"All of us who care - and there are many of us - can use our rights of free speech and free enquiry, and free debate on the internet, to keep the questions about SIEV X alive. In these ways, we can continue to do the two things that are essential - to maintain the factual memory of SIEV X, and to maintain our justified indignation at the government's attempted cover-up of those facts."- SIEVX Whistleblower Tony Kevin's speech for North Sydney Friends of Refugees, at the Hurley Hall in North Sydney.
5 August 2004: Tony Kevin's SIEV X book: A Certain Maritime Incident - With impressive courage and determination, Tony Kevin has unearthed the grim and deeply moving story he recounts in this remarkable book, an "always powerfully contested story" and one of "durable national significance" that has "crept into the hearts and consciences of many Australians" and must find its way to the hearts and consciences of many others...
19 October 2005: The SIEV X Landmark of Conscience - "When the evening ended, senators, members of the ACT assembly, officials from museums and planning authorities, and most importantly the refugees themselves, all expressed the same view. You must build it."
18 October 2005: SIEV X four years on: still drowning in spin - Like all disasters in the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers in Australia, the SIEV X affair will not finish until all questions are answered, all documents held in secret by the Howard government are released, and all those who know things they have not told the Australian people, have been subpoenaed to testify and also tell the full and unabbreviated truth about the SIEV X disaster.
20 March 2004: Tony Kevin still says: SIEV X: Lies, lies and more lies - We will keep on talking publicly about SIEV X and asking questions about it. In that way, the truth will out, new whistleblowers will come forward over time, and the guilty will finally be held to account. This is a major story that is a long way from over.
20 February 2004: The SIEV X National Memorial Project - The SIEV X National Memorial Project is an Australia-wide Young People's Art Collaboration, to design and build a memorial to the people of SIEV X, on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin in Canberra, the national capital.
2 December 2003: The Australian Labor Party and SIEV X - An open letter to Labor's new leader Mark Latham, by Tony Kevin, SIEVX whistleblower. "Do you support the series of passed Senate motions calling for a full powers independent judicial inquiry into the sinking of SIEV X ? If you become Prime Minister, will you undertake to implement this Senate demand?"
23 July 2003: John Faulkner, The Aftermath of the CMI Inquiry - "John Howard indicated that he was prepared to spend whatever money it took to deter boatpeople from arriving on the Australian mainland. But have there been other costs? What has been the cost of the Howard Government's disruption programme in Indonesia - not just the financial cost? I intend to keep asking questions until I find out. I intend to keep pressing for an independent judicial inquiry into these very serious matters."
22 May 2003: SIEV X and the DFAT cable: The conspiracy of silence - That such a large number of government officials .... were willing to co-operate in withholding the detailed, highly relevant information in the DFAT cable leaves little doubt that we are still far from the full truth concerning the sinking of SIEVX.
20 May 2003: An interview with 2003 Whistleblower of the Year Tony Kevin - Former Australian diplomat Tony Kevin is convinced the SIEV X asylum-seeker tragedy will become the Howard Government's Watergate. "...the public story was not true, it did not hang together..."
For North Sydney Friends of Refugees
North Sydney Council Chambers
26 October 2005
- by Tony Kevin
Last Wednesday, 19 October, was the 4th anniversary of the sinking of the asylum-seeker vessel SIEV X on 19 October 2001. The SIEV X (suspected illegal entry vessel, unknown) sank in international waters south of West Java that were being navy-patrolled and air-surveilled by the Australian border protection Operation Relex.
397 people were on the boat when it sank, mostly women and children. Many of them were trying to re-unite with loved ones already in Australia. 353 people drowned. Only 45 survived the sinking. Seven of them were allowed to come to Australia. They are now permanent residents. The other 38 settled in other countries of refuge eg Norway, Finland, New Zealand.
Today I will discuss some recent SIEV X evidence and other developments. Much has happened since a year ago - we can join some new "dots" in the still very incomplete SIEV X picture.
According to the Prime Minister, the SIEV X case is closed. This is how his office responded recently in writing to an enquiry about the sinking of SIEV X from a concerned group of citizens, the Tampa Anniversary Remembrance Committee. Some of what is claimed here is true. Some is not true. I have put in *asterisked red text* what I believe is not true:
First I would like to read from the introduction to a recent important book Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib and the War on Terror, by American journalist and political analyst Mark Danner:
"My hope is that readers will go beyond my account of Abu Ghraib and the general issue of torture to look at the primary documents themselves. As I write, less than five months after the photographs were first broadcast, few of the major facts about what went on in Abu Ghraib remain hidden. Thanks to investigations, but even more to the leaks that occasioned them, we know, certainly in broad outline, what happened at the prison and how what happened there derived from decisions made in Afghanistan, Guantanamo, and ultimately, Washington, D.C. This makes Abu Ghraib a peculiarly contemporary kind of scandal: like other scandals that have erupted during the Iraq War and the war on terror, it is not about revelation or disclosure but about the failure, once wrongdoing is disclosed, of politicians, officials, the press, and, ultimately citizens, to act. The scandal is not about uncovering what is hidden, it is about seeing what is already there - and acting on it. It is not about information: it is about politics."
I find important parallels here to SIEV X. First, Many Americans have already lost interest in pursuing what went wrong in the US chain of command to encourage terrible abuses of human rights at the US military prison at Abu Ghraib in Iraq. The news caravan has moved on. SIEV X also, I suggest, is not about revelation or disclosure but about the failure, once wrongdoing has been disclosed as it has, of politicians, officials, the press, and, ultimately citizens, to act. Many Australians have lost interest in further scrutiny of unexplained questions about the sinking of SIEV X.
Again: in both cases people of established public reputation - with a few brave exceptions - have been reluctant to engage in a sustained way with a public issue that is not easy to grapple with, without offending significant groups in society - in particular, the senior public service, defence and national security communities. Like the Dreyfus case in France, both cases have made professional government elites uncomfortable, because they reflect adversely on their conduct.
In both cases, the government of the day sought successfully to deflect attention and blame from its own policy and accountability failures, by finding lower-level scapegoats to punish. In the case of Abu Ghraib, trials took place of operational people who carried out acts of torture but were clearly, as Danner's public documentation shows, following general orders and informal understandings of what was required from above - almost all the way to President Bush.
In the case of SIEV X there were carefully contained trials of two men - Abu Quassey in Egypt who got 7 years for people smuggling on 4 boats and for accidentally causing death on SIEV X, and his assistant Khaleed Daoed in Australia who got nine years for people smuggling on two boats. With paroles, both men are likely to be out of jail in a very few years. No further trials are in prospect. Under double jeopardy, Quassey cannot be tried again over SIEV X or any other boat. He could not be extradited to Australia.
Unlike the Prime Minister, I do not regard these as "successful" prosecutions, and I do not think the AFP has much to be proud of in assisting them. In both cases I believe there was a desire that evidence relating to the intended sinking of SIEV X - which could have incriminated or embarrassed Australian agencies - not be addressed in court.
In both the Abu Ghraib and SIEV X cases, innocent victims suffered from life-threatening deterrence policies approved at the top. In the American prisons in Iraq, people pulled in almost at random off the street as suspects were terrorized and tortured. Most lived, often deeply damaged mentally and physically. I think SIEV X was worse. Nobody can bring back to life 146 drowned children, 142 drowned women, 65 drowned men. Nobody can rebuild those lost families. Think of the familiar tragedy of a family car crash, where some or all members of an Australian family are killed. Then multiply that 100 times or more. That was the impact of SIEV X. And these bereaved families are not even allowed by Senator Chris Ellison, Australia's Justice Minister, to know the names of the drowned, to have the final formal closure that they are gone. That, I think, is a quite refined form of psychological torture of innocent people.
Danner shows how when the Abu Ghraib leaks began, the US government spin machine skillfully rode the tiger, exhausting the media appetite for sensational horror stories which focussed on individual torturers' acts, waiting for the story to run its course and become stale, as other newer storylines took its place. My book reveals a similar story of the Australian government's skilful media management handling of our challenge to the SIEV X cover-up. They slowed down the clock until the media lost interest.
Another similarity in both cases - the pressure that is put on people from superiors in the chain of command, whether military, police, or public service, to toe the line, not to question whether authority is acting in accordance with legal and ethical obligations, to keep your thoughts to yourself if you value your career.
I believe there is incriminating knowledge within the whole-of-government Australian border protection system about the sinking of SIEV X, but that any discussion is being strongly discouraged from above. There are hints of suppression of matters of conscience coming out of other aspects of Operation Relex - the excessive force intercepts, the cruel Pacific solution and forced towbacks to Indonesia, the disregard for safety of asylum-seekers' lives at sea. Such abuses of conscience put a great strain on people of integrity - and I trust there are still many - in national security service.
I reject absolutely the claim in the Howard Office letter that in border protection operations, "safety is paramount and no individual is put at risk". I think this is an easily demonstrated lie. Any person of good faith would acknowledge this, after reading my book and Marr and Wilkinson's "Dark Victory". The evidence is that in Operation Relex, many hundreds of asylum-seekers' lives were put at risk, deliberately and repeatedly and for long periods of time, by actions of Australian government agencies under firm policy directives from Canberra, that contravened maritime law safety of life at sea obligations. The three most glaring cases of this are the failure to rescue the disabled Palapa (the boat finally rescued by MV Tampa, after its sighted calls for help had not been properly actioned by Coastwatch for 24 hours) carrying over 400 people, Olong or SIEV 4 (the "children overboard boat rescued by HMAS Adelaide, with 230 people then recklessly left on board during a dangerous 24-hour circular tow at sea), and SIEV X. That is over 1000 people whose lives were put dangerously at risk under recent Australian border protection SOLAS practice. But the ADF has drawn a veil over these abuses. The ADF is not prepared to investigate what went wrong in these cases. Not even internally, because that would be to question the system.
I turn now to the issue of voyage disruption, which as Senator John Faulkner has always rightly noted, is relevant to questions about the SIEV X history. You'll note that Howard's letter does not mention disruption: it is presumably buried in the "holistic programme" of border protection measures. Government apologists are always extremely reluctant to mention disruption by name. The media - Marr and Wilkinson excepted - are also reluctant to write about it. What we know about it comes mostly from AFP Commissioner Mick Keelty's evidence in CMI in July 2002 and supplementary answers:
There was an Australian government people smuggling disruption program in Indonesia, that officially began in 2000 but that Howard's letter hints may have operated informally a lot earlier than this - he refers to a "holistic" system of border protection since 1996. We know that a culture of covert disruption of boat people voyages has existed in DIMIA for years, going back to the Vietnamese boat people in the late 1970s. Many of their boats were covertly holed in Malaysia - safely close to shore, we were assured - by Australian Navy clearance divers and special DIMIA enforcement units, staffed by people of military or intelligence background.
Keelty notes that the people smuggling disruption program in Indonesia was run by a joint AFP-DIMIA People Smuggling Strike Team. Its purpose was to disrupt the flow of boats from Indonesia to Christmas Island and Ashmore Reef, the nearest Australian territories where asylum-seekers could legally declare their arrival in Australia and request refugee status under the UN Refugee Convention to which Australia is signatory. The objective was to prevent such boats leaving Indonesia, or to ensure they did not get very far if they did leave: in that way, the boats could be said not to have "departed".
There is more evidence of the second aim being achieved than the first. In fact I am not aware of any media reports of any voyages that were successfully disrupted before departure. According to passenger accounts, there never seemed to be any instances of problems with smugglers selling boat places and bussing people to embarkation on boats, often with police help, sometimes by armed force. So this claimed purpose of disruption, according to available public evidence, was not being achieved.
It was what happened then that was the problem: boats allegedly getting lost, stove fires, boats running out of food, failed engines, uncontrollable leaks leading to sinkings. From around 1999, refugees report that a lot of such things - far too many for coincidence - started going wrong with these voyages. I have no doubt that this was the chosen way in which a secret war of active physical deterrence against boat voyages was waged. It took a large toll of human misery on the way, in lost family savings, anxiety and terror, and disappointed hopes. It coincided with an active propaganda war from the Australian Embassy in Jakarta warning of, precisely, these kinds of risks.
Clearly the Embassy was, at the very least, well-informed on what was happening.
But who was instigating the secret disruption war? There is a good deal of evidence, primarily from Senate Hansards and from the Channel Nine Sunday investigations into Australian people smuggler Kevin Enniss, and from AFP responses, that the AFP-DIMIA People Smuggling Strike Team and its agents may have instigated it, or at very least turned a blind eye to it.
Again, the media are not keen to pursue this. But an early clue to what was going on was the AFP Association website which surprisingly said this in 2001: "The AFP needs to be sufficiently resourced to fund 'sting' operations whereby the AFP establishes small shipping companies in strategic locations known for smuggling illegal immigrants."
The covert Australian disruption program was built around one or more such strategic sting operations. They had to take control of people smuggling on two routes: the West Java - Christmas Island route and the West Timor area-Ashmore Reef route. We know that Kevin Enniss very successfully penetrated and came to dominate the latter route. Enniss became the biggest people smuggler and gatekeeper on the Ashmore Reef route. He controlled the timing and flow of boats, while giving his AFP controllers detailed intelligence on boats coming down and passenger numbers. By his own admission, he defrauded refugees of their savings and sunk boats. His intelligence product sent down by AFP and DIMIA facilitated Australian interception of boats, and made the later Operation Relex feasible. Channel Nine Sunday exposed the Enniss story.
This AFP-DIMIA disruption program, in its overt and covert aspects, must have had high-level approval in the National Security Committee of Cabinet because of its major immigration, defence, foreign policy and intelligence implications. Howard, Reith, Hill, Downer, Ruddock, must have known about it from the beginning. They would have known, but perhaps preferred not to think about too much, that innocent people would suffer, perhaps die, from such disruption-program instigated covert activities This would have been accepted as necessary collateral damage in the higher national security interest of protecting Australia's borders from peacetime illegal immigration by deterring boat "departures".
It is quite likely that the Opposition Leader's office would have been briefed on the disruption program, well before SIEV X; which to me explains Beazley's "failure of Australian policy" emotional protest after SIEV X sank. His office would have been quickly reminded that he must not breach his confidentiality obligation if he wanted to enjoy continued access to government national security briefings. We heard no more from Beazley on SIEV X after that.
Howard and Beazley supported new visa laws in 1997 and 2001 that greatly worsened the risk of women and children trying to come on increasingly dangerous voyages from Indonesia. If Australia had followed its obligations under the Refugee Convention, it would have allowed wives and children of boat people found to be refugees and given temporary protection visas, to join their menfolk in Australia. The new laws violated that obligation and forced desperate women and children into the hands of dangerous people smugglers like Abu Quassey and Kevin Enniss, who had promised to get them safely to Australian territory. There was no legal way these families could come here.
Keelty informs us that the Australian disruption program also recruited and trained five teams of Indonesian police mercenaries - 20 senior officers - to carry out disruption tasks for it. As yet we know nothing about them beyond the AFP testimony. There has been no media follow-up to this remarkable testimony by Mick Keelty in the CMI. What a story this would be, if ever it were exposed.
We still don't know what involvement if any Enniss may have had with the preparation of the unseaworthy and unsafe SIEV X. We are told by AFP that all his work was done in Eastern Indonesia. Whoever fitted the new chipboard upper deck to SIEV X would have known it would lead to an overloaded top-heavy boat that would almost certainly capsize in heavy water. The reported long crack in the hull and loose timbers would mean a quick break-up and sinking. Who commissioned this work?
We know that the organizer of the voyage, Abu Quassey, has a record which suggests that like Enniss he was, or later became, a disruption agent. Quassey - who clearly enjoyed high-level Indonesian police protection and resources before during and after SIEV X - may never have had any direct contact with the AFP -DIMIA disruption program. But an indirect form of collaboration may have existed, through the intermediation of the Indonesian police disruption teams that the AFP recruited and trained in October 2000. That is why it is important to learn who these men were.
Here is Marg Hutton's website data on Abu Quassey's four known voyages:
|BoatNo||Arrival Date||Destination||CodeName||Boat Name||Total||Adult||Child||Ethnicity||Syndicate|
|182||1 Feb 2000||Christmas Island||Donnybrook||281||231||50||Middle East||Quassey|
|237||27 Mar 2001||Christmas Island||Gelantipy||22||18||4||Middle East||Quassey|
|255||4 Aug 2001||Christmas Island||Yambuk||147||97||50||Middle East||Quassey|
|267||19 Oct 2001||Christmas Island||SIEVX||421||271||150||Middle East||Quassey|
When information started to emerge about Abu Quassey in the Senate CMI, government witnesses made little or no mention of these three earlier voyages. Marg Hutton pieced most of these details together from other official sources. There were reasons for that silence, as I will shortly suggest.
But first let me say this clearly. I still do not have the necessary evidence either to accuse or to absolve the AFP-DIMIA disruption program of complicity in organising the deliberately overloaded to sinking point SIEV X voyage. I do not know which persons and agencies beyond Quassey and his senior (mostly unnamed) Indonesian police associates were actively or passively involved in such criminality.
My range of possibilities on the sinking of SIEV X lies between a best-case scenario that Australian government agencies as a whole were negligent, perhaps criminally so, of their safety of life at sea obligations in the Australian Operation Relex zone, where they had a legal duty of care to all mariners in the operational area, based on the intelligence available to them; and a worst-case scenario that Australian government agencies as a whole were criminally complicit by commission or omission in an act of terrorism by unknown agencies in Indonesia that disrupted the SIEV X voyage, leading to great loss of life. I have stated that as precisely as I can.
Until the judicial enquiry the Senate has three times in three years repeatedly called for, we won't know where the truth lies along this range of possibilities. Until then, we have to go on asking questions.
Unexpectedly, a new glimpse of truth came out of the Daoed trial in Brisbane. Numerous witnesses had been brought at great expense from overseas to give this people smuggling trial public credibility. Evidence as to the sinking was strenuously excluded - neither the defence nor prosecution wanted to go down that road. Witnesses wanted to, but were discouraged. The court only heard evidence relevant to the charges: taking money from passengers for an illegal voyage. It was a sadly wasted opportunity.
And yet new facts emerged. Yambuk had safely reached Christmas Island 11 weeks before SIEV X, on 4 August 2005. It emerges from witness testimony that Yambuk left from the same bay near the town of Bandar Lampung in south Sumatra as SIEV X. Quassey used the same police escort method for his bus convoy across Western Java and the Merak car ferry to Sumatra, used the same police-owned hotel in Bandar Lampung to park the asylum-seekers for the day, and had the same large-scale boarding assistance by armed police as for SIEV X. From debriefing Yambuk passengers who arrived at Christmas on 4 August, Australian authorities would have known all this, 11 weeks before SIEV X.
In the Senate CMI Committee in 2002 and subsequently, a series of official witnesses under oath systematically concealed what they must have known about the Yambuk voyage. The Senate CMI never heard anything about Yambuk. These witnesses tried to pretend that at the very time Quassey was sending down Yambuk - early August 2001 - he was preparing to send SIEV X. Their testimony effectively conflated the two voyages into one - SIEV X. For a fuller discussion of the Yambuk, see "The Yambuk Puzzle" Marg Hutton, 2 February 2004
The witnesses thereby quite successfully created a false impression in the Senate of great Australian official uncertainty and lack of knowledge about Quassey's time and place of departure, when it is now clear that from around 11 weeks before SIEV X, Australian agencies would have already had a great deal of hard information about how Quassey operated. They must have known Quassey's preferred route via Bandar Lampung and his reliance on high-level Indonesian police assistance there. They had so much time to check it all out before SIEV X, yet they seem to have done nothing.
No wonder all the witnesses regarding SIEV X declined to say where SIEV X left from - "we cannot talk about this, this comes from intelligence". No wonder the government was highly embarrassed at Admiral Geoff Smith's uncensored disclosure in his letter of clarification of evidence that Operation Relex knew already on 20 October that SIEV X had been reported through intelligence sources as "allegedly small and with 400 passengers onboard, with some passengers not embarking because the vessel was overcrowded'. How improbable was it that, with all that detailed embarkation information known to the ADF, and with all their previous intelligence from passengers ands others on Quassey's operating methods, they did not know exactly where and when SIEV X had embarked from - and therefore that it was in danger as a grossly overloaded small boat? Of course they knew all this - they simply pulled the wool over the Senate's eyes, pretending successfully that they knew nothing.
Why didn't the Strike Team disrupt the SIEV X voyage before it began? Why didn't they do the job they claimed the disruption program was set up to do - stop this dangerous voyage, and thereby save lives? Why did they let SIEV X embark in so dangerous and overloaded a state, when they must have known so much about Quassey and his methods already? On the face of it, there is a great Australian callousness here.
To conclude this point, the Yambuk information coming out of the Daoed trial, greatly strengthens the case that there was official cover-up in CMI of what the disruption program knew of Quassey's prior history as a dangerous people smuggler. It casts into serious question Keelty's claim in CMI that whatever the AFP knew about SIEV X, we knew too late to save the passengers' lives. I do not think that claim would stand up in a proper court of inquiry.
There were two crucial differences between SIEV X and Yambuk. First, when the first Yambuk boat's engines failed to work, Quassey quickly obtained a safe reliable alternative fishing boat. Clearly he was well resourced. And second, this boat was not sent overloaded - it carried a safe design weight of passengers, 147 passengers on a fishing boat of similar size to SIEV X. There was no deliberate overcrowding and no unseaworthy extra deck. Yambuk was intended safely to reach Christmas Island. And it did so. And this further consolidated Quassey's reputation as a people smuggler who got people to where they wanted to go - however recklessly. Donnybrook had been overcrowded, and Gelantipy (which carried a relative of Quassey's) was the subject of an Australian search and rescue operation near Christmas Island. But Yambuk's successful run set Quassey up well to recruit many passengers for SIEV X.
And I am informed by a refugee that Quassey was always much cheaper than his dwindling number of competitors - why? - and that he was given specially favoured access to the IOM-conducted refugee hostels to spruik his voyages. And my own book compiled widespread survivor accounts evidence of offered cheap tickets, even of free places for children. It is clear that Quassey planned to overload SIEV X, unless he really believed that there would be two boats waiting for him at Bandar Lampung. (And if he did believe that, on what basis - who was he working with who promised him two boats?). However one looks at this evidence, it always leads back to deliberate disruption by some agency.
The second area of new evidence is this. The Government Ministers for Immigration and Justice, Senators Vanstone and Ellison, have been bouncing around oddly in public since the Daoed trial ended in July on where SIEV X sank. First they both quietly amended their longstanding government claim since 2002 that it has no way of knowing where the boat sank, to a new version - that it sank "in international waters".
But more recently Ellison and later Vanstone reverted to the original false version. What is behind this confusion? It was added to last week, when Neil James of the Australian Defence Association - a former military intelligence officer - referred in a letter regarding the 4th anniversary to SIEV X having sunk "70 kilometers south of Java". That fits the original map published in the Australian on 24 October 2001, and subsequent work by Marg Hutton and myself to narrow down the area of sinking, as described in my book.
Third: there is recent new cartographic analysis from Marg Hutton on her website sievx.com, dated 19 September 2005 , on where SIEV X sank, and on the issue of RAAF flight detections on that day 19 October 2001.
Her analysis shows how a recorded RAAF detection at 0919 on the morning of Friday 19 October could well have been SIEV X - it fits the itinerary and my reconstructed timeline for the voyage (at a speed of 4 knots). She also analyses how a RAAF recorded detection from a later flight at 1930 that evening could have been the ship or ships that SIEV X survivors have consistently reported were in their vicinity a few hours after their boat sank. Again, the time and place fit well.
Which emphasizes the unanswered question: why had nobody in authority in Operation Relex ordered a precautionary safety of life at sea search on 19 October? Why didn't anybody in Operation Relex look for the boat, given the AFP intelligence that Keelty and ADF witnesses admit was coming down, and these detections?
Hutton concludes her analysis, and I support her view:
Fourth: I see significance in heavy-handed current efforts by Howard government officials to obstruct the community project to build a permanent SIEV X memorial in Canberra. For a full account of this project, with which I am not organizationally involved but whose aims I support, see sievxmemorial.com.
I will try to attach to this paper a jpg of a design "Landmark of Conscience" that the memorial committee has under consideration, which has remarkable beauty, simplicity and appropriateness. It represents a wavy line of 353 wooden poles going across a meadow and into the water of one of Canberra's lakes, the poles being of varying heights to memorialise adults and children, bifurcated in the middle of the line into a loop that represents in size and shape of the boat, 19.5 x 4 metres.
I see the federal authorities' opposition as expressing a determination that people in Canberra should not have any visible reminders of this tragedy. John Howard fears a memorial in Canberra, because he knows it may one day bother the consciences of people in or formerly in the national security system. That memorial when it is built will be here for a long time. Schoolchildren will go to see it. They will play around the poles. They will write essays and projects about it. Some will ask parents and grandparents about it. That is why John Howard does not want any memorial to SIEV X in Canberra.
"We also had the appalling tragedy of the 'SIEV X', an affair that has never been properly investigated, but when it is I doubt that Australia will emerge creditably."
Nicholson here shows public courage, in saying what is true.
We won't forget SIEV X now. The story has become part of our cultural memory. The memorials, the plays, the books, the songs, the paintings ... I want particularly to praise Hannie Rayson's smash-hit fictional drama "Two Brothers", which deeply disturbed the government because it reached a mainstream theatre-going public. So there were strenuous efforts by Andrew Bolt and others on the right to discredit her play. Because, in a symbolic and dramatically effective way, "Two Brothers" conveyed the essential truth about Operation Relex's indifference to the lives of asylum-seekers, and the ruthlessness and ease with which governments can cover up such abuses of law and public trust. I am pleased that the play text is going into publication. I know the play will live. I is interesting how Rayson and David Williamson - two highly popular Australian playwrights of conscience - are coming under such coordinated attack.
Sixth: The Howard letter, signed by a Senior Adviser in the Prime Minister's Office, Simone Burford, is of itself an important new accountable SIEV X document. Its claim that the Senate comprehensively investigated the SIEV X sinking to its satisfaction is a big, easily provable, lie. If that were so, why were there so many dissenting views by individual Senators, recorded in Hansard and in the Report volume? Why the continued detailed and critical interrogation in Senate Committees in 2002-2005? Why the three Senate motions calling for independent judicial inquiry? This is an entirely false claim.
Also, I believe this letter subtly sends this message to officials, police and service people working within the "holistic" national security system, who are skilled in reading between the lines: "We intend to say no more in public about this, and you had better not do so either. This border protection history was a necessary national security operation. Your 'need to know' as a public servant obliges you - don't ask, don't tell, don't challenge any part of this that might worry you, because that would be disloyal."
Because a senior adviser signed the letter rather than the Prime Minister, that adviser Simone Burford will carry the can if ever it is necessary to modify these claims. Her name offers a new trail of potential questions, like - which departments and agencies were consulted on this answer? Where are the emails? What advice was given and from whom, in respect of these two paragraphs? Who cleared the drafts up the line in the Prime Minister's office?
Burford's letter thus now inevitably becomes part of the investigative history of SIEV X.
My final "dot" is a reminder of an important AFP public duty not yet fulfilled. After three years, there is still continued silence from Commissioner Mick Keelty on the intelligence reports that AFP had in Indonesia and sent to Canberra about the SIEV X voyage. Keelty refused in 2002 to answer any questions in CMI on this, because he claimed AFP could not yet make any of this evidence public for fear of jeopardizing upcoming planned prosecutions. There is no such reason now - there are no more SIEV X prosecutions to come.
So the AFP SIEV X intelligence record should be released. And the lists of names of those embarked on SIEV X and the dead, lists that AFP admits to having in its possession but has refused for three years now to provide, should be released. There is no reasonable national security argument now, after four years, not to do so. The families deserve nothing less from the AFP.
I believe there will be a whistleblower on SIEV X from inside the national security system. Sooner or later, the call of conscience will bring a good man or woman forward , who will be prepared possibly to go to jail for many years for breaching official secrets. A good analogy is Mordechai Vanunu, the Israeli citizen who went to jail for 18 years in Israel for his decision in conscience to break the secret of Israel's nuclear weapons program.
When the SIEV X whistleblower speaks, he or she will find they have a lot of judicial support. And the seven SIEV X survivors now have permanent residence visas in Australia, and retain their clear memories. They are now secure and they are free to travel. Free to keep in touch with other survivors, compare what they each remember. Free to come forward as corroborating witnesses when the time comes.
Meanwhile, how do Australians of goodwill and integrity sustain the SIEV X story? This is an on-going project involving many independent voices. The duty of remembering is being sustained by many good people now.
Marg Hutton's now massive website www.sievx.com excels in the indispensable duty of maintaining close critical scrutiny and comprehensive archiving of public evidence.
How should we debate SIEV X in public? Should be try to debate it at all, when the government seems to have locked down all possible doors to the truth? Maybe focussing on the memorial projects themselves - the physical (www.sievxmemorial.com) is the best way to go? These memorials speak for themselves, they bear witness.
But I think there is still a place for public discussion of the facts on SIEV X, though it is full of potential pitfalls. I will continue to draw public parallels between SIEV X and other ongoing abuses of law, public truth and public trust, like the illegal Iraq War, the improper withholding of security advice from the public before the first Bali bombings, and now the unnecessary and divisive IR and terrorism laws. John Howard's lust for power, and his creation of false public realities to advance his cause, has to be contested by the continued vigorous exercise of our rights to free speech, or we will have a police state here sooner than we think.
We should all take every appropriate opportunity to refer to SIEV X in public. Here is a test - every time you want to say or write "Tampa" or "children overboard", please see if "SIEV X" fits your context instead? We need to keep SIEV X as a familiar iconic phrase, like those phrases.
Polite letters written in good faith to politicians asking questions about SIEV X are very important. The letter from the Tampa Anniversary Remembrance Committee to John Howard elicited a useful response. Letters from members of the public, if they are written in good faith and not abusively, have to be replied to. If the reply avoids the question, polite follow-ups are in order until the question is answered. Marg Hutton does this very well. The more of us do it, the better.
Senate questions on notice remain a very good way of keeping the SIEV X files open. They have to be answered.
While the government won't itself enter into debate on the facts of SIEV X, there are some who will. There is opportunity for vigorous to-and-fro debate on websites like Margo Kingston's Webdiary. But there are pitfalls here. The mention of SIEV X on any thread will always now bring a response from several quite well-read people, on the lines that this is a discredited conspiracy theory. If one responds, one quickly encounters a skilled debating strategy whose main elements are to ignore the history of the disruption program, the cover-up in the CMI, and the government's contempt for all subsequent Senate motions on the matter.
Such correspondents rely on provocative diversionary rhetoric on the lines of "who are you to question the integrity of our national security services, when you have no real evidence of any Australian involvement in the tragedy of SIEV X?"
Like Parliament, these are ritualised debates - they do not end by one side convincing the other, and that is not their purpose. The real audience is the uncommitted website readership, and the game is to exhaust one's opposition and try to make them look incompetent, over-emotional, or away with the fairies. It is a tough debating environment - much tougher than writing this speech or standing on this platform - and it is easy to lose one's cool, to be tempted into angry or reckless words.
If one enters this game, it is important to try to keep a cool and patient head: to offer dispassionate facts, to get those facts 100% right, not to personalize the debate, to express emotion only with care and prudence, and to know when it may sometimes be better to let one's case rest and live to fight another day. Sometimes it isn't necessary to have the last word. Readers will make their own judgements of the quality of one's case, regardless.
In these ways, all of us who care - and there are many of us - can use our rights of free speech and free enquiry, and free debate on the internet, to keep the questions about SIEV X alive. In these ways, we can continue to do the two things that are essential - to maintain the factual memory of SIEV X, and to maintain our justified indignation at the government's attempted cover-up of those facts.
Originally published at Tony Kevin's website