Thursday, November 27, 2008

Ahoy! The 21st Century Pirates

At the mention of pirates, a bubble pops out of my head saying "Captain Hook".

My knowledge on pirates is not enlightened beyond story books and movies. Images of men with peg legs, iron hook hand, gold earrings, parrots and buried treasures scope my miserable literacy in this aspect.

I know pirates do not just exist in the fictional world. However, the closest I have come to know the real pirates were from the history books discussing about the Vikings in Europe a few hundreds years ago.

Occasionally, I do come across news on piracy just round the corner at the Straits of Malacca. Such stories in the papers are not uncommon but they appear surreal to me. I find it hard to relate such an 'ancient occupation' in this modern times.

Recently, piracy off the Somali coast hits the news every other day. The problem has been a threat to ships which need to sail past the Gulf of Aden near the Red Sea. Since its civil war in the 1990s the acts of piracy in Somalia have been on the rise.

On 15 Nov, the Somali pirates hijacked a Saudi oil tanker Sirius Star, which is the largest vessel ever seized by the Somali pirates. Now the world is paying more attention to Somali, or rather, their pirates.

Obviously, we are no longer talking about pirates with eye patches who fly flags with skulls and crossbones. These pirates are well-armed and use modern equipments such as laptops. They send their accountants to talk about money matters and chief negotiators to cut deals. It all seems like a well set up commercial arena except without any legitimacy.

So far, naval ships from 15 nations have been deployed in the region to help to deter the acts of piracy and that includes the US Navy, the Indian Navy and the Royal Malaysian Navy.

In the last 12 months, the Somali pirates have 'pocketed' US$150 million of ransom money and they are not about to retire. The going rate for ransom payment is between US$300,000 - US$1.5 mil and the whole piracy business has grown into an industry. On 16 Nov, the pirates released the Japanese-owned Stolt Valor and its crew after a 2-month ordeal and a US$2.5 mil ransom.

At the port of Eyl, a coastal town in Somalia, 'piracy industry' is thriving. This is where most of the hijacked vessels and hostages are kept. There are special restaurants that have been set up to prepare food for the crew of hijacked ships. It seems that the pirates do take reasonable care of the hostages pending the payment of ransom.

The political chaos and the lack of a functional central government in the past 20 years are just some favorable backdrops for the Somali pirates. They are making so much money that fancy houses are seen being built and expensive cars are being bought. Such accumulation of wealth also means that they increasingly can afford more sophisticated weapons and speedboats.

The piracy problem at the coast of Somalia has contributed to a rise in shipping costs. About 11% of world's seaborne petroleum passes through the Gulf of Aden and the rise in piracy in the region is leaving the international maritime community at their wits end.

As long as the chaos on land continues, the coast of Somalia will continue to be plagued by piracy. The pirates are currently holding at least 17 ships and more than 250 crew and to them, the climate for their ruleless high sea loot couldn't be better.

Looks like the modern naval warfare and the legacy of ancient sea thievery will need sometime to work things out.

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