Sixth Anniversary of a Tragedy


Six years ago today, at the height of John Howard’s successful 2001 re-election campaign, an overloaded unseaworthy asylum-seeker boat which – later named SIEV X (‘suspected illegal entry vessel, unknown’) sank en route from Indonesia to Christmas Island, drowning 353 people mostly women and children. There were just 45 survivors.

Few people remember much about this tragedy today, yet it continues to lurk at the periphery of Australian political consciousness. As well it should.

It is an interesting irony that, as John Howard launches his last election battle, a National SIEV X Memorial now stands in Canberra’s Weston Park a dignified array of 353 hand-painted timber poles, each commemorating a victim of the SIEV X sinking. Where names are known, through independent research drawing on journalists’ accounts and talking to survivors and families, they are inscribed on the poles. Where names are not publicly known (the Australian Federal Police [AFP] admit they have lists of most of the names, but are not prepared to make these names public for reasons hard to understand), the poles are left unnamed.

Each pole was donated, painted and transported to Canberra by an Australian church or school-based community organisation. Each pole represents compassion, love and acceptance of the stranger Australian values that were in little evidence in Australia during the 2001 election campaign, which plumbed a low point of xenophobia as the two Party leaders competed to see who could be tougher on ‘border security.’

Fortunately, more compassionate values are coming back into view now, as seen in this wonderful people’s memorial.

Mourning the victims of the SIEV-X

When the news of the SIEV X sinking became public, three days after it sank, John Howard said that the boat sank in Indonesian waters, and that it was not Australia’s responsibility. After searching Senate Committee investigations in 2002-2003, spearheaded by Labor Senator John Faulkner, both claims were subsequently found to be untrue or, at best, seriously misleading.

First, there is strong corroborating evidence from a number of sources that the boat sank in international waters, on the high seas about 50-60 nautical miles south of Indonesia’s Sunda Strait. The sinking location can be pinpointed quite precisely from Indonesian fishing boat rescue co-ordinates and other data. Yet even now, the Australian Government continues to protect a lie, claiming that the sinking location is unknown.

The international waters where SIEV X sank were, at the time, being intensively monitored and patrolled by Australia, under the unified Australian Defence Force operation known as ‘Operation Relex.’ Strangely, all of Operation Relex’s technical means on high alert at the time apparently failed to detect this slowly moving, overloaded, wooden vessel as it sailed for six hours though the declared Operation Relex surveillance zone. And in the 19 hours that survivors were in the water, as RAAF aircraft flew routine patrols overhead, no signs of a maritime disaster were apparently detected.

SIEV X had been sailing for 33 hours from its embarkation point, a bay at the northern end of Sunda Strait, when it sank. How can it be that Australian agencies had not detected and tracked it? Yet that is what the Senate was told in 2002.

Howard’s second claim, that the sinking was in no way Australia’s responsibility is also debatable. But it is a debate that cannot be settled until Australian secret border security operational files are opened, and key witnesses questioned in a contestable independent judicial context. As things stand, there is a good deal of ‘smoking gun’ circumstantial evidence of some Australian foreknowledge of the SIEV X and its organiser, the notorious Egyptian people smuggler Abu Quassey. But there is no conclusive proof.

It was found by the Senate in 2002 that the AFP were conducting overt and covert people smuggling disruption operations in Indonesia in 2000-2001, that involved building relations with Indonesian police teams and penetrating the people smuggling industry using paid agents or informants. Labor Senators’ questions as to whether these operations might have got out of control were never answered by the AFP.

It was admitted by official witnesses that Abu Quassey and the boat we now know as SIEV X were being monitored, well before the fatal voyage began.

An impartial reading of the Senate testimony recounted in summary in my 2004 book, A Certain Maritime Incident: The Sinking of SIEV X would conclude that there are many unanswered questions about this tragedy.

There are mysterious multisource survivor accounts of grey military-type ships that came in the early evening to the disaster scene, but did not pick up survivors; and of noisy propellor aircraft that flew overhead but did not drop life rafts. From what country did these reported ships and aircraft come, if they are not figments of survivor imaginations? Secret Australian border security operational files may one day give us answers to such questions, or the event may vanish in the fog of historical amnesia.

Meanwhile, let us spare a thought today for the bereaved families of the 353 victims who drowned on 19 October 2001.

Walking through the intensely moving memorial poles at Weston Park, one gets a sense both of the huge scale of this tragedy, and of the grace, decency and vision of so many ordinary Australians who took time out of their lives to paint these poles and bring them to Canberra, to be planted here in Australian soil in loving memory.

Lest we forget.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.