STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Let's continue our look at piracy this morning by going to a place that used to have the most notorious piracy problem in the world. It wasn't Somalia. Five years ago, more than a quarter of pirate attacks worldwide happened in and around the Malacca Strait in Southeast Asia.
Roughly a quarter of the world's trade and about a third of its oil passed through that waterway each year, and pirates regularly took advantage of slow-moving, tempting targets. Five years later the attacks have fallen off. And in this latest report in our series, NPR's Michael Sullivan went to find out why.
(Soundbite of motor)
MICHAEL SULLIVAN: The Philip Channel is a narrow waterway that separates Singapore from a handful of islands here on the Indonesian side. Huge container ships and tankers moved past as our boat heads toward the center of the channel with Singapore's gleaming skyscrapers dead ahead.
My guide is a former Indonesian pirate named Andri who says being a pirate was fun.
ANDRI (Former Pirate): (Through translator) Sometimes we'd get as much as $5,000 U.S. 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 moved somewhere else and do it some more.
SULLIVAN: 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 nearby island of Belakang Padang, a notorious pirate haven. But Andri says he gave up being a pirate a few years back. Too dangerous, he says.
ANDRI: (Through translator) 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.
SULLIVAN: Andri says he's glad he quit when he did. Two guys he used to run with got caught a few months back and are now in prison.
Mr. IAN STOREY (Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore): The number of reported piracy and sea robbery attacks in Southeast Asia have declined fairly significantly over the last four to five years.
SULLIVAN: Ian Storey follows maritime security at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.
Mr. STOREY: In the Straits of Malacca, where the real focus has been because it's strategically very important for the world economy, the number of attacks has dropped from 38 in 2004 to just two in 2008.
SULLIVAN: Greater cooperation by regional governments is one reason why the numbers have dropped, cooperation spurred by fears of what might happen if they didn't after 9/11, when Western countries began worrying about a possible link-up between pirates and terrorists bent on disrupting the global economy by attacking one of the world's major trade routes.
Mr. STOREY: The regional countries came under a lot of pressure from the U.S. particularly to do something about it. And 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. They would see that as infringement of their sovereignty, and they also believed that a U.S. military presence in the Straits of Malacca would fuel Islamic extremism in the region.
SULLIVAN: Coordinated patrols are now common, as is information sharing. Indonesia, Storey says, has also done a far-better job of dealing with the problem. Contributions by foreign governments have also helped new coastal radar to help keep an eye on pirate activity and new boats for the Indonesian marine police to help catch the pirates.
Unidentified Men: (Foreign language spoken)
SULLIVAN: Indonesia's regional marine police headquarters in Sekupang, just a 15-minute boat ride from the pirate island of Belakang Padang. And after morning exercises are over, one of the skippers here proudly shows me his most recent acquisition.
Mr. HARDI OWNO(ph) (Regional Marine Police): (Foreign language spoken)
SULLIVAN: Hardi Owno says this shiny new 30-foot patrol boat has twin Mercury 250 horsepower engines and can do about 40 miles an hour. It and more than a dozen like it are gifts from the U.S. government, part of a $47 million program to help improve regional interdiction and counterterrorism efforts.
Mohammad Yassin Kosasih is the regional marine police commander. He says send more.
Mr. MOHAMMAD YASSIN KOSASIH (Regional Marine Police Commander): (Foreign language spoken)
SULLIVAN: I can use another 10, he says, more if they have them. These boats are the newest and the fastest we have, he says. But we still don't have nearly enough. We're doing a good job against the pirates, but the smugglers and the traffickers are still better equipped than we are, he says, and they're faster.
On a nearby island, a 37-year-old pirate named Iwan sits under a canopy of palm trees alive with cicadas gazing out over the Philip Channel, and Singapore so close it seems you could hit it with a rock.
IWAN (Pirate): (Foreign language spoken)
SULLIVAN: 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. That's pirate slang for going out and simply waiting to plunder whatever comes by. Shopping's too dangerous now. Instead, Iwan simply waits for an informant — usually a crew member — to tip him off when a big haul is headed his way.
IWAN: (Foreign language spoken)
SULLIVAN: 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 can I get so much so quickly? There aren't many jobs here to begin with, and if the economy gets worse, he says, there will be more of us.
He 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 Ian Storey says, and no one really expects things to get as bad here as they are there.
But having said that…
Mr. STOREY: Indonesia is the weak link in all of this. The Indonesian defense budget has been cut by 15 percent for this year. Only about a third of its naval ships are operational. So if international pressure eases off, then patrol fatigue sets in and the participation in Malacca Straits patrols might become less frequent and then we may see a rise in attacks again. This is exactly what happened in the mid-1990s.
SULLIVAN: Back in the Philip Channel, watching the container ships and cargo vessels float lazily by, former pirate Andri says Ian Storey is spot on.
ANDRI: (Foreign language spoken)
SULLIVAN: I don't want to go back to being a pirate, Andri says. I've got two daughters, and it's no life for a man with a family.
On the other hand, he says, the money is a lot better than what I make now. And if the patrols stop, he says, I'd be sorely tempted.
Michael Sullivan, NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
INSKEEP: Our series continues tomorrow with a return to the region that's at the heart of the problem now. We'll visit Yemen, just across the water from the pirates of Somalia. Yemen says it's part of the solution to piracy, though some fear it might soon be part of the problem.
Unidentified Man: Yemen is (unintelligible) oil revenues. Now with the financial crisis and the oil prices going down, I mean, you know, like, basically the country lost, you know, most of its credit, and you know, financial resources.
INSKEEP: Which is why some people are asking if Yemen could become the next Somalia. You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.