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Weeds overwhelm the tsunami identification process in Thailand

Tsunami Dead Drowning in a Wave of Apathy

Monday, August 17, 2009
Tsunami Centre Photo Album Above

A TSUNAMI drill will be the focus of national and international media attention on Phuket and all along the Andaman coast later this week.

Given the Indian Ocean earthquake that shook the seabed just last week, it's clearly vital to never forget the tsunami, or the suffering and sympathy it triggered.

Yet it appears that, coming up for five years on, the enthusiasm to help and the spirit of global generosity that followed the big wave has ebbed away to nothing.

Thailand's Tsunami Victim Cemetery, to the north of Phuket in the neighboring province of Phang Nga, is overgrown with weeds now.

It has the appearance of having been deserted months ago.

To the embarrassment of 40 countries, the process of identifying and repatriating victims of the Boxing Day 2004 natural disaster, although not yet complete, appears to be at a standstill.

Across a road from the cemetery, the main gate to the Royal Thai Police identification and repatriation centre was padlocked shut on Saturday.

We gained access through a side entrance and found the centre to be unkempt and occupied only by the long-term caretaker-cremator and his dogs.

Generators continue to keep some identified bodies cool, awaiting collection, in a line of containers. However, now some of the doors to the containers no longer close.

Decay pervades the place. Trolleys that were once used to wheel bodies to be repatriated have become overgrown with vines.

For weeks now, calls to senior identification unit personnel have gone unanswered or been cut off.

The centre and the cemetery were maintained in perfect condition when the international Thai Tsunami Victim Identification teams were present to uphold international standards.

That is far from the case now.

At this time last year, when Phuketwan visited the cemetery and the centre, locals and their children were sowing sunflower seeds to ensure that the graves would look at their best for the fourth anniversary of the tsunami.

Twelve months ago, the centre was fully staffed, with hope still held that the remaining victims would not be nameless forever.

Today the appearance of the cemetery, overgrown and with stagnant water in a central big wave memorial, now reflects poorly on Thailand and the 40 countries who lost citizens to the tsunami.

The collective pledge in the aftermath of the big wave, which killed 5400 in Thailand and flattened five-star resorts, fishing villages and the shanty camps of Burmese laborers, was: ''We will take them home.''

About 380 bodies remain to be identified. They lie beneath the weeds in the cemetery in metal coffins within concrete tombs, designed to preserve their DNA.

There seems to be far less concern about preserving their dignity.

The cemetery, carrying the flags and names of more than 40 countries on a plaque at its entrance, is a disgrace.

Some of the VIPs from Bangkok, coming to Patong this week to see a well-planned tsunami practice drill, should also take a couple of hours to make the drive north to pay respects to the remaining unidentified dead in Phang Nga.

Hundreds of tsunami families in Thailand and around the world still have relatives listed as ''Missing.''

It seems unlikely that they want these 380 unnamed dead to be neglected and forgotten so easily, beneath the weeds.

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Soon after the Tsunami, a memorial plaque was installed near the entrance to Ocean Center on Patong Beach Road. More than 80 people died in the Supermarket and basement car park at Ocean Center as a result of the Tsunami in 2004. This memorial was later removed and I don't think I saw it on my last trip in March.

A Phuket hotel that I often stay at, used to have a painting of the Tsunami on display in the lobby, but this was removed. When I asked about it, hotel staff told me it had been removed following complaints from hotel guests. I think that people just want to forget the Tsunami and move on.

Editor: My recollection is that the toll in the Ocean basement was lower, about 34 or 35. The plaque was a private tribute. Perhaps it was stolen. Restaurants with ''wave'' designs on their walls still seem a little thoughtless, but perhaps not for much longer. The tsunami is remembered with greater intensity around Khao Lak, and the village of Nam Khem, where the toll was 10 times greater than on Phuket, even though the area had a population one tenth the size of the island. As with a war, the tsunami needs to be remembered to prevent it happening again. People forget it entirely at their peril. The coast has to be properly protected, around the clock, 365 days a year. As for the identification process, that must be brought to a satisfactory conclusion. Weeds are not the answer. These graves are just as symbolic as the graves of unknown soldiers.

Some visitors will continue to ask about the tsunami, as many have done in the past. Others will ask about the blue signs. As long as the signs are there, and that should be for generations, the tsunami will be remembered. But over time, fewer people will recall it with intensity.

Posted by Firecat on August 18, 2009 21:01


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