Militant attacks add to worrying trend of southeast Asian piracy

Maritime security still a major concern in some areas of Southeast Asia. Credit: US Navy

Statistics released by the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) on 17 October show that among actual and attempted attacks in the first nine months of 2017, there were six in Malaysia, 17 in the Philippines, and one in the Singapore Straits.

Incidents in the Philippines, especially, more than tripled from the five incidents in the same period a year ago.

The Philippines has been battling Islamic State militants in clashes that have claimed more than 1,000 lives and displaced 400,000 people.

The militants have also been attacking vessels off Sibutu island, Tawi Tawi, the Sulu Sea, and the Celebes Sea. Tugs, barges, fishing boats and ships off eastern Sabah, Malaysia, have also been targeted by the Islamic State militants.

In response to these assaults, the navies of the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia have been undertaking joint patrols.

The IMB said, “They attacked tugs/barges/fishing vessels/yachts/merchant ships to rob and kidnap crews for ransom. The kidnappings by militants have recently stopped due to the ongoing efforts of the Philippines military.”

Coincidentally, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said on 17 October that Marawi City has been “liberated from terrorists” after a five-month battle, although 30 Islamic State militants are believed to still be holding 20 hostages in the city. The Philippine military claimed a major breakthrough on 16 October, when it killed Islamic State leader Isnilon Hapilon.

In July, the beheaded bodies of two Vietnamese seafarers from the hijacked cargo ship Royal 16 were found near the Philippine island of Basilan. Two other seafarers from the same vessel were rescued while another two are still being held hostage.

Among actual attacks, two vessels were hijacked in Malaysia. In terms of unsuccessful attempted attacks, a vessel was fired at in the Philippines, while there were seven other incidents in Southeast Asia.

One vessel was reported hijacked in the third quarter of 2017 when a Thai product tanker, MGT 1, was attacked off Pulau Yu in Malaysia in early September. However, due to prompt intervention by the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency, 10 hijackers were successfully apprehended and the tanker was safely escorted to a nearby port. The pirates were quickly tried and sentenced to long jail terms.

“The Malaysian response demonstrates exactly the type of speedy and robust action that is needed to deter such attacks,” said Pottengal Mukundan, IMB director.

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