In January 2015, I went for a swim in the Sulu Sea. Just a family day out at the seaside, but if I had listened to my embassy’s advice I should not have been there, because the beach I swam from was in Zamboanga del Sur, in Mindanao, and as such I was exposed to a remote risk of getting myself kidnapped. But it struck me then, as it does now, that the Sulu Sea, bounded by the Isles Below the Wind, so called because they are south of the track of typhoons, would be a perfect place for tourism of the “sun, sea and sand” variety. The locals could be rich – this part of the world has an almost perfect climate, bad weather simply does not happen here, the diving is as good as anywhere, and, Heaven knows, the people need money.
There is just the little problem of chronic piracy and kidnapping. The place has had a reputation for piracy for centuries, of course, but that was relatively civilised piracy – regular, organised and not too bloodthirsty, with an emphasis on slaving and on trading, carried on by the local Tausug datus, with the Bajau boat people as the regular victims.
That changed in 1962, when the Philippine Republic, under President Macapagal, made a claim to Sabah, part of Malaysia, as heirs to the Sultanate of Sulu, which had leased Sabah to the British North Borneo Company… we need not go into all that here; we just need to know that in 1968 President Marcos had the bright idea of enforcing the Philipines’ claim to Sabah, by using Muslim Filipinos as troops to invade Sabah. The young men who had been recruited for this dastardly covert operation had been told that they would be joining the regular Philippines armed forces; when they found out the truth, they mutinied -and were massacred, on Corregidor, where they had been training – except that one man escaped to tell the tale, and that ignited the Muslim insurrection in Mindanao and the islands to the south, which continues to this day.
Arms have become very common in the area; American M16s, either “liberated from” or sold by the Phiippine Armed Forces, are everywhere. Think “Northern Ireland in the tropics and scaled up ten times”, with the Muslims in the place of the Catholics and the Catholics in the place of the Protestants, and you get an idea of the scale of the problem. Think also of Syria, in terms of outrageous cruelty and in terms of refugees, because the Bajau people, the “sea gypsies”, who once lived at sea all their lives, born and dying in their boats, have been driven ashore, off their fishing grounds to beg in the streets of the Philippines.
The “armed struggle” end of the Muslim insurrection is today represented by the Abu Sayyaf – think Continuity IRA crossed with Daesh – and in recent weeks this particularly unpleasant organisation, which pledged allegiance to Daesh last year, has seized the crews of three tugs and demanded a million dollars in ransom.
This is a completely new development.
The Abu Sayyaf are expert kidnappers – may people think that any religious motive, or even a political motive, for their activities was lost long ago, but they are brutally efficient kidnappers for ransom who will behead their captives without a second thought. Much nastier than the Somalis.
It is estimated that $40bn worth of cargo crosses the Sulu Sea annually. Besides regional traffic, any vessel bound to East Asia from the West which does not take the Straits of Malacca must cross the Sulu Sea.
The Indonesian chief security minister, Luhut Pandjaitan, has called for joint patrols, the Philippines has endorsed this, and the three nations who border the Sulu Sea, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, are going to have a meeting – between their foreign ministers and their heads of armed forces – in Jakarta on May 3.
The cynically inclined will observe, at this point, that both the Philippines and Indonesia have claims on Sabah, that Malaysia is suspected of covertly supporting Muslim rebels in the Philippines, that the Philippines is suspected of doing the same in Malaysia, and that the Indonesian armed forces have for many years been suspected of involvement in “regular” piracy for many years. And all three nations’ armed forces are suspected of collusion with the Islamist insurgents.
Still this is good, as far as it goes. What we know is that it doesn’t go far enough. The area is too vast for naval patrols to cover effectively.
The Somali pirates were defeated by the combination of efficient naval patrolling and – just as important if not more so – private armed guards on merchant ships. Go back 80 years and the China coast pirates of the early 20th century were defeated in just the same way. On the other hand, piracy off the west coast of Africa continues, because no private security contractors can use their own men there.
The Indonesians are quite right – the start of kidnapping of crews for ransom by the Abu Sayyaf is a very serious development, and it must be stopped now. Let us hope that the three Asean nations concerned do not make the same mistake as the West Africans and think that their armed forces can do it on their own. Let us hope that they will rather think about how to incorporate private armed guards into the system that they set up.
Defeat the insurgents and the pirates and bring in the tourists? Start now by protecting merchant ships.