurred in Indonesian waters, which accounts for nearly 75% of all Southeast Asian piracy incidents (Storey, 2008, 107). Hence, as Indonesia struggles with a range of domestic concerns from regional dissent, economic woes, and weak military, piracy thrives. The lesson of piracy in the Malacca Straits is simple: there is no panacea for piracy.

Conspiracies of Greed & Social Permission:

Patronage of piracy is an important factor in fuelling the piracy cycle. Rooted in long traditions of patron-clientilism, pirates create a network of supporters and buyers. Similar to other crimes, “pirates cannot function, and piracy could never have survived unless there were sympathizers, protectors and customers on shore ready, willing and able to provide sanctuary” (Puchala, 2006, 7). The patronage system provides the gaps in the state structure where corruption and criminality thrive. In essence, the patronage of piracy creates a parallel informal power structure embedded within the larger, yet weak state structure. Consequently, “piracy has always been a complex system dependent for its functioning on mutually supportive arrangements between agents and abettors” (Puchala, 2006, 7). Conspiracies of greed arise where pirates provide illicit wealth, while supporters provide protection. Piracy has proven money is truly the universal language.

Piracy creates a dependency on impoverished seaside communities. As gains from piracy are reinvested into coastal communities, “the communities have a vested interest to support piracy” (Alessi & Hanson, 2012). The permissive culture creates a ‘Robin Hood’ discourse where locals view piracy as the only way to escape poverty. The coastal communities of Sumatra, Java, Riau Islands, and Malaysia possess a strong maritime tradition, commonly regarded as maritime criminality by modern values. As older generations of pirates retire, young pirates replace them, often encouraged and supported by former pirates. Yono, a former pirate chief, now a water-taxi driver, stated groups come from as far as Palembang, the southern tip of Sumatra, to become pirate apprentices (Young, 2007, 71). In essence, piracy becomes dynastic, collecting both skill and knowledge over generations, while retaining a frightening ability to adapt and evolve. Piracy is no long shaggy beards and ragtag bands, but a transnational enterprise of lifetime professional criminals.

Similarly, notions of international borders conflict with long-held beliefs of traditional rights both on land and on the seas (Bateman, 2010, 138-139). Culturally, piracy was perceived as a legitimate means of increasing one’s wealth and prestige, whether as an individual or as a community. For instance, Raja Ismail, a noble of the Siak Sultanate of the 18th century, became a popular hero through his exploits as a sea raider (Antony, 2013, 25). At the same time, the notions of a pirate remain fluid, incorporating elements of smuggling, illegal fishing, and other criminal activities. For instance, when Malaysian fishermen ventured into Indonesian waters to exploit richer fish stocks, they were often met with official corruption or ‘bush justice.’ Robbery and informal detentions of trespassers were seen as legitimate within their coastal communities –– bleeding the distinction of pirate and hero (Bateman, 2010, 141). The socio-historical dynamics highlight the complexity of piracy beyond a mere militant or criminal act at sea.   

Superficial State Solutions: Displacing Piracy

Over the years, piracy within the Malacca Straits has decreased –– or at least on the surface. Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia have created collaborative measures to counter piracy in the Malacca Straits. Since 2004, local authorities organized naval patrols, communicating and sharing information on potential threats (Schuman, 2009, 2). Similarly, the Eyes in the Sky (EiS) plan was a significant milestone in transnational cooperation. Under the framework, a joint sortie of planes can fly to three nautical miles into sovereign waters of participating states (Raymond, 2010, 114-115). Additionally, in 2005, the peace accord in Aceh brought a degree of normalcy and inclusion to the region. Many hope the peace will draw the youth away from piracy into legitimate avenues of employment (Schuman, 2009, 2).

Critics argue states have settled for superficial measures, creating a false security. For instance, the effectiveness of the air patrols of EiS is often questioned. By some estimates, seventy sorties per week are required to monitor the straits, while only eight are flown currently (Raymond, 2010, 114-115). Hence, the EiS program is more adeptly named a Half Open Eye in the Sky. Additionally, effective patrolling in one area potentially only pushes piracy into new areas –– displacing the problem, not truly solving it. Increased military presence may deter pirates from taking specific ships. However, warships do little to stem the factors pushing countless individuals into a life of piracy, merely shifting their areas of operations and targets.

For instance, although piracy has seemingly decreased in the Straits, there was a 10% increase in piracy globally (Raymond, 2010, 109). Similarly, reported incidents of piracy rose by 60% in 2010, particularly in the Arabian Sea, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, South China Sea and Vietnam (Rajan, 2010, 1). Roughly 66% of the incidents were centred on the South China Sea, such as Pulau Anambas, Pulau Mangkai, and Pulau Subi Besar (Rajan, 2010, 1). The shift of piracy away from the patrolled Straits towards more vulnerable locations underlines the incredible resiliency of piracy.

Additionally, the rise of other maritime hubs in Southeast Asia may offer easier targets to piracy. For instance, the development of the Port of Tanjung Pelepas in the southern western tip of Malaysia may serve as a future piracy hotspot. In three years, the port volume doubled from 2 million TEUs in 2001 to 4 million (Tongzon, 2006, 213). The strategic location of the port, only an hour from the Malacca Straits, adds to both its utility and attraction to piracy. Additionally, Maersk-Sealand, the world’s leading container-shipping company, relocated from Singapore to the Port of Tanjung Pelepas, potentially signalling a shift in global trade hubs and routes (Tongzon, 2006, 215). Consequently, piracy has always “waxed and waned over the centuries according to the flow of local and global trade” (Antony, 2013, 23). Adaptive in nature, piracy flows to the path of least resistance and greatest gain. Increased patrols in the Malacca Straits only displace piracy to seek easier ports and targets, never truly solving the problem.

Increased military patrols may deter some incidents of piracy, but they do not solve any of the systemic causes forcing men to pursue piracy. PIMO Secretary Koji Sekimizu stated, “Piracy cannot be solved by military means alone” (Alessi & Hanson, 2012). Countermeasures focused only on the maritime element, leaves the causative side of piracy unaddressed. The current anti-piracy model is reminiscent to the failing supply-focused model of combatting drugs in Central America. Both models leave governments chasing culprits, while ignoring the motivations of the actors. The reality is pirates “must live on the land, it is on the land that they must often be stopped; naval power alone is not sufficient to fight piracy” (Lambert, 2010, 173). Concurrently, some critics argue the Asian tsunami in December 2004, not the increased patrols, broke the piracy spree in the Malacca Straits. The tsunami devastated countless coastal communities in the region, leaving thousands displaced and homeless. However, the tsunami may have arguably destroyed the infrastructure and support network piracy outfits required (Kraska, 2010, 39). Therefore, critically challenging the very notion a military response can eliminate piracy.

As former colonies, many Southeast Asian countries remain staunchly committed to notions of rigid sovereignty and territorial integrity. Malaysian Prime Minister, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, remarked, “I think we can look after our own area” (Raymond, 2010, 113). Distrustful of foreign militaries, the states of the Malacca Straits remain hesitant to deeper cooperative measures. Initially, in 2004, under heavy international pressure, Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia announced year-round joint naval patrols in the Malacca Straits. However, doubts over sovereignty caused the joint patrols to be downgraded to mere ‘coordinated’ patrols. Under coordinated patrols, a national vessel cannot pursue a pirate vessel into territorial waters, but notify their counterparts. With the meagre policing resources of each state alone, this system provides for significant gaps in security (Shie, 2006, 179-181). “Perennial rivalry among states tended time and again to foreclose any possibilities for collective action against piracy” (Puchala, 2006, 12). At times, maritime security has become a contest of legitimacy and power among the three powers. Reacting to accusations of Indonesian weakness, Navy Chief Admiral Bernard Ken Sondakh has ordered the summary execution of any pirates within Indonesian waters, a desperate attempt to raise confidence within the Malacca Straits (Valencia, 2006, 93).

International efforts have suffered similar great power politics, limiting anti-piracy operations. Singapore and the United States discussed potential joint maritime operations combatting both terrorism and piracy within the region. However, the proposal was met with hostility around the region. Malaysia heavily protested stating, “Singapore cannot unilaterally invite the United States to patrol the Straits” (Valencia, 2006, 93). Meanwhile, some in China argued the presence of U.S. warships in the Straits would violate Article 38 of the Law of the Sea (Valencia, 2006, 94).  Regional efforts through ASEAN have proven equally politically difficult. ASEAN members continue to prefer non-binding, ambiguous measures –– constantly seeking to protect national interests. As a result, coordination remains ad-hoc and irregular without a cohesive regional security framework (Shie, 2006, 180-181). Thus, despite limited progress such as increases in participation, piracy remains a daily reality in the waters of Southeast Asia.

There is no simple, easy solution to piracy. Piracy is a complex, multi-faceted challenge stemming from poor governance to socio-political inequality. At the same time, piracy is a transnational security challenge, inherently beyond the scope a single state. The continual ad-hoc nature of multilateralism and rigid notions of sovereignty continual reduce chances of any robust regional security collaboration. Meanwhile, modern attempts at combatting piracy have been plagued by inadequate resources, political distrust, and questionable methods. The singular dimension of pursing piracy as a simple act of theft has proven short-sighted. Prior to colonization, piracy and sea raiding was a respectable profession pursued by entire communities and kingdoms, adding a complex socio-cultural dimension. Moreover, as long as the structural causes remain, piracy will remain endemic. History has taught us piracy may wax and wane, but has never truly disappeared from the seas –– now or ever. Thus, instead of asking how to eliminate piracy, we should ask how to mitigate the factors feeding the piracy cycle of disenfranchised communities, economic inequality, and the growth of criminality. However, this is a reality, many analyst and states are unwilling to accept – because tangible military action is easier than permanent long-term commitments. And in the end, after we have thrown years of blood and treasure into the sea, we will still have no end in sight because it is not about whether the battle can be won, but whether we are fighting the right battle. 

Sgt. Sebastian J. Bae is currently a masters student at Georgetown's Security Studies Program, specializing in international security. He served six years in the Marine Corps infantry as a Sergeant, and deployed to Iraq in 2008. He previously studied at UC Berkeley for his undergraduate degree, and did academic exchanges and fellowships at the University of Hong Kong as an undergraduate and a the University fo St. Andrews as a graduate student.  

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