The perennial saga of piracy in Southeast Asian waters has taken on a new and alarming twist. A spate of well-planned attacks on oil tankers and cargo vessels in a narrow waterway in the Strait of Malacca, known as the Phillips Channel, has abruptly shone the spotlight on the vulnerability of international shipping to hijack and robbery.
The narrowness of the Phillips Channel -- a mere 1,400 yards across at its narrowest point -- forces the 15,000 ships that pass through it every year to creep slowly along its five-mile length.
In the past few months, small groups of men, clad only in swimming trunks and armed with knives and long daggers (known locally as parangs), have drawn alongside ships in small, fast boats, flung grappling hooks over the side of the giant ships, and hauled themselves aboard.
In what are clearly well-planned and well-organized attacks, the pirates make for the captain's cabin and at knifepoint force him to hand over cash and valuables. In many cases this means the crew's wages are taken. The attackers then lower themselves over the side and vanish as quickly as they appeared. So far no one has been caught.
The identity of the culprits is a sensitive issue here and the local press has not even hinted at their nationality. But most informed sources believe the pirates are Indonesian nationals, and the skill with which they operate could mean they have at some time received military training.
Although the value of the robberies has been relatively small -- for example, just $30,000 from the Scantutch Consortium's Contender Argent in July, and $4, 000 from a Mobil tanker in August -- there is alarm in shipping circles at the apparent ease with which the pirates are able to mount their attacks and make their getaways.
In at least one case an oil tanker was left virtually unmanned, with the captain and crew held powerless as the pirates ransacked their ship.
But combating the menace is easier said than done. The Phillips Channel is only about 13 miles south of Singapore but not, say the Singaporeans, in their costal waters.By implication it is the responsibility of Indonesia, which has so far said little, although the international police organization Interpol is reported to have asked both Singapore and Indonesia to increase their naval patrols.
Both countries have had recent experiences of other kinds of piracy -- most notably a multimillion-dollar international fuel piracy scheme uncovered last year in which shipments of fuel were "diverted" from Singapore, the world's third-biggest oil refiner, to various Indonesian ports.
Smugglers also ply a lucrative trade between Singapore and Jakarta -- to the embarrassment of Singaporean trade officials, who generally decline to provide official statistics because of the huge discrepancies involved.
And in any case not all victims of piracy are viewed with equal sympathy. International aid officials were privately furious last year over an incident in which a Singaporean naval patrol boat forced a group of Vietnamese boat people back out to sea, an incident in which a woman and her child both drowned.
The remaining boat people were left vulnerable to scores of Thai pirates who have murdered, raped, and robbed refugees in the South China Sea, often raiding the same boat several times. The Thais promised to step up antipiracy operations in the Gulf of Thailand, but most observers were left with the impression the Southeast Asian patrol boats were more effective in discouraging refugees than in repulsing pirates.
While the pirates currently operating in the Phillips Channel have obviously limited aspirations -- money, transistor radios, and watches -- and have so far indulged in little physical violence, there is an obvious danger of escalation if the pickings are good enough.
The fact that it is clearly possible to raid cargo vessels with impunity in this part of Southeast Asia must raise the specter of a more sinister development -- the hijacking of an oil tanker by an organization with political, rather than commercial, motivations.