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Papering over the cracks in SE Asia

Written by David Rider 
October 7th 2016
Written by David Rider
The more things change, the more they stay the same. That’s certainly the case in the crucial seas between the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia where, despite much rhetoric and tough talking, very little appears to have changed for seafarers.

On Tuesday 27th September (we’re still awaiting an official report), Ruslan Saripin, skipper and owner of a fishing boat, was abducted by armed men. He and his crew had been fishing off Semporna when a small boat approached and three men armed with an M16, M14 and pistols boarded the fishing boat. They ransacked the boat before taking the skipper hostage.

Less than an hour later, the same gang attacked and robbed another fishing boat nearby.

Luckily for Mr Saripin, he had family members living in the Southern Philippine island of Tawi Tawi, where Abu Sayyaf Group militants have often taken hostages. As a result, his relatives were able to intervene and, while there’s no mention of a ransom changing hands (it probably did, given ASG’s methods), Mr Saripin was lucky to be released some 70 hours after his ordeal began.

It’s one bright spot on an otherwise murky picture.

This year, while reports of “traditional” piracy in the region have fallen, incidents of crew kidnap have increased, possibly reflecting a shift away from oil cargoes which have dropped in value and mirroring criminal activities in the Gulf of Guinea.

The talk of joint patrols in the Sulu Sea continues, with no real sign of progress; it’s incredible that an ongoing threat like this has seen so little actual action from the nations involved. Additionally, there is also talk of joint air surveillance in the area to ensure the safe passage of vessels. Again, there is no date fixed for these at present, and we suspect mariners would rather see patrol boats than aircraft.

President Duterte of the Philippines, when not engaged in a war of words with Washington, continues to issue threats against the Abu Sayyaf Group. They continue to be a thorn in the nation’s side and it would appear that their ability to act against seafarers in the region remains undiminished, despite recent arrests and battles with the Philippine military.

What this means for merchant ships transiting the region is that all security measures must remain in force until further notice. To the West, the Singapore Navy recently warned of potential pirate activity in its waters, as conditions become more favourable for small boat operations. While hijacking incidents have fallen steadily in the last year, we still see armed robberies of vessels underway in the TSS and Indonesian ports and anchorages remain crime hot spots.

Until the nations in the region actively practice the security measures they continue to preach, we anticipate further attacks on vessels and crew abductions.