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South Asian Pirates Back On the Rampage

Piracy did not end with the demise of Blackbeard, the world’s most famous pirate, almost three hundred years ago. Despite the overall decline, South Asian seas remain infested with pirate ships preying on merchant vessels that pass through busy choke points in large numbers. The Strait of Malacca between Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, the shortest sea route connecting the Indian and Pacific oceans, is the target of most such raids.

“The Malacca Strait is the busiest strait in the world. Something like 50-thousand ships a year travel through it,” says Dana Robert Dillon, a South Asia analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a research organization in Washington. He says piracy can be linked to corrupt governments and is most prevalent in the waters of South Asia.

“On the edges of the Malacca Strait, especially the southeastern edge is Indonesia, which is rated as one of the most corrupt countries in Asia, the rule of law is extremely weak. They have just gone through a long democratic transition, which was successful, but the rule of law is weak.”

Mr. Dillon says in addition to robbing merchant vessels of their cargo, pirates commonly abduct members of the crew for ransom. He says most of the pirates in the Malacca Strait are Indonesian.

“Some of them may be the terrorists from the Free Aceh movement. Some of them are just fishermen. Some of them are just robbers, plain old fashioned robbers. A lot of the piracy that takes place actually is just kidnapping. They stop the ship and kidnap the crew and hold them ransom until the company that owns the boat pays the ransom. Some of it is real piracy and a small portion is actual terrorism.”

Indonesia’s Free Aceh separatist group, also known as GAM, is based on the northern tip of the Sumatra Island. Insurgents seeking independence often attack ships to put political pressure on the Indonesian government, or to make money to fund the movement. But the International Maritime Bureau reports pirates sometimes blame separatists for their own attacks.

The International Maritime Bureau has issued warnings to shipping companies, and security measures on ships have increased since September-eleven. Industry sources say new technology, such as tracking satellites and electrified fencing to prevent unauthorized boarding, can help to fight piracy. But some ship owners find these devices too expensive and prefer to take their chances or pay a ransom privately when an incident does occur. And so the raids have continued and, according to some analysts, even increased before the tsunami sank a number of pirate vessels. This week’s kidnappings indicate the pirates are back.

John Burnett, author of the book “Dangerous Waters: Modern Piracy and Terror on the High Seas,” says the Malacca Strait is a likely target for international terrorists because it is one of the most strategic and vital waterways.

“Most of China and Japan’s oil from the Persian Gulf transit the Malacca Strait. It is a little more than a mile-wide at its narrowest and these oil carriers carrying 300-thousand tons of crude oil are vulnerable and are the soft targets. They are the lowest-hanging fruit of world commerce, if you will.”

John Burnett, who was once captured by pirates himself, says if terrorists seize one of the five-hundred or so ships passing through every day, they could block the strait and cause an economic catastrophe. For example, “if there is no oil delivered to Japan, or it takes an extra three, or four, or five days to deliver oil to Japan or to China and to Korea, then you are going to have a serious economic global setback because these are the main economic engines in Asia,” he says.

After the September-eleven attacks, the United States offered to send its patrol boats to help reinforce security in the strait, but the three countries bordering it rejected the offer on the grounds that it would violate their territorial sovereignty. This protectiveness aids attackers, says John Burnett. If discovered by a security patrol in Singapore, for example, they can escape into the waters of Indonesia where Singapore’s forces cannot pursue them.

Analysts note it takes an international effort to fight global terrorism and the Malacca Strait is one of the places that needs it the most.