Is Sulu Sea the New Somalia?

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The MV Royal 16 (Credits to “tropic maritime images and ShipSpotting.com)

There are some foreign writers and analysts that postulate that Sulu Sea is becoming the “new Somalia”. Maybe they are trying to be polite and so they refer to Sulu Sea when in actuality most parts of Sulu Sea are peaceful and so do most of the provinces that border that sea. Maybe they really want to point to Sulu but they might be trying not to offend some people. Or is it Sulu Sea because the kidnapping incident that first caught world attention happened in Puerto Princesa, the Dos Palmas incident where the Burnham couple and Abu Sayyaf became world-famous?

Somalia I think is a much different case. In there you had a country that descended into a complete civil war with many contending sides and no competent central government was left standing except in name. From Somalia the term “failed state” came and that came to denote a country where there is no central authority that has the mandate nor the force to enforce laws and to provide order. It also meant that there are no social services like education and health services that are normally found in states with working central governments.

At the most here, we can only have a situation where there can be two “failed islands” or “failed provinces”. But then Sulu and Basilan have working provincial governments, those still provide public and social services and regular elections are still being held. The military is still present in both provinces although it has difficulty containing and neutralizing the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) threat. The military is still capable of launching offensives but with no decisive results because the Abu Sayyaf Group is embedded in the population.

The situation in Somalia or Afghanistan and Libya, two other “failed states” is different. There, the regular armies of the Western world fear to commit fully because they think that they will just be bogged down can’t get out in an unwinnable war and take unacceptable casualties through suicide attacks by the forces they are trying to control and defeat. Such situation is not true in Sulu and Basilan nor it will come true in the short foreseeable future.

What is only true in Sulu and Basilan is the Abu Sayyaf and related groups can kidnap and hold people for ransom including whites (and that is what catches world attention). But then kidnapping had been going on in the more lawless provinces of Mindanao since 40 years ago that it is almost like a cottage industry. Whites including priests have been victims of kidnapping for ransom in the past. What only changed is the ransom demand now is much higher and the kidnappers will behead the hostages if they think they need to prove a point or exert pressure.

Another recent change also is they can attack ships now and maybe that is the reason why the foreign commentators liken it to Somalia where taking of ships and its crews for ransom has been the hallmark of their fund-raising there. And like in Somalia the military here can’t seem to find and free the hostages without ransom being paid. They can launch operations but when the target is embedded in the population it is just like trying to find a tiny object in the dense woods.

In Somalia the attacks on ships have gone down to a record low in the past few years in a big part due to the rotating naval patrols of countries that has a great number of ships sailing the world’s waters (I am not talking here of flags of convenience countries like Panama and Liberia) and that includes even China. So it seems better patrols and surveillance can do the trick.

Can that be replicated here? Now I doubt it since the custom is the best ships of the Coast Guard and the Navy are always “floating monuments” in the biggest ports like Manila and Cebu (maybe they feel their commodores need an office and a showcase?). Even in search and rescue role, seldom will one will see their ships being based or patrolling the busy seaways where accidents can happen (because that will entail basic in some remote or lonely places like Romblon or the Camotes islands).

Attacks on foreign ships near Sulu have already happened in the recent months. Still the generated clamor by the anti-China media is to patrol the Scarborough Shoal and now the Benham Rise. ITLOS has already said the land features in Sulu Sea do not generate any territorial seas. And it should be obvious as daylight that the waters above Benham Rise is international waters. And so patrolling of international waters seem to be higher priority than patrolling our internal and archipelagic waters where there is an actual threat on life and property.

Do our leaders and opinion makers realize that the taking of foreign ships and its crews in our waters is a big slap on our face? If our forces cannot protect ships in our waters, will not our “patrolling of international waters” seem laughable to them?

Now some shipping companies already have advisories not to pass through the Balabac Strait to and from Singapore on the way to Cebu or Davao and instead pass through Mindoro Strait which means a longer route (no problem for them as they will just pass additional charges to us in the long run). And Puerto Princesa is now our cruise ship capital and cruise ships coming here was a new, good development in the past few years. Well, another “Dos Palmas” again or an attack on cruise ship tourists like in Tunisia and those cruise ships will be gone in an instant.

Whatever now, our shipping scene is already changed and not only on the foreign shipper side but also on the local side. Is there a local shipper not apprehensive to pass now through Basilan Strait on the way to Gensan and Davao? The last few times I checked the AIS, I noticed more ships are now using the eastern seaboard of Mindanao. It seems the choppier waters of the part of the country is less of a problem than the pirates of southwestern Mindanao.

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This was being towed when it tug was attacked

But a “new Somalia”? Nope. Not by any means. And any comparison such as that is simply insult to us.

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