Pirates have reportedly captured a Malaysian oil tanker near Singapore, the latest in a string of hijackings tied to fuel theft that have plagued Southeast Asia over the past year.
Malaysia's Maritime Enforcement Agency said the Orkim Harmony, a vessel carrying some 2 million gallons of gasoline, was travelling near Singapore late last Thursday when authorities lost contact with the ship. There's a "high probability" that pirates commandeered the tanker, Ahmad Puzi Abdul Kahar, the agency's deputy director, said Monday.
The hijacking comes a week after another Malaysian ship was similarly captured off Singapore, according to the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP), which helps to coordinate anti-piracy efforts in Asia. That vessel was released — but only after the pirates stole the diesel fuel it was carrying.
In an incident alert, ReCAAP said Malaysian and Indonesian authorities had dispatched patrol boats to search for the Orkim Harmony, which was carrying a crew from Indonesia, Malaysia, and Myanmar.
Unlike hijacking syndicates that have plied the waters off Somalia in recent years, the criminal gangs that target ships in Southeast Asia are primarily seeking to quickly offload their fuel cargo to sell later, according to Pottengal Mukundan, director of the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), which tracks pirate attacks.
Mukundan told VICE News the pirates, who hail from across the region, had shown little interest in holding crews hostage for ransom, instead seeking out smaller ships that transport refined oil products.
"When they are loaded they are very low in the water and the pilots approach the vessels in very fast skiffs," said Mukundan. "They drop alongside and virtually step from the skiff onto the ship. Once they are onboard they take control of the ship and rendezvous with another small tanker."
If they are unable to capture a ship laden with fuel, the gangs may simply grab whatever they can from a ship's stores, including "paints, ropes or coils," according to ReCAAP.
The crimes are lucrative, with a haul from a tanker typically worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, and more than $1 million in some cases. The ease with which pirates have operated in recent months — hitting ships roughly once every two weeks since last April — has disrupted shipping in the area.
In April, IMB counted 54 piracy and armed robbery incidents across the globe during the first quarter of 2015. More than half of those attacks were concentrated in Southeast Asia. Of the 245 incidents of armed robbery on the high seas and piracy that occurred globally last year, 141 happened in Southeast Asia.
In a sign of changing times, the organization reported no incidents of piracy off the coast of Somalia during the first quarter of this year. Most of the remaining incidents during that period took place off the coast of West Africa, where gangs similarly poach from ships that are often involved in Nigeria's oil industry.
Piracy and robbery of vessels in Southeast Asia has accelerated in recent years, despite an overall fall worldwide since 2011 when 237 incidents, including 28 hijackings, were blamed on Somali pirates.
International anti-piracy efforts have coincided with a marked drop in attacks in the Indian Ocean, on which Somalia lies. Part of that effort has seen a rise in so-called "floating armories" in the region. The tracking group Small Arms Survey reported around 30 heavily armed ships operated by private security companies — often with little or no regulation — in the Indian Ocean during 2014.
Much of the oil destined for China and Japan passes through the Straits of Malacca and Singapore, making ships there a ripe target for even the most basic of enterprising criminals. During May alone, ReCAAP reported 11 incidents in both straits.
On May 2, eight armed assailants boarded the tanker Ocean Energy off the coast of Port Dickson, Malaysia, in the Strait of Malacca. The gunmen forced the ship to anchor, then siphoned some 2,023 metric tons of gas onto a barge that had pulled up alongside. The entire theft took less than 20 hours. On May 15, some 30 attackers boarded another ship, the Oriental Glory, in the South China Sea, making off with roughly 2,500 metric tons of ship fuel oil in a repeat of a similar incident the year before.
Mukundan said authorities had raised suspicions in some cases that crew members may be in on the heists. But he added that just a few years ago, the IMB counted only two or three such attacks annually, and said they were crimes of opportunity that reflected a lack of law enforcement in the area.
Local authorities, however, have been acutely aware of another cargo passing through the Straits of Malacca this year: people. For weeks in May, thousands of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar and migrants from Bangladesh floated in the Andaman Sea and Straits of Malacca, rejected by one country after another in response to a crackdown on human trafficking.
Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford