Eastern Inscrutability: Piracy on the High Seas

By Robert Elliott

Though the number of piracy incidents decreased in 2006, those that did occur were more likely to be violent.

Jutting out from Palawan beach on Singapore's Sentosa Island is a small T-shaped piece of land landscaped by rocks and palm trees. Reached by rope bridge, the promontory is the southernmost point on the continent of Asia. Two lookout towers on either side of the T afford a view of the Strait of Malacca, one of the world's busiest shipping lanes. Out on the water, freighters, tankers, and tugboats are stacked up to the horizon, waiting to carry aluminum ingots, cereals, and other cargo to the next destination.

More than 50,000 ships per year steam through the Strait of Malacca, and their valuable cargo has proven an irresistible target for modern-day pirates. Though maritime piracy in 2006 was down slightly from the prior year both in Asia and worldwide - Indonesia, which borders the straits along with Malaysia and Singapore, was still the world's top piracy victim. It suffered 50 attacks, down from 79 incidents in 2005.

Overall, the number of worldwide pirate attacks fell to 239 in 2006, compared to 279 in 2005 and 329 in 2004. Noel Choong, head of the International Maritime Bureau's (IMB) Piracy Reporting Center in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, says the decline in assaults was due to increased patrols by law enforcement agencies and antipiracy watches by ship captains.

The number of incidents in 2006 was the lowest in eight years, and marked improvement was noted in Indonesia, Jamaica, India, and Somalia. Yet fresh troubling trends cropped up, including an increase in violence, Choong told me when I visited the IMB office in downtown Kuala Lumpur. The number of crew killed increased to 15 from none in 2005, while 77 crewmembers were kidnapped and 188 taken hostage.

New problem areas also appeared. "Countries with political and economic problems have more piracy," says Choong, a former master mariner in Singapore.

For example, the situation has deteriorated in Bangladesh, particularly in the Chittagong: it topped the world for recorded attacks in a single port and anchorage, with 46 incidents, and that location is now listed as the planet's most dangerous docking station.

Behind Indonesia and Bangladesh, Nigeria logged 12 attacks, the third-highest number reported in the world. Nigerian violence and kidnapping also escalated, with 49 people snatched and three killed.

"Many kidnappings and attacks [in Nigeria] are against foreign oil workers," the IMB annual report noted. The IMB blamed unstable local politics for having a direct impact on shipping safety in the area, and described the pirates as heavily armed and violent.

Pirates often patrol areas in fast boats that can easily overtake the big ships they target. Using grappling hooks and armed with knives and guns, they get on board and overtake the crew. Some incidents are confined to robbing the ship's safe and the personal belongings of crew members, but others involve off-loading valuable cargo, such as aluminum ingots, or stealing the ship itself and sailing it into a secretive port to be repainted, renamed, and reflagged.

The IMB has had past successes in rescuing hijacked ships. Two years ago, the Steadfast, a chemical tanker, was taken over by pirates disguised in police uniforms after it had picked up a load of cargo in Indonesia. The boat was tracked by the IMB to the South China Sea thanks to the pirates' ignorance of a satellite transmitter on board. The Indonesian government subsequently dispatched a warship and aircraft, and the ship surrendered. The pirates abandoned the vessel and escaped.

The IMB enlists the help of informants interested in hefty reward payouts to track down hijacked vessels. For the Steadfast, the IMB put out a $100,000 reward notice for information leading to its recapture. Insurance underwriters provide the money.

IMB representatives often meet informants in international airports in cities such as Bangkok or Vietnam, but some rendezvous have taken place in more remote spots like the jungles of Borneo.

Some informants have had little time to enjoy their windfall - they were killed for their loose tongues. "It's the risk they choose to take. It's easy money," says Choong.

Piracy hotspots change from year-to-year, just as world drug production and distribution centers do. The IMB is skeptical that the current downward trend in attacks will be sustained unless worldwide pressure from law enforcement and governments is kept up. "If the remaining governments maintain patrols, the attacks will continue to go down," says Choong. "If they become complacent, the pirates will come back."



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