Off the lawless coasts of Indonesia, shadowy bands of looters still ply their trade. Only the booty has changed.
When the pirates came, the Pilion's crew was ready. The skipper had already spotted two or three suspicious boats edging closer during the approach into Singapore. Finally, a boat emerged from the darkness and a man climbed onto the deck of the Pilion, a cargo ship on its way from South Africa to Japan.Skip to next paragraph
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The 19-man crew was braced for trouble. After all, they were cruising the world's most pirate-infested waterways, where almost one-third of all reported pirate attacks take place. And they were in the treacherous waters of Indonesia, whose underpaid coast guards are suspected of sharing the spoils with modern-day Bluebeards.
But this time the pirates didn't get far. When several crew members stepped onto the deck to challenge the intruder, he turned and panicked, then fell into the water. The boats quietly slipped away into the inky tropical night. Within hours, the Pilion was docking safely in Singapore.
"This one was laughable," says Michael Papaioannou, owner of London-based Helikon Shipping, agent for the Pilion, who spoke to the ship's captain after the Feb. 4 incident. "But [pirates] can be extremely dangerous. It frightens the living daylights out of our crews."
Pirates have long had an unsavory reputation, as any seasoned reader of "Treasure Island" and other sea yarns would agree. But today's swashbucklers - motivated by greed, war, or revolutionary fervor - are plundering Asia's coastlines with increasing violence and frequency.
The sharp rise in recent piracy attacks in Southeast Asia is unnerving governments as well as shippers, not least because of the strategic importance of its waterways and its vulnerability to terrorism.
Around 30 percent of the world's traded goods pass through the Strait of Malacca bordered by Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia.
This channel, only 1.5 miles wide at its narrowest point, is a vital link between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. It's also home to rebel armies, criminal gangs, smugglers, and Islamic militants who thrive in the lawless waters of Indonesia, which leads the world in piracy attacks.
The International Maritime Bureau, which began compiling piracy statistics in 1991, says last year was the second-worst on record, with 445 actual and attempted attacks on merchant ships. Of those, 121 occurred in Indonesia, an archipelago of 17,000 islands stretched across three time zones. A further 35 were reported in the better-policed waterways around Malaysia and Singapore.
Such incidents are on the rise because of increasing poverty, rebel activity, and lawlessness in Indonesia, as well as the perception that ships are easy targets, experts say. And, they add, the pirates operating in the region are well-armed, often with automatic weapons and fast boats, and are increasingly brazen. Instead of prowling the high seas, pirates are pouncing on boats close to port, and not always waiting until nightfall to attack.
The Pilion is a case in point: The attack occurred off the Indonesian island of Karimun, only a few hours from Singapore, the world's busiest port. Maritime authorities in Singapore say that two other vessels were robbed the previous week at the same location. In both incidents, pirates took cash and valuables without harming the crew.
Pressure is growing for governments to curb the problem. In January, the defense ministers of Indonesia and Singapore met to discuss how to cooperate against pirates. If they don't succeed, momentum could swing toward an overland oil pipeline in Thailand. The project would allow tankers (but not other cargo ships) to circumvent the pirate-infested strait completely.
In general, today's Blackbeards focus on quick cash returns rather than cargo heists, unless it's a commodity that's easy to repackage and sell.
On rare occasions, pirates will leave the crew and sail the vessel to another port to sell to a broker.
Others instead try to kidnap seamen and extort money from shipping companies for their safe return. It's a practice that's on the rise, though industry watchdogs say many shipowners prefer to pay up and keep quiet.
Nonetheless, the IMB recorded 399 kidnapping incidents in 2003 - including 139 in Indonesia alone - up from only 191 such attacks in 2002.
"The pirates usually call the owner and ask for an amount that [the owners] can afford. And typically they will pay, especially if they are Chinese or Singaporean," says Noel Choong, who heads the IMB's piracy watch center in Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital.