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Anti-Piracy Act
Casting a Net to catch those found on the high seas
By ERIC ELLIS

December 14, 1999
Web posted at 11 a.m. Hong Kong time, 10 p.m. EDT


Indonesia may be gradually returning to normal--or what passes for normal in that chaotic country--but President Abdurrahman Wahid still has a huge problem on his hands before he can restore international credibility to his administration.

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That problem is piracy. Indonesia has the dubious distinction of playing host to some of the world's most dangerous waters for shippers. The latest report from the International Maritime Bureau showed that of the nine pirate attacks that have occurred this month in Asian waters, five of them have been in Indonesia. These bandits are not of the swashbuckling Long John Silver variety. Today's pirates are more likely to be helming a highly armed, high-powered speedboat and have a small navy of vessels to bail up an unsuspecting crew and loot their possessions. Sometimes the pirates forget to take off their uniforms.

A lack of ASEAN backbone precludes official finger-pointing at Indonesia, but its an open secret in regional shipping circles that rogue elements in the Indonesian military and police have a hand in the problem. There's big money is draining an oil-laden tanker in the dead of night and selling the black gold on the black market-a lot more than the monthly pittance of an Indonesian official.

Official corruption is nothing new in Indonesia. But piracy in Indonesia worries Singapore and Kuala Lumpur too, because many of the attacks of recent years have been in the busy Straits of Malacca that separate peninsular Malaysia from Indonesia's Sumatra, or the Singapore Straits between Singapore and Indonesia's Riau Islands. These are the main waterways through which massive supertankers haul their stuff between Europe and the Middle East to Japan, Korea and China, and back again. It particularly affects Singapore, host of the world's busiest port, a mid-distance entrepöt for the oil traffic between the Middle East and North Asia.

If spooked shippers take the longer sea route well south of Indonesia or even Australia, Singapore loses out. Those routes cost more to shippers in time and money but not as much as the inconvenience of losing a cargo to Indonesia-based pirates. That's why Singapore puts a lot of resources into protecting the integrity of its coastal waters with a high-tech, well-trained coast guard.

Shipping companies are fed up, port authorities likewise and so the International Maritime Bureau is looking to the Internet to help solve the issues. The IMB has inaugurated a website that aims to keep captains and companies abreast of piracy incidents, patterns, official action and progress reports on the tracking of seized vessels.

It would be particularly useful for a vessel in the mid-Indian Ocean heading to, say, Pusan, via the Malacca Straits. Its sailing schedule might see it lob off Sumatra in the dead of a stormy night. But if it is alerted to a piracy incident while at sea, it could change its course, or its schedule, while there is still time. Or plan ahead for preventative action, and be hooked into what authorities on land are doing and cooperate accordingly. It's yet another way the Internet is helping transform creaking industries.

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