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Wednesday, 19 October 2016


Often on fine days like this her father and I take my one-year-old granddaughter for a stroll from the swings and playthings at Weston Park down past where the mobs of kangaroos graze on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin and on to Kurrajong Point.
Whenever we do, we are reminded of Australia’s Day of National Shame – and today, October 19, 2016, is the 15th anniversary of the killing of 353 refugees, 146 of whom were little children. It’s on our walk that we pass the SIEV X Memorial. We always stop to pause and think about the fragility of young human life, and the shameful senselessness of these 353 deaths. My granddaughter Ely is all the more precious to me at these times, surrounded as she is by the only known recognition of the deaths of "unknown" girls and boys or her age. The memorial is rightly described as “Canberra's most memorable and affecting sight” – and this in a city which houses the Australian War Memorial. Here are a few of my photos of the memorial – the smaller poles represent the children whose blood is on the hands of all Australians. 
On the 10th anniversary, in 2011, Melbourne’s Marg Hutton wrote on the ABC’s The Drum, “it is deeply troubling to see both major political parties using the tragedy as justification for ramping up Australia's harsh and punitive treatment of boat people … To use SIEV X as a warning or a threat in this way is particularly odious, given the suspicions of Australian culpability in the sinking that have never been fully investigated.” On the 13th anniversary, two years ago, Phillip Adams wrote in The Australian, “The day we learnt of SIEV X's sinking I thought the disaster would break our hearts and change our ruthless policies towards asylum seekers. Instead it hardened them … We were complicit in those deaths, yet we did not hang our heads in shame. Instead we voted for even tougher policies.” “SIEV X was a tragedy … It was, and remains, a tragedy for this nation, too, reminding us that the White Australia policy lives on.”
This 15th anniversary falls on a day when our national broadcaster, the ABC, has been forced to defend itself over Monday night’s Four Corners TV program, in which it exposed the conditions faced by 128 children living on Nauru under Australia's immigration policy. Not so long ago, John Howard, who shamelessly held on to office as Prime Minister by using the SIEV X incident to his advantage, presented a two-part series on the Menzies Years and brazenly glossed over the SIEV X deaths. Be assured that all politicians involved in the SIEV X deaths, no matter what persuasion, will rot in hell for this. And hopefully that rotting process will start very soon. Unlike the SIEV X victims, they will not be mourned.
SIEV X stands for Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel X. It was an Indonesian fishing boat en route from Sumatra to Christmas Island carrying 421 asylum seekers. It sank in international waters 70km south of Java on October 19, 2001, at the height of the Federal election campaign. The 19.5m by 4m boat had departed Bandar Lampung the day before. It sank during a storm inside a temporary Australian border protection surveillance area around the Australian external territory of Christmas Island, and 146 children, 142 women and 65 men died.
In February 2002, an Australian Senate Select Committee found that " ... it [is] extraordinary that a major human disaster could occur in the vicinity of a theatre of intensive Australian operations and remain undetected until three days after the event, without any concern being raised within intelligence and decision making circles." The committee was surprised there had been no internal investigations into any systemic problems which could have allowed the Australian Government to prevent it from occurring.
In 2003, Steve Biddulph and the Uniting Church in Australia worked to build a suitable memorial for victims and in September 2006 a “temporary” memorial was erected at Weston Park. Designed by Mitchell Donaldson of Queensland's Hillbrook Anglican School, it consists of 353 white poles, all decorated by schools, churches and community groups across Australia. Typically, the Howard Government tried to stop the memorial being constructed, but the now permanent memorial, involving the work of more than 1000 student and community artists, was dedicated in October 2007. 
For more horrific details of Australia’s Day of National Shame, please Google “SIEV X”.


Bill M said...

Interestingly solemn. The last line on the sign are so very true.

I hope you and your granddaughter had a great time.

Nick Merritt said...

I hadn't heard of this at all until your posting -- no coverage of this whatsoever in the USA. To be sure, 9/11 had just happened, but still.... Thanks for this, and to the people who undertook the memorial.