Friday, February 18, 2005

ANALYSIS: Sea Piracy in South Asia

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+ The IMB has been singularly appreciative of the Bangladeshi efforts to curb piracy in their waters that witnessed a sharp decline from 58 incidents in 2003 to 17 in 2004. An analysis of incidents over the last eight years in Bangladesh show that at least 75 percent of the incidents were carried out in harbour/ port areas. Piracy is rampant in its seaports and has hit trade since mariners/ships are reluctant to use Chittagong and Mongla ports. This has forced foreign shipping companies to impose additional charges for discharging cargo in these ports resulting in higher costs for export and import of goods. These ports have been labeled ‘vulnerable and insecure’ by foreign ships. The Bangladesh authorities are conscious of this tarnished image of their ports and have made significant progress in containing this problem by instituting extra patrols by marine police and the coast guard. +


SEA PIRACY IN SOUTH ASIA

Dr Vijay Sakhuja

The 2004 annual piracy report published by the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) was released in February 2005. The report highlights the inability of maritime nations particularly Indonesia (93 piratical attacks), who are unable to control sea piracy in their waters. There were a total of 325 piracy attacks on shipping in 2004. Although, this figure is lower than the reported 445 attacks in 2004 but the most worrying 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. 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 South Asian context, Bangladesh topped the list with 17 attacks, Indian ports witnessed 15 attacks and reportedly there were no piracy related incidents in waters off Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Maldives. Overall, in 2004, the Indian subcontinent witnessed 32 attacks as against 87 incidents reported in 2003. This is indeed a welcome development.

The IMB has been singularly appreciative of the Bangladeshi efforts to curb piracy in their waters that witnessed a sharp decline from 58 incidents in 2003 to 17 in 2004. An analysis of incidents over the last eight years in Bangladesh show that at least 75 percent of the incidents were carried out in harbour/ port areas. Piracy is rampant in its seaports and has hit trade since mariners/ships are reluctant to use Chittagong and Mongla ports. This has forced foreign shipping companies to impose additional charges for discharging cargo in these ports resulting in higher costs for export and import of goods. These ports have been labeled ‘vulnerable and insecure’ by foreign ships. The Bangladesh authorities are conscious of this tarnished image of their ports and have made significant progress in containing this problem by instituting extra patrols by marine police and the coast guard..

There is also another form of piracy that does take place among Bangladeshi fishermen. In one incident pirates attacked and killed 14 fishermen; the trawler carrying fish worth US $ 50,000 was hijacked. The survivors reported that the pirates were carrying automatic weapons and ordered the crew to jump overboard. In another incident, pirates attacked a fishing vessel off the coast of Pattakhali and threw 13-crew members overboard. In yet another incident, Bangladesh Police found the bodies of 16 fishermen stuffed in the ice chamber of their boat F.B Kausara. Fish and fishing equipment had been stolen from the boat and the pirates had locked the men in the fish ice chamber and they had died of severe cold and suffocation. These incidents may not fall under the classical definition of piracy but certainly have all the ingredients of sea piracy.

Bangladesh shares a riverine border with India. This makes transborder piracy easier. The hostages are often sent away with instructions to the families of others to arrange for ransom. The money - prisoners swap usually takes place on the Indian side at Canning, Dakghat or Jharkahali. Bangladesh ratified the 1988 UNCLOS III, but has yet to ratify the 1988 Rome Convention aimed at curbing piracy and armed robbery at sea. Bangladesh had no agreement with India, its maritime neighbour, on anti piracy patrols. It has now been agreed that India and Bangladesh would explore the possibility of conducting joint exercises between their two navies in the near future.

The piracy in Indian ports essentially involves petty theft and boarding of vessels both within and outside port area. From one reported incident in 1993 to thirty five in 2000, the figure has dropped to fifteen in 2004. In 2004, there were eleven incidents involving boarding vessels and four cases of attempted boarding. Chennai in South India has the dubious distinction of witnessing the highest incidents of boarding during the last four years. But at the same time, the Indian maritime forces have earned a unique distinction of apprehending a pirate vessel bringing to the fore the commitment of India to fight sea piracy.

In November 1999, in the Arabian Sea, Indian maritime forces rescued the hijacked MV Alondra Rainbow, a 7000-ton Panama registered vessel, belonging to Japanese owners. The vessel was en route from Kuala Tanjung, Indonesia to Milke in Japan. The Piracy Reporting Center of the IMB had announced through a worldwide broadcast that pirates had captured the vessel. According to the Center the crew of the vessel were found safe in Thailand and the vessel 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 a jail term in Mumbai. The above incident clearly highlighted the relevance and importance of cooperation and coordination among governments, international agencies and mariners at sea.

Although waters off Sri Lanka have generally remained free from piracy, the northeastern waters have witnessed frequent acts of piracy. LTTE rebel forces are reported to hijack ships and boats of all sizes and kidnapping and killing of crewmembers is a common practice. There is also evidence of hijacked vessels in the LTTE fleet. For instance, M V Sik Yang, a 2,818-ton, Malaysian-flag cargo ship, was reported missing. The ship sailed from Tuticorin, India on May 25, 1999 with a cargo of bagged salt and was due on May 31 at the Malaysian port of Malacca. The fate of the ship's crew of 15 is unknown. The vessel was apparently hijacked by the LTTE and may be engaged as a phantom vessel. A June 30,1999 report confirmed that the vessel had been hijacked by the LTTE. In yet another case, a ship with a cargo of 32,000 mortar shells from Zimbabwe Defence Industries (ZDI) left the Mozambican port of Beira on May 23, 1997 supposedly en route to Colombo, Sri Lanka. The consignment belonged to the Sri Lankan government. The ship did not reach its destination. ZDI assumed that the Sri Lankan government had sent a ship to collect the munitions, but the company alleged that the consignment was loaded onto a ship called the Limassol, one of the LTTE freighters.

In some cases, the LTTE has not been so successful. A case in point is the ship that anchored off Cochin port in South India in 1993. The vessel was carrying a consignment of AK-47 rifles from a Russian company supposedly for the Ministry of Defence (MOD) of the Government of India. The Captain had informed the port authorities of the cargo and the consignee. The MOD denied having ordered any such consignment. Enquiries revealed that a person, who had visited the company’s headquarters in Moscow posing as a senior official of the MOD with forged identity papers, had ordered the consignment. He had the payment for the consignment made by a bank remittance from New York. Nobody claimed the consignment and it was confiscated. The Indian authorities strongly suspected LTTE had ordered the consignment and its plans to effect a mid-sea transfer from the ship to one of its own smaller vessels had failed.

In the past, the LTTE has hijacked several vessels. Some of the reported cases relate to the hijacking of Irish Mona (August 1995), Princess Wave (August 1996), Athena (May 1997), Misen (July 1997), Morong Bong (July 1997), Cordiality (Sept 1997) and Princess Kash (August 1998). M V Cordiality, was captured by the LTTE and five Chinese crew were killed allegedly by Sri Lankan terrorists near the port of Trincomalee.13Princess Kash, a Belize flagged general cargo vessel was hijacked by LTTE rebels, while on its way to Mullaitivu, a LTTE stronghold. The Sri Lankan Air Force bombed the vessel to prevent the ship's cargo falling into the hands of the LTTE. The status of the 22-crew members is still not known.

In recent times, this distinction between piracy and terrorism seems to be fast eroding. For instance, in August 2001, a general cargo carrier M V Ocean Silver, while transiting through the Malacca Strait, was seized by the Aceh rebels. The six crewmembers of the vessel were taken hostage. The rebels issued a warning that all ships transiting through the straits between Sumatra Island and Malaysia must first get permission from the insurgents. Earlier, in May 2001, Thai police captured a consignment of 15,000bullets, grenades, landmines and TNT explosive devices destined for the Aceh rebels. Two Thai army sergeants in southern Thailand were arrested. The Aceh rebels continued their efforts to acquire more weaponry and in the process, in November 2002, the Indonesian navy sank two ships that had been seized from Thai fishermen by separatist rebels to smuggle arms to Aceh. The case of the LTTE has already been illustrated above.

Piracy in the Indian sub continent continues unabated but is restricted to respective countries territorial waters. There however is no mechanism for regional approach to combating piracy. The agreements are restricted to bilateral arrangements, which appear to have worked well. It must be remembered that piracy is only one component of “disorder at sea” and South Asian countries need to follow an integrated approach to challenge, “disorder at sea”.

(Dr Vijay Sakhuja is Maritime Security analyst and Research Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.)