Twisting tale of dog that didn't bark
Canberra Times
Monday, 25 March 2002

THE sinking 80km south of Java of an unnamed asylum-seeker vessel bound for Christmas Island let's call it SIEV-X for convenience about 2pm on Friday, October 19, became world news on Tuesday, October 23.

The 44 survivors (from a passenger load of 397) had been picked up by an Indonesian fishing boat on Saturday, October 20, and returned to Java. According to one survivor's account, Indonesian fishermen had seen floating luggage in the water and had gone out on Saturday to search an area beyond where they usually fish (would luggage have drifted so far so quickly?). The survivors, clinging to wreckage, were rescued after 22 hours.

United Nations officials in Indonesia were reported to have learned of the tragedy three days later, on Tuesday.

Many of the (mostly Iraqi) passengers were women and children. Of about 150 children said to have been on board, only four survived. Many of those who drowned had family members already in Australia, being held in detention centres or on Temporary Protection Visas that did not allow them to apply to bring families to Australia.

SIEV-X was a 19m wooden fishing boat, not designed to carry more than the weight of 100 people, although boats of similar size and type have made it to Australian waters in the past with up to 230 people on board.

When this boat left Bandar Lampung, South Sumatra, with a reported 431 passengers on board, its overload was of the order of 1.5 metric tonnes (331 excess passengers at, say, 50kg average weight per passenger).

According to stories on October 24 and 25 by the Australian's Jakarta correspondent, Don Greenlees, SIEV-X set off in the early hours of Thursday, October 18. Before its departure, passengers were being forced at gunpoint by Indonesian security personnel to remain on board the dangerously overloaded vessel.

According to two survivors' accounts, frightened passengers (who were being packed into the deck and holds like sardines) were told that this was only a transit vessel and that they would be transferred to a larger ship for the main voyage to Australia.

Greenlees reports that 10 passengers paid bribes of $US400 ($A800) and were allowed to get off the vessel before it embarked. He also reports that, "almost from the start of the voyage, passengers were forced to bail water flowing in though a large crack in the hull". Another 24 got off at their request at an island in the Sunda Strait, where the boat stopped on Thursday night.

Despite their fears about the boat's condition, 397 people decided to continue their voyage to Christmas Island on the Friday morning. So desperate were they to reach Australia, that they put their faith in God despite the obvious dangers.

Once the boat reached the open sea south of the Sunda Strait on Friday morning, in what survivors' accounts do not suggest were particularly heavy seas, one of its two engines failed (whether from an engine fault or running out of fuel is not clear).

The helpless boat started to wallow in the swell. With a 1.5 tonne passenger overload, it simply rocked more and more strongly, taking more and more water, until it capsized within minutes. Strangely, survivors report that the boat very quickly broke up in the water. It carried only 70 life-vests.

It was reported that an Egyptian people smuggler named Abu Quessai was held responsible for organising the doomed voyage. However, although he was subsequently located and temporarily arrested, no manslaughter charges were laid against him.

There are disquieting elements in all this. There seems no business logic in a people smuggler wishing to remain in business (with reportedly between 1200 and 2500 more people waiting to pay for passages from Indonesia to Australia), deliberately sending more than 400 people at gunpoint to their likely deaths in a grossly overloaded and unseaworthy probably sabotaged boat, that was clearly most unlikely to make it to Christmas Island.

Certainly, people smugglers have had a dismal record of overloading boats, but not (until now) to the point where they were almost certain to sink. Nor have such boats in the past put to sea with a long crack in the hull. Nor would people smugglers employ armed Indonesian security personnel to force frightened people to stay on a grossly overloaded boat at gunpoint, or to lie to people that they were on a local transit boat.

This sinister combination of circumstances surrounding the departure of SIEV-X suggests a more persuasive hypothesis: that forces in Indonesia stronger than Quessai had commandeered his enterprise. Who did these armed Indonesian security personnel work for? What Indonesian agency might have had capacity and motivation to carry out such an action? Certainly, there is no shortage of possibilities in Indonesia.

It seems that the departure of SIEV-X from Indonesia was known to Australian authorities. According to Greenlees's October 24 report: "Australian authorities had been monitoring the departure of the boat people from Indonesia. Unaware of the tragedy at sea on Saturday, search and rescue officials in Australia issued an overdue notice on Monday morning (October 22)."

Here is another discrepancy. An Australian reporter, Vanessa Walker, checked out a survivor's hard-to-believe account that, during his hours in the water, he had seen a large boat that shone floodlights on the water, but did not try to help, and that the fishermen who later rescued him told him that it was probably an Australian border patrol boat.

According to Walker (Australian, December 21): "A spokesman for the Defence Department said that the closest ship was HMAS Arunta, which was 230 nautical miles south of the spot." (That is, the Arunta was 425km south; one nautical mile equals 1.852km.)

Christmas Island is about 400km south of Java. So, if SIEV-X sank 80km south of Java, this would locate the Arunta slightly south of Christmas Island at the time of the sinking well south of Australia's declared maritime exclusion boundary.

There is something disturbing here. Let's assume that this distraught survivor had hallucinated. It should be easy to establish through Royal Australian Navy ships' logs that this story is unfounded.

But like Sherlock Holmes's dog that did not bark why was the nearest Australian naval ship so far south when SIEV-X sank on Friday? Remember, Australian authorities had monitored the departure of this boat from Indonesia: which was in the early hours of Thursday, at least 30 hours before the sinking.

The Arunta would have had time to intercept SIEV-X, had it been instructed to do so; Australian authorities knew SIEV-X was on its way to Australia. Why wasn't an order to intercept issued to the navy?

HMAS Adelaide's interception of SIEV-4 on September 8-10 (the scene of the false "children-overboard" allegations) was the first real test of tough, new navy rules of engagement announced on September 2. These rules were a key part of the border protection package of deterrent measures brought in after the Tampa affair.

While the detail of these rules of engagement is still secret, their broad elements were publicly outlined by ministers and spokesmen on September 2-3. Megan Saunders (Australian, September 3) reported that the Howard Government was deploying an extra five naval vessels and four P-3 Orion aircraft to patrol international waters as close as 30 nautical miles off Java.

Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock was reported as saying that the effort had shifted closer to Indonesia, to push people-smugglers to turn back once they were intercepted. "We intend to ensure every boat is approached," he said. "When they are still very close to home, they might be more willing to turn back."

The deployment of such extra resources was intended to act as a strong psychological deterrent for people- smugglers. Ruddock said, "To see a frigate bearing down on you and suggesting that maybe you might like to turn around does have a certain deterrent effect."

Prime Minister John Howard said (Brendan Nicholson, Age, September 2) that the move would give "saturation surveillance" in the area between the two countries, but nothing further should be inferred; "We don't, in this nation, sink boats." Howard added, "Don't think for a moment that we're talking about acts of belligerence. But we're certainly talking about acts which are designed to deter and encourage deterrence and also to enhance the fact that we are quite properly endeavouring to discourage people from setting out in the first place."

The stated intention of the new, robust rules of engagement and the enhanced surveillance and interception resources was to deter SIEVs from entering Australian waters. No longer would SIEVs be met and routinely escorted back to Australia for processing of asylum claims.

HMAS Adelaide personnel boarded the unauthorised entry vessel SIEV-4 at 4.45am on October 7, after a 45-minute firing program involving four rounds of cannon fire, 23 rounds of machinegun fire and a close-quarters blocking manoeuvre that forced SIEV-4 to stop. Throughout the day, the Adelaide tried to force the boat to return to Indonesia. It was already anticipated in Canberra that SIEV-4 might disable and even scuttle itself.

The Adelaide's interception of SIEV-4 at the boundary of Australia's newly declared exclusion zone was efficient and frightening, as it was intended to be. But what is important here is that the interception failed to turn SIEV-4 back to Indonesia. The passengers staked their lives on a belief, proven to be true, that a compassionate and law-abiding Adelaide crew would not steam away from a distress signal from a disabled or sinking vessel, leaving its passengers to drown.

The much-vaunted new, robust rules of engagement were thus exposed to be basically a bluff, which was called as a result of the basic decency of the Australian navy and its honouring of its rescue-at-sea obligations.

This was the outcome most dreaded by senior officials in Canberra. A Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet minute of an interdepartmental meeting on October 7 last year, "Options for handling unauthorised arrivals: Christmas Island boat" (a whited-out version of which was tabled in Parliament on February 19, said: "A strong signal that the people smugglers have succeeded in transporting a group to the mainland (Australia) could have disastrous consequences. There are in the order of 2500 PUA's (potential unauthorised arrivals) in the pipeline in Indonesia awaiting transport, therefore this should be avoided at all costs."

When SIEV-4 sank on October 8 and its passengers were taken on board the Adelaide, there would have been a great fear in Canberra that more and more boats would soon be coming towards Australia. Since the Howard Government had made strong border protection the central plank of its re-election campaign, the failure of the policy could have had decisive consequences.

The sinking of SIEV-X on October 19 saved Australia's faltering border protection regime. The effect was dramatic and almost immediate: asylum-seeker voyages stopped (the last boat to arrive was at Ashmore Reef on October 25). No more boats have set out from Indonesia since then (although the cyclone season did not begin until December). A previously uncooperative Indonesian Government, shocked by the tragedy in its adjacent waters, quickly agreed to co-host with Australia a people-smuggling conference (in Bali).

Australian Government ministers now express confidence that they have broken the back of the boat-people problem. According to Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, the Bali conference sent a "strong signal" to people-smugglers and few, if any, boats are likely to come from now on.

But it would seem from the record that the real powerful signal came much sooner: probably, the sinking of SIEV-X on October 19 was the real circuit-breaker that broke the people-smuggling trade.

News of the tragedy would have spread quickly around refugee communities and would have warned both people smugglers (mostly small Middle Eastern businessmen precariously surviving on the fringes of Indonesian society) and their passengers that stronger forces were now ready to commandeer their business operations in Indonesia and perhaps send people to their deaths.

To complete the mystery, recall the role and capabilities of Australian intelligence assets involved in the people-smuggling industry in Indonesia. Thanks to recent Nine Network Sunday special programs on Kevin John Ennis on February 17 and 24, we now know more about this than we did last October.

Self-confessed Australian people smuggler and police informant Ennis claimed on the Sunday programs and later in the Press (for example, Lindsay Murdoch, Sydney Morning Herald, March 4) that it was his job "to know everything that was happening in people smuggling: when the boats were going, who arranged them, who was on them".

Such claims were largely confirmed by Australian Federal Police Commissioner Michael Keelty in a Senate estimates committee hearing on February 19. Without putting a number on it, Keelty intimated that the AFP had other undercover intelligence assets like Ennis at the heart of the people-smuggling business in Indonesia.

This is reasonable. With a huge area of ocean to monitor with limited resources, Australia needs to know as much as possible about what boats are coming, when and from where, and where they are heading. The pursuit of such intelligence would presumably involve cooperation with Indonesian police and perhaps other Indonesian agencies as well.

Ennis's and Keelty's revelations provide a solid underpinning for Greenlees's report on October 24 that Australian authorities had monitored the departure of SIEV-X from Indonesia on October 18.

But they raise a further disturbing question: if Australian authorities knew about the time and place of SIEV-X's departure, how much more might they also have known about the sinister circumstances of its departure?

Something is not right here. Like the dog that did not bark why wasn't an Australian navy ship steaming to intercept the suspected illegal entry vessel that was known to have left the day before, bound for Christmas Island, with some 400 people on board?

A good way to begin exploring these larger question might be to interrogate some specific questions within Australian official competence such as:

What information was conveyed to Australian search and rescue officials about the departure of SIEV-X? From where was it sourced? Which person or agency conveyed it? When was it conveyed?

Was the Australian navy informed of this impending SIEV arrival? If so, when and by whom? If not, why not?

When were relevant ministers informed on these important matters? When were their senior ministerial advisers informed about them? When was the interdepartmental committee on "options for handling unauthorised arrivals", chaired by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, so informed?


Back to