Whispers about a boat headed to Canada began long ago in Thailand’s small and closely knit Tamil community.
Among the regulars at the New Madras Café – a Tamil restaurant in the bustling commercial heart of Bangkok that serves roti, curry and lassis under photographs of the beaches of the Tamil heartland in northern Sri Lanka – there was frequent talk that the infamous Tamil Tigers, or at least some of their ex-operatives, were planning something: A money-raising operation that would also help the organization regroup after its devastating defeat ended Sri Lanka's three-decade civil war.
“The talk started a long time ago. But it wasn’t just talk,” one of the café’s regulars says.
What eventually emerged out of that idle chatter – the saga of the Sun Sea and its 492 bedraggled passengers – is the stuff of spy thrillers. A ship purchased by a man who was rich on paper, but lived in apparent poverty in a cheap apartment. Hundreds of people loaded onto small fishing boats and taken out to sea to rendezvous in international waters. A mid-sea clash with a Thai warship, the chase abandoned only when the so-called ghost ship reached Vietnamese waters.
The plan to take Tamils fleeing the aftermath of Sri Lanka’s civil war to Canada appears to have been hatched almost two years ago. But though authorities tracked the Sun Sea for months before its arrival off the coast of British Columbia, those operating the boat were always a step ahead, adept not only at moving people across borders and oceans, but also at keeping their operation quiet and covering their tracks.
But there is a trail. The ship that came to be known as the Sun Sea arrived in Songkhla on April 1 at the end of what was expected to be its final journey. Barely seaworthy, the ship’s previous owners had agreed to sell it for scrap after it made one last delivery of animal feed from Bangkok to this southern port city, which is known as much as a hub for human trafficking and sex tourism from nearby Malaysia as for its white-sand beaches and the offshore-oil platform that drives its economy during daylight hours.
The 57-metre craft, then known as the Harin Panich 19, was considered too small to carry larger, more profitable cargo and so old that it was considered a safety risk.
So, the owners were relieved when a buyer emerged in March, paying 5.35-million Thai baht, or about $175,000 Canadian.
The new owners – a company called Sun & Rshiya Co. that was owned on paper by a Sri Lankan national – insisted on immediate delivery and took possession of the ship in Songkhla.
The company owner, a small, dark-skinned man who favoured casual business attire, spoke no Thai and said little as he signed the documents on March 30 that officially made his company the new owner. Then he disappeared.
A few days later, the ship – now nameless and stripped of its Thai flag and registration – also went missing. On April 7, a crew of a dozen men, described as Indian or Sri Lankan in appearance, arrived in Songkhla 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.
Three weeks later, the southern command of the Royal Thai Navy dispatched planes to search for the missing craft, which had drawn the attention of the Australian government, fearful that a boat of migrants might be headed its way. The planes found nothing, but on May 8, the Sun Sea was sighted by workers on a Chevron-operated oil platform 110 kilometres from Songkhla.
A dramatic chase began. A Thai warship, HTMS Sattahip, quickly closed in on the Sun Sea as it bobbed in the waters late that night with its engine off. The Sattahip repeatedly hailed the migrant boat, demanding to know where it was headed. At dawn the next day, the Sattahip moved in on the Sun Sea, with orders to board the craft. As the warship closed, it saw some 150 Tamils clustered on the deck, many of them waving their hands happily at the Thai warship. But chaos erupted as the Sattahip neared. One man on board the Sun Sea hurled a gas canister at the Thai ship. Others tried to leap aboard the Sattahip in what the Thai crew interpreted as an attempt to escape.