ACTS OF PIRACY IN THE SOUTH CHINA SEA AND THE STRAIT OF MALACCA

ACTS OF PIRACY IN THE SOUTH CHINA SEA IN THE MID 1990s

In February 1996, a fishing vessel with a crew of 10 was boarded off the southern Philippines. Gunmen killed nine members of the unarmed crew. A tenth man escaped, despite being shot in the back of the head, and swam away. The vessel was never seen again.

In 1997, A tanker with 2,611 metric tons of diesel fuel was taken by pirates only six hours after leaving Singapore. The crew members were placed in a lifeboat and set adrift. The ship was given a new name and was painted black. The crew was rescued after 16 hours by a fishing boat. The shop was never found.

In September 1995, a cargo ship in the South China Sea was attacked by a gang of 30 armed Indonesia pirates who pistol-whipped and bound the 23-member crew before tossing them overboard near the coast of Vietnam. The ship and its $5 million cargo was taken to Beihai, a sleepy fishing port in southern China. Maritime officials discovered the ship before the cargo was unloaded and demanded that Chinese authorities prosecute the pirates and turn over the cargo to its rightful owners. The pirates were released without being charged. Authorities demanded that the true owners of the ship pay $400,000 for its released. The money wasn’t paid and the 450-foot ship was broken apart and sold as scrap.

Piracy in Southeast Asia and Indonesia reached a peak during the last Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s.In September 1997, pirates boarded a ship with $2.5 million cargo just south of Hong Kong. The ship was brought to the Chinese port of Huilai. The pirates were released after they were forced to sign confession. Authorities then seized the cargo and sold it.

Acts of Piracy in the South China Sea and off Indonesia in the Late 1990s

In November 1998: 1) two pirates armed with knives boarded a ship at the port of Java Pulai and stabbed the captain in the head and chest, seriously injuring him, and made off with $25,000 in cash; 2) four or five pirates attacked a Japanese ore carrier sailing through the Alor Straits in Indonesia, robbing the chief engineer of about $1,500 worth of cash and taking a television and other goods; and 3) pirates killed 23 crew members on a Panamanian-registered cargo ship in an attack in waters near Taiwan (See Below).

In 1999, the Japanese freighter Alondra Rainbow was attacked by pirates. The vessel’s captain and 16 crew members endured 11 days adrift in a lifeboat before they were rescued.

In March 1999, a cargo ship loaded with soda ash was attacked near Thailand. The pirates put the crew onto rubber rafts. After six days at sea they were rescued by Thai fishermen. The ship was found at the Chinese port of Fangcheng.

In October 1999, a 9,000-ton ship carrying $10 million worth of aluminum was boarded after leaving the Indonesian port f Kuala Tanjung by 10 men armed with swords and pistols. The crew of 17 Japanese and Filipinos were bound, blindfolded and set adrift. They drifted for 11 days before being rescued by Thai. fishermen. The Indonesian pirates were captured outside of Goa a month later as they tried to ditch the vessel. The cargo was long gone. Authorities believe it was sold in China.

In 1999 a group of American divers anchored their 90-wooden boat near the ye small island of Salayar near Sulawesi. Twelve men approached then in a beat up police boat and threatened them with machine guns and made off with all their beer.

In 1995, a Europe luxury yacht was boarded off of Sulawesi by fishermen who demanded $10,000. One of the fishermen got into a fight with a crew member and was thrown overboard. After that an entire village set upon the yacht, brandishing spears and knives and chanting, “Kill them!? “Kill them!” “Kill them!” In the end the yacht was allowed to escape after a payment of $500 was paid.

Piracy Incidents and China in the Late-1990s

In the 1990s many pirates head to China with their cargos, where corrupt customs officials, lax paperwork makes it an idea place to get rid of stolen goods. Ports associated with piracy on the southern China coast include Zhangjiagang, Shantou, Huilai, Shanwei, Haikou on Hainan Island, Beihai, and Fancheng. Before that time China was one of the last places that pirates would take a hijacked vessel but in the 1990s with the large of corrupt officials and people willing to do anything to make a fast buck in China often became the first. In some cases pirated ships were brought in ports and their cargos were sold after bribing a few harbor officials. In other cases ships were seized, their cargos were confiscated and auctioned off and the pirates were sent on their way with officials who confiscated the ship pocketing the money from the action.

In April 1998, a Singapore-owned oil tanker, with $1.5 million worth of fuel, was boarded by 12 pirates armed with machine guns and wearing balaclava hoods. They tied up the crew and threatened the Australian captain by placing a machete to his groin and then knocked him down with a swat to the head from the side of a machete. The petroleum was siphoned off into other tankers. A Chinese patrol vessel came upon the ship. Instead of arresting the pirates, the Chinese detained the crew and let the pirates go.

In December 1998, the bullet-ridden bodies of seven sailors were pulled up in fishing nets off the southern coast of China. The victims had been bound and gagged and weighted down with steel bars. They were part of the 23-member crew of a Hong Kong-owned ship that had been hijacked with a $65,000 cargo of furnace slag. The other members of crew were also killed. The pirates---12 Chinese and one Indonesian---had posed as Chinese policemen. The pirates were caught and sentenced to death. (See Pirates Above)

In September 1998, a 2,600-ton Japanese-owned ship disappeared shortly after setting sail from Sumatra. The ship showed up later with a new name at the Yangtze River port of Zhangjiagang. The original crew of 14 Chinese and South Koreans and the cargo of aluminum ingots were gone. In their place were 16 Indonesian crew members. Four months passed before the ship was recovered. During that time the ship changed name three times and had stopped in ports in Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore and Indonesia.

Acts of Piracy in the South China Sea in the Early and Mid 2000s

In March 2001, a freighter, carrying tin ingots, zinc and white pepper, was seized by pirates off the east coast of Sumatra. The crew was loaded on a speedboat and taken to an uninhabited island. The freighter continued on to Bintan island south of Singapore where it was handed over to a syndicate, was painted over and given a new name After nine days the ship was found off of the Philippines.

In late 2002 and early 2003, there were several reports of heavily armed pirates in small boats trying to hijack chemical tankers. In one case a ship was briefly seized in the Strait of Malacca. In March 2004, a small boat approached a Japanese vessel in the Strait of Malacca and shot at the boat with automatic rifles for about 30 minutes, hitting 11 times. In February 2005, pirates tried unsuccessfully to hijack a Panamanian tanker in waters of Singapore. In April 2005, a 280,000-ton oil tanker, the Yohteisan, was surrounded by seven small pirate boats in the Malacca Strait but managed to escape by speeding up.

In July 2006, John M. Glionna wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “ armed attackers boarded two United Nations-chartered tered vessels carrying tsunami relief supplies. In the first incident, six men in military fatigues brazenly stormed the ship before noon, one of the first reported daylight raids. The next day, a dozen heavily armed men claiming to be attached to the Free Aceh Movement, an Indonesian separatist group, commandeered another U.N. ship. The same week, a gang of 35 pirates with machine guns and rocket launchers seized a fully loaded gasoline tanker and kidnapped its captain. He was later released with the vessel.[Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, November 13, 2006]

Pirate Attacks in Vietnam

The International Maritime Bureau reports the territorial and offshore waters in the South China Sea as high risk for piracy and armed robbery against ships; numerous commercial vessels have been attacked and hijacked both at anchor and while underway; hijacked vessels are often disguised and cargo diverted to ports in East Asia; crews have been murdered or cast ad rift. [Source: CIA World Factbook]

There is a lot of piracy off the southern coast Vietnam, especially where there are conflicting territorial claims between Vietnam and Cambodia. Tran Dinh Thanh Lam of Inter Press Service wrote: "As the number of incidents of armed pirates attacking fishing boats in the sea southwest of Vietnam near the border with Cambodia have increased, the country's coast guard have been scrambling to keep the sea safe for fishermen. Nguyen Thanh Kiet was hijacked in July by armed pirates off the Vietnamese coast. "We were operating offshore in Song Doc Sea when 15 gunmen on a motorboat approached us and ordered us not to resist," said Kiet, a fishing-boat owner in Vietnam's Ca Mau province. Unarmed, Kiet and his crew could do nothing more than surrender. The bandits towed Kiet's fishing boat to Hon Thom island near Cambodia, where they demanded ransom totaling US$4,500. They never got the money and the episode ended with the pirates sailing off with a 100-amp battery and 120 liters of gasoline from the fishing boat. [Source: Tran Dinh Thanh Lam, Inter Press Service, November 12, 2002 **]

Between January and October 2002 "there were 14 cases of piracy on the Song Doc Sea separating Ca Mau province and Cambodia," said Major Luu Hoang Ha, chief of the coast guard post at Song Doc. According to locals, several organized pirate groups dominate the local waters - some are from Cambodia but others come from Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. However, all claim to be the sole "power" governing the seas. **

"Indonesian pirates are the worst because they never ask for ransom. They simply kill the crew and take their fishing facilities," said Tran Thuan, a 35-year-old fisherman who in late August escaped one of the worst pirate attacks on record here. "Fifteen masked gunmen on two motorboats landed on our boat, killed Nguyen Van Be [the captain of the boat] and ordered us to jump off board," Tran said. The bandits then tried to make their way to Cambodia on their boat but were forced to abandon the ship when the engine broke down. **

"Pirates are adopting more and more violent tactics against fishing boats operating along Vietnam's coast, especially on waters between Vietnam and Cambodia," said Nguyen Van Chau, head of the Protection of Marine Resources Department under the Ministry of Fisheries (MoF). "The situation has become especially critical in the last seven years with at least 74 cases of piracy, eight people killed and 12 injured," he said, speaking at a seminar organized on October 28 in Hanoi to review the protection of marine resources and the fishing industry in Vietnam. **

"However, observers believe Chau's figures to be overly conservative. According to figures compiled from newspaper reports, during 2001 and the first two months of 2002, there were 150 cases of fishing boats being attacked by pirates in offshore Ca Mau province. Forty-five fishing boats were attacked by pirates operating between Kien Giang province in Vietnam and Kep in Kampot province in Cambodia during the first half of 2002, newspaper reports suggested. But only three arrests for sea piracy were recorded during the same period according to police and coast guard records. **

Reasons for Pirate Attacks in Vietnam and Defenses Against Them

"We are under pressure from the fishing industry to reduce the risk to fishermen as pirates become more and more active and dangerous," said Major-General Tang Hue, deputy commander of Vietnam's coast guard. Tang said that forces involved in the fight against piracy were poorly trained and badly equipped to adequately control Vietnam's vast domestic waters. "Criminals usually operate at night and leave no trace," he said, explaining why coast guard police capture so few pirates. [Source: Tran Dinh Thanh Lam, Inter Press Service, November 12, 2002]

"Piracies could not be wiped out unless a clear demarcation between Cambodia and Vietnam is set up," Colonel Nguyen Ha, commander of Kien Giang province coast guard said. More coordinated diplomatic efforts between Vietnam and Cambodia could help reduce the harm caused by pirates who flee Vietnam waters and take refuge on Cambodia's islands, he said. In 2001 Cambodia and Vietnam signed a memorandum of understanding on sea and land security committing the neighbors to greater intelligence sharing and patrolling efforts, but so far cooperation between the security agencies remains occasional. **

Officials from Kien Giang province, where most of the pirate strikes take place in Vietnam, say their many requests to seek assistance from Cambodia to fight piracy at sea has fallen on deaf ears. "We should repeat our request constantly - weekly, monthly and quarterly if necessary," Colonel Nguyen Ha said. "In the meantime we should be better equipped with higher-speed motorboats and heavier machine-guns with which to patrol the sea day and night." **

"On Sunday, two high-speed motorboats armed with powerful machine-guns patrolling the Phu Quoc Island Sea caught three pirates red-handed attacking a local fishing boat. "The triumph has brought more confidence to local fishermen," Nguyen said. But despite the success, more needs to be done to equip the coast guards with the surveillance capability and firepower they need to prevent pirates from taking control of the seas, he said. "In the meantime the most effective way," he said, "is to tell local fishermen not to fish near the areas infected with pirates."**

Acts of Piracy Against Japanese Vessels in the Mid 2000s

In March 2005, pirates seized three members, including the captain and chief engineer, of a 14-member crew of a 323-ton Japanese tugboat, the Idaten, in the Malacca Strait.Yoshio Hanada wrote in The Yomiuri Shimbun: “ The port side of the tug was damaged after being struck by the pirates' boat. The attacking craft struck the Idaten bow-first and then came alongside, enabling a handful of pirates to board the Idaten and threaten the ship's crew at gunpoint.” The pirated were “ after hostages, not money, the ship's owner said. The pirates took away the ship's nationality certificate, which has a contact number for its owner, and a cell phone capable of international calls, but left a small safe in the room untouched. [Source: Yoshio Hanada, Yomiuri Shimbun, March 16, 20, 2005]

According to sources, including the International Maritime Bureau and the Japanese Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, the pirates approached the Idaten at about 7:30 p.m. and opened fire on the tugboat. The pirates' vessel then drew alongside the Idaten and four or five armed men boarded it, stealing documents and between 700,000 yen and 800,000 yen in cash. The boarding party then seized the three men and reboarded their vessel, which sped away toward Indonesian waters.The 11 remaining crew members, including six Japanese, on the Idaten were unharmed and rescued by the Malaysian Coast Guard, which escorted the vessel to a port near Penang, Malaysia. The Idaten was towing a vessel from Batam Port in Indonesia to an oil field off the coast of Myanmar, when it was attacked in Malaysian waters off Penang.

The deck the pirates invaded contained the cabins of the captain and chief engineer. They reportedly did not come to crews' quarters belowdecks. President Kanji Kondo of Kondo Kaiji Co., the Kitakyushu shipping company that owns the vessel, told the Yomiuri Shimbun, "(What the pirates sought was) not money nor goods, but men. It's assumed they planned to abduct the captain and chief engineer from the very beginning." The three hostages were released unharmed after a few days in Satun Province, southern Thailand, presumably after a ransom was paid. The hostages said they were moved seven times, always at night, to different location, once on a jungle-covered island and another time near a shrimp farm. They sometimes ate with their captors and were never threatened or harmed.

On March 21, 2006, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported, six men armed with swords attacked the 79,855-ton cargo vessel Martha Verity as it was cruising the Gerasa Straits in Indonesian territorial waters. They tied up four crew members, including the Japanese captain, with rope, and stole about 4,000 dollars worth of currencies before fleeing. The swords reportedly were of a kind that are often used in Indonesia. In the sea area around the Gerasa Straits alone, at least seven piracy cases occurred between March and Hune 2006. [Source: Akihiro Ishihara, Yomiuri Shimbun, June 20, 2006]

Decline of Acts of Piracy in the South China Sea in the Late 2000s

There were only 13 pirate attacks in the South China Sea in 2009. This number is especially small when compared with the 100 attacks off Somalia in the first half of 2010. Stars and Stripes reported: “The attacks in the South China Sea and other Asian waters rarely involve the hijacking and violence seen closer to Africa, where 27 hijackings took place from January to June, according to the International Maritime Bureau, the only group that tracks pirate attacks worldwide.[Source: Teri Weaver, Stars and Stripes, July 24, 2010]

The stark differences in at-sea crime rates between Africa and Asia are partly due to geography. In Asia, shipping canals flow through straits that prove easier to monitor. Ships sailing around Somalia must make it across a million square miles of ocean where pirates attack more brazenly in plain sight.

The number of attacks began dropping off in 2005 as the number of military ships in the region increased at part of the relief effort after the December 2004 tsunami that hit Sumatra, Thailand and Sri Lanka. After those ships left Indonesia stepped up it navy patrols in the region. The tsunami reported wiped out many small-time “man and boy” pirates, opeing the way for organized gangs.

Acts of Piracy in the South China Sea in the Late 2000s and Early 2010s

Sam Bateman wrote on the EastAsia Forum: “By far the greatest concentration of piracy incidents globally in 2010 were off Somalia, but attacks in Southeast Asian waters have also increased. The downturn in international shipping following the global financial crisis led to more ships laid up in anchorages, such as off Johore east of Singapore and Vung Tau in Vietnam, where more attacks, usually of a minor nature, have occurred. Vessels underway have also been attacked recently around Mangkai and Anambas islands in the South China Sea, although some ships may be loitering in this area while waiting for work, making them more vulnerable to attack “ perhaps another consequence of the global financial crisis. [Source: Sam Bateman, EastAsia Forum, February 10, 2011. Bateman is a Professorial Research Fellow at the Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security (ANCORS), University of Wollongong, and a Senior Fellow and Adviser to the Maritime Security Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore]

There is speculation that pirates in Asia might adopt the Somali model of piracy. This is unlikely. Somali pirates operate off a lawless land where ships can be held securely while ransoms are negotiated. They are well-armed and organised, and able to operate far offshore. In contrast, pirates in Southeast Asia are less well armed and organised with limited operational range. It’s unlikely that Southeast Asian pirates could organise themselves to hijack a vessel and hold it for ransom without local intelligence agencies and police foiling their plans.

In September 2010 armed pirates attacked a Japanese chemical tanker off the Indonesian island of Mangkai in the South China Sea. The Japanese-owned tanker was traveling from Singapore to China. Pirates stole cash and ransacked part of the ship, but the crew was not injured.Pirates armed with guns and knives are increasing their attacks on ships passing by three Indonesian islands off the east coast of Malaysia. The International Maritime Bureau says 27 pirate attacks have been reported in the South China Sea since January, up from only seven in all of 2009. A spate of attacks since mid-August has deepened concerns at the maritime crime monitor, which warns ships to remain vigilant in the area. [Source: VOA, September 5, 2010]

Piracy 'Spike' in the South China Sea in 2009

In September 2009, the BBC reported: “Piracy in the South China Sea has hit a five-year high.According to the ReCAAP monitoring centre, there have been 10 reports of sea attacks so far this year, compared to the previous high of nine in 2005. Tankers and large container ships are most vulnerable to pirate attacks, said ReCAAP, because they are slow moving. The latest attack was on Saturday, when six pirates boarded a tanker off Indonesia and robbed the crew. [Source: BBC: September 21, 2009]

ReCAAP, which stands for the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia, said pirates were also active in the Strait of Malacca and the Strait of Singapore, with five boardings and one attempted boarding. Most of the incidents involve pirates robbing the crew and stealing stores from ships, unlike in the waters off Somalia where ships and their crews are often held for ransom. [Ibid]

'Somali Effect' on Piracy in Asia and Indonesia

Lucy Williamson of the BBC wrote: “It was mid-afternoon when the pirates boarded. Twelve of them, armed with rifles, swarmed onto the small tug boat chugging through the Malacca Straits...They quickly took command, stealing the boat's navigational and communications equipment - and the crew's personal belongings - then kidnapping the boat's captain and chief officer. Both men were released unharmed a few days later. A ransom was almost certainly paid. It may seem like small fry compared to the situation off the coast of Somalia. But this isolated incident has the power to get some people here in Asia very worried. [Source: Lucy Williamson, BBC, April 23, 2009]

“This kind of hostage-hijacking was a regular occurrence in the Malacca Straits in the mid 2000s, and some are asking why it's reared its head again now. Noel Choong, at the international piracy reporting centre in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur, says he is very concerned. "I'm afraid of a resurgence of this kind of attack" he said. "There's so much publicity from Somalia, and pirates [here] are looking at how much Somali pirates are making."

“In 2003, the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) received 121 reports of actual or attempted attacks in Indonesian waters - more than Somali pirates carried out in East Africa last year. But last year, Indonesia generated only 28 reports - most of them low-level, opportunistic attacks. [Source: Lucy Williamson, BBC, April 23, 2009]

John S Burnett, author of Dangerous Waters: Modern Piracy and Terror on the High Seas, believes there are new reasons why hostage-hijackings like the ones seen in East Africa are becoming more attractive to pirates here too. "My concern is that with this new global financial crisis, we're going to see a lot of Somali copycat attacks in Asia. "Pirates now realise that hijacking a ship for human cargo is far more profitable and less risky than dealing with illegal goods."

"Pirates are lying low because of aggressive patrols," explained Noel Choong from the Piracy Reporting Centre, "but they're not detained or arrested - they'll rise up again once patrols stop." Capt Mukundan agrees that Indonesia and its neighbours will need to keep a tight grip to stop the situation spiralling back to where it was a few years ago.

But he says copycat attacks like the ones in Somalia simply "can't happen" in Asia. Isolated incidents are one thing, but 15 vessels held along a small stretch of coastline? "I can't imagine any country tolerating it," he says. "Of course they're listening, but whether they can pull off an attack like that here, today, is another matter."

Pirates Attacks in Indonesian Waters and the Malacca Straits

Ay 2:50am local time on October 15, 2010, approximately 26 nautical miles south of Pulau Karimata, Indonesia, the Singapore-registered crude oil tanker 'Eagle Corona' was attacked by six robbers armed with long knives. The attackers tied up the crew and the captain. Cash and personal effects were robbed; all the crew were not harmed except one crew sustained a minor cut on his neck. [Source: ReCAAP ISC October 19, 2010]

In June 2014, a Thai oil tanker was hijacked in the waters between Singapore and Indonesia. It was the third such attack in period of several weeks, according to Noel Choong, head of the International Maritime Bureau’s Piracy Reporting Centre in Kuala Lumpur. Celine Fernandez wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “The MT Orapin 4, a Thai flagged vessel with 14 crew, was reported missing by its Thai owners after it left Singapore for Indonesian Borneo on May 27. The International Maritime Bureau’s Piracy Reporting Center sent an alert on May 30 to all vessels in the waters near Indonesia’s Bintan Island, the Singapore Straits and the South China Sea to keep a lookout for the tanker. On June 2 the center reported that the MT Oraphin 4 had arrived safely at Sri Racha Port in Thailand. “Pirates hijacked and stole the tanker’s oil cargo and destroyed the communication equipment. The crew and vessel are safe,” the center said. “Mr. Choong said the location where the hijacking took place was still unknown. “We only know it happened when it was en route from Singapore to Pontianak,” a port in West Kalimantan, Indonesia, he said. [Source: Celine Fernandez, Wall Street Journal, June 3, 2014 ^|^]

In May 2014, “at least eight armed pirates boarded an oil tanker bound for Myanmar from Singapore through the Strait of Malacca and stole three million liters of diesel fuel. The captain and two senior crew were taken away from the ship, but no further details have emerged about the perpetrators or their reason for the attack. “Investigations are still going on,” said Capt. Alias Hamdan, the Port Klang enforcement chief of the Malaysian maritime enforcement agency. “We have not heard from the company. Neither have we heard from the families of the three men who were taken away,” he said. ^|^

In April 2014, “pirates hijacked another Thai-owned oil tanker off Aur Island, about 65km east of Johor, Malaysia. In that incident 16 armed pirates board the vessel, damaged the communications equipment and transferred part of the fuel into another tanker, according to local media reports at the time. The tanker was heading to Cambodia from Singapore with its cargo and 14 crew.” ^|^

On the attack above, Associated Press reported: “A marine police officer said the tanker was sailing from Singapore to Myanmar when it was boarded by pirates armed with pistols and machetes early Tuesday. He said most of the crew members were tied up and locked in a room. The officer said another tanker appeared and an estimated 3 million liters, of the 5 million liters of diesel on board the ship, were transferred over a span of several hours. He said three Indonesian crew members were missing along with their passports and belongings. The Star newspaper quoted senior marine police commander Norzaid Muhammad Said as saying the ship was intercepted off Klang port, outside Kuala Lumpur. Norzaid told the newspaper the three Indonesians were believed to have been kidnapped. [Source: Associated Press, April 23, 2014]

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2015

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