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.
"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.
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."
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.
When asked why they were going to Thailand, they were told to say "Just to enjoy," explained another patron at the New Madras Café, which doubles as a hostel for recent Tamil arrivals and is located just two blocks north of the Sri Maha Mariamman Temple, the centre of spiritual life in Bangkok for the predominantly Hindu Tamils. "But they came because they were going to Canada."
Though the café was almost deserted, the middle-aged man was nervous as he spoke, looking over his shoulder and eventually resorting to writing his answers down on paper so they couldn't be overheard.
Official Thai documents show that on May 1, authorities sent out a bulletin that 120 Tamils had been spotted travelling from Bangkok to Songkhla in a caravan of two buses and two vans. They were last spotted in the fishing hamlet of Ban Lae, on the outskirts of Songkhla.
"There were four Sri Lankans or Indians who came here in May. They walked around the village and talked amongst themselves, and then two of them came back the next day with two other Sri Lankan people. It was like they were surveying," said Dollosh Suksuwan, a 30-year-old unemployed oil worker who lives in Ban Lae.
While others in the hamlet denied having seen any foreigners recently, Mr. Dollosh said Ban Lae was perfect for those who wanted to sneak illicit cargo out to sea. "After dark, after 10 p.m., no one will ask what you are doing."
Thai authorities believe that the people smugglers used Ban Lae and other fishing villages to ferry their human cargo out to the Sun Sea in small groups. "They could do it anywhere off the coast of Thailand. Thailand has a lot of fishing boats," a Thai navy source said.
Only one Bangkok Tamil, a man known locally as Anton, is known to be among those who left. After years of living in Thailand with official UNHCR refugee status while his wife and family remained behind in Sri Lanka, Anton told friends in April his family was coming to Thailand to join him. Anton and his family disappeared from Bangkok shortly before the Sun Sea disappeared from Songkhla.
Asked how Anton, an ostensible refugee, could afford to bring his family to Canada at the reported $40,000 to $50,000 per place on the Sun Sea, the nervous café patron went silent again. After a pause, he again wrote on a piece of paper: "He was LTTE," as in the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The Tamil Tigers.
The front man
The new owner of the ship didn't live like a man who owned his own business, nor one who was shopping for a 57-metre boat. The 30-year-old lived a Spartan existence in Thailand, paying just $80 month to rent an apartment in a poor neighbourhood of west Bangkok.
Thai documents show he flew into Bangkok from Colombo in April, 2008, on a tourist visa. At some point later that year he left Thailand, returning in October on a business visa overland from Malaysia, which the Sri Lankan embassy in Bangkok says has long been used by the Tamil Tigers as a fundraising and money-laundering centre. He and three Thai partners registered Sun & Rshiya Co. Ltd. as a "fruits, vegetables and clothing" company in November, 2008, declaring assets of two-million baht (about $65,000). The man, who owned the largest block of shares in the new firm, listed his occupation as "merchant."
After registering, Sun & Rshiya never filed another paper, missing the annual deadline to file its mandatory statement for 2009. Then it bought the Harin Panich 19.
The building manager at his last listed address says he was one of a group of Sri Lankans and Indians who lived in the building before the landlord grew tired of the constant visits by police and stopped allowing foreigners to rent.
According to his passport, the man was born April 13, 1980, in Jaffna, the Tamil cultural capital in northern Sri Lanka. He was in Thailand on a valid work permit attached to his role as the head of Sun & Rshiya.
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.