Shipping lines turn to bigger guns as pirates swamp high seas
For the first time since World War II, merchant ships passing through Southeast Asia have been equipped with artillery and water cannons.
The appearance of such hardware may be counter to International Maritime Bureau guidelines but comes as little surprise given the recent growth of pirates around Indonesia, the Straits of Malacca and the South China Sea.
Noel Choong, regional manager of the bureau's Piracy Reporting Centre in Kuala Lumpur, said: 'At least 90 per cent of these pirates are armed . . . and they won't hesitate to attack.
'We believe ships should never be armed. You can't meet violence with violence. Crews are not trained to carry arms.' However, the spread of piracy has caused upheaval within the shipping industry in the region.
Latest maritime bureau figures show that, of the 115 actual or attempted pirate attacks reported worldwide during the first six months of the year, 68 occurred in Asia.
This increase in piracy, a by-product of the recent regional economic crisis, has had serious implications for the shipping industry, and particularly on the cost of insurance premiums.
The value of lost loads and vessels can run to hundreds of millions of dollars.
Some shipping lines have begun instructing their captains to take longer routes to avoid known trouble spots.
However, this tactic has proved costly in terms of time and fuel.
Indonesia proved a big lure for pirates, with 36 incidents reported during the period. Such rates of attack have not been seen since 1992.
That year, shipowners' organisations chose to engage in quiet diplomacy to solve the problem.
Intervention by Indonesia's then-president Suharto reportedly prompted a crackdown that saw pirate attacks come to a virtual halt.
This time round, shipowners' have felt a need to voice their dissatisfaction. With Indonesian politics in disarray, the country has struggled to come to terms with rising lawlessness.
The Federation of Asean Shipowners' Associations (Fasa) recently appealed to regional governments to adopt more forceful measures to curb piracy.
Firdaus Wadjdi, chairman of Fasa and the Indonesian National Shipowners' Association, said: 'These acts of piracy and hijack are extremely dangerous to the safety of the crew, cargo, the ship and also the marine environment.
'These pirates were reported to be carrying fully automatic machine guns and pistols and are . . . dangerous.' Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia have all responded by pledging to increase their patrols at sea, but it has yet to be seen whether this will make much difference.
The South China Sea, in which six countries dispute ownership of the oil-rich Spratly Islands, is a special exception. Fierce political wrangling over jurisdiction and sovereignty of these waters has helped piracy go largely unabated.
To confront this, the Philippines last week presented senior officials of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Singapore last week with a proposed code of conduct for the South China Sea.
As well as paving the way for joint exploration and development of the area, the code of conduct would address piracy, smuggling and drug trafficking as well as a series of practical navigational, and search and rescue issues.
In October, a special Asean working group will convene in Thailand to finalise the proposed plan.
Attacks on shipping have netted the pirates anything from theft of ropes, ship equipment and cash to entire ships and their loads.
Big ships typically carry at least US$20,000 in cash to pay port fees, crew and for fuel and supplies. The maritime bureau is urging shipowners to arrange payment wherever possible through local port agents rather than allow their hips to carry large amounts of cash.
Meanwhile, the Piracy Reporting Centre has tried to dispel the popular, romantic view of pirates.
It portrays them as ruthless murderers of defenceless seamen, some working in syndicates using the latest in navigation and communications equipment, and travelling in the fastest boats available.
The pirates killed at least 67 seamen last year, all but one of them in Asia. Almost 40 more sailors are unaccounted for.
This year's fatalities have dropped sharply. Nevertheless, extreme violence has remained a feature.
Earlier this year, Thai-owned tanker Siam Xan Xai was hijacked off Malaysia's Tioman Island. One crewman is still listed as missing.
When Marine Master - a 5,590-tonne cargo ship registered in Panama - was attacked off Thailand in March, its 16-strong crew were cast adrift in a life-raft where they endured for four days before being rescued.
Their ship was later traced to the southern mainland.
Undoubtedly, searching for stolen ships is difficult.
'The ocean is big,' Mr Choong said.
To make this task easier, the maritime bureau has urged shippers to install the 'ship lock', a transmitter that can be tracked via satellite.
While the ship lock might not deter pirates from their course, it should be an immense aid in the recovery of stolen vessels.