Boat people story a lie: ex-diplomat

Canberra Times
Friday, 10 May 2002

The Howard Government was misleading the public about the location where 353 asylum-seekers drowned in October last year so it could deflect blame for the tragedy, former diplomat Tony Kevin suggested last night.

Original reports placed the sinking 80km from land, well into the Indian Ocean in international waters and at the edge of Australia's aerial surveillance for the naval blockade.

But Defence Minister Robert Hill said in March that all indications were the boat sank in the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra.

Mr Kevin said a Sunda Strait location made it easier for the Government to wash its hands of the affair.

"Why is Defence Minister Robert Hill now claiming it sank in the Sunda Strait - when all public evidence indicates it sank in international waters, 50km south of Java on its way to Christmas Island?" he asked.

"A false claim that it sank in Sunda Strait could strengthen the impression that this was an Indonesian tragedy and that Australia could not have done anything to help."

Mr Kevin has urged the children-overboard inquiry to investigate the sinking, suggesting the Government may have turned a blind eye to the grossly overloaded boat in the knowledge that such a loss of life would be a powerful deterrent.

He spoke last night at a Refugee Action Committee forum, insisting he was no conspiracy theorist, but simply "a retired old fart with some analytical skills from my previous profession - foreign affairs - and some ability to smell a rat".

The inquiry was told that Coastwatch did receive an intelligence report that the boat had left Indonesia on October 18 or 19 (the 18th, as it transpired; it sank on the 19th) and on October 22 had alerted the Maritime Safety Authority that it was overdue.

Mr Kevin wanted to know why a boat that would normally carry 100 was packed with more than 400 asylum-seekers, who were loaded at gunpoint despite their reservations about the boat.

He wanted to know why the well-established system for detecting and intercepting boats from Indonesia did not work, and why HMAS Arunta, said to have been about 150 nautical miles from the sinking, was not sent to the rescue.

The 44 survivors spent 40 hours in the water.

Mr Kevin said a Sunda Strait sinking did not make sense.

The strait was only 80km wide and a busy fishing area and it was unlikely survivors would have gone unnoticed there.

The timing of the voyage fitted with a location 50km off Java towards Christmas Island, given the boat was reported to have left Bandar Lampung early on October 18, sailed all day and stayed overnight on an island in the Sunda Strait before setting out early on October 19 and foundering about 2pm.

The only feasible island for the overnight stop was Panaitan, 13 hours' sailing from Bandar Lampung.

The next day the boat would have covered about 75km before sinking, fitting reports that it was 80km into the journey and situating it 50km off the western tip of Java.

That location would match the assumed location of Arunta, and fit with reports it took two days to get the survivors back to Jakarta.

Mr Kevin said he suspected the Navy had more reliable information about where the boat sank and it should be made public. "I believe that these 353 people died because somebody wanted to send a strong political message that people smuggling had to stop," he said. "I don't know who that person or persons might be."

Senator Hill said data available to the Commonwealth suggested the boat had been in the Sunda Strait and the accusation the Navy did not respond to a vessel in distress was based on hearsay.


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