by Lindsay Murdoch in Bangkok
Sanjeev ”Alex” Kuhendrarajah, the spokesman for 254 Sri Lankan asylum seekers who refused for months to leave their boat at an Indonesian port, has resurfaced in Thailand, telling how he escaped capture by people-smuggling agents he had betrayed.
Mr Kuhendrarajah, 30, says he spent 12 months moving around Malaysia to avoid agents he had identified as having arranged the overcrowded wooden boat which was intercepted on its way to Australia in October 2009.
Among those who threatened him were well-connected Tamils in Malaysia’s large Sri Lankan community, he says
Mr Kuhendrarajah and the other men, women and children on the boat were duped by a notorious people-smuggler, Abraham Louhenapessy, known as Captain Bram, whom they paid more than $4 million
When a smaller, faster boat failed to arrive to return Louhenapessy to Indonesia as his human cargo approached Christmas Island, he turned his boat around as the asylum seekers slept and sailed it back into the arms of the Indonesian navy to save himself a long jail sentence in Australia.
Mr Kuhendrarajah, who was furious with Louhenapessy’s deceit, identified his role in large-scale people-smuggling, but the well-connected Indonesian was later only fined and put on probation under Jakarta’s then lenient people-smuggling laws.
He also disclosed to Indonesian authorities and the media details about a people-smuggling network operating from Sri Lanka to Australia, through Indonesia and Malaysia.
”The details included the names of all agents, locations of their hideouts and safe houses of asylum seekers and many more,” he says.
As the Gillard government prepares to restart the so-called Pacific solution, Mr Kuhendrarajah remains trapped, like thousands of the other asylum seekers who want to resettle in Australia, in official limbo in Indonesia or Malaysia with an uncertain future.
Mr Kuhendrarajah says he decided to leave the boat that had been moored for five months at the western Java port of Merak, with those on board refusing to disembark, after an Indonesian naval officer told him in late February 2010 his arrest was imminent.
He swam from the boat at night, jumped a perimeter wall at the harbour and took a motorcycle to Jakarta, where a friend helped him get a flight to an Indonesian island near Singapore, which he says is frequently used to smuggle illegal workers to and from Malaysia.
After hiding out for two days he was taken to Malaysia in a twin-engined boat crammed with 50 people. He walked through the jungle and took a bus to Kuala Lumpur.
Mr Kuhendrarajah’s whereabouts were unknown until he was arrested at the Thai-Malaysia border in March 2011 believing he was on his way to a new life in France, a trip organised by another agent.
He has spent the past nine months in Bangkok’s Immigration Detention Centre waiting to hear the outcome of an application to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to be declared a refugee seeking resettlement in a third country.
”I don’t know how long I will be here … I thought my case would be decided three months ago,” he told the Herald from behind a wire fence during visiting hours.
With his Canadian-accented English and passionate advocacy, Mr Kuhendrarajah became the high-profile spokesman for the Sri Lankans living in appalling conditions on the boat during a tense stand-off with Indonesian authorities that strained relations between Australia and Indonesia.
The then prime minister, Kevin Rudd, had controversially telephoned President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to request that Indonesia intercept the boat, which had spent a week at sea and had left Indonesian waters.
Mr Kuhendrarajah has told UNHCR officials he believed he had no option but to flee Malaysia in March last year, although he had registered there with the UNHCR at the urging of an Australian refugee advocate, Ian Rintoul.
”Along with being wanted in Sri Lanka and Indonesia, I was being sought after by agents who were seeking revenge of my betrayal,” he wrote the UNHCR’s Malaysian office in November.
Mr Kuhendrarajah says he is still desperate to start a new life in Australia but fearing for his life in Malaysia, he believed trying to reach France was the only option left to him.
Of the 254 Tamils who were on the boat, Mr Kuhendrarajah says 50 have made it to Australia and 120 are languishing in Indonesia, either waiting for resettlement in a third country or to get on another boat to Australia. ”The rest have disappeared,” he says.
Mr Kuhendrarajah was granted permanent residency in Canada when he was five. He was deported in 2003, aged 21, for his involvement in street gangs. He has a wife and three young children living in India.
He says he fled Sri Lanka in 2009 after being imprisoned and tortured for a confession he was linked to the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
The Bangkok detention centre is overcrowded with meals consisting mainly of rice soup and cucumber.
”I have now finally put all my trust in the UN, not having any other choices,” Mr Kuhendrarajah told the UNHCR. ”Therefore I am willing to be patient as long as I am offered a fair trial and process.” courtesy: Sydney Morning Herald