Questions still loom over boat sinking ~ Bob Burton (Asia Times)
CANBERRA - Calls are rising for a judicial inquiry into whether Australian government officials or agents played any role in the drowning of 353 asylum seekers off Indonesia's coast a year after the tragedy that fueled a still-raging debate over Canberra's policy toward asylum seekers.
As signified by rallies in 14 cities around the country last Saturday to mark the anniversary of incident, pressure is mounting on Prime Minister John Howard to initiate an inquiry into unanswered questions around the sinking of the Indonesian fishing vessel, code-named SIEV-X by Australian authorities.
The overcrowded boat had been on its way to Australia's remote Christmas Island from neighboring Indonesia.
Coinciding with the rallies, more than 150 people sponsored a memorial advertisement in a national newspaper raising questions that have dogged the government for months. "Did these victims die as a direct or indirect consequence of the Howard government's determination to protect Australia's borders against boat people, at whatever human cost?" the advertisement boldly asks.
Underpinning calls for an inquiry is the research of a former Australian career diplomat for 30 years, Tony Kevin. "It is emerging more and more clearly that the Australian government's people-smuggling disruption program in Indonesia is at the heart of the SIEV X mystery," Kevin told a memorial rally in Canberra on Saturday.
In February, Kevin became uneasy about the Australian government's role in the sinking of SIEV-X while reviewing newspaper clippings about it. "It all was just too bloody tidy. I had a sense that the way the news hit the press in this incredibly efficient way, there was something managed about the whole thing," he said.
In early March, Kevin gave evidence to a Senate Committee of Inquiry into a Certain Maritime Incident, raising questions about whether the government had played any role in the fate of SIEV-X.
The inquiry, while initially focused on fabricated claims that asylum seekers had thrown children into the sea in an attempt to "blackmail" the government into granting them refugee status, quickly focused on Kevin's questions. Ever since then, the government has been reeling from the inquiries it is faced with. "It was like starting a snowball that started an avalanche ... and the whole [government] story started collapsing like a pack of cards and they kept coming up then with new falsehoods to try and tidy up the previous inconsistencies," Kevin said. "But every time they closed one door, another door opened."
In a separate investigation, an investigative program on Sunday on Channel Nine television revealed that the Australian government sponsored the disruption of people-smuggling operations in Indonesia. An Australian Federal Police (AFP) informer in Indonesia, Kevin Enniss, boasted to the program that he had paid Indonesian locals on four or five occasions to scuttle people-smuggling boats with passengers aboard. Enniss insisted the boats sank sufficiently close to shore so that those on board got off safely.
In the wake of the program, the Australian Federal Police confirmed that Enniss was paid at least US$13,000, even though he himself was involved in smuggling asylum seekers into Australia.
On September 24, Senator John Faulkner, frustrated by the government's refusal to respond to key questions in the committee, launched a blistering attack: "Since the Sunday program revealed that Kevin Enniss may have deliberately sunk asylum seekers' vessels, there has been no response from the AFP, any other government agency or the government itself."
Despite a series of detailed questions, government committee member Senator George Brandis provided a narrow response. "Mr Enniss has been interviewed by the Australian Federal Police and he has categorically denied making the statement to the journalist Ross Coulthard" of Channel Nine, he told the Senate.
In a letter published two weeks ago, the then Australian ambassador to Indonesia, Richard Smith, responded: "No agency represented in this embassy, nor any official of this embassy, had any part in the sinking of the vessel known as SIEV-X.
"Nor has any official of the embassy engaged in any activity to disable or attempt to disable any vessel on which potential illegal immigrants were embarked," Smith wrote.
Kevin argues that Smith's letter leaves key questions unanswered. "They are all saying nothing was directly done by Australian officials or agencies to sink boats," he said. "They are not saying 'we also are sure that nothing was done by the people with whom Australian officials were associating in the people-disruption program that might have led to the sinking of boats.'"
The Senate committee report is due to be tabled on Wednesday. Most of the committee members are expected to endorse the call for an independent judicial inquiry into the SIEV-X, despite opposition from the government members.
Faulkner is undeterred. "I intend to keep pressing for an independent judicial inquiry into these very serious matters. At no stage will I break the [security] protocols, but those protocols were not meant as a direct or an indirect license to kill," he told the Senate in September.
"Especially after Bali, we cannot let so serious a matter of Australian government accountability rest here. We must continue to press for a full-powers judicial inquiry," Kevin said at the Canberra rally.