Thursday, October 15, 2009

Tony Kevin: The Ghosts of Siev X

(photos of children courtesy of the SIEVX website)

The first time I heard Tony Kevin speak about the Siev X was on Phillip Adams's Late Night Live, during the Howard government's hysteria about asylum seekers, the "Tampa" and "children overboard" incidents. Tony was the first person to publicly raise questions about the official line on the sinking of the boat that was known as Siev X.

In the pre-dawn darkness of October 18, 2001, in a Sumatran port, 421 asylum seekers boarded a rickety overcrowded, unseaworthy boat, bound for Australia. It was the height of the Howard's government manufactured "war" on refugees. At 3.10pm the following day, the boat, now known as SIEV-X, capsized and sank somewhere between the two countries with a terrible loss of life - 353 of the asylum-seekers drowned, including 146 children, 142 women and 65 men. Tony Kevin was one of the few people asking questions about the sinking and the Australian Government's knowledge and involvement.

The Australian government claimed it had no prior knowledge of the unfolding tragedy. Yet ministers and senior officials from the beginning tried to mislead the Australian Senate and the community over important questions. What did the government and its agencies know about the boat and its fate, and when? Did we have any responsibility for the tragedy? Did we have a duty of care to save the survivors? Tony's award winning book A Certain Maritime Incident: The Sinking of Siev X is the definitive work on the sinking (as is the website and the documentary Hope.

I am proud to say that along with many West Australians I was involved in supporting Tony's ground breaking and courageous work on Siev X and arranged for him to come to Perth and Albany on a number of occasions to speak about the sinking and launch the book.

Tony is returning to Perth in November to launch an art exhibition based on his Siev X book and to launch his new book Crunch Time. The Siev X Exhibition by Natalie Heyman will be launched at the Kidogo Arthouse, Bathers Beach, Fisherman's Harbour, Mews Road Fremantle on 11 November, 6.30-8.30om. The exhibition will run from November 11-24.

Tony has written a fine piece that is published in today's Crikey. In the light of the darkening political rhetoric about asylum seekers this is an important piece that I have published in full.

Ghosts of SIEV X still shadow the corridors of power

Tony Kevin, author of 'A Certain Maritime Incident'

I wish I could go along with Guy Rundle’s optimistically Manichean essay in yesterday's Crikey contrasting Howard/Ruddock and Rudd in their treatment past and future of boat people, but I cannot. I suspect Rundle's real target audience here was Kevin Rudd. His essay was essentially an encouraging homily directed at the Prime Minister, not an analysis.

Granted, Howard was full of dark xenophobic attitudes which I do not think Rudd as a civilised person shares. However, my detailed analysis of how Australian policy towards boat people degenerated during the prolonged boat people crisis of 1999-2001 (see my book A Certain Maritime Incident and later follow-up writings) shows a more complex picture than Rundle offers.

Howard and key senior officials pushed the border protection agencies (Defence Central and ADF, AFP, DIMIA, AMSA, DFAT) towards tougher and tougher policies aimed at discouraging boat people and disrupting their movements. These policies started with bluffs and phoney threats of crocodiles, sharks, towbacks etc. They finished with clear systemic human rights violations in laws and procedures.

Very real questions have never been answered as to whether people (including the 353 mostly women and children on SIEV X) died as a result of increasingly harsh policies of forced towback, impoundment after interception in their own boats for prolonged periods under stress and danger, and deliberately delayed, perfunctory, or non-existent search and rescue procedures for anticipated or detected boats.

Attitudes engendered by these callous policies sank deep into the culture of the agencies concerned, and are still apparently present there as seen in a recent interception incident.

I know from my research into SIEV X -- and this is confirmed by Marr and Wilkinson’s independent analysis in Dark Victory -- that Howard and key Canberra officials led the agencies along this road to perdition one step at a time, as the pressure of boat people numbers increased through 1999-2001. There was quiet resistance on the way from some honourable officers. How far the agencies went along the road, in terms of outcomes, is something that only a judicial enquiry with access to all records of the time could answer.

Labor in government is not pursuing this matter, choosing to let sleeping dogs lie.

I do not assume that under pressure of a possible increase in boat people numbers, an Australian Labor government would not start down the same slippery slope of escalating threats and disruptions. Maybe it has started already? I can only hope, with Guy Rundle, that it will not go as far as Howard did. Sadly, those who care about Australia’s ethical standards must remain vigilant, as well as hopeful that Labor will go on doing the right thing.

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