Statistical and geographical data concerning pirates’ attacks in recent years are cited, their actions, as well as measures taken by coastal states to thwart them are described.
The upsurge of the pirates’ activity at the coast of Somalia, whose peak was the seizure of the Ukrainian vessel “Faina” with the load of tanks, guns, explosives and ammunition, drew much attention of the world community. Meanwhile, piracy in the Gulf of Aden is only part of this worldwide calamity. According to official data, several hundred piratical attacks take place in various parts of the world annually1, and their number grows steadily.
Certain regular features can be observed:
- Piratical attacks have been concentrated in one region of Southeast Asia, in the seas washing Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, South China, Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia, and the Philippines.
- The tonnage of sea-going vessels constantly grows, this is why each seizure and plundering of a ship brings greater harm to ship-owners, cargo-carriers, and insurance companies.
- The character of piracy has changed: previously the pirates took everything valuable on board what could be carried away, leaving the ship and crew intact, whereas now ships with crews seem to vanish into thin air.
- The attempts to arm the crew or to place special guards on board often end badly. Well-informed and armed-to-the-teeth gangs attack quite unexpectedly, a fight ensues during which hostages are taken, and pirates offer either to surrender or threaten to shoot the crew and sink the ship. Pirates have become more cruel, well-informed and better equipped technically.
- The reduction in the number of attacks in 2005 and the first six months of 2006 (127 attacks, in all) could be explained by the natural calamity at the end of 2004-beginning of 2005 (the tsunami which took a toll of over 300,000 lives in the countries at whose shores the pirates were especially active). Besides, much damage was done to the ports, the infrastructure and tourist objects there.
- The data cited by the International Marine Bureau (IMB) about piratical attacks annually can hardly be regarded truthful. The newspaper Die Welt believes that the number of attacks has been reduced by half, or even more, because the owners of small and medium-sized ships are often afraid to inform about the attacks in fear of pirates’ vengeance.2
This is also true of the owners of bigger ships and cargoes in the countries where representatives of trade and transport business have to get in touch with the vertical structures of the mafia. Pirates’ ships are the lower part of these bodies, the upper parts are the port and customs services, providing information to pirates, home office officials, port and border guards, traders engaged in buying and selling the booty, courts and lawyers.
Another reason for concealing facts of pirates’ attacks by their victims is the unwillingness of the latter to bring them to the knowledge of insurance companies. The British “Lloyds” which insures a considerable part of marine cargo transportations, and other insurance companies, as soon as they learn of the attack and its consequences, will immediately raise the insurance premium to be paid by the carrier. The question arises as to what is less painful: the one-time loss of a cargo or considerably greater insurance premiums to be paid for a long time to come.
The declared losses of shipping and insurance companies due to piracy amount to about eight billion euros (10 billion US dollars) annually.3
International marine shipping offers broad opportunities to modern pirates. Due to the growing world economy and globalization the marine commodity turnover and the number of sea-going vessels carrying various cargoes are on an increase. In 2000 the merchant navy of the world had about 38,500 ships, in 2003 – 39,000, in 2005 – 40,000 and in 2006 their number exceeded 41,500.4
The value of the cargoes carried by ships rose considerably, because the share of manufactured commodities grows, and the share of raw materials, fuel and agricultural products diminishes. But raw materials and fuel became much more expensive. At the time when the barrel of oil cost less than three dollars it was hardly worthwhile to attack a medium-sized tanker. Today, when the price of one barrel of oil is tens of times bigger, the seizure of a medium-sized tanker carrying 25,000 tons of oil can bring pirates fabulous profits.
There is a world map at the German Academy of foreign trade and international shipping in Bremen on which the number of pirates’ attacks on ships in various parts of the world is indicated by figures. Piracy is thriving in the Gulf of Guinea, the coast of Somalia at the gates to the Indian Ocean from the Red Sea, in the Persian Gulf, at the shores of South India and Sri Lanka. One attack even took place at the Portuguese coast in 2005. However, more than half of all piratical attacks take place in the waters of Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and South China, right up to Taiwan.
The strait between the Molucca Peninsula and the Indonesian island of Jawa, opposite Singapore, is considered an especially dangerous place. This strait connects the Indian Ocean with the Pacific, 50,000 vessels pass through it annually, and it accounts for one-third of the world commodity turnover, including one half of all crude oil transportation. The narrowest place in the strait is right opposite Singapore: it is only two kilometers wide. It’s hardly likely to find a more convenient place for attacking ships.
Ships often sail in a thick column, like cars on a highway during rush hours, nevertheless, attacks are rather frequent.
The captain of a tanker carrying chemicals described his meeting with pirates as follows:
On a dark moonless night, about 3 a.m., when we were about to leave the Molucca Strait more than a dozen of masked men armed with automatic weapons climbed up on deck. They smashed the windows of the wheelhouse, and drove all the crew to the orlop. Then they tied them up hand and foot and placed their men to the wheel. Fearing that the pirates will smash the ship against rocks, the captain asked for permission to steer the ship. They refused. When he was brought to the wheelhouse under the barrel of an automatic, he was amazed how ably one of the pirates steered the ship along the narrow, winding canals between tiny islands, having left the main route.
Then everything was finished very quickly. Having grabbed all the money and documents aboard, the most valuable possessions of the crew members, dismantled the valuable electronic and navigation equipment, and taken expensive instruments and spare parts, the pirates loaded everything onto the high-speed boat that came up to the ship and left.
Such plundering is called superficial by the local shipping circles. What happens more often is the full-fledged caper actions. A ship is seized and taken to an uninhabited steep coast covered with mangrove thickets where it cannot be seen from a helicopter. The ship is unloaded, the commodities are taken away and disappear, and the crew members are either killed or taken hostage. A well-known skilled captain working for a popular shipping line can yield up to 120,000 dollars in ransom to his abductors.
As to the ship, if it interests the pirates by its qualities, it is repainted, the deck superstructures are changed, new serial numbers are stamped on machines and mechanisms, and finally it sets sail under a new name and flag.
Amateur gangs of pirates who operate small high-speed boats are unable to perform such operations. They confine themselves to attacking small and medium- sized vessels belonging to local merchants, cruising along the coast between islands and the neighboring countries of Southeast Asia, and sometimes attack local passenger ships and ferries and plunder their passengers. Such local sea banditry has a negative effect on medium-sized business in the countries of the region. But this business itself is often illegitimate, because these ships sometimes carry smuggled goods and illegal immigrants going abroad in search of work or coming back home with earnings. Here it is difficult to draw a dividing line between piracy and criminal business. In any case, marine border-guards and military boats often catch these robbers and give them over to judicial bodies which try them and sometimes even sentence to death, as is the case of China.
It’s another matter when about fifteen criminal groupings possess a highspeed and well-equipped small-tonnage fleet, well-armed and well-trained pirate gangs, permanent and temporary warehouses, trade and shipping companies and banks in various countries. Many of these groupings are controlled by Chinese “triads” in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macao. They have ramified ties within the many-million Chinese diaspora living in Southeast Asian countries. It is these groupings that get the lion’s share of the 10 billion dollars annually reaped by the pirates from world trade and shipping. These marine criminal organizations are well known in Southeast Asia, just as big international industrial and financial monopolies.
The activity of these organizations causes the growing alarm of world cargo carriers, shipowners and insurance companies. The “Lloyds” insurance monopoly declared the Molucca Strait a high-risk zone in 2005 and insures the ships and cargoes passing through the strait by Singapore, Malaysia and South Vietnam on the same conditions as those sailing to Iraq.
The need for ensuring the security of ships and cargoes gives rise to demand for guards’ service. Firms sprang up in Singapore and Malaysia, like mushrooms after rain, offering armed teams of bodyguards for ships and their crews.
The best-known firm among them in Singapore is “BARS”, which has unfolded a broad advertising campaign. It hired experienced former soldiers and officers who had served in the marine corps and the navy of Malaysia, Taiwan and Australia. In the autumn of 2005, a bodyguard team of “BARS” armed with light shooting weapons accompanied a vessel loaded with 12,000 tons of nonferrous metal cable costing more than ten million dollars. On passing the Molucca Strait a boat with armed pirates speeded up to it, but having noticed numerous guardsmen on board, the boat changed its course and disappeared.
Individual successes of private security firms do not change the situation due to two reasons.
- First, the authorities of Malaysia and Singapore where the security firms should be registered do not allow them to have heavy arms, whereas pirates are armed with machine-guns, grenade-launchers and missiles.
- Secondly, hiring these security teams is an expensive undertaking. Such team accompanying a ship from the entrance to the strait to a port in Indonesia, Cambodia, Vietnam or the Philippines costs about 100,000 dollars. This sum considerably increases the overall expenditures on cargo transportation, which can make the given shipping company noncompetitive.
The only solution to the problem would be the organization of an effective struggle against the pirates by the armed forces of the coastal countries. China copes with the task brilliantly. True, the Chinese territorial waters do not need additional protection, inasmuch as in the conditions of the many-year confrontation between the PRC and Taiwan, a considerable part of the Chinese Navy has been concentrated at the eastern coast of China. It is opposed by Taiwan and American warships. Thus, no alien ship would dare enter these waters, or pass undetected.
There were four piratical attacks on merchant ships in the international waters to the south of Taiwan in 2005, perhaps, because neither side wanted to undertake actions close to the warships of the opposing navy. But to the south the situation is worse. On the southern tip of Hainan Island and along the Chinese- Vietnamese border there were six attacks, they also took place in international waters.
In general, pirates are afraid of attacking Chinese vessels in the South China Sea, because as soon as the coastal guards receive signals of an attack, they immediately send speedboats and helicopters to the area. There are no little islands with lush greenery, caves, various hideouts and canals in the South China Sea. A small number of piratical attacks in the South China Sea is compensated by the activity of the “triads” – the indomitable criminal communities coordinating their operations from Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan.
Ten such attacks have taken place to the south, at the coast of Vietnam. The border-guard service of that country is not effective enough in fighting pirates.
The way out of the situation would be the proper coordination of the actions of the armies and navies of the coastal states. The first steps in this direction have already been taken. An agreement has been signed by Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia on combating piracy. Each of these countries undertook to guard a definite section of the sea route. Regrettably, Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam and Cambodia have not joined the agreement. Malaysia and Singapore are trying to do their best to comply with the agreement, and they improved the guarding of their sea routes in 2005-2006. However, the Indonesian territorial waters remain the bottleneck of the international sea routes. The pirates feel absolutely safe on numerous islands of the archipelago.
A naval officer from the Island of Sumatra said in an interview to the German newspaper Die Welt that the Indonesian Navy is badly financed and poorly equipped. The government salaries are paid irregularly to men and officers, and ships cannot leave their bases because there is no money to buy fuel. Whereas the pirates have high-speed boats, much more money and considerably better infrastructure.5
1. International Marine Bureau. London, 2006, September.
2. Die Welt, 2006, August 5.
3. BerichtDay, Bremen, 2006, No 6.
4. International Marine Bureau. London, 2006, September.
5. Die Welt, 2005, August 5.