Pirates of the South China Sea
Text and photographs by Eric Pasquier
He no longer wears an eye patch, carries a parrot on his shoulder or swigs rum from a bottle.
If there ever was any romance in piracy on the high seas, it’s long gone.
The modern-day Captain Hook is swift and lethal and doesn’t stop at unloading an oil tanker in the middle of the night or robbing a luxury yacht in broad daylight. And he is not likely to leave any witnesses.
The marina in Manila, the capital of the Philippines: the typical postcard view with palm trees in the background and white sails in the forefront. It is just after 10 p.m.
Peter and a few friends are kicking back aboard his yacht: chilled champagne, caviar, and a half million dollars in antique gold coins below deck.
Suddenly, seven heavily armed men leap onto the deck. One of them screams: “The money, quick or you’re dead!”The Australian millionaire feels that a gun is being held to his head.
“Hand over the gold, quick,“ says the man who appears to be the leader. The attackers are obviously well informed. Peter obeys; the men grab the loot, jump back into their dinghy and disappear into the night.
The attack barely lasted three minutes.
Peter’s experience is not unique in today’s Manila. In fact the Philippines, and particularly its southern shores, is a virtual playground for modern-day pirates. Peter still gets angry as he recalls those events of several years ago.
“The police tracked down ‘our’ pirates a few weeks later, but there was little trace of my gold coins.” Patrick raises his eyebrows and asks with feigned amazement: “Could the police have been involved? Officially, they retrieved only 15 or 20% of the gold. I think that the remaining 80% went straight into the pockets of the officers. Even the chief of police in Manila was involved,” Peter asserts.
Eric Ellen, director of the International Maritime Bureau, the agency that monitors high-seas piracy, says such a thing is not unthinkable.
Here, the interests of corrupt policemen, Mafiosi and pirates, often seem to collide. ”Just point out any boat that interests you,“ he explains, “come up with about a quarter of a million dollars, and you’ll find the men to get it for you pronto. Here, it’s possible to pirate a merchant vessel from your hotel room.”
One of the most brutal and daring acts of piracy on the high seas involved a bulk carrier sailing in the South China Seas a few years ago. All 23 crewmembers were killed, their bodies weighted down and thrown overboard. A few days later, the bodies surfaced when they got caught in the nets of a local fisherman.
Zamboanga, on the eastern part of Mindanao Island, is a tense city. The island is home to one of the country’s most powerful guerrilla movements, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), an Islamic separatist movement.
The army patrols the street here as a matter of course and the taking of hostages and bloody settling of accounts is common.
The police, inefficient and corrupt, are either helpless or unreliable and healthy landowners and shopkeepers have their own private armies on tap. Armed groups of thugs are left free to roam the streets, terrorising the population.
Here people are less apt to speak out than in Manila, but when they do, they seem to agree. The coast of Mindanao, the island of Jolo and the entire archipelago of Sulu – they form a virtual triangle - are for all intents and purposes in the hands of pirates. How many pirates are there altogether? Impossible to say for sure. They are well organised, into gangs of no more than 20 men. They are ruthless and methodical and reign supreme over hundreds of square kilometres of territory. Their speedboats outrun the Coast Guard’s fastest vessels.
The pirate gangs maintain a formidable information network and benefit from the complicity of the army and the police. In fact, the monthly salary of the average Filipino policeman or soldier hardly reaches one hundred dollars, and for the large majority it makes much more sense to rake in some much-needed extra cash than to die a hero. The territories controlled by the pirates are made up by a string of mountainous islands and coastal shoreline, covered in thick, tropical vegetation. Hiding in their coastal dens like spiders, the pirates simply wait for the targeted vessel to appear on the horizon. The tactic is simple: the speedboat barrels towards the vessel while firing a few chambers into the air. If the target’s firepower proves too much, the raid is called off. No point in risking a bloodbath. But it’s rare for boats to offer up any form of meaningful resistance.
The Filipino pirates take everything: money, jewellery, merchandise and even the contents of fishing nets. The victims – small-time fishermen, merchant mariners and sometimes tourists – are forced onto the bottom of the boat while the pillage takes place. Sometimes crewmembers or holidaymakers are shot. If the attackers are in the mood, the women on board are raped.
The isle of Jolo feels just as tense. Two days earlier, two rival gangs held a shootout along Jolo City’s main street. The police decided to intervene after the last shot was fired and found at least a dozen bodies riddled with bullets. Strictly routine. We meet Jerry, a pirate and chief of the regional governor’s private militia. The authorities don’t impress him, though. In exchange for a few small services to the local movers and shakers, he and his gang of killers are free to operate with total impunity. “My men and me, they call us the Tora Tora,“ Jerry explains proudly, referring to Japan’s codename for the attack on Pearl Harbour. “Like the Japanese during the war, we never come back empty-handed.”
Jerry confesses to a weakness for gambling, the lottery and poker. Hence, he is always broke and always on he lookout for a new job. A merchant vessel appears on the horizon off the coast of Jolo, and he and his Tora Tora are gone, off to their speedboats. When Jerry returns, the spoils turn out to be rather meagre: a few pieces of jewellery, watches, a bit of gold, some merchandise, a fist full of dollars. Not enough to make a good day. Luckily, Jerry supplements his pirate’s income by attacking the jeepneys (collective taxis) that roam the Jolo’s byways.
Jerry is a Tausug, a Muslim, like the majority on Jolo. His ancestors founded the sultanate of Jolo in the 15th century, before the arrival of the Spanish colonists. At the time, the entire region lived off the profits of the slave trade. Today, it’s the exchange of contraband goods with Sabah, a nearby Malaysian region, which feeds the economy of Jolo. In addition to pirating, of course.
Like his ancestors before him, Jerry has brown skin, and dark, straight hair. All the Tausug are warriors at heart, he says. “I decapitated my first enemy with a knife and hung up his head as a trophy in my house, “Jerry says, as he recalls the beginning of his career. “He disrespected my family. In my native village, men who know how to defend their honour are admired more than anything.”
For the Tausug, vendetta represents the law, he says. A vicious circle indeed: he who restores his honour becomes himself a target of a vendetta. It is quite impossible to break the circle, unless you leave the area altogether, or become a full-time pirate.
The Tawi-Tawi Islands, in the south of the Philippines, are a piracy hot spot. Here, large fishing vessels have replaced the galleons of the Spanish Empire. They come out at nightfall, their large spotlight blazing to attract the fish. From a distance, they look like lightning bugs dancing across the waves. An easy prey. “The other day we attacked one,“ says local pirate Jung Jung with a toothy grin. “We took everything: the money, the engine, everything. We even shot the crew so we wouldn’t have to worry about them.”
Jung Jung decides to initiate us. Would we care to witness a massacre? A torture session perhaps? “Well you’ve come at just the right time,“ says Jung Jung, “because we have a special torture method we use on our prisoners: we hang them to a branch by their feet and burn them alive, like pigs.” Jung Jung bursts out laughing at the thought of this. “And in the end, we eat their ears!”
Was he boasting? Pilar, a local social worker, doesn’t think so; she takes these tales very seriously. She defends victims of piracy, a jobs she continues to do despite numerous threats. “I see rows of the dead passing in front of me,“ she says. “Twenty per month on average on Tawi-Tawi.” For Pilar the hardest part of the job is getting the survivors to cooperate. “It’s very difficult to get the victims to talk, and even harder to get them to testify or press charges. Once, I managed to convince the survivors of a massacre to come and identify the killers. They were taking an outrageous risk in agreeing to the identification. In the end, not a single suspect was indicted; they were all members of the governor’s private militia.”
We went to the local authorities as well, to confront them with Pilar's experiences. “There are no pirates in Sulu!” they told us reassuringly.
On Sitangkai, a tiny island in the Sulu archipelago, we meet 30-year old Choki. “I’ve been doing this for ten years now, “ he says. “I can’t even remember how many people I’ve killed altogether.” He does remember the death of his father, murdered by a gang when he was just a child. During his miserable childhood he learned to fight and kill. “I don’t know how to do anything else,“ he says. “I never went to school.“
Choki has a credo: “To kill is to eat; my rifle is my life.“ He is a stranger to compassion. “I despise my victims. Every time, I feel like chopping their guts out.“ Choki knows no law but the law of the jungle. He follows no political school of thought. For Choki is an independent. Like his boat, he drifts about on the Sulu Sea, scanning the horizon for defenceless victims. No friends, no port of call. Just a few places along the coast where his terrorised hosts will offer him a bowl of rice and a place to sleep in exchange for their lives. From time to time, Choki and his gang “head into town”.
Copyright © Eric Pasquier
All rights reserved