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Phuket and the regional toll from the tsunami remains unclear

Thailand Tsunami: Did 2800 More Die Near Phuket?

Monday, December 21, 2009
Phuketwan UPDATE

WE HAVE no problems with the Bangkok Post's tsunami special over the past couple of days, reporting on how Phuket and the region is coping five years after the big wave. However, the most important fact, the number of people who were killed by the tsunami, appears to have been exaggerated . . . by 2800 victims. On Monday, the Post told us that more than 8200 people died. Phuketwan believes the number was 5395. On Tuesday, the Post tells us that 523 Swedes died. The tallies among both Swedes and Germans were above 530 each. Combined, they accounted for more than 1060 of the dead. Getting these basic figures wrong on such an important anniversary is a great shame. It reflects poorly on the Post's sources. Is the Post big enough to set this right? It is, after all, Thailand's history.

Original Report

HOW MANY people were killed in Thailand in the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004? One would think that, almost five years on, there would be some agreement.

There isn't. The figure most often used is 5395, which is the total that Phuketwan believes is correct. However, the Bangkok Post today publishes the figure of 8212.

Did some 2800 additional victims die that we neglected to count? Not that we can tell. However, figures above 8000 continue to appear, even in articles by those usually reliable news agencies, Reuters and Associated Press.

We believe that the figure of 5395 is correct, and that the misreporting of the death toll in Thailand began with an official document that got it wrong back in 2005.

The small book, 'Tsunami 2004, Nam Chai Thai', was published in English and issued to all journalists who visited Phuket for the ceremonies of commemoration for the first anniversary of the tsunami.

As with all simple mistakes that are perpetuated regardless of the facts, the false figure was based on a seemingly logical calculation.

The author of the section of the book dealing with 'Loss of Life' agreed that the number of bodies totalled 5395.

However, the author then took the number of 'Missing,' with 2965 names listed, and figured that after 12 months, those people could also be presumed to be dead.

And that's how the original inflated figure of 8360 first saw the light of day.

It's certainly true that, a year after most disasters, the 'missing' can be presumed to be dead.

But in the case of Thailand after the tsunami, the author neglected to consider one very important fact: thousands of the 5395 known dead had been nameless when their bodies were recovered.

A huge international and Thai contingent of police, dentists and forensic pathologists was engaged in examining the nameless, making further inquiries around the world, and restoring their identities.

So those 2965 ''mising'' were mostly already among the 5395 known victims, waiting to have their identity established by DNA, fingerprints or dental records.

Almost every day during 2005, names were being crossed off the 'Missing' list as victims were being identified.

However, one year after the tsunami, the updated figures had failed to reach the author of the 'Loss of Life' section of the anniversary book.

Back then, another official brochure said there were 917 foreigners among the missing. We called 14 embassies in Bangkok, among them the ones with the largest death tolls, and found they had just 59 people listing as missing.

The mistake appears to have been perpetuated. Now, almost five years on, it's probably time to settle on a true figure.

How many people were killed in Thailand in the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004?
The Tsunami Toll One Year Later
The toll of the Indian Ocean tsunami is still misreported because of discrepancies that Phuketwan reporters discovered 12 months after the event. Here's what they wrote in 2005.
The Tsunami Toll One Year Later

Bodywork: How Tsunami Victims Reclaimed Names
The work by international police created the greatest forensic detective saga in history. Here is a report from the first 100 days.
Bodywork: How Tsunami Victims Reclaimed Names

Water and Fire: A Tsunami Reunion
The poorest unidentified victims of the tsunami in Thailand are the ones who still have yet to be reunited with relatives. Here from 2007 is a report of one such reunion.
Water and Fire: A Tsunami Reunion

Tsunami Boats Now Attract Tourists
The village of Nam Khem, which means salt water, was a sad place during the tsunami but its fortunes have changed now. Tourists are welcome. Go to see the twin trawlers.
Tsunami Boats Now Attract Tourists

Tsunami ID Cremation Mix-ups Trouble Families
The return of the wrong bodies to families of some tsunami victims is believed to be making the highly praised Thai Tsunami Victim Identification process even more complicated. PHOTO ALBUM
Tsunami ID Cremation Mix-ups Trouble Families

Tsunami Tourist Attraction Sinking Behind Sand
Piles of sand now obscure one of Phang Nga's most significant tourist attractions, the navy patrol boat that was swept inland during the 2004 tsunami; Phang Nga, Krabi resorts report occupancy.
Tsunami Tourist Attraction Sinking Behind Sand

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What about all the Burmese who were never reported missing ? Whole families who only had relatives in Burma, how could they be reported missing ??
There where a huge Burmese camp just north of Ban Nam Khem, none survived nearly !
it is just to keep the figure down, Thais do not care about their neighbours at all, so they would never count a Burmese for anything !
There where dead bodies in hotel uniforms and the management would not identyfy them, and that was from day one, i think it was quite normal that hotels etc. had paid workpermits for 3 and could then have 10 !! Why did the immigration police had such a rush to get Burmese workers out the last days of 2004 ??? Because there was so much focus on the area that they would be cought red handed !

Editor: My recollection differs. Virtually all the bodies were collected. The tsunami swirled people along the coast, it did not take them out to sea. After a few days, it was not possible to tell whether they were expats, Burmese or Thai. Within weeks, many Burmese with missing relatives were even persuaded to come forward to have DNA taken. There was no attempt to ''keep the figures down.'' All kinds of rumors were spread by people who weren't there.

Posted by Karsten on December 21, 2009 17:08

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i heard that a person working in phi phi island saw 3k dead bodies. just phi phi island alone. do the math.

Posted by sothai on August 6, 2011 12:46

Editor Comment:

Unless that person was counting bodies and recording the numbers, that's pure conjecture, not math. There were 5400 bodies, and perhaps a hundred or so more missing at most who were not found.

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Is there a list of names of the dead and missing people in Bangkok from the 2004 tsunaml? If so where can I view this list?

Posted by Wayne on September 3, 2011 02:53

Editor Comment:

That's a good question, Wayne. One year after the tsunami, Thai authorities were so confused that they double-listed many of the victims as both nameless bodies and ''missing.'' At that stage, reporters were obliged to call individual embassies to find out how many people had been identified and how many remained to be identified. Perhaps the Foreign Ministry is more forthcoming now.


Friday October 31, 2014
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