The owner of a tanker grew frantic earlier this year after failing to contact the ship while it was traversing the pirate-infested Malacca Strait, the world’s busiest sealane.

The owner contacted the Indonesian police, who immediately dispatched two navy vessels to locate the missing tanker, which was loaded with 4,000 tons of marine gas oil.

After two days of scouring the seas aided by intelligence and air surveillance from Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand, the vessel was located and the Indonesian navy recovered the ship, arresting nine suspected pirates and rescuing unharmed its 20-member crew.

The Malacca Strait is a global shipping super highway, which serves as the shortest route between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean.

Each year more than 120,000 ships pass through these waters, making the strait a magnet for pirates and thieves.

Karsten von Hoesslin of the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime said “an enormous number of islands are available for the pirates’ use as hiding places and bases.”

“The width of the Malacca Strait varies from only 10 nautical miles (18.5 kilometres) in the south to 125 nautical miles (231 kilometres) in the north, which reduces the time during which pirates have to expose themselves and enables them to carry out their business with relatively small ships,” he said.

But increased patrols by Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand have greatly reduced recent attacks, according to Ahmad Puzi bin Abdul Kahar, director general of Malaysia Maritime Enforcement Agency.

“We have plugged loopholes in our operations and further boosted coordination,” he told dpa.

Malaysian Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said air surveillance patrols as well as intelligence information sharing among the four countries – Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore and Indonesia – have boosted anti-piracy operations.

The intensified cooperation has yielded positive results in containing the problem in the Malacca Strait, according to the International Maritime Bureau, an global anti-piracy watch group.

The bureau's data showed that in the first quarter of this year there were only four incidents of low-level thefts in the strait, with no reports of hijackings, compared with over 100 attacks – including 13 hijackings – recorded in the first three quarters of 2015.

But Ian Storey, a fellow at the Singapore-based Institute of South-East Asian Studies, said concerned governments need to do more than just intensify law enforcement.

“Piracy can never be completely eradicated in South-East Asia due to geographical factors, poor socio-economic conditions and corruption,” he told dpa. “The aim is to reduce the problem to that of a nuisance rather than a major security threat.”

Storey specifically cited the need for governments to address the problem of poverty among communities in the coastal areas, which are the natural breeding grounds of pirates.

“Regional states need to focus greater attention on tackling the root causes of the problem, specifically reducing poverty and underemployment in coastal communities,” he said.

Von Hoesslin called on governments to address problem of corruption, especially in Indonesia, where the highest number of piracy-related incidents occur.

“Maritime agencies must receive better pay in order to stamp out the tradition of ‘moonlighting’ within the police and navy, which directly facilitates opportunities for organized crime,” said in a report entitled The Economics of Piracy in South-East Asia, which was released in May.

But the problem of piracy in South-East Asia goes beyond the Malacca Strait and further into the Sulu-Celebes Sea area where attacks perpetrated by Abu Sayyaf rebels, Philippine Islamists, have intensified.

More than 100,000 ships and 18 million passengers pass through the Sulu-Celebes Sea tri-border area between Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines annually, with cargo worth an estimated 40 billion dollars.

In March and April, suspected Abu Sayyaf militants in the southern Philippines seized two Indonesian and one Malaysian vessel, taking hostage a total of 18 crew members

Storey said the joint announcement recently of defence chiefs of Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines to establish safe transit corridors for ships passing through the area “is a step in the right direction.”

But he expressed ambivalence over the plan to replicate the Malacca Strait Patrols (MSP) in the Sulu Sea-Celebes Sea area.

“The MSP has provided a deterrent effect over the past decade – it remains to be seen if that deterrent effect can be replicated in the Sulu-Celebes Sea which has a much longer culture of lawlessness than the Malacca Strait,” he said.

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