Published — April 13, 1999 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

Dark alliance rules the high seas


JAKARTA, Indonesia, April 13, 1999 — Bangkok’s The Nation newspaper originally published this series on April 13, 1999. It is reprinted here with permission.

For decades Southeast Asian waters have been a hunting ground for murderous pirates who are growing increasingly daring and dangerous. The Nation‘s correspondent in Indonesia, Andreas Harsono, spent over a month investigating the growing incidents of piracy in the area.

The waters of Southeast Asia have a long history of piracy. But the ongoing economic hardship, fuelled by the Asian currency crisis, a new generation of technology and lack of law enforcement among governments here have helped push the deadly violence to new heights.

Modern pirates include some petty thieves, who steal goods worth a few hundreds US dollars, but its lucrative rewards have also attracted well-organised crime syndicates whose working vessels are equipped with satellite dishes, computers and automatic weapons.

The leaders of these syndicates can control dangerous operations from a great distance away, perhaps in an office building in Hong Kong or from a flashy brothel on this island, 20 kilometres south of Singapore, even as their operatives hijack ships heading for the port of Singapore, which is the world’s busiest harbour.

In a month-long study of the problem, The Nation learned from informal conversations with seamen, sex workers and shipping agents in the region that modern piracy is controlled by a dark alliance between pirates and the Indonesian coastal patrol and other marine officials.

Questions also abound here about the recent arrest of a Singaporean businessman, nicknamed “Mister Wong”, who has allegedly directed a number of pirate raids on ships in the straits of Malacca and Singapore.

He is a triad boss, the whispers said a month ago.

Now, though, it turns out that gangsters and navy officers had initially tried to blackmail Wong, who was broke. After a one-week bargain-and-wait game, Wong finally ended up in a naval detention centre in Batam. Wasn’t he able to pay the ransom? Or was he caught in the web of an unusual Indonesian navy operation?

The Indonesian navy denies the allegation of kidnapping and blackmailing, saying that Wong had actually tried “to mislead” the officers. But the navy also declined to reveal the real story behind the Wong arrest. Was it in Malaysian waters or in a Batam brothel?

If it was in Malaysian waters, why did the Indonesian navy go into foreign territory to make the arrest? Did it inform Kuala Lumpur? If it did not inform Kuala Lumpur, wasn’t it a regional scandal? If the arrest was really made in the Batam hotel, why did the navy hide the initial arrest? Why did it cooperate with the hoodlums?

Batam is a small island off the Singapore Strait that attracts hundreds of men from Singapore each weekend to have sex with thousands of Indonesian sex workers who hope to earn stable Singapore currency. It is an island of around half a million people, only an hour by ferry from Singapore.

The man who spearheaded the rapid development of Batam was no playboy or dashing entrepreneur, but Indonesian President B J Habibie. In the late1970s, Habibie, then an aide to president Suharto, was appointed head of the Batam autonomous area.

Habibie moved boldly, drafting liberal legislation and inviting foreign investors, mostly from Singapore, Taiwan and Japan, to build resorts, golf courses, electronic and other middle-size factories in Batam.

In 1996 total private investment reached over US$5 billion. The island is home to manufacturing and ship repair. It became an important element of Indonesia’s non-oil and gas exports.

What Habibie did not plan for was the growing sex industry. Being in a relatively poor country next to a rich one, Batam now has legions of sex workers who typically wait for their clients in Batam’s many Chinese-owned bright and shiny karaoke bars and slick resorts. The clients are mostly older Singaporean Chinese like Mister Wong, who is 56, looking for young girls like Ayu Nani Sabri, his current girlfriend.

In Indonesia, prostitution is technically illegal, but the law is not enforced. Rapid industrial development and the influx of foreign tourists have made Batam a strategic location to do business, and unfortunately one growing business there is that of piracy in the Malacca Strait.

The Kuala Lumpur-based Piracy Reporting Centre reported earlier this year that piracy in Southeast Asian waters had increased from 44 cases in 1997 to 86 incidents throughout 1998, saying that 43 crews were killed, 10 injured and 80 taken hostage last year.

Estimates of losses due to piracy reach as high as $16 billion a year. Most cargo insurers are helpless in the face of it.

If challenged on the open sea, the pirates do not hesitate to kill their victims, take over their ship and sell both the ship and their cargoes in black-markets worldwide. Theoretically, a ship stolen in this region could simply turn up in another part of the world, with a different name and flag, as far away as southern China.

“If we just ignore them, it is not impossible that they will become bigger, more dangerous and equipped with more sophisticated crime technology,” said Rear Admiral I Made Renteb, who commands an Indonesian naval base on the island of Bintan, a 45-minute ferry ride from Batam.

According to the centre, Indonesian waters have the highest risk of piracy, with the total number of attacks there increasing from 47 in 1997 to 59 last year. Most of the attacks took place in places such as the Philip Channel in the Malacca Strait or the Singapore Strait.

In these busy areas, ships as a rule have to slow down to avoid collisions in the crowded sea-lanes. Pirates usually approach and board these ships in the middle of a dark night, when the sea is calm and most crew members have fallen asleep.

Using speedboats, they skillfully synchronise the speed of the target vessel and throw grappling hooks on to the deck to board the ship. They can seem unusually quick when taking over the captain’s room, locking up the crews and breaking open the ship’s safe.

In November, several pirates boarded the Panama-flagged MV Cheung Son and took over the ship, which carried a cargo of furnaces. They gathered the crew members together on the deck and shot the 23 Chinese crewmen.

“Pirates are pirates,” said Noel Choong, the regional manager of the centre, adding that six bodies from Cheung Son were later recovered in the nets of Chinese fishing boats.

Choong said in August armed pirates had hijacked a Belize-flagged general cargo vessel, MV Fu Tai, while at anchor in Batam. Six pirates with face masks and armed with knives boarded the vessel. Most of the crew jumped overboard and swam to shore.

But three sailors stayed on board. The pirates took control of the vessel and rode it out to the open sea. Both ships, the Fu Tai and Cheung Son are still missing. The fate of the crews remains unknown.

Read more in Accountability

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