Chinese Dredger Chuan Hong 68 Detained Again

Notorious vessel implicated in WWII wreck desecration faces new charges over paperwork violations

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The Chinese grab dredge Chuan Hong 68, notorious for its alleged desecration of historic WWII shipwrecks, has once more found itself in legal hot water. This time, the vessel has been detained by the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) over paperwork violations, marking yet another chapter in its controversial history.

Historical Background of Chuan Hong 68’s Infamy

Chuan Hong 68 first made headlines in 2022 when Malaysian authorities detained it off Johor. The vessel was accused of damaging and scavenging parts from the wrecks of two significant Royal Navy ships: HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse. These ships were sunk by Japanese forces during the invasion of the Malay Peninsula in December 1941 and are considered protected war graves. The violation of these sacred sites sparked outrage and led to increased scrutiny of the vessel’s operations.

In May 2023, local residents captured footage of Chuan Hong 68 unloading what appeared to be a large cannon, encrusted with mud, at a Malaysian scrapyard. This disturbing evidence prompted a thorough inspection, which revealed rusting artillery shells and other scrap metal aboard the vessel. The potential desecration of war graves carries severe penalties, with crew members facing up to two years in prison if convicted.

Recent Developments and Continuing Controversies

Despite the serious nature of these allegations, Chuan Hong 68 has continued to operate in the same region northeast of the Singapore Strait, an area close to HMS Prince of Wales’ last known position. Throughout 2023, the vessel repeatedly disappeared from AIS tracking for weeks at a time, raising suspicions about its activities. In January 2024, the Johor Police’s unexploded ordnance team was called to handle aged, rusted artillery shells found at the scrapyard where Chuan Hong 68 had previously offloaded its cargo. This included two 130mm shells and 55 aging 40mm shells, both indicative of the ship’s involvement with wartime wreckage.

On the afternoon of July 1, 2024, the MMEA and the Royal Malaysian Navy boarded Chuan Hong 68 near Tanjung Hantu in Perak state. This location, on the opposite side of the Strait of Malacca from the vessel’s previous operational area, suggested a strategic move by the dredger. During this inspection, no illegal scrap was found, but 60 unregistered LPG tanks were discovered on deck. Additionally, significant paperwork irregularities were identified in the vessel’s documents and port clearance certificates, leading to the detention of the ship and its entire crew pending further investigation.

Broader Implications and Historical Parallels

The repeated legal issues surrounding Chuan Hong 68 highlight a persistent challenge in maritime law enforcement, especially concerning the protection of underwater cultural heritage. The desecration of war graves is not just a violation of law but an affront to historical memory and respect for those who perished.

This incident echoes other high-profile cases of underwater cultural site violations. For example, in 2001, the U.S. Navy discovered that the wreck of the USS Houston, sunk during WWII, had been extensively looted. Similarly, the wreck of the German battleship SMS Scharnhorst, sunk during the Battle of the Falkland Islands in 1914, was found to have been targeted by scavengers.

The recurring theme in these cases is the difficulty in monitoring and protecting underwater sites, especially those located in international waters or regions with limited enforcement capabilities. The actions of vessels like Chuan Hong 68 demonstrate the lucrative but illicit trade in historical artifacts, often driven by the demand for rare metals and collectible items.

The detention of Chuan Hong 68 for paperwork violations may seem minor compared to the grave accusations of wreck desecration. However, it underscores the vessel’s ongoing questionable activities and the vigilance required by maritime authorities to uphold international laws and preserve historical sites. The case of Chuan Hong 68 serves as a reminder of the continuous battle against illegal salvaging and the importance of respecting and protecting our shared maritime heritage.

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