Slate contributor Kelly McEvers was online at Washingtonpost.com on Dec. 4 to chat with readers about her attempt to track down and interview a swashbuckling pirate along the Strait of Malacca in Indonesia. An unedited transcript of the chat follows.
Arlington, Va.: What will it take to end the spate of piracy near Somalia. I recall a similar problem in a part of Asia a few years ago. It hasn’t been completely eliminated, but it has been minimized to a large extent. Do military vessels need to start sinking some of these pirate ships?
Kelly McEvers: I wish I had an answer about Somalia. As for the Strait of Malacca, the regional navies have stepped up patrols, and this has made a dent in piracy. The U.S. and Japan for years have offered to come in, but the governments of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore have pretty fiercely rejected such aid, saying it encroaches on their sovereignty. The problem will never be alleviated until these countries can tackle corruption in a big and systematic way. As long as you have underpaid, crooked cops who are willing to turn a blind eye to pirates in exchange for a cut of the booty, you will have piracy.
DC: How long were you willing to spend in pursuit of meeting a pirate?
Kelly McEvers: I really was ready to leave that day. I had packed my bags. That was about three weeks in. If I hadn’t met Agus in the following days, I probably would have given up. But the thought of doing so was crushing.
Downtown DC: Hi Kelly, Interesting assignment—I love how you capture both the boredom and the rush of being on an assignment like this. Sure, I am curious why the chat is before the final segment of the story, but I guess everyone else is too. Ready for Part 5, I guess.
Sounds to me that based on your experience, a male (western) journalist wouldn’t have a chance of meeting these contacts (at least in Malaysia/Indonesia). How scared were you, really, when taken into the hold with all these guys? I am assuming it would have been different if they were in their 20s and not 50s…
Kelly McEvers: I’m not so sure that a male journalist would have had problems. See Peter Gwin’s recent piece in National Geographic about the same subject, in the same region. The pirate I eventually met was younger—not in his 50s.
But the gender question is an interesting one: I admit that being a woman makes it easier to my job sometimes. But other times it makes it hard. Especially in Muslim countries.
Rockville, Md.: From what I understand, much of the Somali “uncaptured” economy, and therefore much of the economy in general, relies on the capital from the products brought-in by these pirates. From what you have seen, does it seem as if the economic structure would be able to rebound if/when this source of money was completely removed?
Kelly McEvers: I can’t speak for Somalia. Haven’t been there (yet). But I know that these islands in Indonesia thrive on sea-borne crime. Not just piracy, but stealing oil from tankers and re-selling it on the black market. There’s been piracy in the Strait of Malacca for centuries. I think it’s difficult for anyone to imagine a scenario without this source of income.
Singapore: How much longer are you on this pirate quest? What other strategies do you have for meeting pirates other than trying to network in Batam?
Kelly McEvers: Good question. Not sure if my family would be too psyched about me going to Somalia.. I’m actually in Saudi Arabia right now, doing some reporting from here about the Sirius Star. As for other “strategies,” like I wrote in the first installment, there’s not a playbook for this. If you want to find a pirate, you go where pirates go.
San Antonio: Have you read Alexander McCall Smith’s book “Love Over Scotland”? His eccentric character Domenica, a world-tripping anthropologist in her youth, ironically pursues the same adventure as yourself in the Straits of Malacca, humorously infiltrating the world of piracy, with similar pirate contacts, and hunkers down on one of the islands, to eventually write a piece about pirate life. After reading this book a few months ago, I could only imagine such an endeavor to be that of only fiction, via a fearless, made-up character. But not! What sparked you to pursue such an adventure?
Kelly McEvers: I lived in Indonesia from 2003-2004. I’ve been wanting to do this story since then. Lots of news journalists had reporting on the increase—and subsequent decrease—in piracy in the Strait of Malacca, but no one ever *went there* to do the story justice. This is usually the case with correspondents: We don’t have the time or the resources to spend three weeks on a single story.
So, when the foreign editor at Marketplace suggested I do this story, I jumped at the chance. The story was part of a series that was produced (and independently funded) by Homelands Productions, a great group of people who are committed to telling bigger, longer stories—and not just the news of the day. They’re really the ones who deserve the credit here.
Singapore: How do you judge whether someone is pulling a fast one or really a real pirate when you meet them?
Kelly McEvers: Great question. This is something I have to consider every day—not just with pirates. Did this guy *really* witness a murder? Does this woman *really* speak for the government?
With Agus, as with many story subjects, it was a case of verifying what he told me with other people. People on Belakang Padang and Batam. This was, of course, touchy, because no one wants to talk about piracy in Indonesia. They all know it happens, but they don’t want to admit it.
Also, you just have to go with your gut. If you had met Agus, you probably would have had the same sense about him that I did: This guy was simply not a liar. There was no incentive for him to make stuff up.
Clifton, Va.: The only way to stop piracy is the old fashioned way like the Brits did in the early 18th century. I don’t believe liberals and the Obama administration and the UK govt have the stomach for the same short of measures. Hangings and pirates’ heads on poles and other acts wouldn’t sit well with the MSM and the EU public. But they stopped piracy in the West Indies in the early 18th century
The pirates in the West Indies in the early 18th century had the first democratic form of government. They elected their leaders etc. Do modern pirates have the same sort of governance? Doubt you will see female pirate leaders amongst today’s modern Muslim pirates!
Kelly McEvers: No chicks in the Strait of Malacca, as far as I could tell. (And believe me, I asked.)
I can’t imagine Mr. Black running any kind of democracy.
Washington: Why don’t ships in pirate-infested areas carry weapons to defend themselves?
Kelly McEvers: The companies who own the ships forbid it, mainly because their insurance premiums would skyrocket if their crews were armed. Crews with guns means more risk of people getting hurt.
(Can you imagine being out at sea for months with a deranged, coked-up captain who also happens to be toting an AK-47? How do you think disputes would end on that boat?)
Also, carrying weapons on board is “strongly discouraged” by the United Nations’ International Maritime Organization.
Lyme, Conn.: I found it interesting the economics of pirating. If they don’t/can’t make expenses they could go into debt. It would be interesting if there was some way pirating could be made economically unlikely to make a profit. I also found it interesting that the big city life motivates some pirates. It almost seems as if the city would offer should more lucrative employment the pirates would leave their careers. Might this be a possibility?
Kelly McEvers: If you’re uneducated and have no connections in a place like Singapore, it’s not very likely you’ll be able to get a job. Indonesia is the world’s 4th largest country (while Singapore is a city-state of just a few million people), and in this region most of the people live beneath the poverty line. Needless to say, there is fierce competition for jobs that pay a living wage.
I have friends in Indonesia’s captitol, Jakarta, who have the same job I do, the same education level, and make about a third as much as I do. They have to commute to work hours each day, just to live in a place they can afford. This is the situation in a country that’s just now struggling out of its corrupt past.
Kelly McEvers: A little more about the series on Marketplace: It’s called “Working,” and for two years we have profiled individual workers in the global economy. Check out other profiles at http://marketplace.publicradio.org/segments/working/.
All of this was the brainchild of Homelands Productions (http://homelands.org/), a truly great and inspirational group of people.
Arlington, Va.: Why pirates? Why weren’t you sent out to look for Russian mafia, or Japanese yakuza? Was Marketplace looking for a Robin Hood story?
Kelly McEvers: In this series we’ve profiled all different kinds of workers in the global economy. I’ve done a sex worker in an oil-boom town, a smuggler, a war fixer, and a cadaver handler. Others have included miners, pop stars, circus people, and land-mine clearers.
The idea is to find surprising people who do jobs that are somehow connected to us.
Marketplace definitely doesn’t give you the idea of the story before you report it. They trusted me to find a pirate and tell his story—whatever that story might be.
washingtonpost.com: What surprised you most during your search?
Kelly McEvers: The fact that no one talks about piracy in this region—even though it’s practically a way of life. It took me a while to understand, but in some ways this was a matter of pride for Indonesians. If they admitted there was a problem, then they were admitting a larger problem with their country. And, they were admitting that they might need outside help to solve the problem, as the U.S. and Japan have been suggesting for years.
Also, there’s the terrorism angle. For years the Bush administration warned that Southeast Asian militant groups might be able to work with pirates. This is why U.S. officials advocated U.S. intervention. Needless to say, this did not go over well in the world’s most populous Muslim nation, where people were already furious about the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Reston, Va.: Who are these pirates when they get back to land? Do they blend in with the rest of the Somalis? Are they well known among the rest as pirates? Do they live like kings?
Kelly McEvers: I wasn’t in Somalia. But I can tell you that you would NEVER know Agus was a pirate if you saw him walking around, on the streets of Batam, Indonesia. That’s the thing: These guys are just regular guys.
As for the bigger-time guys I met, the ones who hijack entire ships, they act like guys with money: SUVs, prostitutes, drugs. But even that is not all so out-of-the-ordinary. Many a company boss or government official behaves the same way. In most countries!
Falls Church, Va.: So pirates are just “individual workers in the global economy”?
Kelly McEvers: Well, yeah. I think their jobs wouldn’t exist if such an enormous portion of the world’s commerce did not take place on the sea.
But I see your point. The idea of the series was not to be reductive, but rather to focus on a single person and his or her story, to try to gain a deeper understanding of why people do what they do—rather than to talk about trends and headlines.
Rockville, MD: Good series in Slate. I was almost dying of embarrassment for you; the has-beens trying to get you to drink and take pills were pathetic if they weren’t so real. Did you ever feel threatened?
Kelly McEvers: yeah, pretty sad. the only time I really worried was when we were walking up the stairs in that god-forsaken night club that was shaped like a cruise ship. for a moment i saw the entire kidnapping pass before my eyes.
Kelly McEvers: Thanks so much for all the great questions! You can hear my other profiles at www.audiojournal.com.