The hijacking of a Thai cargo ship while travelling from Singapore to Indonesia this week has brought the issue of piracy in the south-east Asian seas to international attention once again.
In a report by experts at the Nautilus Institue for Security and Sustainability, a not-for-profit organisation that explores hard to solve global problems, the rise of piracy in south-east Asia cannot simply be halted by ramping up patrols in the global piracy hot spot.
The organisation argues that five factors are of particular importance in shaping piracy in south-east Asia: "over-fishing, lax maritime regulations, the existence of organised crime syndicates, the presence of radical politically motivated groups in the region, and widespread poverty."
Since the late 1980s, south-east Asia has become one of the world's most dangerous areas for pirate attacks on merchant vessels and fishing boats. According to data from the International Maritime Bureau's (IMB) Piracy Reporting Centre, Indonesian ports and territorial waters have been identified as the most pirate-infested in south-east Asia.
In the first quarter of 2014, Indonesia accounted for 25 of the 49 attacks worldwide. The Piracy Reporting Centre says that in all cases pirates boarded the vessels and stole cargo. Seven crew members were taken hostage in five incidents, while in four incidents it was reported that the robbers were armed with guns. In 2013 attacks in Indonesia accounted for more than half of all worldwide attacks where vessels were boarded by pirates, and armed robbery increased for a fourth consecutive year.
The Nautilus report also identified the high number of recent attacks in the busy Strait of Malacca, and, to a lesser extent, the Singapore Strait, as a matter of concern. In 2013, pirates hijacked two tankers and took 27 crew hostage before stealing property and cargo, according to the PRC.
As many as eight armed attacks by pirates took place in the Strait of Malacca and around Singapore in the first three months of this year, compared with one such attack in the same period the year before, according to the Regional Co-operation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia. In April, armed pirates hijacked a Japanese oil tanker off the coast of Malaysia and stole about 3 million litres of diesel.
Piracy in the Strait of Malacca is becoming so common that the Malaysian government has been forced to deny that the disappearance of the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 was caused by an act of piracy.
The Strait of Malacca, a narrow, 500-mile stretch of water between the Malay Peninsula and the Indonesian island of Sumatra, is an important passageway between China and India, used heavily for commercial trade. The Strait is on the route between Europe, the Suez canal, the oil-exporting countries of the Persian Gulf, and East Asian ports. The Strait has a geography that makes the region very susceptible to piracy. It is narrow, contains thousands of islets, and is an outlet for many rivers, making it ideal for pirates to hide and evade capture.