The greatest deterrence to armed robbery and piracy in the waters of the Southeast Asia may not be deploying multibillion dollar warships or having massive joint navy patrols up and down the regional shipping channels.
It may lie instead in introducing a simple unified code of law and order, a common judicial system that is set out to prosecute sea robbers and pirates who are caught by the different maritime authorities scattered throughout the Southeast Asia region.
Southeast Asia is unique in terms of maritime geography as it is really a vast archipelago, with its myriad waters divided among various sovereign states that share close borders.
These divided territorial waters prove to be a good hunting ground for sea robbers and pirates, as they can commit a crime in one part of the sea, then slip away to a new area under a completely different jurisdiction that favours them.
Adding to this confusion, the maritime enforcement authorities themselves are sometimes reluctant to pursue sea robbers and pirates out of their own national waters, fearing they might be trespassing into another sovereignty’s waters is they do.
Such hesitation can often mean the perpetrators get off scot-free, prompting more daring raids in the future. Thus, the whole vicious cycle continues, with maritime law enforcement always on the back pedal, playing catch-up in a perpetual hide-and-seek game.
This paradox was highlighted in the recent fuel-siphoning incident of Malaysia-flagged vessel Orkim Harmony in June 2015. Initially, the tanker was off Malaysia when it went missing off the radar.
Later, the tanker was located by an Australian patrol aircraft; the crew were then rescued by the Malaysia Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA).
Eight alleged perpetrators who had fled the tanker in its rescue boat were subsequently arrested by the Vietnam Coast Guard, while the Indonesian authorities managed to recover a tug boat, suspected of being used for the fuel siphoning. Finally, in August 2015 the Indonesian authorities arrested the alleged mastermind behind the hijacking.
From this incident, we can see that maritime crime is often cross-border in nature, leading to questions about where and under which country’s judicial system the perpetrators should be prosecuted – where the crime occurred, or where the alleged perpetrators were arrested?
Logically speaking, there should be one set of rules and regulations to deal with such offenders that applies across the region, rather than legal action occurring just in the country where they happen to be arrested. However, that will take a collective effort by Southeast Asian countries to agree a regional legal framework to bring standardised charges against cross-border maritime offenders.