Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines agreed on Thursday May 5, 2016 to conduct coordinated maritime patrols after several ship hijackings by jihadists in the Southern Philippines. The agreement came after a number of recent maritime hijackings by jihadist pirates led to 14 Indonesian fisherman being kidnapped in two separate incidents, and the abduction last fall of a Canadian group.
The Jihadist group known as Abu Sayyaf, which operates through kidnapping and ransom operations out of the largely Muslim dominated Southern Philippines islands of Mindanao, Palawan, and the Sulu Archipelago. The rest of the nation which is largely Christian. The Muslim minority has fought with the Filipino government over the creation of an Islamic State in Mindanao since the late 1800s.
Indonesian officials have warned that the problem could grow the levels like that of Somalia. Indonesian port authorities has even stopped giving out permits to ships carrying coal through the Southern Philippines because of the hijackings. Indonesia is the world’s largest producer of thermal coal and supplies 70% of Filipino coal imports.
The waters surrounding the Sulu Archipelago, where the sailors were kidnapped, include the Sulu Sea and the northern portion of the Celebes Sea. Analysts say that $40 billion worth of merchandise flow through these waterways each year, including super tankers from the Indian Ocean that cannot fit into the crowded Malacca Strait.
According to Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi more than 100,000 ships sailed through the Sulu Sea last year, carrying about 60 million tons of cargo and more than 18 million passengers. Ms. Retno further stated that the agreement between Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines was mutual and that “we will undertake coordinated patrols in the areas of our common concern.”
The Philippines share maritime borders with Indonesia and Malaysia, and signed a border agreement in 2002, but this first time the three conduct joint maritime patrols.
Abu Sayyaf has kidnapped 19 people in the past year and a half including numerous foreigners. On April 25, 2016, the severed head of Canadian hostage John Ridsdel was found near the town of Jolo after ransom demands were not met. On April 12, 2016, the heads of two migrant workers were found in Mindanao after Abu Sayyaf claimed they were military informers.
In March 2016, Abu Sayyf demanded over one million dollars for the release of 10 kidnapped Indonesian sailors. The 10 sailors were released unharmed but conflicting reports soon circulated with Abu Sayyaf claiming that Indonesia paid the ransom while government denied it.
Abu Sayyaf militants have become notorious over the past 15 years for their kidnapping and ransom operations which has earned them millions of dollars. They have modern weapons, high-powered boats, and communications equipment. They have also become more violent when confronted by Philippine military personnel, during a suspected hostage rescue mission 18 Philippine soldiers were killed and another 53 injured by Abu Sayyaf members.
Joint naval patrols against piracy have shown some effectiveness in other areas of the world, including off the coast of Somalia. But ultimately Abu Sayaaf cannot be defeated only on the water, and the Philippines will need continued assistance in taking the fight to Abu Sayyaf’s inland safe havens.
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