Friday, October 13, 2006

SIEV X - a helpless human cargo

Tony Kevin has revisited the horror and tragedy of the SIEV X 'incident' in On LIne Opinion. Tony is one of the most informed commentators on refugee issues and has made a particular study of SIEV X. An excerpt follows:

"One February day in Canberra in 2002, I was having coffee in Manuka with my friend Professor Tony Milner of ANU, outlining my forebodings over the Australian Government’s implausible official statements regarding the sinking of the boat I was soon to name SIEV X (“Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel, Unknown”) (Canberra Times, March 25, 2002).

This small overloaded boat sank in a storm on its way from Java to Australia’s Christmas Island on October 19, 2001 - almost five years ago - drowning 353 asylum-seekers. Most were women and children, drowned trying to reunite with husbands and fathers already arrived in Australia over the previous two years.

I ran through the ways in which the government story was not making sense. Tony replied “Whatever the truth may turn out to be, you won’t let go of this: you’ll be like a dog with a bone because once you get your teeth into an issue that is what you do”...

Powerful people, from John Howard down, want SIEV X forgotten. They have failed. When it became clear the Senate investigation was going nowhere, I wrote my prizewinning investigative book, A Certain Maritime Incident - the Sinking of SIEV X, because I wanted SIEV X to be remembered. It sold well. It is still available on order from the publishers - there was a recent small second printing to meet continuing demand.

Australia’s political establishment and senior commentariat, on both Left and Right, with honourable exceptions like John Faulkner, Carmen Lawrence, Andrew Bartlett and the Greens, mostly turned away from SIEV X after 2002. The issue does not sit easily in the present Coalition-Labour mainstream political discourse which agrees that “robust” (read “ruthless”) border protection is necessary. There are too many powerful interests - the Howard national security departments and agencies, and the ADF and AFP lobbies - that work to discourage any public mention of SIEV X as an unresolved issue of government accountability.

Fortunately the people of Australia are not afraid to honour SIEV X as a major human tragedy in Australia’s history of migration. People who have come into actual contact with any of the thousands of former Middle Eastern boat people now living quietly in Australia know their grief over wives, children and friends lost on SIEV X; people like the good folk of Rural Australians for Refugees and the many church and secular-based volunteer organisations engaged in the day-to-day work of helping refugees....

I now believe SIEV X sank at the height of a covert undeclared war between powerful Indonesian national security elements that had encouraged and protected so-called people smugglers in Indonesia, with the aim to send large numbers of Middle East origin asylum-seekers down to Australia as punishment for Australia’s alleged betrayal of Indonesia in the 1999 East Timor secession: and Australian national security agencies determined to stop this plan while not publicly announcing their knowledge of it.

Many of the strange episodes noted in my book are more readily understandable under such a hypothesis. It would help explain the acute national security sensitivity of the story, the extreme ADF hostility towards the Middle Eastern asylum-seekers who came through Indonesia, all the contrived official cover-ups of fact since the sinking. It would help explain why the numbers of unauthorised boat people arrivals exploded, from 921 in 1998-99 to 4175 in 1999-2000 (DIMA Fact Sheet 73 “People Smuggling”, revised Oct 2002 (pdf 24 KB)).

It would help explain the high-level Indonesian protection of Quassey, the obsessive Australian police pursuit and sentencing of some “people smugglers”, and much more.

Most dramatically, such a view is now retrospectively supported by remarkably explicit Indonesian Government warnings to Australia earlier this year, that people smuggling of Middle Eastern asylum-seekers from Indonesia to Australia which ended in 2002 with the help of the Indonesian authorities might resume if Australia were to go on accepting West Papuan boat people as refugees. I understand statements by President Yudhoyono and Foreign Minister Wirayuda to be clear warnings.

Is this latest twist in the SIEV X story provable? Not yet. Probably now it will take deathbed confessions, sworn notarised statements by men or women of conscience who are in the know. But it makes some sense in explaining the political context for an otherwise inexplicably cruel and ruthlessly covered-up event.

If the people on SIEV X were a helpless human cargo, innocent collateral damage in a secret war between two neighbouring countries’ intelligence and special operations agents, this still does not explain how their boat was allowed to sail for over 30 hours out into the perilous open sea where it predictably sank and hundreds died without help from any quarter. My original questions remain unanswered. One day they will be answered."

Yes, they will Tony, and thanks for helping us to remember SIEV X.

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