8.04.2005

Pirates Sail These Seas

We all remember reading tales about pirates when we were kids. Captain Hook and other such swashbuckling characters filled our young minds with wonder and imagination. But pirates are not a fictional creation, nor a thing of the distant past. Yes, right now in our shiny high-tech world, pirates still sail the seas, looting and shooting with reckless abandon - although it’s doubtful they’ll be sporting black eye patches or hobbling on wooden legs.

Most incidents of piracy occur in the Malacca Strait, a 970 kilometer-long passage of water between Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia’s Sumatra peninsula. The strait is the world’s busiest commercial sea lane, hosting more than a quarter of all international cargo shipments. It is estimated that about 900 commercial vessels pass through the strait each day. The Strait links the Indian and Pacific oceans, making it the shortest sea route between China, India, and Indonesia. Japan is also dependent upon the route; over 80% of its oil is shipped via the Malacca Strait.

The Malacca Strait has been dubbed a “pirate’s dream” due to its plethora of shallow reefs, narrow channels and small islands; all of which make it relatively easy for ambush and escape. In recent years piracy along the strait has soared: vessels have been burnt, crew members abducted or killed, and tons of cargo seized. Incidents of armed piracy dropped significantly in the wake of the Indian Ocean tsunami in late December, but that short period of calm appears to have dissipated, with more violent acts of piracy being reported in the past six months. Malaysian Defense Minister Najib Razak recently stated: “The reality is that we need more resources to ensure the level of security in the Straits of Malacca. The only way we do it is to engage the international community, but not at the expense of national sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Clearly, the sovereignty issue is a touchy one. Some parts of the strait are in Malaysian waters, others belong to Indonesia or Singapore. Recently, the three countries agreed to begin coordinated air patrols over the strait, hoping that it will help to significantly reduce pirate attacks. There is also increasing concern that ships passing through the strait may become targets for terrorists. And when it comes to “fighting terrorism” its safe to assume that the United States wants a piece of the action. The US has proposed sending troops (why is that always the US response?) to protect the strait, but that idea was strongly rejected by Malaysia and Indonesia. A plan to use private security forces to “escort” commercial vessels through the strait has also been nixed due to concerns about having armed personnel onboard, as well as jurisdictional issues.

In the meantime, expect pirate attacks to continue and the threat of terrorism to cast an ugly cloud over the waters.

3 comments:

John in Atlanta said...

I've said it before and I'll say it again. Thank God for Bangkok Bertha! Excellent piece.

Jimbob said...

ARRR Matey !!! Seriously though --- you'd think in this day and age pirates would be the last thing you'd have to worry about ! Apparently not ! Remember back in the '70s and early '80s and wasn't uncommon to hear about this kind of stuff going on in the Carribean and the Bahamas, mostly in the form of " cocaine cowboys " protecting their offshore exchanges. Remember the story about the Miami executive and his family that dissappeared while traveling to the Bahamas ? A search plane came across their yacht adrift in the ocean and could see the bodies lying on deck but when the rescue boat reached them the bodies were gone ! Don't think the case was ever solved --- they chalked it up to being in the wrong place at the wrong time, figured the drug smugglers eliminated any witnesses and evidence. Makes you think of those old mariners maps that had the warning " Here be Dragons " to mark unknown waters !

Bangkok Bertha said...

From what I've been reading on the subject of pirates, it indeed is still happening in varioud parts of the Caribbean (maybe Disney would be forced to change the "cute" name of their popular ride?), and off the coasts of Africa.