Tackle poverty to stop piracy

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Armed robbery by groups like Abu Sayyaf against ships are 'mostly driven by economic motives'

Asia appears to be winning the battle against terrorism - at least on the high seas. Last year saw the lowest number of reported incidents of piracy and armed robbery against ships in the region since 2007.

But the battle to improve safety of property and, more importantly, crew and passengers on ships is far from over, said Mr Masafumi Kuroki, executive director of ReCAAP Information Sharing Centre, the first government-to-government accord to promote cooperation against piracy and armed robbery against ships in Asia.

This is particularly so with the casualty count from serial crew abductions in the Sulu-Celebes Sea having gone up despite no new reports of such incidents there since April.

And not least, piracy is a key source of funding for extremist groups. Beyond the political menace linked to radical groups, piracy also threatens the safety of sea passages and raises the cost of shipping.

A 2012 paper by researchers from the London School of Economics and Political Science and Barcelona Graduate School of Economics estimated that piracy in the Gulf of Aden, off Somalia, resulted in US$1.5 billion (S$2.03 billion) in welfare loss.

The paper suggested that the extra spending due to piracy could finance one year of employment for more than 1.5 million labourers in 2010.

But combatting piracy requires collaboration across governments, and world leaders have long been aware of the need to team up on this front.

In September 2006, ReCAAP was established after the signing of the first cross-government accord to fight piracy and armed robbery in Asia.

As of April this year, over 20 contracting countries - 14 in Asia, four in Europe as well as Australia and the US - are signatories to the agreement.

Beyond policing the waters, Mr Kuroki argued, regional governments have to work towards reducing poverty, the key factor behind piracy in Asia and which also drives the cause and existence of Abu Sayyaf and other radical groups.

"The people coming together to form Abu Sayyaf could be unhappy because they have been left out of the country's economic development," he said of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria-linked group.

This, he added, differentiates the motivation behind Abu Sayyaf from the political aspirations of the main terrorist organisation, which is driven by religious extremism.

Throughout history, wars and acts of mass violence marked by religious overtones were often instigated by those disenfranchised, whether politically or economically, he noted.

Observers have argued that Abu Sayyaf members are driven to commit criminal and violent acts largely due to desperation from widespread poverty, hunger and a lack of economic opportunity in Mindanao.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has gone beyond law enforcement and looked into developing the economy of Mindanao and pledged funds towards key infrastructure projects in the restive province.

From observations of Abu Sayyaf, it was clear to Mr Kuroki that "piracy is mostly driven by economic motives".

In any case, not many organised groups are active in the Strait of Malacca and the Singapore Strait, two of the region's busiest waterways, he said. The same can also be said of the rest of Asia, going by the profile of reported incidents so far.

Of the 43 actual incidents reported to the centre during the first nine months of this year, only five involved large numbers of perpetrators armed with guns and knives - far outweighed by 21 other incidents involving unarmed perpetrators who were seen fleeing empty-handed.

All these point to more petty and opportunistic pirates rather than organised groups such as Abu Sayyaf at work in regional waters, said Mr Kuroki.