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Passengers crowd the deck of the Sun Sea, then off the B.C. coast. 'Tamils seek asylum because of the conflict in Sri Lanka.' (MCpl Angela Abbey/Canadian Forces Combat Camera)
Passengers crowd the deck of the Sun Sea, then off the B.C. coast. 'Tamils seek asylum because of the conflict in Sri Lanka.' (MCpl Angela Abbey/Canadian Forces Combat Camera)

The 'impossible' voyage of a Tamil ghost ship Add to ...

There was no sign of his Thai partners at the meeting where he signed documents to take possession of the ship. He couldn’t speak Thai and had to have someone show him where to sign his name.

Rather than the relaxed scrawl of someone who has been signing his name for most of three decades, his signature is printed in careful, boxy letters as if the name were unfamiliar to him and he was afraid of making a mistake.

Invisible in plain sight

The trail of the new owner and the Sun Sea ends in the port city of Songkhla, a gritty crossroads 70 kilometres north of the Malaysian border.

Despite strong evidence suggesting that at least 160 of the Sun Sea’s passengers passed through Songkhla at some point, no one interviewed by The Globe and Mail recalled the migrants. But dock workers at the city’s deep-water fishing port recall seeing an unfamiliar vessel on May 19, the day 40 Tamils were taken from their hotel at 7 p.m. and loaded onto a boat that Thai authorities believe took them to the Sun Sea. The shuttle ship had two flags, one Thai and one foreign.

“There was a strange boat docked here that night, one I never saw before,” recalled Toy Surakamhang, a 37-year-old dockhand. “I didn’t see any people on it, but it wasn’t carrying any cargo either.”

But the records kept by the harbour master show only 10 Thai flagged boats in the port that day, none with dual nationality. The port is known as a hotbed of corruption, a place where money can make sure that no one sees anything. “There might have been some irresponsibility at Songkhla harbour,” said Boonlam Janbunjong, a senior official at the Bangkok headquarters of the country’s Marine Department.

The Tamil Tigers – suspected by many of having run the Sun Sea as a fundraising operation – have a long history of operating in Thailand. The country’s lax borders and laissez-faire policing made it an ideal logistics and supply centre during the Tigers’ three-decade struggle for independence.

The movement’s arms-procurement chief, Kumaran Pathmanathan (currently the leader of the LTTE following the death of his predecessor, Vellupillai Prabhakaran) was based in Thailand for much of the conflict until he was arrested and deported to Sri Lanka in 2009. Mr. Pathmanathan set up numerous companies in the country, and – according to the Sri Lankan Embassy in Bangkok – even a shipyard on the tourist island of Phuket that built submersibles for use in the conflict.

“Thailand is a very natural base for their operations. They have very deep roots in Thailand, as well in Malaysia and Indonesia. But the law enforcement is very lax in Thailand,” said Rohan Gunaratna, a Singapore-based security specialist and an expert on the Tamil Tigers, whom he believes were responsible for the Sun Sea operation.

Mr. Gunaratna is convinced that there is another boat, possibly two, ready to sail to Canada, depending on how the refugee claimants from the Sun Sea are received by Canada’s legal system. “Based on Canada’s response to the Ocean Lady, the Sun Sea arrived,” he said, referring to a similar ship carrying 76 Tamil migrants that arrived in Canada last year from India. “Depending on the Canadian government’s response to the Sun Sea, more boats will come.”

Because of the sophistication of the Tamil network in Thailand, the next ship could quite easily also come from here, he said. In Bangkok, there are already whispers – as in Canada – of another boat being prepared. Local Tamils nod affirmatively when asked if they’ve heard of other ships, but refuse to say anything more.

Thai authorities and foreign security experts alike shrug when asked if there are other ships on their way. They’re still trying to figure out how the Sun Sea eluded their grasp for so long, and arrests seem far from imminent.

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.

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