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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 ...

“It was very dangerous to jump ships like this. The Sattahip had to pull away,” said a Thai Navy officer who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The Sattahip resumed shadowing the Sun Sea, which had now restarted its engine. A man who identified himself as the captain of the Sun Sea made voice contact with the Sattahip, claiming 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.

The Vietnamese Maritime Police reported contact with the Sun Sea on May 13, but no other details are known.

Records suggest the Sun Sea was spotted again in Thai waters – again near Songkhla – on May 17. Two days later, 40 Sri Lankans checked in to a hotel there, but were seen that evening boarding fishing boats in Songkhla port.

A sign solicits help in the fight against human trafficking, a brisk business in Songkhla.

Five days later, a Thai Navy official stationed in Singapore reported that the still-flagless ship had docked there. Then the ship disappeared again.

“Nobody knows what happened after that. It was like a ghost ship,” said another Thai Navy officer who also spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The ship’s former owners are shocked the journey was attempted at all. Bhumindr Harinsuit, managing director of Harin Panich, said the 30-year-old Japanese-built ship was barely able to make the trek between Bangkok and Songkhla. The idea of taking the rickety boat as far as Canada was too crazy to contemplate.

“Even in the Gulf of Thailand, if there were rough seas she wouldn’t travel. They must have had a good captain,” said Venus Pornprasert, the fleet manager for Harin Panich, who frequently captained the ship. (Some reports have named a veteran Tamil Tiger arms smuggler known as Vinod as the ship’s captain on its journey to Canada.) Making the trip even more astonishing was its cargo of 492 human beings. When sold, the ship only had sleeping space for 15 crew, one small toilet, a galley kitchen and life rafts for a maximum of 30 people. With space for only 12 tonnes of water, supplies would have had to have been harshly rationed to keep from running out mid-journey.

“The captain was taking an amazing risk. We wouldn’t even send it to Malaysia,” Mr. Harinsuit said. “The surprise isn’t that someone died [on the way to Canada] the surprise is that it was only one person who died.”

Thai security sources believe the boat spent part of its journey time bobbing helplessly in international waters in the Gulf of Thailand. On June 21, three ships were tracked departing from another port in southern Thailand that were believed to be carrying food, water and spare parts for the Sun Sea.

After that, however, they lost track of the ship for good. Later, when the ship was sighted off the coast of Canada, Mr. Harinsuit found himself sitting in his office explaining to Thai police and an RCMP attaché everything he could remember about Sun & Rshiya, the new owner and the boat he sold them.

“I told them I never dreamed of this vessel going this far. I even told them it was impossible.”

Bangkok's Sri Maha Mariamman Temple, the spiritual centre of the Tamil community.

A home away from home

The Tamils of Bangkok are a mix of traders and asylum-seekers drawn by word that the local office of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees was one of the easiest places to get official refugee status. A UN agency lists 800 officially recognized Tamil refugees living in the Thai capital, many who stay only a few months before they lose track of them.

Few of Thailand’s long-term resident Tamils appear to have been aboard the Sun Sea when it sailed. Authorities believe most of the migrants flew in on tourist visas just before the Sun Sea left Songkhla.

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