Lost at sea
Sydney Morning Herald
5 April 2003
The flak the Howard Government has copped over the Tampa affair is nothing compared to the hiding it should be taking for the deaths of 353 asylum seekers on another doomed boat, argues Tony Kevin.
Within its own terms of reference, the recently published Dark Victory, by David Marr and Marian Wilkinson, is an excellent and timely book. It focuses on two key events in September and October 2001: MV Tampa's brave rescue of 438 asylum seekers from the Palapa, and HMAS Adelaide's dramatic encounter with SIEV4 (Olong). It tells the story, in a way that will, it is hoped, reach a large general readership, of how the Howard Government lied and misled its way to re-election in 2001, using harsh border protection policies as its main vehicle. It tells of cruelties and indignities visited by our defence forces on defenceless asylum seekers, under government orders that ran counter to the force's own ethical and legal obligations. I hope the book will be widely read and discussed.
Yet it has a major flaw. It marginalises, and relegates to a "case unproven" category, what to me is the pivotal event of this period - the sinking on October 19, 2001, of SIEVX ("suspected illegal entry vessel, unknown"), which was on its way from Java to Christmas Island. I coined the name for this boat in March 2002 and it has stuck. The Australian Federal Police know the real name of SIEVX but are still concealing this - along with much else, including the names of the passengers, and the ownership and home port of the boat.
When SIEVX capsized after its engines failed in international waters, and well inside Australia's border protection operational zone, 353 people drowned, including 142 women and 146 children. Many of their grieving relatives, and a few of the 44 survivors, live (in a provisional sense - most are sweating on temporary protection visas) in Australia. The urgent question I have asked for this past year is: did the Australian Government contribute to the deaths of those 353 people?
Abu Quassey, the Egyptian people smuggler who sold the tickets and delivered the passengers to the boat, is in Indonesian immigration detention. He has not been charged over the sinking of SIEVX. Nor have the Indonesian police, who were widely reported to have shepherded - in large numbers and at high levels of seniority - his five-bus convoy 300 kilometres across three Indonesian provinces, from Bogor to Bandar Lampung in Sumatra. They were also said to have used armed force to coerce 421 terrified people onto this 19.5-metre wooden boat.
The boat had recently been fitted with a makeshift chipboard upper deck - the only way so many people could have been crammed aboard. We only learned this key fact from a cable sent from the Australian Embassy in Jakarta on October 23, four days after the boat sank. That information, and much more from that crucial cable, was released to the Senate in February this year.
Knowledge of the cable and what it reported had been withheld from the Senate's "children overboard" investigative committee throughout last year. That led the chairman of the committee, Peter Cook, to query in the Senate, on February 5 this year, whether the committee's final report, from last October, might be in question, given that the evidence of some official witnesses was not entirely consistent with the terms of the cable to which they had had access.
Since the middle of last year, Senator John Faulkner has been painstakingly interrogating the Australian Federal Police about their semi-clandestine program to disrupt people smuggling in Indonesia. The program involved using dubious local "sting agents", such as Kevin Enniss, as informants. The program also recruited, trained, equipped, and paid five special people-smuggling disruption teams within the Indonesian police force. The police commissioner, Mick Keelty, admitted to senators that what these Indonesian police teams did to disrupt people smuggling was essentially out of the AFP's control. They could, for example, have sabotaged boat engines without the AFP's agreement.
Faulkner questioned whether Australian police had supplied tracking devices to Indonesian police, to be placed on smuggling boats. Keelty declined to answer, claiming public interest immunity.
Such a tracking device would be the most plausible explanation for how Indonesian military-type boats (as reported by survivors) were able to find the wreckage of SIEVX, 80 to 130kilometres out to sea, the night after the sinking, and to show fishing boats where to pick up the 44 survivors the next morning. The mystery boats shone searchlights but made no attempt to rescue survivors.
There is a great deal of such "inductive" evidence of connections between sabotage and the disruption program. Much of it has been gathered by a small group of concerned activists during the past year, and brought to the Senate's attention. The most probable conclusion to be drawn from this body of inductive evidence is that SIEVX was deliberately overloaded to sink - in other words, sabotaged - as a deterrent against people smuggling; and that Australian Government agencies had some degree of knowledge, and perhaps even complicity, in this covert operation, which they continue to conceal.
Why, for example, was the Pied Piper from hell, Quassey, generously offering free places on SIEVX to children from his previous failed voyages, and discounted travel to their mothers, if not to bulk out the passenger list to the desired sinking overload? Why did SIEVX leave from Bandar Lampung at the north end of the Sunda Strait - from where it had to sail an extra day through Indonesian strait waters, in which it might have been expected to sink "safely" - well short of entering the Australian Operation Relex military interception zone, starting 38 kilometres south of Indonesia? Why the apparently studious and repeated dissembling from many official Senate witnesses about where SIEVX left from and where it sank? (As we now know from the Jakarta cable, relevant senior officials from John Howard down knew that the boat sank in international waters up to 130 kilometres south of Indonesia - yet so many ministers and senior officials continue to lie and obfuscate about this.) The Australian Senate took the dark possibilities of deception sufficiently seriously to pass a motion on December 10 last year, calling for an independent judicial inquiry with the power to compel official testimony and to punish false testimony. The Howard Government has effectively ignored this motion.
The Australian Government - called on by a companion Senate motion on December 11 to make serious efforts to bring Quassey to justice for his role in the doomed SIEVX voyage - has made only half-hearted and ineffectual efforts to do so. I have alleged that Australian law enforcement authorities do not really want Quassey to be deported to Australia, because they fear what he might say in an Australian court about his police accomplices: the trail might lead back to the Australian disruption program.
In Dark Victory, Marr and Wilkinson barely dabble their toes in these murky waters. SIEVX and the disruption program amount to maybe 6 per cent of the text. The SIEVX chapter is mostly descriptive. There is no effort to analyse the disruption evidence, and there is a remarkable lack of curiosity about how the voyage took place. The Ruddock stereotype, of greedy and cruel people smugglers overloading boats for profit, is taken as read.
The authors conclude, without any discussion: "Australia did not kill those who drowned on SIEVX but their deaths can't be left out of the reckoning entirely." Obviously, Marr and Wilkinson think they know much more about all of this than the Senate committee.
This is curious because scattered haphazardly through the pages of Dark Victory are important pieces of new information that support my sabotage and disruption theory. In June 2001, Philip Ruddock was rumoured to have jokingly raised the issue of sabotage with officers from the Australian Embassy in Jakarta. We read that "at AFP direction, the Indonesian police attached tracking devices to many of the boats before they set out for Australia" - a similar question to the one that Keelty and his minister, Chris Ellison, steadfastly refused to answer in the Senate hearing on grounds of public interest immunity. There is the reported decision in August 2001 that the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) should run a disruption operation against people smugglers in Indonesia. And we read that
"the Abu Quassey boat was also a target of ASIS".
So, not only do Marr and Wilkinson sail past my own body of inductive evidence that suggests the most likely explanation for the sinking of SIEVX is sabotage under a disruption action - they also sail past their own important additional evidence for this.
Basically, Dark Victory is not very interested in exploring this side of the story, because its target is to expose the improper pressures under which the Australian Government put the ADF, in driving the "Pacific solution" and Operation Relex.
Marr may be having some belated second thoughts on SIEVX. In his speech to the National Press Club on March 18, to spruik Dark Victory, he said (my notes): "At the time, we were carrying out covert operations in Indonesia. It is one of our most important national tasks now to determine: what were we doing up there - that led to the Indonesian Government suspending the inter-governmental memorandum of understanding under which these operations were taking place? What were we doing to the boats? What were we doing to the people smugglers?"
For all its merits, Dark Victory does not begin to offer a serious analysis of, much less any basis for drawing conclusions on, the mysterious tragedy of SIEVX. It would be sad if Marr and Wilkinson's unsubstantiated and premature conclusion - that there is no credible evidence for sabotage of SIEVX - were to be used by those who are trying to block a full judicial investigation of this great Australian maritime tragedy to bolster their assertion that the SIEVX case can now be closed.
The real SIEVX story remains to be told, let the chips fall where they may. And I will continue to work to that end.
Tony Kevin is a visiting fellow in the school of Pacific and Asian studies at the ANU, Canberra.