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Tsunami pain eased by the Bangkok Hospital Phuket's Wall of Love

Enduring Riddles Linger Over Tsunami Nameless

Monday, November 30, 2009
IN A FEW weeks, the fifth anniversary of the Indian Ocean tsunami will generate media interest about Phuket and the Andaman of an intensity that probably has not been experienced since the first anniversary of the big wave.
If readers google ''Phuket'' in the search engine's news category, only one alternative is suggested: ''Phuket tsunami.'' It remains the biggest story in the region in a generation.
That's why officials in the province of Phang Nga to Phuket's north, where most of the 5400 tsunami victims in Thailand perished, are inviting diplomats from 40 nations to join the fifth annual commemoration of the big wave.
Those who attend on December 26 with see more than 2500 sky lanterns light the night. And on Phuket, Patong beach will be lit by thousands of candles in the sand.
Despite the passage of time, mystery surrounds some aspects of the tsunami and its aftermath. Even if it's information that the whole world has a right to know, officials in Thailand seem reluctant to reveal some key information.
Here's the Phuketwan dossier on the current state of the tsunami victim identification process, something we would like to learn more about. So, for that matter, would the families of victims from 40 nations around the world . . .

The Number of Victims
THE actual figure for tsunami dead in Thailand is about 5400. Occasionally, someone will write a report saying that 8400 people died here. That's not true. The faulty figure originated in the official guidebook for journalists that marked the first anniversary. Some bright spark added the ''missing'' total of 3000 to the total number of bodies. In fact, the ''missing'' consisted of people whose bodies had been recovered, but not identified. So they were counted twice. The mistake lives on. The tsunami actually carried only a few victims out to sea, so there' remans today a close relationship between those still listed as unaccounted for and the number of remaining unidentified bodies.

Giving Names To The Dead
PEOPLE from more than 40 countries died along the Andaman coast, and for this reason the world gave generously, especially once the enormity of the disaster became evident with reports from Aceh, Sri Lanka and India. What made the reaction here special was that forensic teams from many countries joined forces in Thailand to identify as many of the thousands of unnamed victims as possible. The result was a triumph. Hundreds of families around the world were given closure. When the international teams departed, the rate of identifications slowed dramatically.

The Final Mystery
ABOUT 380 unidentified bodies are still being housed in a cemetery in Phang Nga, buried in metal coffins and surrounded by cement tombs to preserve as much of the DNA as possible. But there is a problem. The bodies should be returned to families. However their identity cannot be proven to international standards, which require 99.9 percent certainty. The coffins and the tombs belong to the Royal Thai Police. The land belongs to local government, a local temple and a private company. A debate is now taking place as to what should happen to the bodies, the coffins, and the cemetery land. Nobody has been able to tell Phuketwan what the outcome will be. One senior official has even speculated that all the bodies might be returned to families, something that seems unlikely given the high degree of proof required.

The Thai Tsunami Victim Identification Unit
AT ONE time a united force of keen police from many countries, the TTVI has become an organisation that declines to answer questions about progress on the identification of the final nameless victims, about the future of the cemetery, and about its own future.Phuketwan has been chasing answers to a series of questions for 18 months now. We would like to know, for example, how many victims have been identified in the past 12 months. How effective has the unit been lately? Despite enormous worldwide interest, officials in the TTVI are simply not prepared to say. Perhaps if CNN or the BBC asks, or there is an increased level of interest from the Thai media, they might be more forthcoming.

Above Ground, Bodies and Burma
BODIES that have been identified are exhumed and stored in cooled sea containers until they can be reclaimed by their families or their governments. However, in the case of 24 Burmese, the junta in control does not acknowledge that these tsunami victims are citizens and therefore chooses not to help with repatriation. In the early days of identification, several non-government organisations managed to find many of the Burmese families involved and help them claim their relatives. There is also a victim above ground whom we were once told was a Nepalese citizen. His body has been awaiting collection since 2006. However, the editor of a Nepalese newspaper has since told us that the embassy in Bangkok denies he is a citizen. In December, the cemetery may be cleared of tall weeds for the anniversary. But the once well-staffed and maintained Phang Nga outpost of the TTVI has been allowed to fall into disrepair.

Mistakes in Victim Identifications
THE TTVI is not saying, but Phuketwan is aware of several mistaken identifications and has been told there could be more that have yet to become apparent. The first 40 days of the identification process, before the international teams took over jointly with Thai police, probably saw dozens of wrong bodies handed back. This is because many bodies were returned on the basis of less than the international 99.9 percent identification. And because the wrong bodies were handed back, giving names to the final victims become more difficult. Noted Thai forensic scientist Dr Portntip Rojanasunan was in charge of the process for those first 40 days. She told a Phuketwan reporter ealier this year that she knows of only one misidentification, yet other forensic scientists say there were probably many more. Is it still possible for all mistakes to be resolved so that as many families as possible can find closure? The TTVI is not saying, yet we still believe the world has a right to know.
Recalling Phuket's Tsunami

The Tsunami: Week One Recalled
What was it like in that first week after the tsunami? Here one Phuket resident relates the story as it was reported in other places. This article has never appeared in print on Phuket.
The Tsunami: Week One Recalled

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

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

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