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Rediff.com  » News » Thai navy chased ship with Lankan refugees: Report

Thai navy chased ship with Lankan refugees: Report

August 21, 2010 22:46 IST

The story of MV Sun Sea, the cargo ship that brought 492 Sri Lankan migrants to Canadian waters on August 12, reportedly started on April 1 in the Thai port city of Songhkla.

In an investigative report, Canadian daily Globe and Mail reports how one Christhurajah Kunarobinson bought a rickety 57-meter cargo boat called Harin Panich from its previous Thai owners for Canadian $175,000.

The boat, "now nameless and stripped of the Thai flag registration, went missing", says the paper. On April 7, "a crew of a dozen men, described as Indian or Sri Lankan in appearance, arrived in Songhkla and took the ship out to sea, telling dock workers they were headed north to the port of Surat Thani to do some repairs".

"The ship never arrived in Surat Thani and never filled out the paperwork, including a declaration of destination, required of an unflagged ship heading into international waters," says the paper.

The Canadian daily gives details of how the Royal Thai Navy dispatched planes to search for the missing boat. Finally the boat was 'sighted on May 8 by the workers on a Chevron-operated oil platform 110 kilometers from Songhkla.'

That's when the chase began between the Thai warship 'Sattahip' and the Sun Sea.  The Thai ship 'moved in on the Sun Sea, with orders to board the craft.  It saw some 150 Tamils clustered at the Thai ship. One man on board the Sun Sea hurled a gas canister at the Thai ship.  Others tried to leap aboard the Sattaship in what the Thai crew interpreted as an attempt to escape', says the paper.

A man, who reportedly identified himself as the captain of the Sun Sea, established contact with the Thai ship and said "he had begun his journey in Singapore and was now headed to Bangkok". 

'But the ship headed east and three hours later the Thai navy was forced to abandon its pursuit as the Sun Sea crossed into Vietnamese territorial waters," says the paper.

The Canadian daily describes how 40 people were taken out at sea to board the Sun Sea on May 19 in Songkhla. "Nobody knows what happened after that. It was like a ghost ship," a Thai naval officer is quoted as saying.

The ship's former owners are reportedly shocked that the 'the journey was attempted at all.' And for them  "more astonishing was its cargo of 492 human beings (because) when sold, the ship only had sleeping space for 15 crew, one small toilet, a gallery kitchen and life rafts for a maximum of 30 people.  With space for only 12 tonnes of water, supplies would have been harshly rationed to keep them from running out mid-journey."

The report quotes intelligence sources as saying that on June 21 'three fighting vessels left the southern port of Pattani carrying food, water and parts for Sun Sea, which was reportedly broken down in international waters.'

'After that they lost track of the Sun Sea for good,' the report says. 

Christhurajah Kunarobinson, who bought the ship on April 1, reportedly never filed other papers after registration.
'The trail of Kumarpbinson and the Sun Sea end in the port city of Songkhla. Despite strong evidence that 160 of the Sun Sea's passengers passed through Songkhla at some point, no one recalled the migrants,' says the Canadian daily.

The report makes a mention of Kumaran Pathmanathan, a top leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, who is now the leader of the organisation (after Tamil Tiger chief Prabhakaran was killed last year). It points out that Pathmanathan was based in Thailand for much of the Sri Lankan conflict 'until he was arrested and deported to Sri Lanka in 2009.'

There are already reports of two more ships waiting for the final outcome of the 492 people now being processed by the Canadian authorities in Vancouver. 

The Sri Lankan Tamils on board the ship have already released two letters saying they are law abiding, innocent people, running from persecution from their native country. They have pledged to fully abide by Canadian laws if they are finally accepted as refugees.

'So good at hiding people and things in plain sight, the network that sent the 'ghost ship' clear across the Pacific has itself now vanished,' concludes the report in the Canadian daily. 

The report includes a scanned copy of Kumarobinson's passport with his photo that shows his date of birth as April 13, 1980, and states that he was born in Jaffna. The report confirms earlier reports that one man on board the Sun Sea died during the voyage.

Ajit Jain Toronto