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The 2004 tsunami toll is exaggerated by more than 2000 ''missing''

It's Not Impossible to Get Facts Straight

Wednesday, December 19, 2012
News Analysis

PHUKET: 'The Impossible' opens in US movie theatres on Friday, and it will spark renewed interest in the Indian Ocean tsunami and especially what happened to holidaymakers in Thailand.

Almost eight years on from the devastating wave that struck Phuket and other parts of the Andaman, news agencies still report that 2800 people were ''missing'' from the tsunami in Thailand.

Phuketwan would like to plead with Reuters, Associated Press, AFP and the other international news agencies to report the tsunami toll accurately, please.

The reason why Phuketwan can call out the big international news agencies and know with certainty that they have it wrong is that we checked the facts for ourselves.

We challenged the figures provided by the Thai Government on the first anniversary of the tsunami, and we proved they were wrong.

What's certainly true is that almost 5400 tourists, residents and Burmese construction workers perished when the wave swept in on December 26, 2004.

What's also true is that thousands of people were reported ''missing'' in the days after the tragedy.

However, the remarkable thing about the tsunami was the washing machine cycling of the currents after the big wave struck.

The circular motion took victims from one beach and deposited them at other beaches. It carried people from five-star hotels to where Burmese worker camps had been wrecked, it lifted villagers from their homes and dropped them in the jungle.

The result was that there were about 3000 unidentified bodies along Thailand's Andaman coast.

In reaction to the catastrophe, international teams from about 40 countries went to Phuket and began the process of identifying the bodies.

Most of those who remained ''missing'' were not ''missing'' at all. Their unnamed bodies had been found.

And gradually, as the days passed, the international group known as the Thai Tsunami Victim Identification unit gave them back their names.

By the end of the first year, the vast majority of the bodies had been identified. There was one small problem: few news organisations - apart from the Phuketwan team and the BBC - paid any attention.

The result? At the first anniversary commemoration on Phuket, when news organisations from all around the world sent reporters, a book was handed out containing the wrong tsunami toll details.

'One Year in Memory of Tsunami' states that the big wave killed 5395 people and left 2940 others still missing, 2023 of them Thais, plus 917 foreigners.

Another book 'Tsunami 2004 Nam Chai Thai,' combined dead and missing figures and reported: ''By adding the number of people registered as missing (2965) and assuming that they perished, the number of dead victims amounted to 8360.''

The truth is very different.

We know, because we checked with 14 embassies at the time - privacy conditions prohibited the release of an overall body count - and discovered the reality.

The South China Morning Post newspaper in Hong Kong published the report. You'd think that the world's news agencies would also check it out for themselves.

But no . . . eight years on, they still kill off more than 2000 people who were not killed. And in doing that, they continue to overlook the remarkable forensic achievements of the international body identification team.

We followed the wonderful identification process in the years after the tsunami as it brought closure to families around the world.

And we are able to say with certainty that there are not 2800 ''missing presumed dead'' victims of the 2004 tsunami in Thailand.

There were 5395 people killed in Thailand by the tsunami.

As at December 2009, there were 444 people still listed as ''missing''. . . with 398 bodies of remaining unidentified victims still buried in a special cemetery north of Phuket.

It's believed a few more have been identified since then.

Within days of the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, Reuters reports, actress Naomi Watts took part in a fundraising telethon spearheaded by George Clooney to help the millions of people from Indonesia to the east coast of Africa whose lives were shattered.

With the launch of a film providing an accurate depiction of what took place in Thailand, perhaps it's finally time the toll was also reported factually.


Comments have been disabled for this article.


I am sure your facts are perfect on the matter, but as a journalist you should also know, most "news" outlets really only give half baked truths and spin them with whatever will make it sound exciting.

Journalism at the core is not about truths any more, just watch Fox News. It's about extracting what they can from people to get them into their way of thinking.

Posted by Tbs on December 19, 2012 09:34


Speaking of shoddy reporting, I remember watching CNN about a week after the tsunami when Anderson Cooper was interviewing the singer Ricky Martin about the tsunami. Martin told Cooper that there were 100,000 new orphans in Thailand who lost their parents and that they were all in danger of being "adopted" or abducted by pedophiles who were descending on Thailand in droves to take advantage of the situation.

I was dumbfounded. While it's true that Martin had established a Foundation to address the problems of Human Trafficking, a quick check revealed he had never even been to Thailand before (although he did go there a few weeks after that interview). Now for argument's sake, if half of the dead were Thais, let's say that this constituted 2000 people - 1000 males and 1000 females. And that these people were all married couples because you can't have an orphan unless both parents are dead. That would mean that, according to Martin's figure of 100,000 orphans, the average Thai family has 100 children. Of course, the dead Thais were not all married to each other (though some might have been)makig this whole scenario totally preposterous.

I called CNN in Atlanta and after presenting my numbers, asked them how they could air something like that interview with no one challenging Martin's allegations? They agreed it was farfetched and assured me the interview would not be re-aired. But they wouldn't be issuing any correction either.

With Thailand already about to suffer even more economic loss on top of human tragedy, I wondered why someone would deliberately create an outrageous scenario such as Martin's 100,000 orphans.

Posted by Robert in Montreal on December 19, 2012 11:31


EXCELLENT article Mr Morison.

Posted by Amazed in Thailand on December 19, 2012 13:41


Thank you for putting the record straight - in my mind at least. I do wish though that something would be done about the dreadful condition of the cemetery north of Phuket, the one in Phang Nga Province I presume, that you refer to. It is a national disgrace!

Posted by Alan on December 19, 2012 16:00

Editor Comment:

Since the TTVI disbanded the cemetery doesn't even get cleaned up for the tsunami anniversary. Phuketwan had the bizarre experience of finding the keys to the cemetery and its buildings left there one day. We also wonder as we drive by the tsunami memorial wall in northern Phuket what will happen now that it has no obvious entrance . . . was last year's memorial service there the last one?


It's a very powerful movie. I can't remember a time when the movie ended and everyone just got up and walked quietly out of the theater. I saw the numbers at the end of the film and just accepted them as truth. Thanks for setting the record straight and giving credit where credit is certainly due to those folks that worked so hard to do a very difficult job.

Posted by Jon on December 19, 2012 16:05

Editor Comment:

Having not seen the movie, I didn't realise that the numbers were mentioned at the end, and that those figures were incorrect. That's a very good reason for the news agencies to check, and ask the producers where the figures came from. I hear the film is excellent and one of these days I look forward to seeing it.


I think we always knew a film would be made, but why? Where are the profits from this movie going? I'd love to think to the kids who were orphaned or to the people still suffering mentally from this disaster, for those of us who were so lucky to have survived why bring these awful memories back and in a film as entertainment for some. Believe me there was nothing entertaining that day.

Posted by Joy on December 19, 2012 20:29

Editor Comment:

Some of the lessons from the tsunami are profound and if the film is as good as people say it is, then some of those lessons will be imparted without the tragic cost. I'd say that's a positive, Joy.


Having been drawn to Khao Lak after the Tsunami we have returned for increasingly long periods since and now regard it for 5 months of the year as our second home. I have to admit we had misgivings about watching the movie but having seen it last week in Phuket, we found it very sad, very emotional and not at all voyeuristic. We returned to Khao Lak with a greater empathy for our many friends there, Thai and farang, like you Tsunami survivors and a greater respect for how the community has rebuilt itself after the horrendous events of that terrible event. What the film sets out to demonstrate, based on a true life story, is the indomitable spirit to survive that achieved, thankfully for some but sadly not for others, The Impossible. I have to say that if I was a survivor or a relative or friend of a victim, I don't think I would have watched it and fully understand why you feel the way you do.
The film throughout was watched in respectful silence and on leaving the emotions felt were clearly etched on the faces of others, again both Thai and farang.

Posted by Alan on December 19, 2012 22:22


"..the cemetery doesn't even get cleaned up for the tsunami anniversary. .. the tsunami memorial wall in northern Phuket what will happen now that it has no obvious entrance..!

Maipenrai ED.. Take it easy like thais... sabai sabai...

Posted by dave on December 20, 2012 11:19


For some reason I don't feel like watching the film.

Posted by Sean on December 21, 2012 15:55

Monday December 4, 2023
Horizon Karon Beach Resort & Spa


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