20th-century pirates roam the seas of Southeast Asia

Not much has changed since Captain Kidd and other cutlass-wielding rogues roamed the oceans imperiling innocent seafarers. In fact, the age-old problem of piracy appears to be making a comeback. Throughout Southeast Asia, from the Philippines to Thailand, police and maritime officials are debating how to combat it. Some shipowners talk about arming their ships, something not seen since World War II.

Many complain that governments aren't doing enough to combat piracy, although the problem is compounded by the fact that law enforcement responsibilities in international waters are ill-defined.

There are also calls for creation of an international antipirate organization, perhaps based at the United Nations.

Piracy was rife in the 17th and 18th centuries when the exploits of famous buccaneers became the stuff of legends and stories like ``Treasure Island.''

But there is nothing romantic about modern pirates, especially in the Gulf of Thailand, where they have maintained a regime of terror, murder, robbery, and rape among refugees trying to flee from communist-ruled Vietnam and Cambodia.

Organizations caring for refugees estimate that, since 1980, around 1,500 Vietnamese boat people have been killed. Hundreds of young women have been abducted, allegedly to be sold to brothels in Thailand -- although Bangkok government officials dispute this.

Thai naval patrols have been stepped up to improve refugees' chances of escaping unharmed, but officials say the problem will not completely disappear as long as the boat peoples' exodus continues.

One of the region's most pirate-infested areas is the Malacca Straits, the vital maritime-trade choke point linking the Indian and Pacific Oceans, flanked by Malaysia and Singapore on one side and Indonesia on the other.

Singapore has become virtually the world's busiest port, with several hundred freighters and oil tankers likely to be in harbor any given day. But the port is overlooked by a maze of small islands in which a small pirate speedboat can easily remain hidden until it emerges at night for a quick dash to pick off a likely vessel passing close by.

Shipowners say that one of the problems is that technological developments have so reduced the number of crew required on most ships that they are easily outnumbered by the heavily armed pirate bands.

The usual technique is to approach a ship from a radar blind spot astern. A grappling hook is slung and within seconds the pirates are swarming all over the bridge area without warning. After removing cash and other readily disposable valuables, they depart in the darkness just as fast.

In recent years, there have been an average of two to four incidents a month, although not all incidents may have been officially reported. Some captains believe it is futile to complain when the pirates are already over the horizon.

Many of the incidents involve small coastal freighters or even fishing boats. But there have been a number of cases of supertankers and large container ships being attacked.

Apart from this, there have been two cases this year of pirates attacking recreational facilities along the Singapore coast to steal items like television sets and marine engines, which can fetch a good price in neighboring countries.

Pirates are also active in waters around the southern Philippines, Brunei, and the nearby Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak. Many incidents are believed to be the work of Philippine Muslim or communist guerrillas seeking funds for their fight against the central government in Manila.

In the most notorious incident, pirates in canoes tried to board the cruise liner Coral Princess, carrying 260 passengers, last year. They fled when a Coast Guard cutter happened to appear on the scene.

Apart from hindering the inter-island flow of goods and humans, pirates were also responsible for an attack on a coastal town in Sabah last October, when 10 people were killed during a bank robbery.

To combat the problem, the various Southeast Asian governments are discussing cooperative programs, including stepped-up air and sea patrols and exchanges of information on incidents and possible locales of pirate strongholds.

But the task isn't easy, say officials, given the vast amount of ocean to be covered, the numerous available hiding places -- as well as the ambiguities of international maritime law and financial constraints.

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