Centre swims against tide to curb attacks

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 January, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 January, 1993, 12:00am

SET up in September to combat the upsurge in pirate attacks, the Regional Piracy Centre of the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) hardly looks the part - and there are those who say it is not.

It has not exactly been an unqualified success. Its hotline rarely rings, and when one major attack took place - an Indonesian cargo ship was raided and the pirates threw the 27 crew members overboard - the first the centre heard about the incident was when it read a report in the newspaper.

Ranged against this modest operation are hundreds, if not thousands, of Indonesians, Malaysians, Thais and other southeast Asians living in coastal villages adjacent to busy shipping lanes who supplement their meagre incomes with piracy.

Its major problem is dealing with the governments that matter. Singapore gives scant support and Indonesia has refused to acknowledge it.

This is a real handicap when, according to masters of plundered ships, the men behind the attacks are centrally- organised bands equipped with military-style weapons and information about maritime operations, which could only have come from official sources.

Some pirate leaders have been described as well-educated men who spoke excellent English, descriptions which do not tally with the uneducated rural people the Indonesian Navy says it has arrested for piracy. How, then can the Regional Piracy Centre hope to have any significant impact? IMB regional manager Mr Mazlan Abdul Samad was adamant it could make a difference if everyone co-operated.

''Once people know about the piracy centre, if they need information or have information they can contact us,'' he said.

''We can't make it compulsory. But if people withhold their co-operation, then no one gains.'' Mr Mazlan said that at a meeting in Kuala Lumpur last February, officers from regional law enforcement agencies adopted a unanimous resolution approving the establishment of the piracy centre.

This was in response to complaints by the shipping industry of the failure of law enforcement authorities to respond to their needs.

However, at a subsequent meeting, an Indonesian naval officer opposed the plan, saying the proposed body would be wasteful and ineffective.

The Indonesians say patrols and their activities against pirates have been effective. Certainly the number of raids has dropped. But shipowners fear this is a lull, with pirates lying low. They worry that once the pirates have factored patrols into their operations, they will resume their attacks.

Mr Mazlan still hopes to ''break down the door'' to co- operation which the Indonesians closed.

''If we are able to meet, I could explain how we do things and hopefully overcome their thinking that we are encroaching on their law enforcement,'' he said.

''There is no central co-ordinating body. We fill that role - receiving information and passing it on to the authorities. Then it is up to them to do what is best.'' Every night the centre sends out a status report to ships at sea in the Pacific region through the satellite communications station on Singapore's Sentosa Island.

A typical report says: ''Vessels are advised to maintain anti-piracy watches throughout the area. Any suspicious or unexplained craft movements or incidents of piracy attacks should be immediately reported to Regional Piracy Centre based at Kuala Lumpur on following numbers. Centre operates 24 hours.'' The transmission costs account for a large portion of the centre's US$100,000 (HK$780,000) annual budget, which is funded by contributions from shipowners. So far the major contributors have been associations in Hongkong and Japan.

Apart from the nightly message from Sentosa, ships are being advised of the centre's existence through the distribution of pamphlets providing information about its operations with its address and telephone number. A package of 1,500 pamphlets has been sent to the Hongkong Shipowners' Association for distribution to its 180 members.