Pirates in Paradise: A Modern History of Southeast Asia’s Maritime Marauders

Say the word pirate to the average American and the first response might well be Johnny Depp. But most mariners understand that piracy represents much more than a historical fantasy. A San Francisco bar pilot recently recounted an experience that he had physically ejecting a pirate from the bridge while he was taking on stores near Singapore. Piracy in Southeast Asia is very much alive.

Stefan Eklöf has delivered us a well-written and concise overview in Pirates In Paradise: A Modern History of Southeast Asia’s Maritime Marauders. Published by the Nordic Institute on Asian Studies in 2006, the book details the recent patterns and methods of piracy in several regions of Southeast Asia. In some cases, such as the Gulf of Thailand in the 1970s and ’80s, piracy flared on an opportunistic basis as refugees carrying their valuables made easy prey. Eklöf’s description coincides with that of Van Nguyen, engineer of AmNav’s San Francisco-based tug Revolution, who, as a 16-year-old navigating a refugee-laden boat seeking refuge in Malaysia, was attacked and robbed by pirates.

In contrast to this kind of piracy, called opportunistic by Eklöf, he also describes in detail the operation of organized crime in the capture of larger ships and their cargo in the 1990s. In one 1998 case, "the 420-foot tanker Petro Ranger left Singapore bound for Saigon with a cargo of 9,600 tons of automotive diesel oil and 1,600 tons of jet fuel worth around $1.5 million. Nine hours later, while underway off the east coast of peninsular Malaysia, the ship was boarded by a group of 12 pirates armed with guns, machetes and knives. The crew of 23 was rounded up and locked in the mess, while Petro Ranger was diverted towards the south China coast. Meanwhile, the ship’s name was painted over and replaced with Wilby."

The ship was steamed to a point off Hainan, where it rendezvoused with smaller tankers that lightered the cargo. Petro Ranger was subsequently arrested by Chinese authorities and returned to her owners. But the cargo, as evidence, was not returned. Eklöf is clear that the involvement of Chinese officials was essential to this period of piracy, which ended only when the central government executed a number of pirates in early 2000. Heightened security after the events of Sept. 11, combined with the implementation of Automatic Identification Systems (AIS) for vessels over 500 tons, has also been a major deterrent to the organized hijacking of cargo vessels.

In 2005, a Singaporean tug operator explained to me that on more than one occasion he had ransomed his tug and crew rather than suffer the lost charter days. The $30,000 ransom for the tug and cargo of coal was significantly less than the lost charter rate that would have ensued had he not got his crew and vessel back promptly. The incidents were not reported as this could also have entailed the vessel and crew being held while the piracy was investigated.

Eklöf calls this a shift to soft targets, of which slow-moving, low-freeboard tugs continue to be particularly vulnerable.

In a chapter titled, "Piracy in the Name of God," the author concludes that piracy and hostage taking in the Sulu Sea region of south Philippines and the northeast coast of Malaysian Borneo represent cases of opportunistic piracy adopting the cause of Islamic rebels. He also explains that "An Abu Sayyaf-engineerd terrorist attack – not least a maritime terrorist attack given the Abu Sayyaf’s proven record of maritime violence over the past 15 years – targeting large numbers of civilians thus seems like a potential threat worthy of serious attention, perhaps not only in the Philippines, but also in the rest of Southeast Asia."

To counter this threat and a parallel threat of U.S. intervention, Eklöf sees the initiative of the Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia Malacca Straits Coordinated Patrols (MALSINDO) as an effective move. He concludes, "The launching of MALSINDO was an attempt to take back the initiative from the United States and aimed instead to establish a regionally based multilateral security regime. Despite initial doubts about the effectiveness of the coordinated patrols … they managed to bring about a substantial decline in the number of attacks in the Straits of Malacca and Singapore in 2005."

In his concluding chapter, Eklöf explains that the nations of Southeast Asia, particularly the Philippines and Indonesia, have huge coastlines and significant problems with illegal fishing, smuggling and environmental degradation, all of which continue to overtax their maritime surveillance resources. He suggests that until the international shipping industry makes a significant financial commitment, it is doubtful whether the coastal nations of the Straits of Malacca will be able to eradicate piracy. For this reader, his account confirmed what I have heard said in the area and provides a well-researched analysis of the current situation.

By Professional Mariner Staff