Many are spawned out of economic desperation, and wait for ‘jobs’ in a Batam coffee shop. Eric Frécon has spent the last 10 years befriending and learning about the pirates of Indonesia
Dr Eric Frécon is one up on most people when it comes to exotic social media pals: He’s Facebook friends with a bona fide pirate, and his mobile phone contacts include a few others in the shadowy industry.
Dr Frécon, a Singapore-based academic who has specialised in piracy in Indonesia for more than 10 years, has established some amiable relationships in the course of his fieldwork in Batam and other Indonesian islands.
None of the big subjects he learnt at the prestigious Paris universities he went to – the Sorbonne and later, Sciences Po – were of practical help. It wasn’t philosophy, but talking about football that helped him bond with the pirates, he said.
“Knowing a lot about EPL (English Premier League), this was very useful to start the relationship, just talking and drinking coffee,” he said.
It’s not entirely surprising to learn, in Dr Frécon’s case, that hanging out at coffee shops would eventually lead to his visiting a pirate’s den – a kampung in the northern part of Belakang Padang, one of the islands near Batam.
The friendly Frenchman has an engaging manner, for one. He shares that earlier in his career, before piracy research rose in respectability, his colleagues used to make fun of him, calling him “Eric our Tintin”, a reference to the comic-book boy detective who had run-ins with pirates. As for his contacts in the pirates’ village, he said, “At the end of the day, I knew the wife, I could meet the kids; I almost became Uncle Eric over there.”
He once even received a “big kris” from a pirate as a souvenir. “The pirates were quite trustful,” said Dr Frécon, who is set to head back to France after three years with the Indonesia programme at the Nanyang Technological University’s S Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
Still, the 36-year-old academic, who speaks Bahasa Indonesia, is aware of the need to keep some distance from his lawless research subjects. This year, Dr Frécon published a book in French, Chez les pirates d’Indonésie (At home with the pirates of Indonesia). He still keeps in touch with some pirates who appeared with him in a French documentary in 2009. Although they had “retired” from the trade, they staged reconstructions of their past operations, sampan and all, for the programme.
(While some pirates have been unable to resist returning to the trade, Dr Frécon knows of a stranger-than-fiction case where one “retired” pirate went to the maritime academy in Jakarta “to become a proper seaman”.)
MUGGERS WITH FAILED DREAMS
As a white man, he did not exactly feel safe among the pirates “but it was okay”, he says. Posing as a lowly cash-poor, backpacking student also helped. Cannily, one of the gambits Dr Frécon used was to say that he was doing research on whether the economic crisis had given rise to piracy. He would add that he didn’t believe in current debates about the link between piracy and terrorism.
“They were quite happy to hear this … (it was) easy to talk to them because they had something to tell: ‘We have nothing to do with terrorism’.”
He described the pirates as “maritime muggers and petty thieves”, who were “more interested in the prostitutes in the village than the jihadist’s virgins” – a reference to the 9/11 suicide attackers’ hoped-for reward of virgins in paradise.
Dr Frécon said many of his contacts, including his Facebook friend, were “standby pirates” who had taken up offers to hit ships in the past, and might do so again. Often poor, unemployed or former seamen, such pirates were “still waiting for the opportunities” that never fully materialised for Batam and the Riau islands amid ambitious development plans such as the Sijori Growth Triangle launched in 1989, which comprised Singapore, Johor and the Riau islands.
These days, Batam – which is 20km from Singapore – is the main hub for piracy, he said, and other centres are its neighbouring islands of Karimun and Bintan.
Since the 1970s, thousands have been flocking to Batam looking to make it big; it had seemed “like Eldorado”, as Dr Frécon put it. Now, “from Batam, you see Singapore and it’s like the American Dream”. One man that he met had come to Batam 10 years ago hoping for a good job; when he had a baby, he turned to freelance piracy for cash.
“Most of the (pirates) were like him, waiting for legal or illegal jobs” that sometimes came in the form of a phone call put through to a coffee shop near Nagoya Hill shopping centre in Batam, said Dr Frécon.
OF GODFATHERS AND BLACK MAGIC
Despite the fluid nature of the work, Dr Frécon said he observed a hierarchy, from the “henchmen”, to the “intermediaries” or managers, to the “godfathers” on top.
The phone call in the coffee shop might come from an intermediary looking for freelancers, he said. The godfather, who might arrange more ambitious hits like ship hijackings, might send an envelope filled with money. The cash would be for the expenses for a hit, such as renting a 10m-sampan fitted with an engine and buying fuel for it.
The modus operandi for pirates is often “opportunistic” and can take place under the cover of night, said Dr Frécon. “They go in a sampan, board the ship, ask for money or the crew’s salary. It could take 10 to 15 minutes. For that, they don’t need any intel (intelligence); they might go fishing and spot a boat that’s moving slowly, which would be quite vulnerable.”
Wearing face masks, these pirates are often armed with machetes, sometimes parangs. But they are “not professionals”, said Dr Frécon. There is a nervous squeamishness in the way some of these pirates make the hit: The pirates told him that they do not use the “sharp side of the machete” to threaten the sailors, just the blunt handle; guns are rarely used.
Before a hit, they shore up their confidence with a “black magic” ritual, sprinkling supposedly magical water on their vessel. Some believe this makes their seacraft invisible to maritime patrols.
Some are hired not for armed robbery against ships (an official definition used in piracy statistics), but to crew a “phantom ship”. A phantom ship is created when a ship is attacked and hijacked, then painted and given a new name and new crew. “It’s as if the first ship has disappeared” and its cargo can be sold on the black market, said Dr Frécon.
Pirates also hail from Flores, Palembang, South Sulawesi, Madura and other parts of Indonesia, a country with more than 17,000 islands.
Far from being swashbuckling, fearsome Blackbeards or hopelessly camp Captain Jack Sparrows, these men are often “bitter or idle” and the reality of poverty for them seems more prosaic than piratical. (Dr Frécon did, however, meet a pirate who conformed to the one-eyed stereotype. He had jumped into the sea but couldn’t elude capture, and alleged that he lost an eye after being beaten by police in custody. )
Even so, some romanticism lingers in the local legend of a “Sea Robin Hood”, a nostalgic figure of the ’80s and ’90s who is still missed by villagers in Belakang Padang, said Dr Frécon. The spoils accrued by this Robin Hood of the high seas reportedly funded the building of jetties and a mosque. The villagers “differentiate between this Sea Robin and the new pirates, who are more like louts”.
The littoral authorities, on their part, have long viewed piracy as nothing less than a grim threat to the economic lifeline of the Straits of Malacca and Singapore. One of the globe’s busiest waterways, 40 per cent of the world’s trade passes through the Strait of Malacca.
To curb the menace, Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia began coordinated patrols in 2004. These have helped to dramatically reduce piracy. There were 38 actual or attempted pirate attacks in 2004 in the Malacca Strait; in the first nine months of this year, there were zero, according to figures from the International Maritime Bureau.
The success of the transnational efforts were lauded in a TIME Magazine report in 2009, which also acknowledged the role of the 2005 peace accord in Aceh. The end of the decades-long civil conflict had meant the return of normalcy and jobs on land, tackling the root source of piracy.
On the other hand, “it seems like pirates are back in the Singapore Strait”, said Dr Frécon. There were six actual and one attempted attack in the first nine months of this year, bureau figures show. Still, these numbers are not large compared to the hundreds of thousands of ships that ply our waters, and anti-piracy measures in general have taken effect, noted Dr Frécon.
Many pirates are far from active at the moment; “the manpower is there but not the intelligence and organisation”, Dr Frécon said. He believes economic development and job creation would address the piracy problem in Batam and its environs.
This might ensure that fewer pirates are sitting in coffee shops, waiting for the wrong opportunity.