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?