Piracy in the Nineties

by Mark Bruyneel

date: 1999

Pirate activities almost ceased in the 19th and 20th century for a number of reasons:

Despite all of this pirates still exist today. According to several sources the threat of piracy is even on the increase, especially in the Southeast Asian waters. Pirate activities have also been reported in the Somali waters around the island of Socatra and in the waters surrounding Brasil. The chief weapons of these modern pirates are speed and surprise. When ships have to decrease their speed, because navigating the narrow channels between islands (in Asian waters) is difficult, they are especially vulnerable. Fast motorboats are regularly used to attack them when they have to slow down. The weapons they use are no longer the sword and pistol. These days the weapons of the pirates are machineguns, mortars and molotov-cocktails. To get aboard ships they use grappling hooks and ropes or poles.

The modern pirates can be divided into two kinds: those that are smaller pirates and the organized pirates. Smaller pirates are usually only interested in the safe of the ship and the posessions of the crew (the safe of a ship sometimes contains a considerable amount of money to pay port and payroll fees). The crews are most often left alone and the ships are usually set adrift. Occasionally the ships are taken as well and the crew is set adrift in a dolly. The ship is then repainted, renamed and reregistered and sold.
The second type of pirate is much more organized and sometimes linked to another criminal organization. This is an example of the activities these pirates undertake:

  1. the pirates look for a commodity seller or shipping agent with a letter of credit that has almost expired (this happens regularly since the demand for shipping space exceeds that which is available)

  2. the pirates then offer the services of their ship (hich is often stolen, renamed, etc. before being used in this manner)

  3. a temporary registration certificate is then acquired through a registration office at a consulate. To get such a certificate a bribe combined with verbal information or some false documents is necessary. This certificate provides the ship with an official (new) identity

  4. the ship is loaded and the shipper receives his bill of lading

  5. the pirates then sail to a different port than the one named as the destination on the bill of lading. There they unload the cargoe to a partner in crime or an unsuspecting buyer and change the temporary registration certificate again.

When the pirates are finished looting a ship they can get away easy because they usually leave the crew imprisoned or they force them off the ship before they leave (sometimes taking the captured ship with them). The Asian waters contain many small islands that make it possible to hide and make it impossible for large ships to pursue them. They can also choose which nations coastal waters they will escape to: Indonesia, Malaysia or Singapore. Some of the people in the villages and local towns on these coasts are sympathetic towards the pirates. This gives them several harbours to hide in and/or which to operate from.

Despite everything that has changed, the motives of the pirates have not changed from those earlier centuries, though, they still include poverty, greed and the need for adventure. As mentioned above, the basic weapons and tactics also have not changed. What has made the increase in piracy on the high seas possible are several developments:

  1. economic motives and technological improvements have resulted in smaller crews on (larger) vessels. This makes the ships that much more vulnerable to attacks

  2. a ship is usually protected/defended in international waters by the country/state whose flag it flies. These days ships often fly flags of convenience. This makes it more problematic to use diplomatic pressure on countries from which pirates operate

  3. the decreasing budgets of naval forces in many (smaller) countries as well as the shifts in priorities make it difficult to police the high seas. Many contries also tend to want to avoid diplomatic conflicts

  4. due to the remoteness of the coasts from the home ports of the ships the governments tend to forget about such incidents

  5. in some cases governments seem to be involved in the pirate activities.

The inability or unwillingness of the countries in the area to act decisively against pirates in the Asian waters is mainly caused by difficulties regarding jurisdiction, diplomatic relations and politics. The Philippines and Indonesia may, however, be forced to take more action against piracy. In the 1994 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea the responsibility for the Java sea and several other areas have been assigned to the Philippines and Indonesia. This has changed because these waters are no longer considered to be open seas, but have been redefined as archipelagic states.

Also, in 1992 the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) has set up de Regional Piracy Centre (RPC) in Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) to be better able to combat piracy in this area. The RPC was set up as a direct result of complaints of the local police with regard to a lack of specific reports on piracy attacks. The reports of the RPC are provide a better picture of the amount and types of piracy in the area over the past few years.

Violent attacks increase: report reveals worrying trend
In: Fairplay (22nd February) 1996. - P. 27-28

Piraterij op zee neemt toe
In: Eindhovense dagblad / Brabants Dagblad (15 November ?) 1995

Piraten slaan toe rond Indonesië
In: Einhovense dagblad / Brabants Dagblad (14 December?) 1994

Piracy returns to plunder high seas shipping
By Charles Batchelor. - In: Financial Times (14 July) 1995

Scourge of Piracy returns to Southeast Asia
By Tammy Arbuckle. - In: Janes International Defense Review. - Vol. 29 (1996) nr. 8. - P. 26-29