The Sulu Sea: Vast, beautiful, dangerous

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Ma. Isabel Ongpin

THE following has been going on in the Sulu Sea in the past few months. First, a multiple number of sea-jackings for kidnapping for ransom purposes of international ships passing international waters. And the latest, the abduction and killing at sea of eight fishermen in the area. The very latest is the sudden freedom given to an Indonesian ship captain and a Filipino crewman after having been kidnapped months ago. Actually, “sudden” would not be the correct term. They were freed because ransom was obviously paid after time-consuming negotiations. The Philippine government disclaims having paid ransom or knowing anything about ransom being paid.

Meanwhile, the Philippine Coast Guard and the PNP Maritime Group, the primary government agencies tasked to conduct maritime law enforcement operations, have been citing lack of capacity to perform these mandates. The Philippine Navy, on the other hand, has been deputized to conduct maritime law enforcement operations in these areas, over and above its traditional defensive and security missions and functions, to assist said agencies. Recent events have shown that efforts in countering this scourge at sea have been wanting, to say the least. In this regard, the Philippine government has undertaken initiatives that led to a trilateral arrangement with our southern neighbors, Malaysia and Indonesia, to undertake coordinated and synergized efforts to address these common criminal and security concerns. While it could be an immediate solution, this could compromise our position on existing contentious bilateral issues in the medium to long term, such as boundary questions in some areas of the Southern Sulu Sea. So far, these patrol agreements are evidently not working too well as sea-jackings and kidnappings are still going on.

The Sulu Sea is vast, beautiful and dangerous, perhaps from prehistoric times. Typhoons do not ordinarily pass there but lawless elements consisting of pirates, kidnappers and slave traders have been present, organized and successful for a long time.

While the Abu Sayyaf and others of their ilk now claim ideological motives for their criminal activities, the truth is that from the history that we know, slave trading has always been the livelihood, occupation, rite of passage of sailors from the area. Today’s activities are just the modern manifestation of an ancient occupation.


From the late 18th to the 19th centuries, slave trading was big business with international connections. Slaves ended up sold in Batavia which had a flourishing slave market and perhaps locally too. Many towns from the Visayas to Luzon have watchtowers on their coastlines dating from those times as their populations were victims of slave-raiding elements from Mindanao.

In modern times when slave trading is illegal and outlawed as well as obsolete, kidnapping for ransom is the new business plan.

The Coast Guard and PNP Maritime group need more boats but they also need to use more intelligence and improved tactics. If their ear is on the ground, they may just hear of plans for future raids and undertake preemptive actions and/or effective counter-action operations. People will always make slips of the tongue. Or, they should have agents to telegraph them. If this is not feasible, a study of history would be apropos. Traditional slave-raiding routes should be reviewed along with the seasonal winds of the year which, when they converge into a favorable synergy (the amihan, or northeast wind for one), full alert should be de rigueur. In the past, with the use of sailing boats, these were essential conditions for sailing towards raids. Now there are fully mechanized and faster boats that can take on the elements. But the coastlines are the same and their familiarity brings these raiders to keep to them, so traditional routes are still followed, if by faster boats and more high-powered arms these days. Northwestern and northeastern Mindanao, the western Zamboanga peninsula, the Southern Sulu Sea were traditional routes which are utilized until now.

Moreover, these lawless elements can no longer blissfully sail to the Visayas and Luzon without being interdicted because the seas are now full of other boats, communication is faster and better defenses are at hand. They are now confined to the following areas: the Zamboanga Peninsula, Basilan, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi from which to initiate raids and sea-jackings and then return to their safe havens. If a kidnapping/sea-jacking occurs, the raiders will immediately home in to their redoubts in these areas as their safegrounds. But if our maritime and security force vessels are on patrol, on guard and acting intelligently, they should be able to preempt these criminal acts at sea by denying them safe sanctuary or at least keep them on the run.

If this sounds easier said than done or too theoretical, let us be reminded that after the kidnapping raid at Dos Palmas in Palawan in May 2001, the Philippine Navy put up a task force group, Stingray, to secure tourist resorts and beaches in the Visayas, Mindanao and Palawan areas and prevent the re-occurrence of kidnappings and depredations by criminals and terrorists from the sea. The task force, using intelligence, psychological operations such as parading the few gunboats at its disposal to be seen and noted, fast communication and Navy Seals as organic units of the group and on board at all times, effectively preempted any kidnappings or terrorism at sea during its existence. In addition, they stationed themselves at chokepoints to and from where the pirates would have to pass to initiate a raid or return to safe havens. Also, the Coast Watch South, a Philippine Navy unit then provided the task force with the needed technical and human intelligence requirements, in addition to those provided by other government intelligence units and offices. No more such raids occurred at the resorts and the pirates moved on to non-Philippine areas. So, it can be done, as the past has proven. Given these experiences and evident good practices in the past, it is now an imperative for the government and all stakeholders to synergize and level up efforts to effectively and efficiently suppress and put an end to piracy, terrorism and other forms of criminality in Southern Philippines.

But one more imperative has to be implemented as well to succeed in this endeavor—the cooperation of local government officials. Pirates, criminals and terrorists prepare on land and come back to land in the course of their nefarious activities. If local government officials stop tolerating these activities and report them to the proper authorities, half of the battle would be won. It is a fundamental fact that criminality and terrorism conducted at sea all begin and end on land. Thus, while a lot of effective and efficient preparations and counter-measures can and should be done at sea, the equally critical efforts should be undertaken on land.

The present situation of continuous mayhem has to be out-maneuvered. It will never be easy as we are dealing with pirates who know the sea from racial memory, past and present experience and an enduring livelihood of raids, kidnappings and ransoms.

Furthermore, they are organized and specialized. Those who kidnap turn the victims over to those who transport them elsewhere to be kept hostage by others in turn, while another group conducts the ransom negotiations. It is important to know what and who one is dealing with as in “know your enemy” and learn from the past. Ideally, and in the long run, of course, a change of livelihood would have to be introduced through full, sustainable and inclusive development of these traditional pirate areas.

I am echoing the opinion of a resource person who has had the experience of present conditions in the Sulu Sea.

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