A certain maritime incident

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A Certain Maritime Incident. The Sinking of the SIEV X, by Tony Kevin, Scribe Publications, Melbourne

Jenny Haines

Like David Marr and Marian Wilkinson in Dark Victory, Tony Kevin has done a masterful job in documenting the facts, as they are known, about the sinking of the SIEV X, a small vessel that left Canti Bay near Bandar Lumpung, Indonesia, on October 18, 2001, with 421 passengers on board.

On October 19 at 3pm the boat capsised and sank after the engine and pumps failed. There is debate to this day about where exactly the boat sank. Was it in Indonesian waters or waters for which Australia holds responsibility for rescue at sea?

Tony Kevin identifies the point of sinking as 50 to 60 miles south of the Sunda Strait, well inside the zone for search and rescue by Australian maritime authorities. In the early evening of October 19, survivors in the water recall seeing two or three police-type boats, which approached the survivors and shone searchlights on them, but did not pick up any, despite their appeals for help.

Those who survived were finally rescued by an Indonesian fishing vessel on the morning of October 20, and transferred at sea to another fishing vessel before being taken taken to Jakarta. Of the people on board, 353 drowned.

The story of the sinking of the SIEV X broke on CNN and ABC news on the evening of the October 22 and the morning of October 23.

All of these events happened just after the September 11, 2001 and in the lead up to the 2001 Australian federal election.

In the election campaign, John Howard played the race card, tapping into primal fears in the psyche of many Australians about people in boats coming from the north.

The Australian Federal Police had set up a people smuggling disruption program in Indonesia. How much did the AFP know about the Abu Quassey, the people smuggler who arranged for the sailing of the SIEV X? How much did the AFP know about the sailling of the SIEV X?

AFP Commissioner Mick Keelty gave very limited answers to the Senate Inquiry into a Certain Maritime Incident. How much did the Australian Security Intelligence Service, the Defence Signals Directorate, the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, the People Smuggling Taskforce headed by Jane Halton, the Department of Immigration and Cultural Affairs, the Department of Defence, the Department of Foreign Affairs, the Department of Transport, the defence mandarins, Coastwatch and many other relevant Commonwealth agencies know about the sailing and sinking of the SIEV X, and when did they know it?

Tony Kevin, in painstaking detail, examines the evidence and statements of the various agencies and their representatives, and draws out the contradictions and absurdities in the various responses.

Marr and Wilkinson say in Dark Victory: “Australia did not kill those drowned on the SIEV X but their deaths can’t be left out of the reckoning entirely.” Tony Kevin says there are two possibilities — one is that the people smuggling disruption program got out of the AFP’s control and things happened that the AFP did not approve of; or that the AFP or another agency was exempted from letting other authorities know about its people smuggling dispruption program.

We may never know the answer to this and many other questions about these events, and we will certainly never have the chance to know until there is a judicial inquiry into what happened. The Howard Government has consistently refused to set up a judicial enquiry.

Even the limited Senate inquiry was too much for the Howard Government. Labor Senators John Faulkner, Peter Cook and Jacinta Collins did their best during and after the inquiry as did minor party representatives.

Many Australians have not forgotten the incident. On October 26, 2004, Sydney’s Pitt Street Uniting Church was full of people attending a third anniversary commemoration of the sinking of the SIEV X. Steve Biddulph and others had set up an artistic display of responses from schoolchildren after hearing the story of the SIEV X.

Biddulph and others are planning to erect a memorial to the SIEV X on the shores of Canberra’s Lake Burley Griffin in 2005.

Marg Hutton has put together a wealth of information about the SIEV X and photos of the children who drowned. The most heartbreaking stories of the survivors in the book come from parents who watched or felt their children drift away from them, never to be seen again.

Tony Kevin has the perfect background to write this book, being a former ambassador to Poland and Cambodia. In his working life he wrote this sort of analysis of governments and their actions and motives. He is currently an honorary visiting fellow at the ANU Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies. He has done a great service in writing this book, which will be studied by many now and in the future, not only for an understanding of the SIEV X incident, but for an insight into what happened to Australia under the Howard Government.

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