Piracy: Alive and Dangerous in the 21st Century


By Sophia Read
For The Bali Times

SEMINYAK ~ Indonesia has now become only the second-worst country for pirate attacks in the world. Nigeria has the title. Yes, you read that right, pirate attacks – in the 21st century. This year pirate attacks globally have risen 20 percent compared to last year. Indonesia’s numbers, however, have fallen in the same period from nine in 2007 to only four so far the year. Advances in technology mean that ships run with fewer crew and that has unfortunately made them more vulnerable to attack.

Modern-day pirates bear little resemblance to the swashbucklers of old. They are generally equipped with fast, well-maintained boats, and can operate with an undeniable slickness, stealing large cargo-loads in the blink of an eye. They are also generally heavily armed. One of the most valuable payloads targeted by pirates is fish. Overfishing and conservation issues have led to a dramatic rise in the price of fish, and made fishing vessels with large cargoes a tempting target.

For many years Indonesia has been the worst-affected country in the world, mainly in the Straits of Malacca. This area has always been rife with pirates, since the Europeans arrived in the area. It is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world – more than 25 percent of the all traded goods pass through the strait, including basically all goods imported by China or Japan. One of the main problems has been a lack of policing.

Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia all share responsibility for policing their own parts, but until recently, each navy has had no jurisdiction beyond their own waters – making escape easy for fleeing marauders. Indonesian policing in particular has been regarded as ineffective, with some accusations of collusion between the two sides. When you consider, however, that in 2004 less than 30 percent of all the Indonesian Navy’s ships were considered seaworthy, the problems look clearer.

In July 2004, attempts to stamp out piracy were stepped up due to international fears about terrorism, and the three countries began coordinated naval patrols. Unfortunately, piracy increased immediately after this initiative, with the International Maritime Organisation reporting that 40 percent of all pirate attacks in 2004 were in Indonesian waters.

Pirates these days fall into three main categories. First, you have the opportunistic “smash and grab” type, who board a boat and steal anything portable and valuable, and vanish over the horizon. As many merchants pay their crews in cash, which is carried on board, these raids can turn out to be very profitable.

13 April 2008: 0205 LT: 03:13N–105:26E, Off Pulau Mangkai, Indonesia. 12 pirates, in speedboat, armed with guns, swords and iron bars approached bulk carrier underway. Master raised alarm, crew directed fire hoses & SSAS activated. Pirates boarded the ship & stole crew personal belongings, ship’s cash and property. After 50 minutes, they left the ship. No injuries to crew except minor bruises. Ships in vicinity alerted.

Second are those who steal the actual boat and the cargo. These are perhaps the most well-organized, and may well have links to large criminal organizations – they not only know when a good target is sailing, but appear to be able to make the ships and cargoes actually vanish. To do this they would need a whole gamut of false paperwork, and a network of distributors.

28 Oct. 2007: 0216 UTC: 13:05N-050:24E, Gulf of Aden. An undesignated distress call was received from a chemical tanker underway. Thereafter, there has been no subsequent communication with the vessel. The owners and the Piracy Reporting Centre have been unable to contact the vessel. Information from the coalition naval forces, in the vicinity, indicates that pirates have likely hijacked and sailed the tanker into Somali territorial waters. There are 23 crew on board the vessel.

The third category is those with a political grievances. These groups are basically terrorist organizations, and frequently take people or even whole vessels hostage either in order to make a political point, or for ransom for funds to support their endeavors. Perhaps the most famous of these occurred in 2004:

08.06.2004 at 0800 LT at Berhala Island, Malacca straits.

About 20 pirates believed to be Aceh rebels boarded a bulk carrier underway. Twelve crewmembers jumped overboard and were saved by fishing vessels in the vicinity. The master and c/e were kidnapped by pirates. The ship was abandoned and owners are arranging for a tugboat to tow her back to port. According to information received from owners, kidnappers are demanding a ransom for safe release of master and C/E.

But they are still occurring today:

12 March 2008: 1250LT: Enroute from Calabar to Port Harcourt, Nigeria. Armed pirates, in three speedboats boarded tug, underway, kidnapped six Nigerian nationals and took them ashore. Kidnappers demanding ransom for safe release of the hostages. Kidnappers claim to be the “protectors of the Bonny River.”

It is estimated that piracy may cost the global economy over US$15 billion a year, and it is on the rise. Authorities believe that over half of all pirate attacks are never reported, for various reasons – rising insurance costs, supplier liability costs, time taken to investigate, etc.

Pirates are rarely apprehended in Indonesia – after all, there are 17,500 islands, and umpteen stretches of uninhabited ocean for them to use as a lair. The Indonesian Navy would need to commit a vast amount of money and training to the problem in order to sink the buccaneers. That they are earnest about the desire to tackle the problem is evidenced by the order that all personnel “shoot to kill” any armed pirate, but the scale of the problem means that there is certainly no immediate end in sight. Instead, private ships are turning to their own defense systems to prevent pirate attacks. Some are coating the surface of their hulls with anti-stick chemicals to help repel boarders, so have invested in water or sonic cannon to fire at intruders, and most vessels passing through the Malacca Strait are equipped with forms of non-lethal (and maybe even lethal) protection – and it works.

19 Nov. 2007: 0100 LT: 03:13.0N-105:23.0E: Off Mangkai Island, Indonesia. Duty oiler on board a chemical tanker, underway, noticed pirate with gun in hand on the poop deck. Duty officer informed. Alarm raised. All crew mustered and all lights switched on. Search of the vessel revealed no one onboard. Duty officer noticed an unlit craft moving away from the vessel.

So do away with your notions that pirates are in someway romantic figures – they are serious criminals, committing serious crime, damaging to both those directly attacked by pirates and to all of us. Our seas are not safe. As I write this, the International Chamber of Commerce’s Commercial Crime Division has a piracy alert out as two vessels in close succession have been attacked and boarded by seven armed men off Mangkai, and all ships transiting through this area are advised to be cautious and maintain a vigilant anti piracy watch.

The writer is sales manager of AquaMarine Diving – Bali.

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