Pirates in South-East Asia - Malacca buccaneers
aside, Somalia: South-East Asia is the new piracy capital of the world
EIGHT men armed with pistols and machetes boarded the Orkim Harmony,
a tanker, in the early evening of June 11th. Carrying 6,000 tonnes of
petrol—worth more than $5m at market prices—the ship was nearing the end of a
voyage around the southern tip of Malaysia, from Malacca on the country’s west
coast to Kuantan Port on its eastern one. The pirates restrained the crew and
scrubbed three letters from the hull, crudely disguising the vessel with a new
name, Kim Harmon. Then they headed north towards Cambodia, in search
of a friendly port in which to siphon off her liquid cargo. When the ship was
finally spotted seven days later, the hijackers warned away security forces by
threatening to harm the hostages, then slipped away in a life boat with
whatever loot they could grab. The crew escaped injury except for the cook, who
was airlifted to hospital after being shot in the thigh.
The attack on the Orkim Harmony was the latest in a spate of
hijackings in South-East Asian seas, where the narrow straits separating
Singapore and Malaysia from Indonesia provide passage for about one-third of
the world’s shipping. Fifteen hijackings took place in 2014, up from only a
handful the year before, according to the International Maritime Bureau; there
have been nine in the past six months alone. These incidents are the most
alarming symptom of a regional uptick in piracy, ranging from petty thefts in
ports to more daring heists at sea. With the once-perilous waters around
Somalia now calmed by an international effort, South-East Asia has regained an
old reputation as the region worst-afflicted by piracy in the world.
Ten years ago South-East Asian
nations appeared to have pirates on the run, thanks in part to co-ordinated
naval patrols in the Strait of Malacca, off Malaysia’s south-west coast. But
since then the problem has shifted eastward. Recent incidents have been taking
place nearer to Singaporean waters in busy channels that allow pirates to hide
in plain sight; as well as in the wilder, south-western corner of the South
China Sea (see map). Unlike Somali pirates, who aimed to kidnap and ransom crew
members—and often the ship itself—South-East Asian hijackers hope to steal
petrol, palm oil and chemicals from small, slow-moving tankers, and almost
always release the ship and crew when the theft is complete. Another danger is
gangs who try to board and escape vessels undetected, pilfering goodies such as
cash, engine parts and computers.
At present these crimes affect only a fraction of the 120,000 or so ships
which sail near the strait each year. But seamen fret that the attacks are
getting more violent, and the use of firearms more frequent. A Vietnamese
sailor shot in the head during a botched hijacking last December was one of
three South-East Asians killed by pirates in 2014. Even petty thieves can cause
accidents if they attempt to board in congested waterways, says Philip Belcher
of Intertanko, an association of tanker owners. “It’s like someone climbing
into your boot while you’re driving down a motorway,” he says. A big worry is
that insurers will raise premiums for ships in the strait, as they briefly did
Shipowners gripe that complacent governments have been reducing coastal
patrols. Some have accused ReCAAP—an outfit which helps to co-ordinate Asian
governments’ responses to piracy—of downplaying the latest spike, perhaps to
spare countries from embarrassment (ReCAAP has suggested, not unreasonably,
that a portion of the recorded increase may be the result of better reporting).
Merchants want regional navies to beef up anti-piracy operations.
Bigwigs from Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia say they are discussing
this. But any sallies into the South China Sea could be controversial while
tensions are heightened by China’s territorial claims there. Lingering
animosities between the three South-East Asian countries already hamper
operations closer to home, by preventing navy boats from pursuing pirates who
flee into neighbours’ waters. Even information-sharing is sensitive: Malaysia
and Indonesia have not joined ReCAAP—in part, some whisper, because of
squabbles over where to site its headquarters, but perhaps also for fear of
exposing blind spots in their intelligence-gathering.
Indonesia is particularly recalcitrant. It is much poorer than its
neighbours on a per-head basis, and its patrol boats are old and costly to run.
A plethora of poorly-policed Indonesian islands make for convenient pirate
hideouts; the country’s ill-guarded ports allow for many opportunistic thefts.
And it probably attaches lower priority to the security of local shipping
lanes, reckons Ian Storey at ISEAS, a think-tank, because the benefits of these
lanes accrue disproportionately to big ports in Singapore and Malaysia.
Yet some responsibility for solving the problem must also fall on
shipowners and operators. Somali pirates were deterred when shippers spent a
bit of money to equip their ships with water cannon, razor wire and armed
guards. South-East Asian pirates will typically flee if vigilant crews spot
them before they board. Shipping companies are often reluctant to report
attacks, to avoid alarming their clients and insurers. More alarming is speculation
that ill-paid crew members have been complicit in some of the hijackings.
The most durable solution, and the least discussed, would be to target the
tricky social and economic problems that encourage pirates to take up cutlasses
in the first place. In the past that has meant resolving irksome conflicts. A
peace accord between the Indonesian government and rebels in the north-western
province of Aceh in 2005 helped to soothe South-East Asia’s previous pirate
problems. Many of today’s pirates are thought to come from shabby Indonesian
port towns, where overfishing, illegal fishing and environmental damage have
made it more difficult to earn an honest living. Pirates who were active a few
years ago are thought to be returning to the trade, embittered by the failure
of their efforts to go straight.
Joko Widodo, Indonesia’s president, has promised to reinvigorate
Indonesia’s flagging maritime economy. That is a good idea, though progress
will doubtless be slow. In the meantime, the speedy arrest of pirates in some
recent high-profile cases should deter hijackers emboldened by early successes,
thinks Pottengal Mukundan of the International Maritime Bureau, a wing of the
International Chamber of Commerce. Those in cuffs include the alleged hijackers
of the Orkim Harmony, who were picked up by Vietnamese coastguards on
June 19th after trying to pass themselves off as survivors of a shipwreck. But
Intertanko’s Mr Belcher says shipowners remain largely pessimistic. “It will
get worse before it gets better,” he says.
This tells me that the U.S. governments' obstruction of Chinese plans for the South China Sea are wrong headed. Indeed, we should be paying the Chinese Navy a per head bounty for every terrorist/pirate they kill in South East Asian waters. Both us and the Chinese, as well as the rest of East Asian countries are dependent on these waters for trade. The Chinese are especially dependent. We should not oppose their efforts to police these waters.ReplyDelete