Getting to Know Pirates in the Straits of Malacca

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Yesterday as I was helping Cindy move her office I had time to peruse a copy of National Geographic. There I found a story about a favorite topic: Pirates. In the long story, Peter Gwin meets up with an Indonesian pirate who is held in a Malaysian jail, after a failed hijacking attempt on a tanker in the Straits of Malacca. I remember seeing the ships out there, where more than 250 have been victims of pirates, when I visited the city of the same name on Malaysia’s coast in 2005.

Gwin quizzes the pirate, called a ‘Lanun’ in Malay, who can’t figure out why anyone would want to talk to him. He agrees after the writer promises a gift of toothpaste and a brush. The piracy incident that landed this slender man named Arrafin in jail went terribly wrong for the bad guys. After they scaled the ship and tied up 16 of the crewman, they began torturing the ship captain, and blasting his cries for help over the ship’s loudspeakers. But there was a 17th crewman, (who Gwin also interviews), who snuck away and hid…then clambered over the side and sped off in the pirate’s own speedboat, leaving the bad guys on a ship headed out to sea. The hero quickly contacted police who caught up with the ship a few hours later.

Then the intrepid writer joins a couple of seedy characters and they go to a karaoke bar in Batam, a place that was once touted as the next Singapore but that has fallen into a harder time so that now it is full of strip clubs and drug dens. He gets to know a few other pirates who show him how they carve long pole out of bamboo to scale up the backs of the ships, and told him that after a big ‘shopping trip’ (their term for a successful piracy heist) they repair back here to these seedy bars for marathon meth sessions or orgies with multiple hookers who work the bars.

Gwin spends enough time with these bad guys to get inside their heads, and the result is a profile of men with nothing to lose, very little fear, and who pirate partly for the excitement, and of course, the riches. At the article’s end, Gwin gets a text message from one of the pirates, two months after he’s back in the states. “I got a job as a master of a tanker,” said the text, and Gwin wonders how long this guy will possibly work at a regular job, and not in the shadowy world of the pirates.