It's time for the truth to allay, or confirm, our fears about SIEV X

Steve Biddulph
October 19, 2011

It's 10 years since the SIEV X disaster took the lives of 353 people, including 142 women and 146 children, at the height of a federal election campaign fought, and won, largely over refugees. Despite other incidents, nothing has come close to this scale of loss. SIEV X remains an unsolved mystery, with many disconcerting undertones that go to the heart of our national conscience.

During the five-year project to build a memorial to SIEV X in Canberra, I made friends with survivors of the sinking, and their stories add to the disquiet that was already starting to grow around the voyage.

The journey began for most through persecution by Saddam Hussein. Faris Shohani had been taken from his school classroom as a child by police and, with his parents, was forced across the border into Iran. His father died from the stress. Faris grew up, married and had a family in refugee camps, but never stopped dreaming of a better life. Today he is haunted by the memory of his wife and daughter drowning as he struggled to keep them afloat. Amal Basry was an educated woman whose engineer husband defied the regime with his political activity. She was the first person rescued after 20 hours in the water, and begged the fishermen to search for her young son. They saved another 40 people, before finally finding the boy, still alive. All around them though, across miles of ocean, the bodies bobbed ''like birds on the water''.

Nothing about the SIEV X story adds up. The passengers were taken hundreds of kilometres across Indonesia in a fleet of blacked-out buses, with motorcycle escorts. In Bandar Lampung they were kept in a hotel owned by the chief of police. Police with guns forced them to board the decrepit vessel, it was loaded until its gunwales were barely above the water. Nineteen metres of boat with three decks and more than 400 people, many had to stand or hold children on their knees in the crush. This did not look like a voyage designed to succeed.

The SIEV X had a cargo of women and children, for an Australian reason. The diabolical temporary protection visas, still mooted by Tony Abbott, took away the fathers' rights to family reunification. Their families were thus trapped back in Indonesia. Vulnerable mothers and young children, running out of funds, they were easy prey for people smugglers. One man, safe in Australia, actually flew back to bring his wife and ageing mother on SIEV X. All three of them died.

Two years ago, I met Senator John Faulkner, whose forensic mind and fierce integrity are the stuff of legend. Faulkner had argued for the children overboard inquiry to widen its terms and, in the course of his formal and informal enquiries, had found out more about SIEV X than anyone. He gave a disturbing, yet guarded, testimony in the Senate that ended with these words: ''At no stage do I want to break, nor will I break, the protocols in relation to operational matters involving ASIS [Australian Secret Intelligence Service] or the AFP [Australian Federal Police]. But those protocols were not meant as a direct or an indirect licence to kill.''

Faulkner emphasised two things to me when we met. That without his investigations, we would have known nothing about a covert program called the people smuggling disruption program, which John Howard and Philip Ruddock set in motion with the help of the federal police and the Indonesian police. This involved agents whose activities may well have drifted into the ethical shadows. The question is whether these activities placed innocent people at grave risk, either by mischance, or as we must pray was not the case, by design. He also told me something of which I had been totally unaware - in the 2004 election, Labor had in its policy platform a promise to hold a royal commission on SIEV X. This policy was quietly dropped in the revisions Kim Beazley brought about after Labor's electoral rout. I would argue that, while the political expedience of an inquiry may have changed, the moral imperative has not.

On the water that night, as more than a hundred people still clung to wreckage, two military boats appeared, close enough for them to hear the voices of the sailors. People called out, some began swimming towards the lights. The boats appeared not to see or hear them, and sailed away. Many people gave up after that, and slipped beneath the waves.

What were those vessels doing? And how did they locate the wreckage? Had the vessel carried a tracking device? If so, whose was it? And since such devices are merely a broadcast radio beacon, would it not have been easily tracked from Shoal Bay or other Australian surveillance? Gough Whitlam once boasted he could hear a walkie-talkie on a building site in Jakarta, courtesy of Shoal Bay.

Those of us who built the SIEV X memorial are just ordinary Australians, we are not investigative journalists, or jurists who can subpoena witnesses. A proper investigation needs to be carried out to either set aside our fears, or confirm them. In a democracy, citizens are responsible for their country's actions. We cannot stand tall as Australians until we dispel the possibility these people died because of us.

Steve Biddulph is a former psychologist and the author of The New Manhood (Finch Publishing).


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