MV ‘Chuan Hong 68’ is allegedly wanted by the Indonesian authorities for plundering the remains of Dutch warships HNLMS ‘De Ruyter’, HNLMS ‘Java’ and HNLMS ‘Kortenaer’ in the Java Sea. FILE PIC
MV ‘Chuan Hong 68’ is allegedly wanted by the Indonesian authorities for plundering the remains of Dutch warships HNLMS ‘De Ruyter’, HNLMS ‘Java’ and HNLMS ‘Kortenaer’ in the Java Sea. FILE PIC

THE investigation into a China-registered vessel suspected of plundering World War 2 shipwrecks in the region has taken a turn, with the focus now on how it was allowed to enter Malaysian waters despite its "bad reputation".

MV Chuan Hong 68, a grab dredger, was detained 20.1 nautical miles east of Tanjung Siang on May 28 for illegally anchoring in Johor waters.

It was suspected of plundering the wrecks of British warships HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales that sank in Malaysian waters in 1941.

However, investigators are now probing as to how the vessel was permitted to enter Malaysian waters.

Sources claimed data on the vessel's entry into Malaysia have been expunged from the records, which has set off alarms.

Sources told the New Straits Times that investigators had unearthed discrepancies in the permit issued by the Marine Department to the vessel operator when it made its way into Malaysia.

It is learnt that a notice to mariners (NtM) was issued by the department for MV Chuan Hong 68 and a barge (to tow the vessel) to conduct salvage operations on a shipwreck, MV Amanda, on the Desaru seabed in Johor.

The notice was valid for 16 days from Feb 22 to March 10, last year.

An NtM is a form of alert, containing the permitted vessel's nautical chart, and acts as a precautionary advisory to others to keep clear for safety reasons.

Another notice was posted on the department's official website, permitting MV Chuan Hong 68 to conduct salvage operations on a wreck identified as "Maritime Fidelity" between Sept 6 and Sept 30 last year, also in Johor.

It is understood that these notices, as well as the latest one, which permitted MV Chuan Hong 68 to conduct a salvage operation in Kuantan waters, where it had allegedly plundered the British warships, have been expunged from the record.

Such notices, it is learnt, serve as a reference point for the authorities on the movement of vessels in Malaysian waters and are available on the department's website.

Sources told the NST that these notices have since been removed from the website.

"Such notices are usually retained as part of the records. There is no reason why they are no longer there on the site," said one source.

It is also learnt that investigators had interviewed the department officers, who were on duty when the permits were approved.

Attempts to verify the claims with the investigating agencies, as well as the department, were unsuccessful at press time.

The investigation into the MV Chuan Hong 68's activities is being jointly carried out by the police, National Heritage Department, Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency and Marine Department.

MMEA's investigation is on the ship's illegal entry into Malaysian waters, while the police are focusing on the discovery of unexploded World War 2 artillery shells aboard the vessel.

The National Heritage Department is investigating if the scrap metal found on the vessel was plundered from the HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse.

The Marine Department, however, has rebuffed attempts at obtaining information on the scope of its investigations.

It is understood that the agencies have held coordination meetings to share their findings and streamline the investigation.

A source, meanwhile, said checks were being done on why permits were issued to the Chinese vessel.

"The vessel has garnered a reputation over the last eight years for plundering wrecks in Asia. Apart from being tied to the scavenging of the British warships, it is also wanted in Indonesia and Singapore," said the source.

The grab dredger is allegedly wanted by the Indonesian authorities for plundering the remains of Dutch warships HNLMS De Ruyter, HNLMS Java and HNLMS Kortenaer in the Java Sea.

The vessel is also suspected to have plundered World War 2 shipwrecks in Singaporean, Cambodian and Vietnamese waters.

"This ship has been flagged by various maritime authorities and agencies in the region. The question is, why was a permit granted for it to enter Malaysian waters? Was any check done beforehand on its background?"

The NST had last month reported that the vessel, when it was detained in Johor waters, had a complement of 32 crew members.

A Malaysian man found onboard was not listed in the crew manifest, a requirement under the Merchant Shipping Ordinance 1952.

It is learnt that the MV Chuan Hong 68's crew are being detained in Kota Tinggi, with four crew members left onboard.

On May 22, the NST reported that scavengers had returned after a hiatus of eight years to plunder HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales.

Sources had claimed that the Chinese vessel was responsible for looting 90 per cent of other World War 2 shipwrecks in the region.

Experts were quoted as saying that the scavengers were out to get low background steel, copper and brass, which can fetch millions as the metals are not radioactive.

The vessel had applied for a permit from the Marine Department to salvage a Chinese ship that sank in Kuantan waters. But the vessel turned its attention to sunken British warships instead.

The Chinese embassy had issued a statement that the ship operated in Malaysian waters under the employment of a local Malaysian company.

Its activities came to light when the operator of a scrapyard in Tanjung Belungkor shared a video allegedly showing the vessel unloading artefacts from looted warships, including a cannon.

The video shared on TikTok alerted the National Heritage Department, whose officers raided the private jetty and scrapyard.

There, they found relics and scrap metal believed to be from the HMS Prince of Wales. Investigators also found 46 unexploded ordnances comprising 135mm and 40mm artillery shells, believed to be from the warship.

The British government has condemned the salvaging, saying it desecrated the resting place of those who served on the once-proud warships.