Group proposes Siev-X memorial

The World Today
Friday, 2 September 2005 12:43:00
Reporter: Tim Jeanes

PETER CAVE: The sinking of a dilapidated Indonesian fishing vessel during the 2001 Federal Election Campaign cost the lives of 353 people, most of them women and children.

Codenamed the Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel - X, or SIEV-X for short, its sinking brought criticism of both Indonesia and Australia for allowing the tragedy to happen.

Now a group including artists and writers is pushing for a permanent memorial for those who died to prick the conscience of Australians and to ensure that a certain maritime incident will not easily be forgotten.

The proposal is to put the memorial on the shores of Canberra's Lake Burley Griffin, an idea that some say is inappropriate.

Tim Jeanes reports.

TIM JEANES: Tasmanian visual artist, Beth Gibbings, is among a small group of islanders and mainlanders who want the nation to permanently remember those who died on the Siev-X.

BETH GIBBINGS: It's one of the largest maritime peacetime disasters in our time, but in many senses there's a lot of people in Australia who don't necessarily know how to come to terms with the Siev-X. It doesn't fit into our normal idea, we're used to the idea of, you know, the fallen soldier, and we may not yet know how to deal with refugees, how do we remember those people who drowned coming here? And maybe there is some discomfort with that still.

TIM JEANES: The Siev-X National Memorial Project uses the artwork of schoolchildren from around Australia, with Beth Gibbings saying the response from a travelling exhibition has often been overwhelming.

BETH GIBBINGS: It's incredibly emotional. We've found that when people come to the exhibition, that they stay for hours, they just read every word, it's very symbolic, you know, the students have really responded to the event and put their hearts out on paper, you know, paintings and sculpture that came from some primary school students in Adelaide had a mirror of Australia, and it was sort of saying, look reflect on what it would be like if it was you who were a refugee.

TIM JEANES: The travelling exhibition is supported by groups including Rural Australians for Refugees and the Uniting Church, and will next month move to Canberra.

There, the coordinators plan to make it a permanent exhibition on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin.

That hasn't impressed the former RSL National President, Major-General Peter Phillips.

He says the exhibition is likely to attract strong opposition from groups such as the RSL.

PETER PHILLIPS: It certainly shouldn't rank alongside the memorials that are already around Lake Burley Griffin, it would be totally out of place for what is essentially Australian memorials.

The Siev-X was a great tragedy, but involved foreign nationals in a foreign country. To think that that would be put alongside the HMAS Canberra, for example, memorial, and the other memorials that are there I just think are inappropriate.

PETER PHILLIPS: So what criteria will need to be met if the exhibition is to become permanent? Anna Jackson is from the National Capital Authority, which helps oversee such decisions.

ANNA JACKSON: Some of the criteria includes things like the monument must have cultural significance to the nation, and it needs to exemplify Australia's unique heritage and background.

It then goes to the bipartisan committee of federal parliamentarians chaired by the Prime Minister.

TIM JEANES: Beth Gibbings says the memorial does meet requirements of being important to Australia's heritage.

BETH GIBBINGS: You know, these people, they were reaching out for the Australian dream. One of the survivors was talking about the children and the dreams they had of coming to Australia and what sort of life they would have. She was encouraging them to have big dreams, and she watched those children drown around her, and that's the story of Australians all over, is yes we have our dreams for being here in this country and they had theirs but they didn't get here.

PETER CAVE: Tasmanian visual artist Beth Gibbings, from the Siev-X National Memorial Project, ending that report from Tim Jeanes.


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