Wooden Indonesian boats known as pancung are used both as water taxis and by some pirates to sneak up on and rob passing ships. These boats are moored in Belakang Padang, a notorious Indonesian pirate haven.
Wooden Indonesian boats known as pancung are used both as water taxis and by some pirates to sneak up on and rob passing ships. These boats are moored in Belakang Padang, a notorious Indonesian pirate haven. Michael Sullivan/NPR
Five years ago, when people talked about piracy, it was Southeast Asia, not Somalia, that was getting all the attention.
Back then, about 40 percent of attacks reported worldwide happened in or around the vital waterway between Malaysia and Indonesia known as the Strait of Malacca. Roughly one-quarter of the world's trade and about one-third of its oil pass through the strait each year, and pirates took advantage of the slow-moving, tempting targets with numbing regularity.
Today, though, those attacks have fallen off dramatically, largely due to greater regional cooperation and increased resources to stop piracy.
'Happy Happy' No More
Andri is a former pirate. Once upon a time, the Indonesian says, being a pirate was fun.
"Sometimes, we'd get as much as $5,000 from one ship, and we used the money to have a good time. We'd go to a big city and spend it on 'happy happy.' Then we'd move somewhere else and do it some more," he says.
"Happy happy" is pirate talk for drinking, dancing and women. And the pirate's life was one Andri was pretty much groomed for, having grown up on the island of Belakang Padang, a notorious pirate haven. But Andri says he gave up the pirate's life a few years ago. It was too dangerous, he says.
"I thought it was better for me to stop before I got caught, because the Indonesians and the Malaysians and the Singaporeans all started increasing their patrols. And it was getting harder and harder to avoid them," he says.
Andri says he is glad he quit when he did. Two people he used to run with got caught a few months back and are now in prison.
Cooperation Post-Sept. 11
The number of reported sea robbery attacks in Southeast Asia has declined fairly significantly over the past five years, says Ian Storey, who follows maritime security at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.
Focus has been on the Strait of Malacca, where the number of attacks dropped to just two in 2008 from 38 in 2004, Storey says.
One reason the numbers have dropped is greater cooperation between regional governments after Sept. 11 that was spurred by fears of what might happen if they didn't. At the time, Western countries began worrying about a possible linkup between pirates and terrorists bent on disrupting the global economy by attacking one of the world's major trade routes.
Storey says the countries in the region came under a lot of pressure, particularly from the United States, to take action.
"In the case of Indonesia and Malaysia, there was a very real fear that if they didn't do anything about it, then the U.S. might act unilaterally," Storey says.
"They would see that as infringement of their sovereignty, and they also believed that a U.S. military presence in Straits of Malacca would fuel Islamic extremism in the region," he says.
New Resources Help, But More Needed To Keep Up
Coordinated patrols and information sharing are now common. Storey says Indonesia has done a better job of dealing with the problem. And contributions by foreign governments — such as new coastal radar and new boats for the Indonesian maritime police — also have helped.
Take, for instance, the two shiny new boats at Indonesia's regional maritime police headquarters in Sekupang, a 15-minute boat ride from the pirate island of Belakang Padang.
The new 30-foot patrol boats have twin Mercury 250 horsepower engines, with speeds of up to 40 miles an hour. They are gifts from the U.S. government, part of a $47 million program to help improve regional interdiction and counterterrorism efforts. Overall, more than a dozen have been delivered to the Indonesian government.
Mohammad Yassin Kosasih, the regional marine police commander, appreciates the boats but says that he can use at least another 10.
"These boats are the newest and the fastest we have, but we still don't have nearly enough," Kosasih says. "We're doing a good job against the pirates, but the smugglers and the traffickers are still better equipped than we are — and they're faster."
Pirates 'Shop' Less, Rely On Informants
On a nearby island, a 37-year-old pirate named Iwan sits under a canopy of palm trees gazing out over the Philip Channel, a narrow waterway that separates Singapore from a handful of islands on the Indonesian side of the Strait of Malacca.
Iwan points to a passing LNG tanker — and a police boat running alongside. Increased patrols, he says, have forced many pirates to work farther from home — in shipping lanes outside the strait — where enforcement is still weak.
These days, Iwan says, he doesn't even bother going "shopping" — pirate slang for going out and simply waiting to plunder whatever comes by. Shopping is too dangerous now. Instead, Iwan waits for an informant — usually a crew member — to tip him off when a big haul is headed his way.
Iwan says he wants to get out of the business soon, before he gets caught. But the money, he says, is just too good. His last haul, two months ago, yielded more than $100,000 split seven ways. It's easy money, he says — where else could he get so much so quickly?
There aren't many jobs to begin with, he says, and he predicts that if the economy gets worse, there will be more pirates.
Vigilance Still Necessary
Iwan may be onto something. After the Asian financial crisis of 1997, economies tanked. Defense spending was slashed. And in Indonesia, the fall of the dictator Suharto brought political instability, too. Pirate attacks in the Malacca Strait soared.
But Indonesia is not a failed state like Somalia, analyst Storey says, and no one expects the situation in Southeast Asia to get as bad as it is there.
Still, Storey says, Indonesia — where the defense budget was cut by 15 percent this year and only about a third of its naval ships are operational — is "the weak link."
"If international pressure eases off, then patrol fatigue sets in, and the participation in Malacca Strait patrols may become less frequent. And then we could see a rise in attacks again. This is exactly what happened in the mid-1990s," Storey says.
Andri, the former pirate, says Storey is spot on.
"I don't want to go back to being a pirate," Andri says. "I've got two daughters. It's no life for a man with a family.
"On the other hand," he says, "the money's a lot better than what I make now. And if the patrols stop, I'd be sorely tempted."