Oceans of Crime: Maritime Piracy and Transnational Security in Southeast Asia and Bangladesh

Oceans of Crime

Author(s): Carolin Liss

ISBN:          987-981-4279-46-8

Publisher: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore

Year:          2011

Price:         $54.90

Reviewed by Timothy A. Martin, Maritime Security Researcher, Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia

This book explores the prevalence of crime at sea within the Southeast Asian and Bangladesh maritime regions. While it is not a comparison of these two regions, both had been overrepresented in the reports of incidents of piracy between the years of 1992 – 2006, and have therefore together provided useful data from which the author has built her argument that, “piracy can be understood as both a sign and a reflection of security threats and bureaucratic loopholes, as well as other political, social and economic developments undermining security” (p.11). While incidents of piracy at sea form the book’s focus, discussion extends to other transnational, maritime-related crimes that have occurred within these geographic marine regions, for instance, the dangers that mariners have faced since the 1980s until now, and the ways that state authorities, as well as non-state private security forces, have responded by attempting to prevent these criminal activities. This is Carolin Liss’s doctoral dissertation and therefore its layout reflects its original, formal, academic origins. Inevitably, it suffers slightly in its transition from dissertation to book form, and the rather spartan softcover illustration of the edition under review perhaps unintentionally does little to change its original formal origins. Nevertheless, its contents remain accessible to a non-academic reading audience. Partly, its readability can be attributed to omission of the usual (and often weighty) literature review, and to avoidance of statistical data that might overwhelm the lay reader, although some can be found in the text and in Annex 1. Nonetheless, the appeal of this book is its depth of research into a specific aspect of maritime crime.

Following a historical introduction, the book is structured around four main sections. Its interesting early digression to historical examples of maritime crime within Southeast Asia and Bangladesh first leads the reader from pirates of old into piracy in its contemporary-era guise. From the romantic ideals portrayed on screen (even using a quotation from a recent popular pirate motion picture), Liss then leads us into the reality of incidents, specifically those taking place within the defined dual geographies since the end of the Cold War. This is an era in which incident reporting by the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) first brought attention to piracy; a long-forgotten security issue facing seafarers now appeared in regular news-style updates primarily meant for the information of industry mariners but accessible to the general public through modern communication forums. To a certain extent, states within Southeast Asia and Bangladesh have been able to influence their own immediate ocean spaces, and had at least a modicum of interest in the maritime trade conducted there, and therefore the security in nearby maritime realms, but a compilation of attacks revealed the paucity of actual security at sea provided by coastal states. Therefore, the onus of providing security for vessels conducting trade within Southeast Asia and Bangladesh and preventing crimes against merchant vessels and local fishing vessels and crews, lay increasingly with the marine security forces of these littoral states.

The first section of this book examines contemporary piracy in Southeast Asia and Bangladesh; attacks on merchant shipping and on fishing vessels form the two key foci of this section of the study. Therefore, appropriately the question of what piracy is in international law is discussed, and the differentiation between International Maritime Organisation (IMO) and International Maritime Bureau (IMB) definitions reveal the real split between government and private industry on the matter. On the one hand, the IMO takes a rather diplomatic, United Nations (UN) approach (not surprising as it is a specialised section of the UN), and refers to the UN Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). This body of maritime law gives legal respect to the sovereignty of states, limits piracy to international maritime territories, whereas the IMB, part of the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) and representing the shipping industry, regards all crime at sea, including terrorism as acts of piracy, and is less concerned with issues of sovereignty or domestic interpretations of these crimes. Liss regards UNCLOS as “problematic” (p.25), pointing out that most attacks occur within the 12 nautical mile (approximately 22.2 kilometres) territorial sea that most of the world’s coastal states enjoy. Consequently, regardless of whether incidents occurred inside or outside the territorial sea, in this book all maritime crimes (other than acts of terrorism for political gain) are referred to as acts of piracy. Rather than adhering to the letter of international maritime law, Liss prefers to accept that pirates operate without regard to legal definitions.  In doing so, the author establishes her own grounds for analysis of the problem and this sets a tone of independent thinking throughout the rest of the book; challenging the plethora of speculative media, and some of the less analytical academic attention on the subject of piracy within Southeast Asia and Bangladesh.

The second section is titled “The Sea” and for some unexplained reason, first looks at the fishing industry, reversing the order established in section one. This second section first examines connections between pirates and traditional fishers; each opportunistically robbing of other fishers in a dog-eat-dog world of incidents at sea, where would-be pirates would use camouflage such as dressing as marine police or naval personnel, or adopt other cunning tactics such as a ruse of legitimate barter in fish in order to get their vessels alongside an unwary crew at sea.

As the second part of section 2 examines merchant shipping, the regulatory regimes that modern ships operate under form much of the discussion. Liss reveals the truly international character of the shipping industry, and thereby establishes its complicated legal footing when it comes to knowing just who is responsible for protecting commercial vessels at sea. Liss uses this to point to the problem of pirates exploiting security vulnerabilities facing commercial vessels, even as significant changes did appear in the way some countries, led by the United States, sought to tighten surveillance on commercial shipments from rogue states following the events of 11 September 2001. The modern victims and the traditional victims of piracy in both geographic regions are illustrated with anecdotes, ranging from grizzly accounts where crews are shot and boats abandoned, to petty theft and “protection” rackets. The third section draws a connection between piracy and organised crime, but distinguishes it from politically motivated piracy that stemmed from guerrilla movements such as the Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, or GAM) in Northern Sumatra, Indonesia, and the Abu Sayyaf group in the Southern Philippines. Titled, the “Dark Side”, this section also looks at terrorism and analyses pirates, as organised criminals, and as politically-motivated guerrillas of the sea.

In the final section, Liss brings the reader to the reaction to the threat of piracy. What are states and other non-state actors doing to counter the problem of piracy and armed robbery at sea in Southeast Asia and Bangladesh? It is clear that the author sees this as a much more complicated picture that it may at first appear. The author has divided this section into state responses and the provision of private security options for vessels that can afford it.

Generally Liss has managed the subject well; the text is supported by some data in tables, as well as black and white photographs, many taken by the author. This at once reinforces the sense that Liss has not simply gathered from the plethora of publicly available media information to build her case, but has visited the locations she describes to gather from first-hand experiences and conversations an understanding of what drives fisher-folk, organised criminal networks, guerrilla militia, and others to prey on vessels and crews at sea; and how authorities have sometimes struggled to respond for organisational, bureaucratic, political, and capacity shortfalls, leaving the way open to opportunities for private security forces.

The author provides many graphic accounts of violent attacks on yachts, fishing vessels, and large merchant ships that underline the dangers of putting to sea in geographical regions where policing is a matter of circumstance – if in the wrong place mariners have had to defend themselves, or if they could afford the added cost, relied upon private security assistance. The issue of secondary effects of piracy, especially on mostly poor fisher-folk, whose livelihoods and way of life hangs on the slender threads of subsistence fishing, points to the destructive affect that piracy has when it destroys meagre incomes relied upon by families waiting back onshore. Many pirate attacks have links with organised gangs, who will use lethal violence when it suits them to leave no trace but an empty vessel; murdering a crew avoids any risk of being tracked down by authorities. Liss paints a grim portrait of life at sea, where merchant ships have simply emerged as larger prey for pirate gangs, and for whom international politics and trade are simply new opportunities to gain cash, equipment or in some cases, ransom – a method common to other piracy prone regions such as the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean/Somali coast.

The conclusion to this book draws together the elements and arguments of Liss’s study, in the manner of a dissertation, yet even here the text remains accessible to the non-academic reader. Although the style of this book of piracy could be a useful academic textbook on a specific element of security at sea, the author’s very appealingly writing style manages to avoid an overtly academic treatise. In some ways this study could provide a basis for further research into the challenges of piracy in other areas, such as the Gulf of Aden and Somali coastline. On the other hand, Southeast Asia and Bangladesh are quite different to West African geopolitics, with its absence of stable government, a limited possibility for coordinating security at sea between regional states, and consequent reliance on naval forces external to the region to provide merchant shipping any chance at freedom of the seas.

Liss has managed to remove piracy from its romantic contemporary place in the picture theatre while at the same time investing the subject of piracy as a subject of interest for the general reader. By trying to understand what makes piracy emerge from under the shadow of the Cold War and survive (and thrive) into the twenty-first century, Liss brings us back to its reality. Without the security and cooperation between nations at sea, the economic underpinnings of global commerce, and the meagre livelihoods of countless coastal fisher communities, can be held to ransom by the scourge of piracy. Ultimately, the book may prove useful for any academic in the initial stages of scouting for background texts on crime, piracy, armed robbery, terrorism and general security at sea, or may simply be a darn good read for the general reader of current global security affairs.

Suggested citation:

Timothy A. Martin (2013). Review of “Oceans of Crime: Maritime Piracy and Transnational Security in Southeast Asia and Bangladesh” edited by Carolin Liss, East Asian Integration Studies, Vol. 6, no. 1,