Piracy in Southeast Asia: organised criminals or small scale opportunists?


The majority of maritime crime in Southeast Asia takes place at anchorage, with valuables and ship’s stores the target. The focus of this paper is not, however, theft at anchor, but vessel hijack and petroleum cargo theft – a form of piracy that has occurred on two occasions in the last six months (table 1). While a marginal rise of this type of piracy might look like more sophisticated criminality, the success rate of cargo theft – from tankers – has been low, casting doubt on the current capability of criminals engaging in this type of ‘piracy’. Recent incidents appear to be the work of opportunists, not highly organised criminals, with only one case that could be regarded as successful (AROWANA UNITED in October 2012). But with a growing illicit fuel market and a prevalence of criminal organisations in the region, a return to higher levels of hijack for petroleum cargo theft is certainly a possibility in Southeast Asia.

The region has long been prone to piracy of one form or another. It was only following a cross-regional response to maritime crime – notably through the 2004 MALSINO 1 agreement – that the occurrence of hijack in the Malacca Straits reduced. Prior to the agreement, vessel hijackings were widespread, particularly in and around the Malacca Straits and off coastal Indonesia. The recent occurrence, then, of a number of hijackings in the last six months could be interpreted as a re-emergence of ‘hijacking for cargo theft’ in Southeast Asia. Indeed, in the last six months there have been six cases of vessel hijack, of which two led to petroleum products being illegally siphoned from the ship (table 1).

In addition, in two of the hijacks (ARROWANA UNITED and ZAFIRAH) there appears to have been marginally more sophisticated business model, one that mirrors the type of piracy seen in the Gulf of Guinea. In both incidents, pirates, once in possession of the vessel, repainted the name and IMO2 number in an attempt to anonymise the ship. And in both cases pirates tried to sell the vessel whilst underway, before eventually attempting to transfer the petroleum cargo to a smaller tanker. With reports of higher levels of fuel smuggling in the South China Sea, and calls from politicians in the area to address illicit fuel trading, it is easy to see why some might believe that criminal syndicates are targeting the shipping industry in the region.

However, looking at what actually happened on-board the ships in these recent hijackings, it appears that most, if not all, were poorly planned operations. The majority of the incidents either led to the apprehension of pirates, or the incomplete transfer of petroleum cargo from the hijacked ship to a secondary tanker. Indeed, of the six hijackings, only two led to the successful transfer of fuel oil to an illegal lightering tanker. In addition to this, the quantities of bunkers stolen and size of vessels hijacked have been small. Such facts belie the notion suggested by some reports in the media that Asian pirates are highly organised, intelligence-led syndicates, comparable to their counterparts in the Gulf of Guinea.

If the recent incidents are anything to go by, criminal operations at sea are currently rudimentary, small scale, opportunistic and without the means to seriously threaten cargo interests and vessel owners. Most at risk are those companies operating at the lower end of the market, particularly in the bunker and distillate trade. However, the potential for this type of crime to increase in the coming years is probable. On a yearly basis, more than half of the world’s seagoing traffic passes through Southeast Asia, including high numbers of small to medium-sized product tankers. If sophisticated criminal organisations find that there is money to be made stealing and re-selling petroleum on the black market, we could well see more tanker hijackings in the coming years. As it stands, this type of piracy is the preserve of brazen opportunists in the region.


Table of vessels hijacked in Southeast Asia September 2012 to March 2013
Table 1 – Vessels hijacked in Southeast Asia September 2012 to March 2013

This paper is intended as a general summary of issues in the stated field. It is not a substitute for authoritative advice on a specific matter. It is provided for information only and free of charge. Every reasonable effort has been made to make it accurate and up to date but no responsibility for its accuracy or correctness, or for any consequences of reliance on it, is assumed by Gray Page.

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