Writer Tracks Modern-Day Pirates in Malaysia In Malaysia's Strait of Malacca, where one-fifth of the world's sea trade is centered, piracy is a high-tech enterprise. National Geographic writer Peter Gwin met and even trained with pirates who raid ships on the unsecurable waterway.
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Writer Tracks Modern-Day Pirates in Malaysia

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Writer Tracks Modern-Day Pirates in Malaysia

Writer Tracks Modern-Day Pirates in Malaysia

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Pirates today are not the colorful characters from history. In fact, these lanun, as they're called in the Malay language, plunder ships in the Straits of Malacca. That's the main artery that connects the Indian Ocean with the Pacific. But these pirates are more likely to have global positioning systems than parrots perched on their forearms.

Since 2002, more than 250 pirate raids had been reported in the Straits of Malacca; one-fifth of all sea trade in the world and a third of all crude oil shipments pass through that waterway.

Peter Gwin, a writer for National Geographic, met and even trained with some pirates. His article called "Dark Passage" is in the current issue of the magazine. And he joins us in our studios.

Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. PETER GWIN (Writer, National Geographic): My pleasure.

SIMON: What are different ways pirates have of helping themselves to the loot, if you please?

Mr. GWIN: Well, there's three flavors of piracy in the region, if you will. And the lowest level is what these guys call shopping. And that's basically, you go out with a group of guys at night, you had a ship that you think has a fair amount of cash. And it's basically like knocking over the liquor store. It's a fast - you get on aboard, you rob, you take the money - whatever you can grab - and you get off.

The next level is a crime syndicate would target a ship they know is carrying a commodity that they could sell very easily, something like crude oil. And you hire a group of these shoppers and they go on to secure the ship, meet up with another tanker, offload the stuff, and then sell it on the black market. Sometimes they keep the ships; sometimes they kill the crew; sometimes the ships become what they call phantom ships. These are ships that have been re-painted. They have fake papers and they've been given paint jobs in some cases to disguise them. And they go in as tramp streamers into ports and pick up other cargos, and then those cargos subsequently disappear.

And then the last type of piracy is kidnapping for ransom, and that has been long thought to be very underreported part of piracy. The fishing company has definitely paid the ransom. They try to keep it on the down low.

SIMON: Now, forgive me for suffering from the movie image of the volleying of cannonballs back and forth, and people with, you know, half arms and peg legs storming aboard the ship and firing their musket. The way you described it these days a relatively small group of pirates can take over a vast supertanker or a storage container ship.

Mr. GWIN: Well, I met a couple of these guys. One of the guys I write about in the article, Johnny Batam, he's a guy who knows pirates. He's a guy who sort of may play a role in arranging for pirate activities, and he brought in a guy who we described as a jumping squirrel. And a jumping squirrel is the term these guys use for the ones that actually climb the sides of the ships. And this guy's street name was Beach Boy, and he was a very athletic guy. He looked like he could've been a gymnast as much as anything else.

And I was asking him, you know, how is it possible that six of you, jumping squirrels, can take over a large tanker. And he just kind of laughed and says it's very easy. You know, I can show you.

And so Beach Boy and some of his confederates took me on a small boat back into some of these mangroves and we found a deserted island, and along the way they chopped out a hunk of mangrove root and took down a shoot of bamboo. And in a span of about five minutes, they'd lashed together what basically was, you know, a rough - a grappling hook.

And Beach Boy took it and hooked it on to the crown of a tree and, you know, kind of winked at me, and he was up the grappling hook in seconds. And the attacks generally happen at night, on a moonless night. And these pirates use pretty much their muscles and their wits and sharp knives, and climb at the sides of the ships as they're making their way through the strait.

SIMON: Only about half of these attacks are reported, right?

Mr. GWIN: It's murky business counting pirate attacks. There are so many reasons not to report pirate attacks if you're in the shipping business. Insurance rates can go up. It's bad publicity for your shipping line. Often, police detain ships that are reported attacked in port. So there's a lot of reasons that ships are dissuaded from reporting pirate attacks.

SIMON: There are on National Geographic some splendidly vivid photographs that accompany your text, although as I gather you and the photographer didn't travel together. I must say the photographers don't make it seem like a very glamorous life, either the bars where the pirates are recruited or the places where they take their winnings.

Mr. GWIN: It isn't glamorous. If you talk to the pirates, it's all about economics. And most of them, at least the ones that I talked to, we're doing it because they were out of work. That said, there is this element of history. I mean, this is a place that piracy has been since the time of Marco Polo, and I wanted to see were there - was this sense of this tradition. You know, we're carrying on a great tradition from this part of the world. These are our ancestors. This was what they did. And there's a little bit of that.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. GWIN: And, you know, I have to confess that when you're hanging out with these guys and they're showing you sort of their thing, it's tempting to sort of buy into that adventure. But then when you see wages of this and what's driving it, it brings you back down to earth. And you've talked to sailors that have been the victims of piracy and it's not a romantic business. There's very real consequences.

SIMON: Peter Gwin of National Geographic, thanks very much.

Mr. GWIN: My pleasure. Thank you.

SIMON: His article on Malacca pirates is in the October issue.

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