Skimmers of the Sea

No more the black sails, the fierce cries, the blood lust. Now the pirates ride small motorboats, silent, armed especially with cell phones, GPS systems and automatic weapons. By stealth the boats come right up to the rudder of the cargo vessel, some pirates board thanks to help from someone aboard, and they quickly, bloodlessly, plunder the cargo. Then they are off, to the small island towns. Here it is much as it was before. Money runs through their fingers like quicksilver: sex, drugs, drink and other forms of violence to the body. Little remains for them, as they turn back to their motorboats for another run at the sea.

The International Maritime Bureau (IMB) sounds like the United Nations agency, the International Maritime Organization (IMO). The IMO first met in

1959 with a specific mission: to ensure that the world’s states would respect UN conventions such as the 1948 International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea and the 1954 International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution of the Sea by Oil. Because ships carry ninety percent of world trade, the IMO plays a vital role in the regulation of the seas.

But the IMB has nothing to do with the UN. Formed in 1981 by the International Chamber of Commerce, the IMB collects data on piracy (at the Piracy Reporting Centre located in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia) and it lobbies for more inter-state action against pirates. Whereas the UN respects the difference between international waters and national waters, the IMB wants state navies to cross into each other’s water ("hot pursuit") to give chase against pirates. The niceties of the regime of state sovereignty do not bother the IMB. It wants to crush the pirates.

As with so many agencies that favor the bludgeon, 9/11 gave the IMB a fillip. Piracy was soon equated with terrorism. Men on the small boats became agents of al-Qaeda, whether off the coast of Somalia or in the Straits of Malacca. The IMB’s analysis dove-tailed with that of the Pentagon, who sought to stitch together alliances with regional navies on the pretext of terrorism. The Straits of Malacca is ground zero for this strategy. Over a hundred thousand ships pass through this narrow inlet each year, carrying a third of the world’s trade good and the bulk of Japan’s oil supplies. Pirates certainly ply the waters, stealing from ships and sometimes stealing ships (these are the so-called "phantom ships" that are hijacked and re-registered under different names). But piracy has so far been a small menace for global commerce, not a major hazard.

Nevertheless, the US, India, Australia, Singapore, Japan and other countries use this problem to command the high seas, work in tandem to assert themselves as the guardians of this main avenue for world trade. The US State Department can talk itself blue in the face that its attempt to commandeer the Straits of Malacca, along with its new allies, is not a threat to China, but Beijing sees it otherwise. Why is there the need to send the fleet of several countries against a handful of motorboats, when the coast guard vessels of the littoral states can handle the problem?

Indeed, this is not only Beijing’s response, but also the reaction of Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta. When the US Admiral Thomas Fargo proposed the Regional Maritime Security Initiative in 2004, he was immediately rebuked. Admiral Bernard Kent Sondakh, Chief of the Indonesian Navy, said, "Indonesia deems it not necessary to include troops from outside countries, including the United States, to be involved in safeguarding the strategic waterway." The Malaysian Defense Minister, Najib Razak, said much the same. They had a point. In 1992, the Indonesians, Singaporeans and Malaysians created a Coordinated Patrol to take care of the pirates. "We began operations in September," said Colonel Santa Maria of Singapore’s Navy, "and in October the number of robberies had been reduced to nil." In 2004, Malaysia offered to escort any ship through the straits, the Malaysian, Indonesian and Singaporean fleets sailed down the straits in a show of force, and the three countries produced their own coordinated initiative (Malsindo) to deal with the problem. Singapore is a unreliable ally in this, because at the same time its Defense Minister Teo Chee Hean took the pragmatic position that since "no single state has resources to deal effectively with this threat," why not let the US, India, the Australians and the Japanese into this process? The geo-politics of the Straits did not seem as important as the use of US resources to let commerce flow.

When the Portuguese took Malacca in 1511, they came to plunder this principality to fund their war to liberate Jerusalem. "The Franks are coming to attack us," it says in The Malay Annals, "They have seven carracks, eight galeases, ten long galleys, fifteen sloops and five foists. The Franks shouted from their ships, ‘Take warning. Tomorrow we land’" (this is cited by Gene Chenoweth in the Journal of Law and Religion). The Portuguese were not pirates, although they were "sea-thieves," which is a close approximation of the Chinese word for such brigands. Afonso de Albequerques wanted to take control of the "single ocean" from Africa to Indonesia and control it with a ring of forts. His vision was imperial, not piratical.

Once Europe’s ships took control of the ocean, any challenge to its hegemony was deemed to be piracy. Malay insurgents went after European shipping from the get-go, and earned the sobriquet "pirate" from that great buccaneer (and friend of Sir Isaac Newton) William Dampier in 1717.

The new Malay "pirates" come from a different place. In the 1980s, the Indonesia government tried to transform places like Batan Island into a free-enterprise zone, a tourist destination and a port. Rather than become Singapore, this island off Sumatra, like many others, deteriorated into a combination of central Bangkok and Gary, Indiana. The Asian financial crisis of 1997 put paid to any chance of economic development, and what remained were seedy bars, sex work, and unemployed sailors. Peter Gwin, who wrote about the island and the pirates for National Geographic (October 2007) talked to one such person, Muhammed, who told him that he went into the pirate business "partly for the money, but it is fun, an adventure, like James Bond." This argument is confirmed by the analysis of Bertil Lintner of Jane’s Defense Weekly ("The Perils of Rising Piracy," November 2000). There is little evidence that these pirates are motivated by the Free Aceh movement or by Jemmah Islamiyah. They are driven by the promise of easy money, and excitement.

When I was a little boy, I was sometimes warned against bad things because if I did not listen the "bogey man" would come and get me. It is said that the term comes from English mythology, although it could just as well have come from the name of the Sulawesi pirates, the Bugis, whose black sails tore out of the mangroves to terrorize the waterways of the Indonesian archipelago. Today’s "bogey men" are not those who drive their motorboats to plunder the ships. They are the constructs of the powerful, as they turn the desperate skimmers of the sea into the terrorist, into al-Qaeda.

Leave a comment