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SIEVX victims deserve royal commission

October 19, 2009

The Age : Tragic legacy of SIEVX’s fatal sinking
STEVE BIDDULPH, 19 October, 2009

As the asylum seeker issue flares up yet again, we mark the eighth anniversary of the SIEVX tragedy — when about 146 children, 142 women and 65 men died after a fishing boat carrying asylum seekers sank on the way to Australia. This anniversary should be a wake-up call to Australia of the danger of politicising the plight of families fleeing for their lives.

That Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is working openly and honestly with Indonesia, and the electorate no longer panics at the idea of a few hundred boat people finding their way here, is a mark of some progress. But SIEVX remains an unsolved crime, and much needs to be done to heal its legacy. More

Steve Biddulph is a psychologist who helped create the SIEVX Memorial in Canberra.

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  1. Australians for Tamil Justice permalink*
    October 19, 2009 12:21 pm

    The Age : Tragic legacy of SIEVX’s fatal sinking
    STEVE BIDDULPH, 19 October, 2009

    As the asylum seeker issue flares up yet again, we mark the eighth anniversary of the SIEVX tragedy — when about 146 children, 142 women and 65 men died after a fishing boat carrying asylum seekers sank on the way to Australia. This anniversary should be a wake-up call to Australia of the danger of politicising the plight of families fleeing for their lives.

    That Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is working openly and honestly with Indonesia, and the electorate no longer panics at the idea of a few hundred boat people finding their way here, is a mark of some progress. But SIEVX remains an unsolved crime, and much needs to be done to heal its legacy.

    SIEVX was the Titanic of refugee boats, with more than 400 mostly women and children crammed into its 19-metre length. Within 36 hours of its departure from Indonesia, most of those people were dead. While working to create the memorial, which now stands on the lakeshore in Canberra, I gained alarming insights into the voyage. Plainly told, SIEVX was no accident.

    The first signs for concern were the accounts of survivors. All were interviewed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees; they told of the close involvement of the Indonesian military in the boarding and organising of the voyage. More alarmingly still, they testified that as more than 100 people clung to wreckage in the stormy water after surviving the initial sinking, two military vessels appeared, shining lights on the water, and setting down a zodiac tender, which carried out some unknown task.

    People assumed they were to be rescued, many swam towards the searchlights, but the vessels restarted their engines and sailed away.

    HMAS Arunta, Australia’s only ship in the region, stood four hours away. There is little doubt that the vessels that visited the sinking site were Indonesian, an Indonesian patrol boat had sped past the SIEVX the day before, and an aircraft circled the boat and then returned landwards during the late afternoon.

    The findings by Labor senator John Faulkner, now Defence Minister but then an opposition senator investigating “a certain maritime incident” were alarming. Faulkner, whose integrity is acknowledged by all parties, managed to include SIEVX in the ambit of the inquiries, and made his famous “licence to kill” speech in which he clearly implicated Australia’s intelligence services in the tragedy. (A royal commission into the tragedy was Labor policy in the 2004 election campaign).

    The most plausible explanation of Australia’s role was that in carrying out the 2001 People Smuggling Disruption Program, activities instigated by the Australian Federal Police spun out of control, that Indonesian police or military played both ends of the game, setting up refugee voyages, but also, with our encouragement, sabotaging them.

    Clearly, the SIEVX tragedy sent a shockwave through the Middle East and for a long while there were no more boats carrying asylum seekers.

    But why did those military vessels attend the site of the sinking? And how did they locate it? The Balibo inquest last year revealed a sickening level of collusion between Australian politicians and the Indonesian military over 30 years. It also revealed that very little happens in Indonesia that is not listened to intently from the Shoal Bay listening station near Darwin. If SIEVX carried a tracking device — and how else could the wreckage have been found in the stormy darkness in hundreds of square miles of ocean — then we need to know who supplied that. If it was tracked by Indonesia, then it would have also been tracked in Australia.

    If Australian operatives acting for the government of the time were complicit in this — paying funds to the Indonesians, knowing about but deliberately failing to rescue the desperate people in the water — then we stand condemned for a crime against humanity.

    We need to remember those who died on the SIEVX, and we need to bring this lesson to the present debate. Asylum seekers arriving by boat are not a threat to Australia: their numbers are insignificant, they are not illegal, and they usually make Australia a better place. SIEVX survivors are living among us now, and are worthwhile and useful citizens. They deserve a royal commission into whether it was our country that caused their terrible loss.

    Steve Biddulph is a psychologist who helped create the SIEVX Memorial in Canberra.

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