Southeast Asian pirates still a threat to voyagers

The number of incidents of piracy occurring in Asian waters dropped significantly last year says the Regional Piracy Reporting Center (RPRC) in Kuala Lumpur. The RPRC claimed that there were 65 pirate raids in 1992, while only eight were filed in 1993.

Many people feel that the low numbers are not accurate due to several factors. Ship captains are aware that the cost of keeping their vessel in port may far exceed the value of the goods or money taken. Daniel Tan, secretary-general of the Singapore National Shipping Association adds that pride is also a factor. "Pointing to a particular nation as a base for pirates can cause diplomatic problems," he says.

The idea of a nation or even bands of pirates is beginning to erode. The RPRC feels that acts of piracy are probably not the work of organized crime but are more like small independent burglaries at sea. It is difficult to put an end to piracy when it is almost impossible to identify the pirates.

The typical Asian pirate leads a normal life by day on land. At night, they work in small groups. The scenario is often the same. The pirates approach at high speed in an unlighted boat. Hooking onto their victim, they board and then rob the crew before making their escape into the night. Quite often, they will leave the crew bound up while the ship carries on not under command. This was the scene the Japanese 48,000-ton tanker Joyama Maru faced while entering the Strait of Malacca last January 9. The officer on watch noticed a small boat following close astern. Eight shirtless men were trying to get a hook and line aboard. When Joyamu Maru turned their searchlight on them, the pirates wheeled away into the blackness. Two hours later, they successfully boarded another Japanese freighter and robbed them of $7,000.00.

Off the island of Karimun Besar in Indonesia there were four cases of piracy reported last January. This is the closest island to the Strait of Malacca.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) feels that the South China Sea has become a haven for world piracy. In a recent press release, the London-based company said that "the greatest threat of piracy against shipping is in an area between Hainan, Hong Kong, and the Philippines." They report 42 incidents of piracy in Southeast Asia between May and December 1993. Of these, 37 were in international waters, two in territorial waters, and three in port.

The IMO tracks incidents in 147 countries. They also noted 10 pirate attacks in West Africa, nine in South America, four in East Africa, three off of India and Bangladesh, and three in the Middle East.

In London, the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), a private, non-profit group funded by the International Chambers of Commerce, has alleged that China was instigating pirate attacks by its own Navy and Coast Guard forces. Eric Ellen, a spokesman for IMB, told a meeting at Southampton University that 20 attacks have already happened this year. "The attacks range from pirates boarding merchant vessels and stealing crews’ belongings to the full-scale interception of ships. Ships are then escorted back to port where their cargoes are discharged and a ransom extorted from ship owners for the return of their vessels." Ellen estimates that piracy and maritime fraud cost about $16 billion per year.

R. Bruce Macdonald is a freelance writer living in Victoria, British Columbia.

By Ocean Navigator