Asian countries need to join forces to combat the piracy that makes the region's sea lanes the most dangerous in the world. Pirate booty these days include cargoes of oil worth millions of dollars rather than the treasure chests of earlier centuries, but today's buccaneers can still be cut-throat murderers. Incidents of piracy have increase 50 percent worldwide in the past year, and around half the attacks and hijackings occur in Southeast Asia.
Indonesia, the world's largest archipelego state, was singled out as the country with the biggest problem at the meeting of 20 nations in Kuala Lumpur. There were over 100 acts of piracy in Indonesian waters alone last year.
"We are very concerned about Indonesia, extremely concerned," P.K. Mukundan, director of the International Maritime Bureau, said.
In the past week, three ships were attacked in the Strait of Malacca between Indonesia and Malaysia, Malaysian Marine Police Commander Muhamad Muda told reporters. One of them, a tanker, was recaptured by the Indonesian Navy on Wednesday off the coast of Kalimantan, the Indonesian state on the island of Borneo, said Commander Muhamad. On Monday, a tanker loaded with palm oil was boarded at anchor in Indonesian waters. The captain was seized and is being held for ransom. Another tanker heading to Singapore was hit on Wednesday when pirates took cash and jewelry then fled.
Mukundan expected the dramatic rise in piracy to render the region's sea lanes "extremely unsafe" unless governments took serious action.
On Tuesday a Japanese delegate criticized the lack of cross-border co-operation.
Eighty percent of Japan's oil passes through the Strait of Malacca. Mukundan said piracy has become big business. "Multi-million dollar cargoes are being hijacked in one country, the ship moves on ...changes its name and its flag and tries to sell the cargo."
Piracy is also becoming more bloodthirsty, with 72 sailors murdered worldwide last year versus three in 1999, according to Malaysia. "In 1998 I said I didn't think pirates were violent...but now I think that's changed. It's all planned now. Premeditated murder is not out of the question," said Reverend Peter Ellis from Hong Kong's Mission-Seafarers.
"I've known two people who gave up the sea because of their ships being attacked," added Ellis, who counsels seamen fearful of having to pass through the same pirate-infested waters.
Malaysia says it has drastically cut attacks on its side of the Strait and on Tuesday its marine forces put on a high-powered sea and air demonstration of how it deals with pirates and other maritime threats.
Commander Muhamad characterized most pirates as petty thieves, operating in gangs of four or five aboard a single speedboat.
"They use weapons in the forms of long knives. So far there is no evidence that they are using firearms," said Muhamad. He said Malaysia had been successful at chasing them out of its waters. - (Reuters)