A Story of Malacca Strait Pirates

From National Geographic Magazine by Peter Gwin.

Modern pirates have long plagued Southeast Asia’s Strait of Malacca, robbing sailors, kidnapping crews, and stealing entire ships.

European colonizers and their navies brought the sultanates under control in the late 1800s, but the lanun were never eradicated. The 21st-century inheritors of their tradition continue to hunt these waters, mainly in three incarnations: gangs that board vessels to rob the crews; multinational syndicates that steal entire ships; and guerrilla groups that kidnap seamen for ransom.

Modern lanun have no shortage of targets. Each year, according to Lloyd’s of London, some 70,000 merchant vessels carrying a fifth of all seaborne trade and a third of the world’s crude oil shipments transit this critical choke point in the global economy. The strait’s geography makes it nearly unsecurable. It passes between Malaysia and Indonesia, known for thorny relations, further complicating the security picture. Some 250 miles (400 kilometers) wide at its northern mouth, the strait funnels down to about ten miles (16 kilometers) across near its southern end and is dotted with hundreds of uninhabited mangrove islands, offering endless hideouts to all manner of criminals.

“In some cases the ship’s owners dissuade the captain from reporting an attack,” he says. “They don’t want bad publicity or the ship to be delayed by an investigation.” As a result, no one knows for sure how many pirates remain active in the Malacca Strait.

I have traveled from the other side of the world to hear Johan Ariffin's story; to ask him why he became a lanun; to hear how it is possible for a handful of men to hijack a ship as large as the Nepline Delima.

The plot was hatched in a Batam coffee shop, Ariffin says, when a Malaysian shipping executive approached an Indonesian sailor named Lukman and inquired whether he could organize a crew to hijack the tanker. Ariffin, who went to sea in his teens and rose through the maritime ranks to become a mechanic, had served with Lukman on a few crews.


No pirate attacks had been reported in the Malacca Strait since I left. Indonesia and Malaysia had called on foreign governments to help fund their patrols. Without more resources, it is unclear how long the cash-strapped Indonesian navy will maintain its current level of vigilance.


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