This blog contains material I wrote and posted on between the years 2005 and 2011 only. It does not contain any new material. For newer writing, please check my main blog (Bill the Butcher).

Sunday, 25 November 2012

The Jolly, Rogered

I read a rather interesting report in the local paper (none of the three “national” papers I take reported it) that the crew of a Chinese ship,Zhen Hua 4, fought off nine pirates armed with machine guns and rocket launchers who boarded the ship from speedboats. The crew achieved this singular feat by locking themselves into their accommodation area and bombing the pirates for four hours with makeshift Molotov cocktails (in this case, beer bottles filled with petrol). The pirates finally fled when helicopters arrived.

I have a few observations. First, it’s kind of a pity this episode involved Chinese sailors, not American; else we’d have this shoved down our throats 24x7, interviews with the crew members’ families, and so on. Wait, that’s not a pity; that’s a good thing.

And we’d already have Hollywood  scripting a film starring Vin Diesel or Van Damme (now that Steven Seagal’s passed his sell-by date). Oh, come to think of it, inconvenient historical truth has never stopped Hollywood (remember U 571?). So we can still look forward to a film where the hero, a machinist or cook, burns all those pirates alive...

Before I make my other observations, here are the photos.

First, a pirate speedboat (in red circle) chasing the Zhen Hua 4.

Second, Chinese crew members prepare to repel boarders.

Third, a crew member sets fire to a Molotov cocktail before bombing the pirates with it.

Fourth, four of the nine pirates who boarded the  ship wandering around the deck.

Fifth, two of the pirates aiming at the crew. The left hand one is armed with a machine gun and the other with a rocket propelled grenade.

Sixth, the pirates finally abandon ship.

My third observation: this is kind of more heroic than sinking a Thai trawler and claiming it to be a pirate mother ship, isn’t it? No wonder the Indian media was so reluctant to publish this that it was only because the local paper needed a “filler” that I ever knew of it.

And my final observation: Take a look at the third photo, above. What the hell were the crew doing with so many beer bottles anyway? Cruising with one hand holding a frothing beer mug?

That proves what I always said. Drinking lots of beer can save your life..

Not so very long ago, in a galaxy very, very close to here, lived a people called the Chumbawambas. The Chumbawambas lived in Chumbaland, where they lived by farming the hard and stony soil.

Now, the Chumbawambas lived in a world where the Grand Imperium ruled; and one of the great roads of the Grand Imperium ran right past Chumabaland, and the traffic on that road was heavy indeed.

One day a curse fell upon Chumbaland, so that the Chumbawambas began fighting among themselves, and the law of Chumbaland collapsed in disarray.

Once the law collapsed, and with the Chumbawambas busy fighting among themselves, the drivers of the Imperium’s myriad trucks that passed by Chumbaland saw they had an opportunity like never before. They stopped their trucks and raided the Chumbawamba farms and took away the produce the Chumbawambas lived on. Also, they dumped all their waste, from used condoms to exhausted engine oil, in the fields of Chumbaland, poisoning them badly and for a long time to come.

Among the Chumbawambas, a few youngsters then decided enough was too much; using some of the few old tractors they had, and the weapons left over from the interminable fighting, they began to fight back against the truck drivers who stole the crops from the fields and left their garbage so that nothing would grow there again. And when they found that the owners of the trucks they caught would pay money to let them go on their way, they began capturing them for the money, because money was scarce where they were, due to the war and all.

Meanwhile, the Grand Imperium wasn’t all that happy about the way things were going in Chumbaland, for in the war victory seemed to lie with a group that worshipped the Great God Zog, and who took over Chumbaland and put some laws together again. But the Grand Imperium was at war with another set of people who worshipped the Great God Zog; and therefore the Imperium had one of its minor vassals attack Chumbaland and return it to chaos again.

By the time the vassal had been defeated and forced out of Chumbaland back to its own bleeding lands, the young Chumbawambas were again robbing the truckers; they more or less were compelled to, because there were few other ways left to earn a minimum living, what with the continuing war and the destruction of the farmland, and all.

Now, all this time the Chumbawambas had been attacking and robbing the trucks belonging to vassals of the Imperium, but now, as the tide of its endless war against the Zog-ites had turned against the Imperium, one of its own trucks was seized by the Chumbawambas; and the Imperium waxed exceedingly wroth indeed.

Even though the lorry in question and its driver were recovered without trouble, the Imperium declared that the Chumbawambas were an uncontrollable menace; a menace so great that special teams comprising tanks, armoured personnel carriers, and heavy artillery were sent to track down and kill the Chumbawambas on their juddering old tractors. Since the Chumbawambas who still farmed used the same old tractors for their farming, a lot of farmers got killed on suspicion of being truck robbers; more so since, in order to protect themselves in the time of war, some of these farmers were compelled to arm themselves, ironically a right the Imperium allowed its own citizens. But even that was not enough; the Imperium decreed that it would try the truck robbers and do whatever else was necessary to stop the robberies – but was silent on stopping the looting of the farms and the dumping of garbage.

It was the Imperium’s just and justified little war.


Yes, it is a rather crudely disguised allegory, and yes, of course I’m talking about the Somali pirate “crisis”.

Now, a few days ago I was involved in a slightly acrimonious debate on a 
contact’s page on the Somali “pirate crisis”. Now, as some of you know, I happen to have some knowledge of Somalia between the events of Blackhawk Down and Pirateship Up, and I’ve written about that nation more than once in the recent past, and at the end of last year I hadmade a few predictions which have since proved more than accurate. I’d also been writing about the pirate phenomenon during this time when the “international” (i.e. American) media had largely (since Americans hadn’t been as yet targeted) ignored the phenomenon.

Therefore, I found (and find) it both superficial and nonsensical to hear talk of how the proper way to treat pirates is to obliterate them with tons of ordnance and/or hang them from the yardarm; talk that comes rather naturally to a certain type of human being who’s ready to fight to the last drop of another person’s blood from far, far behind the lines.

After all, why did Somali piracy originate? Isn’t it because there hasn’t been a working government in that country (bar a brief period in 2006, of which more anon) since 1991, and because the fact that there has been no government and the country was (and is) at civil war meant that foreign ships looted Somali coastal waters of fish and dumped toxic wastes there? The answer, of course, is yes – and that means that as long as the causative factor isn’t fixed, you can’t stop piracy. Even if you kill every pirate now operating, so long as the foreign trawlers keep poaching and the foreign tankers dumping, piracy will begin again.

Then, why is Somali piracy continuing? Somalia is a country now without law or a functioning economy; the only viable industry, sad to say, is piracy, and a lot of people, besides the actual pirates themselves, depend on this industry, from restaurateurs to builders of the pirate bosses’ luxury homes to boat repairers and the like. The individual pirates are tools; and tools are expendable. You kill a few thousand, a few thousand more will be recruited and trained. As for the industry, it has become central to Somalia’s economy just as any other one-industry nation’s one industry becomes central to it. If you have a banana republic and you want to stop it growing bananas, you’d better have some way of providing the banana growers alternative employment or, even if you shoot as many of them as you can, they won’t stop. They can’t.

And just how important is piracy to Somalia? There is one comment from a Somali which exposes the entire truth better than any amount of statistics. Pirates and those dependent on the piracy industry, he said, are easily recognisable even without their flash clothes and big cars...because they’re the only Somalis who aren’t thin.

And there you have it. When the country has been reduced to a state where there is no way to make a decent living except by becoming a pirate or pirate ancillary, piracy will continue at all costs and by all means. Even if piracy means an early death, if the alternative is death by starvation, by foreign invasion, or by service in some warlord’s private army, piracy seems to be the least bad option, one in which one can live well so long as one is alive, and provide something for one’s family and clan as well.

Therefore, killing pirates isn’t going to end piracy by any means. It may – at the most – make pirates change their tactics to adjust to the situation.

Let’s put it another way. Suppose the pirates could make a decent living by other means, would they still be pirates? The answer comes from the horse’s mouth; in interview after interview, Somali pirates have reaffirmed that all they want is money. Logically, therefore, any situation where they could earn equivalent amounts would make them stop piracy in favour of the new option; because piracy is a dirty, dangerous, and mostly unsuccessful (because pirates capture only a few of the ships that they attack) business. And the amount they actually earn, once you deduct the cut taken by the pirate bosses and the local warlords, not to mention equipment and other expenses, is not very high at all.

There is another, more direct proof. For a brief period in 2006, a coalition of Islamic groups known as the Islamic Courts Union ruled most of Somalia, a period Somalis now call their “golden age”. Civil society was restored, trade resumed, and the moderate groups inside the ICU kept the hardline Islamic groups in check. What happened to the pirates? As soon as the general situation improved, piracy fell sharply, and most of what piracy there was originated in northern Somalia, which was outside the control of the ICU.

But then the US, driven by some fantasy that Al Qaeda would make Somalia a base, ordered the Ethiopian dictator Menes Zelawi, one of the nastiest pieces of work in the world, to invade Somalia (and helped by air strikes which massacred large numbers of nomads) and plunged the nation back into civil war, and of course, since there was no trade nor other work any more, the pirates got right back into business again.

Therefore, you can’t get rid of piracy unless you get rid of the factors that brought piracy into play and are keeping it going.

What, then, is the solution? The way things are going, Somalia will sooner rather than later fall into the hands of the most extreme members of the former ICU, including the group known as Al Shabaab, which has now (another self-fulfilling American bugbear) actually formed hitherto nonexistent linkages to Al Qaeda. This will almost certainly trigger massive sanctions by the US (which loves to sanction nations it doesn’t like, but was singularly loath to sanction apartheid South Africa, for example) – which will cause equally massive suffering and will further strengthen piracy, even if Al Shabaab, which considers piracy to be anti-Islamic, cracks down on it. An empty stomach is a great incentive to crime.

Talking about self-fulfilling bugbears, one claim I’ve heard from various unlikely sources (including an Indian “strategic expert” called B Raman whose prognoses are almost invariably wrong) is that the pirates are about to form linkages with Al Qaeda. It’s a ridiculous argument on the face of it because the pirates have no ideology, they’re in it for the money; and they’ve attacked Chinese, Russian and Iranian ships as they’ve attacked German or American. But if the Americans (being extremely trigger-happy; look at Afghanistan) begin sinking “pirate vessels” in large numbers which turn out to be fishing boats, simple resentment will drive people into Al Qaeda’s arms (again look at how the US has managed to revive the Taliban into a virtually undefeatable position). It’s a thought.

So, unless everyone wants even more virulent and more dangerous piracy, how should the world respond? I think I’ve already explained why the “hang ‘em all” option won’t work. What will work?

Here are a few suggestions:

1.    Sail further from the shore. Hell, it’s a wide sea, and the opposite shore belongs to Yemen, whose navy is more than adequate to take on the pirates, and whose special forces have just liberated one ship from them.

2.    Go in convoy. For the life of me, I cannot understand why this technique isn’t being applied right now, since it’s been used to extreme effect right from 1917. You aren’t even guarding against German U Boat wolf-packs; one frigate escorting a convoy should be able to take out any pirates who approach, and no fisherman would have any reason to approach, so there’s hardly a risk of collateral damage. (I could stick my neck out and theorise that some people do not wish the pirate “menace” tackled because it’s a useful tool to control certain sections of the domestic population with fear and the threat of a new Enemy at a time when the Great Big Iranian AntiChrist thing is wearing kind of thin, but then that might be libellous)

3.    The most important: please, for dog’s sake, leave Somalia alone to sort itself out. The more you interfere the worse you make things; but if you haven’t learned that by now you never will.

Appendix:There was a photo that 
depicted a captured Somali pirate being brought to New York and I’ve heard how the fact that he’s grinning is

a.    Some kind of insult to the United States and/or

b.    Because he’s now assured of a nice safe stay in jail with regular meals

-  both of which points lead the conversation round to a view advocating lynching him on the spot.

I’ve always been kind of amused/bemused by American indifference to a problem until Americans are directly at the receiving end; and even then, it’s only when  official American interests are helped by playing up that threat that it’s played up at all (think terrorism and 11/9). While my own take on this photo is that a semiliterate teenager who’s never seen the world is grinning because he’s faced by a million cameras and journos, I find a distinct tinge of (just possibly unconscious) racism in any attitude that says “These damned pirates should be taught that they can’t do this to Americans and get away with it!”

Translation: “These damned jungle bunnies dare to raise their hands against their betters? Off with their heads!”

But then wouldn’t that be an apt description of the root of the entire Somali situation?

Of course I might be libelling here as well...

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