Indian Ocean heating up? | Sunday Observer

Indian Ocean heating up?

If they see the dress of the Somali pirates, the likes of whom briefly captured and held hostage a Sri Lankan crewed ship last week, Sri Lankans would be forgiven if they get a little confused over the familiar sarong many of those pirates wear. The ubiquitous sarong, especially the checked print sarong, is to be seen along much of the coasts of the Indian Ocean, living proof that oceans and seas are not ‘dividers’ but ‘unifiers’ (to use a term so creatively applied by historian Prof. K. Indrapala).

This familiar piece of Asian clothing, so comfy, cool and easy to wear, is familiar in societies stretching from Indonesia to Malaysia, to Burma (and southern Thailand), Bangladesh, south India, Oman and Yemen (Arabian Peninsula), to Djibouti, Somalia (Horn of Africa), and to even parts of the Kenyan coast. Any street in Yemen, for example, is crowded with Yemeni men dressed in the sarong and a European-style coat – just as many Sri Lankan rural gentlemen would dress till a few decades ago (I fondly recall my childhood Appuhamy and Baas Unnéhé). One difference is that those Yemenis, in tribal style, also wear an elaborately sheathed dagger at their waist.

In a historical sense, Sri Lankans should be familiar with East African coastal culture, given that it is the western edge of our India Ocean. But we are not, thanks to that rupture with our indigenous past caused by the European colonial invasions. Since very ancient times, as ancient remains in our historic ports (not modern Colombo nor half-built Magampura) have proven, there has been contact and trade across the vast stretches of the Indian Ocean. In prehistoric times, artefacts and utility objects such as trade stamps from the Indus Valley civilisation have been found in ancient Persian Gulf ports. Early historic sea trade between the east and west sides of the Indian Ocean has been evidenced by ancient trade seals and artefacts from Rome and Gulf societies and from China unearthed in our own Mahathittha (now Mantai) and in Arikamedu, Puducherry (south India). The distribution of finds of the even more ancient ‘trade beads’ from ancient Zimbabwe in Africa to Malaysia, is further proof of the historic links across the Indian Ocean. Ancient Mahatittha seems to have been an internationally renowned ‘emporium’ of trade at the very centre of the main Indian Ocean sea routes for over 2000 years.

The Somali pirates’ capture of the MV Aris 13, a small (1,800 DWT) fuel tanker registered in Comoros Islands and crewed by eight Sri Lankan sailors, was the first act of piracy in the Indian Ocean in five years and sent alarm bells ringing in defence establishments across the region and far beyond. But the situation off Somalia’s coast today is vastly different since piracy began to flourish in the early 2000s. More importantly, the MV Aris 13 was an exceptional case in terms of the ship’s own safety failures.

Today an anti-piracy naval force comprising vessels and troops contributed by 45 countries within and outside the Indian Ocean Region and led by an American Admiral seconded by his navy, rigorously patrols the seas off East Africa and the Arab Peninsula, the zone of piracy. Along with strict safety procedures observed by shipping transiting this zone, this naval force has successfully halted piracy since 2012. The MV Aris 13 is found to have been seriously wanting in observing standard anti-piracy safety procedure: the ship was sailing closer to the African coastline than allowed by anti-piracy procedure and had, ostensibly for reasons of costs, had not taken on board the regulatory unit of hired Sea Marshals.

The vessel was on hire by Somali business people and was bringing fuel to Somalia, a fact which apparently prompted the Somali pirates to release the vessel. Not before, though, the Puntland security forces began firing on the pirates holed up in the ship thereby endangering the crew. Fortunately, none of the crew was hurt.

If the quick resolution of the piracy incident brought sighs of relief on our island, a little known developing situation much closer than distant Somalia should keep us on our toes: the simmering tensions in The Maldives not only due to the on-going fight between Government and Opposition.

Last month mass protests broke out on the tiny capital island of Malé and have, since, continued intermittently. These were not simply motivated by the repressive actions against opposition political elements by the regime in Malé. In addition to the on-going grievances over suppression of rights and harassment of critics and opposition politicians, mass sentiment has been provoked by reports that the government of The Maldives was poised to sell off a whole Maldivian atoll to the Saudi royal family.

According to some sources, the Saudi royal family has offered to buy the central Faafu Atoll for outright ownership for US $ 10 billion, an enormous sum compared with the tiny republic’s total economy of US $ 2 billion. According to reports from Male, the deal was being done in secret with the Maldivian constitution being amended by the current regime of President Abdullah Yameen to enable non-citizens to own Maldivian territory in perpetuity. The entirety of the Faafu Atoll, which has 12 islands of which five have a total population of 5,000, is to be sold off to the Saudis and the displaced community re-settled in Male island.

Representatives of Saudi royalty were due to visit Male to clinch the deal this week but after the heated protests last week including the tear-gassing of demonstrators, the visit has been postponed. Whether the deal will go through as originally designed or whether it will be amended to appease popular sentiment – such as excluding total ownership – remains to be seen. The United Maldivian Opposition movement has already declared that will rescind the deal should it come to power.

Certainly, the deal – a familiar word for us after the recent ‘deal era’ here – will be a big boost to the Maldivian economy which has been flagging due to the decline in tourism following the instability caused precisely by that decline in democracy. One wonders, though, whether the Saudis are aware that the real-estate they are buying may not stay above water for much longer (even their own lifetime) if global warming continues at its current pace. Even in Saudi terms $ 10 billion is not exactly ‘peanuts’. They do have enough excess cash, though, to build a luxury Ark to survive a future Flood.

More importantly, Sri Lankans and everyone else from Mauritius to Mombasa to Delhi to Djakarta to Fremantle and far beyond in Washington, Beijing and Moscow, will all recall that Saudi Arabia is not one of the more benevolent states in the world and worse, is known for the key role played by some of its citizens in extremist Islamist terrorism starting with the attack on New York’s World Trade Centre. Equally significantly, besieged genuine Muslim spiritualists are increasingly uncomfortable with the growing pressures emanating from a very specific branch of Arabia-based Islam, known as the Wahabbi sect, the sect originally nurtured, quite innocently, by King Ibn Saud, the heroic founder of the modern Saudi state and unified Arab society.

At one time The Maldives was the most modern of South Asia’s predominantly Muslim societies but, thanks to the growing influence of the Wahabbi Islamism, the trend is reversed. Sell-outs such as the Faafu Atoll deal may serve to entrench more of the same. Sri Lanka is the land mass nearest to that troubled archipelago and should be concerned – as much as India certainly is.

This is why this columnist has long argued that the arm of defence Sri Lanka needs to strengthen is the navy and long-range aerial surveillance capability. Unless we are under the influence of commission-hungry arms dealers and their political pals, there is no reason whatsoever for us to think about such flashy and glamorously expensive items like super-sonic fighter aircraft. ‘Prestige’ purchases – advocated by some lobbyists – are the privilege of rich countries. Personally I don’t know of a single rich country (other than rich despots) that even thinks in terms of purely ‘prestige’ military hardware.

As an island republic, our immediate threats (other than internal ones that need dedicated counter-insurgency air power, not supersonic aerial interceptors) are seaward infiltration, not just military but ideological and criminal. What we need is a genuine naval force and long range maritime surveillance air power both for defensive deployment rather than offensive purposes, since we do not have the responsibilities of a big power. 

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