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Joint patrols in our southern seas

INDONESIA’S Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu has called for intensified joint patrolling in the waters that link Indonesia with the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei, all fellow members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The Malacca Strait and the waters linking the four countries must not become like the Somalia waters where piracy is rampant, he said.

The reference of Somalia acknowledges an old international shipping problem which has long plagued vessels traveling between the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, and the Arabian Sea. Pirates used to have hundreds of hostages, including Americans and Britons, from whose families and governments they demanded ransom money. Foreign warships are now patrolling the area.

The pirates in Southeast Asia have not quite achieved the notoriety of the Somali pirates, but recent events have called attention to their activities. Last March, pirates boarded a tugboat in the waters of Tawi-Tawi in Mindanao and took ten Indonesian seamen hostage. The Abu Sayyaf of Jolo demanded R50-million ransom for the sailors and released them early this month. Another tugboat sailing from Cebu to Tarakan in North Kalimantan in Indonesia was hijacked also in Tawi-Tawi. Four crewmen were also held hostage, then released last week.

Narrow Malacca Strait between Malaysia and Indonesia’s Sumatra island is of special concern to the two countries, as well as Singapore off the southern tip of Malaysia. The strait is on the shipping route between India and China and between the oil-exporting countries of the Persian Gulf and the ports of East Asia. In 2004, the Strait of Malacca accounted for 40 percent of all piracy worldwide, although attacks fell to 276 vessels in 2005 and to 239 in 2006.

Indonesia’s proposal for increased joint patrols comes as the ASEAN is moving to integrate its member economies to become a single ASEAN Economic Community. Although the emphasis will be on economic development and cooperation, it should not hamper closer coordination in other areas of ASEAN interest, such as security and peace and order.

Way north of the waters where Indonesia has proposed increased joint patrols against pirates, three… ASEAN members are also facing a problem over maritime claims with China. This is yet another problem – more political than economic or security. Thus far, ASEAN has chosen to avoid taking any coordinated action on this matter.

But joint patrols against piracy should be a welcome line of joint action for Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei. Considering that our own Abu Sayyaf of Jolo and Basilan have been involved in the recent hostage cases, the Philippines should welcome the opportunity to operate more closely with our ASEAN neighbors to the south in patrolling our common waters against pirates.