'They put knives on our throats and threatened to kill us if we resist,' the deputy captain of a Vietnamese-flagged ship told reporters after his oil tanker was hijacked earlier this month. It was the twelfth hijacking attempt since April around the Malacca Straits, and the fifth successful attempt in the region in the past three months.
A report released this month by maritime intelligence firm Dryad found that Southeast Asia was the world's hotspot for maritime attacks in the third quarter of this year. While the majority of these were of lower intensity – robbery – the number is sure to worry shipping firms as the cost of their insurance premiums for operating in the region could be pushed upwards.
According to Dryad, the total number of attacks (see the breakdown below) in Southeast Asia for the year to October 1 was 139. This compares to 51 in the Gulf of Guinea and 38 in the Indian Ocean. The International Maritime Bureau's piracy map, which charts all piracy activity for the year, shows particular activity around the Singapore Strait. The IMB has issued several warnings for vessels in the Singapore Strait this year.
It was in this strait between Singapore and the Indonesian island of Batam that a Vietnamese-flagged vessel was hijacked earlier this month. The hijacking of the Sunrise 689 and its 18 crew demonstrated the renewed dangers of piracy in the region. While the crew were unhurt, the pirates absconded with 2000 metric tons of oil out of 7200 metric tons on board.
The figures are disheartening because, after a peak of activity in 2000, over the last decade there has been a concerted and largely successful effort by Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore to engage in joint counter-piracy activity.
While the numbers are alarming, a breakdown show a lower intensity of incidents in the region, namely robberies over hijackings and attacks. But regardless, the funds from these activities go to supporting and extending criminality in the region. Profits from hijacking and maritime robbery has significantly increased the capability of insurgent and terrorist groups (think Somalia). Thankfully, joint counter-piracy operations have come a long way and with shared (indeed, global) interests in the straits any significant escalation will see a strong crackdown. The immediate impact is likely to be a stepping up of joint counter-piracy operations.