Covid-19 and Its Implications for Security at Sea: The Indonesian Case

By Adri Wanto

Case Studies in Armed Robbery in the waters of Bintan, Indonesia

Many economists predict that the Covid-19 outbreak will cause an economic crisis in Indonesia. Some even say this crisis will be more severe than the 2007 global financial crisis and the 1997 Asian financial crisis.1 The Indonesian government has been forced to take drastic steps to prepare for a potential economic downturn, making budgetary adjustments that have seemingly started to influence the security sector. 

In the field of security, Indonesia has paid special attention to threats at sea, namely, the increasingly assertive maritime security threat from China and ocean crimes that have been increasing since the Covid-19 pandemic began. Since 2020, China has carried out some fairly aggressive operations in the South China Sea. As a response to the territorial threat from China, the readiness of the Indonesian Navy in the Natuna Islands region has not declined. However, some argue that the increase of armed robbery incidents show that Indonesia’s security capability has been reduced because of the reallocation of budget and military personnel. 

Theoretically, the economic downturn caused by the pandemic will trigger an increase in the incidence of ocean crimes due to economic factors. An emergency situation such as the Coronavirus pandemic can cause people who are unable to meet their basic needs to be desperate enough to commit crimes in order to survive. According to data from the Indonesian National Police Headquarters (Polri), the crime rate during the Covid-19 pandemic has increased 11.8% throughout Indonesia.

Similarly, in January 2021 the Executive Director of the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP) Information Sharing Center (ISC) stated that the increase in armed robbery most likely stemmed from economic motivation caused by Covid-19.

To understand the increase in armed robbery incidents in the Singapore Strait, we need to diagnose the problem and address it with caution. Is it true that the high level of crime in the Singapore Strait bordering with the waters of Bintan Island is only caused by economic factors or is other factors at play? If there are other factors, then what are they? Could it be that the problem of crime at sea is caused by problems on land that are not being managed properly? The next question is how to address these problems.

According to data released by ReCAAP, armed robbery incidents in the Singapore Strait increased in the first half of 2021. In total there were 20 incidents, up from 16 cases in the same period the previous year. Of the total 16 incidents that occurred in 2020, 13 of them were in the East Line, in the waters off Bintan Island, most of which were in Indonesian territorial waters.2

ReCAAP also noted that during the first six months of 2021, there were a total of 37 incidents of armed robbery at sea in Asia, down from 57 cases in the same period last year. In 2020, the total number of reported cases of piracy was 97 incidents. Meanwhile in 2019, the number of piracy cases was 83 cases. This means that the number of cases of armed robbery in Asian waters in 2020 increased by 17 percent compared to 2019. The crime incidents occurred in the Singapore Strait and the South China Sea, as well as the waters of countries such as Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam. 

Budget Dilemma

Indonesia’s Minister of Finance, Sri Mulyani Indrawati, said that the government would cut the budget for the Ministry of Defence and the National Police (Polri) by Rp 38.03 trillion (US $2.7 billion) for 2021. She plans to shift the budget from the two institutions to finance vaccination funds, health care, and other urgent needs for national economic recovery. In various national media, the Minister of Finance assessed this step as the impact of the very dynamic need for handling Covid-19. The potential budget to be cut at the Ministry of Defence is Rp 23.16 billion (US $1.6 million).

After attending several meetings with the Republic of Indonesia (DPR) House of Representatives, the Indonesian Military (TNI), and Polri, Sri Mulyani cancelled the plan. This was because the budgets of the two institutions were used to carry out Covid-19 vaccinations. She said that the government had no reason to refocus the budgets of the two institutions. The government continues to reduce the budget for other ministries/agencies, but not for the TNI and Polri.

The budget for TNI and Polri is used to support the government’s efforts to create herd immunity. “The Finance Ministry provides a budget so that the TNI and Polri are able to pursue the target of 70 percent herd immunity in Indonesia. Relying on medical and civilian personnel alone may be difficult to achieve the group immunity target. Civilian institutions are unable to carry out mass vaccinations without help from military and security services. This is considered as military operations other than war (MOOTW), as it assists the government to handle the pandemic. In the Riau Islands, for example, many vaccination posts are served by TNI and Polri personnel.

TNI plays a vital role in vaccination in the Kepri Province. Over the last few months, the Joint Regional Defence Command I (Kogabwilhan) Tanjungpinang has carried out a vaccination drive to help the government accelerate vaccination numbers in the Riau Islands. Kogabwilhan opened vaccination posts in their Headquarters and Senior High School in the city of Tanjung Pinang, capital city of the province and sited at the south western coast of the Bintan Island. The program was cooperation between Kogabwilhan I in collaboration with the Ministry of Transportation and the Riau Islands Provincial Government.

Since the government started the vaccination program, the TNI has been deployed to reach the target vaccination. The TNI deployed 91,817 personnel nationwide to assist in handling the corona virus for 150 days in 2021. To deploy 91,817 personnel, the TNI has prepared a budget of Rp. 1.4 trillion. Moreover, TNI also allocated Rp 1.8 trillion that will be used to meet the needs of medical equipment in 109 hospitals owned by the TNI in handling coronavirus patients.

The diversion of the TNI budget was used to purchase Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), rapid tests, swab tests, and wireless smart helmets with mass temperature screening. The refocusing of the budget and personnel of the TNI, especially the Navy (TNI-AL), which was mobilized to deal with Covid-19, has seemingly caused the weakness of law enforcement at sea. However, we need to ask ourselves a hypothetical question: if there were no military budget reallocation and deployment of TNI to handle Covid-19, would the number of armed robbery cases be as high? 

Difficulties in Dealing with Armed Robbery

The Riau Islands has one of the highest vaccination rates in Indonesia. This achievement is not only the success of the local government, but also due to the very strong role of the military. However, the achievement comes at a cost. Since the government began carrying out mass vaccinations, many Navy personnel have been drawn ashore to assist in handling health and other urgent needs in the recovery of the national economy. This means that there are a reduced number of Navy personnel at sea. 

An officer from TNI AL in Tanjungpinang, who wishes to remain anonymous, said that, “Currently we are concentrating on helping the government accelerate vaccination in the Riau Archipelago. So, indeed many of our personnel were drawn ashore to pursue the target of the vaccination program” in an interview by the author.3 However, the officer denied that the budget reallocation impacted TNI-AL readiness in dealing with armed robbery in Bintan waters. 

In an interview with the author, another TNI-AL officer in Bintan, who also wishes to remain anonymous, said, “Dealing with sea armed robbery is much more difficult compared to dealing with pirates. They use small boats similar in size to local fishing boats. The armed robberies generally occur at night when hundreds of fishing boats are doing their activities. The minute that armed robbers depart from a ship they have targeted, it’s almost impossible for us to arrest them. It is like looking for a needle in a haystack. It is very difficult for us to identify them because their boats are so similar to the local fishing boats. We cannot check the fishing boats one by one to find the evidence. Knives or swords cannot be considered as evidence since all the local fisherman boats have knives and swords in their boat to untangle their fishing nets that frequently become stuck on the rock.”4

This officer also stated that “The main items that perpetrators have targeted are engine spare parts and scrap metal on barges. If you are really serious to dismantle the armed robbery networks, you can start to find the stolen engine spare parts in Batu Ampar (Batam). From Batu Ampar, you will understand the whole story of armed robbery in this region. However, this is out of our authority to conduct such an investigation. You should discuss it with the Police.” The officer also said that, “It is a lot of work to deal with such an assertive maritime security threat from China, illegal fishing, marine pollution, piracy, drug smuggling, people smuggling, oil spills, and many others. In many cases, some media exaggerate theft in the sea as armed robbery.” 

In an interview with Hamdan, one of the bosses of the perpetrators smuggling illegal goods into Malaysia and Singapore, he said that since the spread of Covid-19, various forms of illegal trade have decreased. Prior to the pandemic, Hamdan and his subordinates routinely smuggled goods to Malaysia and Singapore. He also smuggled Indonesian workers into Malaysia and returned other illegal Indonesian workers to Indonesia. In one month, there used to be four to six trips of illegal workers, but since Covid-19, there is not even one a month.5 In illegal trading activities, Hamdan himself acts as a deliveryman for illegal goods on a speed boat that he owns and is operated by his subordinates. 

Currently, Hamdan finds it difficult to keep his subordinates doing his illegal business. He said, “In a difficult situation like this, I still have to pay them because they need to live. What I do now is just call them when there are goods to be sent to Malaysia. That’s not often either. Currently only bird smuggling is still going into Malaysia and bringing back illegal Indonesian migrant workers from Malaysia.” Regarding armed robbery and theft in the sea, he said that for the Singapore and Bintan border areas it was carried out by his subordinates. Hamdan claimed that they did so because of the economic situation and the absence of routine illegal trading activities that they usually did before the Covid-19 outbreak.

Hamdan also claimed that the perpetrators of armed robbery and theft in the sea are still in the same network. He said, “Criminals in the sea are different from criminals on land. Those who are used to committing crimes on land will not necessarily understand criminal patterns at sea.” This means that the actors of armed robbery and theft at sea are those who are already accustomed to doing business at sea. He also said, “When overseas business starts to run as before the Covid-19 outbreak, armed robbery and theft at sea will also reduce because they will return to their jobs and get income as before.”

One of the bosses of the smugglers based in Bintan, Tohirin, said, “The perpetrators of theft at sea are those who are familiar with the sea and know the routines of activities at sea. You know, they used to have routine jobs to smuggle goods. When there is no job available, they have no choice but to do that.”6 Mr. Tohirin also added that illegal trade activities are not only carried out between countries but also between islands. He said, “They would still have jobs in this current situation, if the business of smuggling goods out of Batam had not been taken over by big businessmen.”

Tohirin also commented that, “Before Apri Sujadi became the Regent of Bintan, we small-scale smugglers could still get an income from smuggling cigarettes, alcoholic beverages, cars and motorbike spare parts, and machinery from Batam to other islands by speedboat. After he became the Regent, some of our illegal businesses were taken over by him… Cigarette and alcoholic beverage smuggling has been taken over by big businessmen from Apri Sujadi’s circle.” Tohirin’s statement implies that corrupt actions by unscrupulous officials on the mainland had a significant effect on the increase in armed robbery and theft at sea. 

Since 12 August 2021, the former regent of Bintan, Apri Sujadi, has been detained by the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) in a case of alleged corruption in the regulation of excisable goods in the management of the Free Trade Area and Free Port (KPBPB) of the Bintan Regency from 2016-2018. Apri is also a suspect in a corruption case in determining quotas for cigarettes and alcoholic beverages in the Bintan Free Trade Zone and Free Port Concession area. In addition to Apri, the KPK named the Acting Head of the Bintan Free Trade Area and Free Port Concession Agency for the Bintan Regency area, Mohd Saleh Umar, as a suspect in the same case. Apri and Mohd Saleh H Umar are suspected of causing state losses of Rp. 250 billion (US $17.4 million).

According to Tohirin, high-ranking officers in Kepri were also involved in various smuggling cases. Mr. Tohirin also shared his experience. He said, “There were a lot of high ranking government officers who used the official route to bring goods out of Batam by using the car ferry from the Telaga Punggur Batam port to the Tanjung Uban port. They were government officials who could easily carry goods on a large scale without any problems. The Customs Officers wouldn’t be brave enough to ask for their documents. After Jokowi became President [of Indonesia], there were a lot of changes in the Customs Office. Many of my colleagues were arrested, not to mention small-scale smugglers like us. Hajji Permata, a prominent player, was shot to death by Customs Officers.” 

On January 15, 2021, Jumhan, well-known as Haji Permata, was shot to death by Customs Officers, due to illegal goods smuggling activities. His name often appears in relation to customs cases over the last decade. A number of his ship’s crew members also often face Customs and Excise charges. On April 17, 2015, he was convicted in connection with the attack on the Regional Office IV of the Directorate of Customs and Excise (Kanwil DJBC) in the Riau Islands Province. He was sentenced to five months in prison. 

Haji Permata was accused because he was thought to be the mastermind of mobilizing hundreds of people to attack the Customs and Excise Office after Customs Officers arrested his ship, which was loaded with illegal goods. Regarding the Haji Permata case, Tohirin commented, “So please understand that in a difficult position like right now, the reason why my friends commit crimes at sea. After Haji Permata’s death, what are his workers going to do? I believe it’s only temporary to survive.”

In contrast to Hamdan and Tohirin, a smuggler based in Batam, Iwan, has a different perception regarding the high number of armed robberies and thefts at sea. According to him, armed robberies will continue due to the high demand for stolen ship spare parts at the Batu Ampar port, Batam. The stolen spare parts are priced far below the official price. He said the demand for stolen spare parts was not only from Indonesia, but increasingly by ships from Singapore and Malaysia. Therefore, according to him, the main items targeted by pirates are engine parts and scrap metal on barges because scrap metal is quite expensive. Batam’s Batu Ampar port is indeed filled with used goods from Singapore.

Regarding the circulation of stolen ship spare parts at the Batu Ampar port, based on our interview with some regional police officers, the police could not move to make arrests. This is due to several issues related to procedure. First, there is no report of loss to the Regional Police so the police don’t have any legal reason to make arrests. Second, the police have to first prove that the goods were stolen because they cannot act based on assumptions. Third, crimes committed in international waters are beyond the authority of the regional police. Moreover, the Riau Islands Regional Police have never been involved in collaborations and discussions concerning crimes at sea. In principle, the police will follow up if there is a report and it is under the authority of the police to handle the problem.

The increasing number of incidents of armed robbery in the border waters of the Riau Islands Province with Singapore and Malaysia is due to a decrease in illegal trading activities between the Riau Islands, Johor, Malaysia, and Singapore. This is due to restrictions on human movement activities to avoid spreading Covid-19. The perpetrators of armed robbery and theft at sea are those who used to carry out illegal activities at sea and are directly affected by the spread of Covid-19. To survive at sea they become perpetrators of armed robbery and theft. The perpetrators of the armed robbery already have their own ecosystem, so it is very unlikely that new criminal actors will be present in the border area without their network knowing. Furthermore, efforts to dismantle the armed robbery network and theft at sea are almost impossible without involving the Riau Islands Regional Police (Polda), especially to be able to dismantle the reservoir for stolen ship engine spare parts circulating in Batam.

Adri Wanto is a PhD Student, Austronesia Studies, Asian-African Institute (AAI), University of Hamburg, Germany.


1. See also accessed 6 September 2021.

2. See also accessed 6 September 2021.

3. The interview was conducted on August 24, 2021 in Tanjungpinang. 

4. The Interview was conducted on August 25, 2021 in Bintan. 

5. The interviewee agreed to be interviewed on the grounds that their name was changed. The interview was conducted on August 26, 2021 in Bintan.

6. he interviewee agreed to be interviewed on the grounds that their name was changed. The interview was conducted on 27 August 2021 in Bintan.

Featured Image: In a demonstration, Indonesian naval forces storm the “hijacked” MT Promise off Batam island in the southern end of the Malacca Strait on May 11, 2012. (Photo by Alphonsus Chern / Singapore Press via AP, file)

One thought on “Covid-19 and Its Implications for Security at Sea: The Indonesian Case”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.