TARGETING PIRACY

TARGETING PIRACY

dozen Asian nations agreed this month to take a more coordinated approach in their efforts against a common enemy: pirates. It's a welcome step, and more should follow.

Mention the word ''pirate'' today and a variety of things will pop into people's minds: trademark pirates, intellectual-property pirates, radio pirates, sports teams. Go onto the Internet and put the word ''piracy'' to a search engine and most of the responses will deal with software piracy. And, of course, everyone knows that the colorful pirates of yore make thrilling subjects for children's authors and amusement-park designers.But the unfortunate fact is that piracy in the old-fashioned sense still is a problem today in vast ranges of the globe.

Pirates - not the rollicking, adventure-loving, sanitized chaps of storybook fame but the greedy, sociopathic thugs of cold reality - still board merchant ships. They rob equipment and cargo, they hijack vessels, they often kill seafarers. They're a threat to life, to property and to trade.

Consider the news that was being reported around the same time that coast guard and other maritime officials from the Asian nations were meeting in Singapore.

The crew of a small tanker that had been carrying palm oil from Malaysia to India was rescued off Thailand after spending three days in a small boat. A shipping executive said the tanker, which was being operated by a Japanese company, had been seized by bandits carrying automatic weapons. They held the crewmen for nearly two weeks before setting them adrift.

The tanker was still missing, and a $100,000 reward was being offered for information leading to its recovery. Officials speculated that the ship may have been repainted and given a new name.

Those crewmen, incidentally, fared far better than the 23 sailors aboard a freighter that was hijacked in November 1998 as it sailed down the coast from Shanghai. They were clubbed to death and thrown overboard. In an outcome that is too rare in modern piracy, the hijackers were ultimately caught.

Piracy thrives today, as it has since maritime trade began, in regions where there are many nations, lots of places to hide, and little effective law enforcement. It is not much of a factor in established trade lanes between industrial nations. It is an increasing problem in parts of Africa and Latin America.

It's most prevalent in Asian waters. In Southeast Asia alone, 158 pirate attacks were reported last year, a sharp increase from the 89 recorded in 1998. Maritime officials suspect that wide-ranging and well-organized international syndicates are playing a role. Piracy has become such an issue that one company reportedly is offering to supply armed and combat-ready teams of Gurkhas - British-trained Nepalese warriors - for hire for on-board ship protection.

The Singapore meeting was sought by Japan. Other nations and jurisdictions that were represented were China, Hong Kong, Singapore, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, South Korea, Cambodia, Myanmar (formerly Burma), Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines.

The closed-door session produced agreement on the need for good communications and the exchange of information. Participants discussed how to achieve that and drew up a list of contacts. They agreed to enhance cooperation and collaboration among them, a Japanese official reported.

The subject is also expected to come up at a more formal conference of regional coast-guard agencies next month in Tokyo.

The fight against pirates isn't new. On the business side, the International Chamber of Commerce's International Maritime Bureau is a long-running advocate and repository of information and expertise. Among other things, it runs a 24-hour-a-day piracy reporting center that is based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

But coordinated action by the countries most affected by piracy is critical in the effort against the crime. Pirates can and do move quickly from country to country; lack of coordination and communication among those countries is their best ally. Sharing information can also help stiffen law enforcement and combat the corruption in many places that helps pirates quickly and profitably dispose of what they've stolen.

Asian countries appear to be making a good start. Now they must be sure to follow through thoroughly and effectively. If they do, they will be setting an example for other regions to follow. More important, they'll be dealing vigorously with a serious threat to commerce.