South China Sea, Strait of Malacca see rise in piracy

Several ships have been hijacked in the high seas off Malaysia this year; smaller vessels are also at risk.

By Grace Chen for Khabar Southeast Asia in Kuala Lumpur

June 10, 2014
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Pirates have recently targeted large commercial ships sailing on both sides of the Malaysian Peninsula, but local small boat operators say their vessels are also vulnerable to crime.

  • Piracy has a big impact on smaller boats, says Robert Fernandez, a commercial diver based in Selangor, Malaysia. [Grace Chen/Khabar]

    Piracy has a big impact on smaller boats, says Robert Fernandez, a commercial diver based in Selangor, Malaysia. [Grace Chen/Khabar]

Most cases reported to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) involve tankers and cargo ships. Many others – attacks on fishing boats, leisure boats and the like – go unreported, said Robert Hernandez, 53, a commercial diver based in Kajang, in Selangor state.

"When it comes to piracy, you usually hear of big ships facing such threats. Such operations are not without risk for the marauding parties. Do you know how difficult it is to board a moving ship, which can be travelling at speeds of 20 to 30 knots?" Fernandez, who also services and tunes outboard motors, told Khabar Southeast Asia.

In April, one of his customers was accosted by three parang-wielding pirates, who raided his boat five miles off Bagan Lalang, on the Strait of Malacca.

"They took his watch, hand-phone and wallet. Luckily they did not ask him to abandon his boat or he'd be in real trouble," Fernandez said.

Uptick in incidents

As of May 2nd, the IMB's Piracy Reporting Centre, based in Kuala Lumpur, had recorded 72 acts of piracy worldwide in 2014. At least two dozen of these occurred in waters off Malaysia, in the Strait of Malacca and the South China Sea.

In the latest case, pirates released an Indonesia-bound Thai oil tanker and freed its 14 crew members after hijacking the ship and stealing its cargo, the IMB announced June 2nd, according to AFP.

Despite the uptick, the Strait of Malacca is generally safe for seafarers compared with decades ago, said Noel Choong, head of the Piracy Reporting Centre.

"This was not the scenario in the late 1990s and early 2000s where reports easily numbered over 100 cases a year. This is due to the increase in patrols from the maritime enforcement and defence authorities between Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. In some years, there were zero reports of piracy cases in the Strait," Choong said.

Community protects itself In Tanjung Piandang, a small fishing village in Perak, local fishermen keep their community safe through 24-hour watch parties at the local pier.

Years ago they had to deal with a spate of thefts of fishing nets, outboard motors, propellers and, in one case, a boat belonging to one fisherman, locals said.

"Since we set up these watches in 2000, cases have become rare," Jaafar Yusof a member of the Kerian District Fishermen's Association, told Khabar.

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