Maritime insecurity does not happen in a void. Southeast Asia’s pirates and armed robbers live in a region that is replete with natural resources and much of it is in the blue depths of Asia’s oceans and seas.
Yet, economic development across the region has left millions behind. Where coastal communities should thrive in these “blue economies”, they face high levels of poverty and environmental degradation. Nearly 85 percent of the global population working in fisheries and aquaculture is found in Asia. But Asia’s waters are seriously overfished and ongoing Illegal, Unregulated and Unreported (IUU) fishing in disputed areas like the South China Sea will hurt the populations depending on these waters for their livelihoods.
North Sumatra, Jambi and Riau provinces in Indonesia are among the poorest in the country. The Strait of Malacca skirts along these provinces and the pirates here are often just young, idle and poor. Others migrate to special economic zones in Batam and Riau Islands, hoping to get jobs, but end up in pelabuhan tikus (rat harbours), and struggle to make ends meet. Pirates in such situations are often a “Robin Hood” figure: a seasoned fisherman who raids ships with a small crew and uses the money to build mosques for the local kampung.
Southeast Asia is also home to the Coral Triangle, a 6-million square kilometre ecosystem which supports the livelihoods of more than 100 million people. But not everyone living in this ecosystem benefits from it. The Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) in the Philippines, ranks the last in economic development in the country. Thirty percent of the Philippines’ poor live in Mindanao alone. If this restive region is left behind, the pirates here will be the greatest threat of all to maritime security and prosperity in Asia.