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The Resurgence of Sea Piracy in Southeast Asia

Éric Frécon


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Asie du Sud-Est

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1My name is Ellen, Eric Ellen”. The introduction does not sound quite as slick as that of James Bond, but then the Director of the International Maritime Bureau is more along the lines of Holmes or Poirot rather than the glamorous Pierce Brosnan or Sean Connery. However after Le Pirate noir (1926), Le Corsaire masqué (1926), L’Aigle des mers (1940), Le Cygne noir (1942), Jean Lafitte: le dernier corsaire (1950), Les Aventures de Mary Read (1961), Le Fantôme de Barbe-noire (1968), one could very well imagine an episode in the famous series of 007 titled Never say pirates again or James Bond versus Mr. Wong...

2Maritime piracy, which is prevalent in Southeast Asia, could largely inspire the next adventure of Her Gracious Majesty’s spy. And all the indispensable ingredients are found here, beginning with the role of the villains played by Mr. Wong and the terrifying Liem Sioe Liong, at the head of an impressive criminal organisation that resorts to trafficking of human beings under the benevolent protection of corrupt authorities.

3Then come the stakes which affect the entire planet. What is at stake here is the world economy, which pirates threaten to hold to ransom by blocking the Malay Straits. Without forgetting the ecological repercussions that could result from an attack on an oil tanker or a gas carrier off the seas of Singapore.

  • 462 Bangsberg (P.T), “Chinese Court Affirms Death, Prison Sentences on 14 Pirates”, Journal of Commerc (...)

4Secret Agent 007 would never be the same without his gadgets. Q the old engineer who perfected these unbelievable machines could have inspired the creators of this bomb proof jacket presented at the London Dome, the inventors of the Ship loc satellite system, and above all the designers of Seajack Alarm System. This amazing gadget makes it possible to warn computer systems on land bases automatically about any disturbance on board. The Nippon Foundation can also be proud of its Toronomon which works on a simple principle. If a grapnel is thrown on to the bridge it enters into contact with a rope stretched along the boat, which immediately triggers a loud alarm and activates blinding searchlights462.

5Next follows this exotic tinge without which the myth called James Bond would not exist. One finds it on the Bintan Island, the Asian version of the Tortoise island in Batam, its neighbour where joints and whorehouses thrive, as well as the deserted creeks of the island of Penuba from where certain pirate raids could originate…

6Finally, there is this sacred union of Governments facing this scourge – It is here that the Tokyo Conference intervenes – without forgetting the informants, the traitors and of course, the James Bond girls. One remembers this young girl of Batam, “hostess” in a bar in the island, as charming as she was troubled on learning that her companion Mr. Wong was a fearsome pirate, whose boat was the centre of command. On the other hand, the prostitutes in the harbour areas use their charm to climb on to vessels and pick out places in preparation for their next crime.

7When one evokes piracy, the boundary between cinema and reality is very fine. And though, over and above these fantasies, the danger is very real, the awareness of Governments comes slowly. It is patent today if one believes speeches of political leaders in the region, notably in Singapore and Malaysia. Thus, Kuala Lumpur would intend using this issue to reaffirm its ambition for a certain form of regional ideological leadership. As for Indonesia, victim of serious internal problems from Aceh to West Papua, it tries by a more conciliating attitude to escape from the infamy to which a multitude of pirates could condemn it.

8The job of creating awareness amongst private companies and various member nations has been remarkable. For India and Japan, piracy represents an occasion to be part of the strategic scene in Southeast Asia. Among others, the initiative of the Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, in spring 2000, served to open up a process of “considering” the issue on a multilateral level. Even China, reticent for a long time, involves itself more in international forums.

9However, the problem is far from settled. Respect for sovereignty remains the ultimate argument used by countries to resist the setting up of joint or multilateral intervention that could however be adapted to the means of organised crime that have evolved. Their defences seem to be heavy and clumsy against a very active and agile adversary.

  • 463 Hervé Couteau-Bégarie, Géopolitique du Pacifique, IFRI – Economica, Paris, 1987, p. 38.

10Pax Romana, Pax Britannica and Pax Americana have successfully contributed to pacifying the Mediterranean and Atlantic Ocean. When will a “Pax UNOsia” or more modestly a “Pax Asiatica” in Southeast Asia come through? Such an initiative would prop up the theory of the shifting of civilisations popularised mostly by the former President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, at the dawn of the 20th Century463. In its turn, the region would find itself at the heart of an issue whose stakes affect the world. Commercial activity is at present concentrated in the Asia Pacific region and no longer in the Mediterranean or in the Atlantic, thereby summoning the countries of the region to take on their new status as world leaders of maritime trade….


462 Bangsberg (P.T), “Chinese Court Affirms Death, Prison Sentences on 14 Pirates”, Journal of Commerce online, 22nd August 2000.

463 Hervé Couteau-Bégarie, Géopolitique du Pacifique, IFRI – Economica, Paris, 1987, p. 38.

© Institut de recherche sur l’Asie du Sud-Est contemporaine, 2008

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