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Veritas, says the cold storage body container: ''the truth''

Tsunami Forensic Team Goes Unpaid: Is it the End?

Thursday, March 26, 2009
Phuketwan's Tsunami: Photo Album

THE THAI Tsunami Victim Identification process is at a standstill, with members of the unit unpaid since October and representatives from 13 countries set to discuss the financial crisis on Monday.

The key objective, identifying the nameless victims of the 2004 tsunami, has come to a halt amid serious concerns about the successful conclusion of the project that once garnered international praise.

At one time hailed as world's greatest example of forensic detective science at work, insiders at the TTVI have told Phuketwan that the unit is now split by factions. Its future is uncertain.

Representatives from Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, Sweden, Britain and the United States are set to meet TTVI officials in Bangkok on Monday.

Details of the circumstances that led to non-payment of the 19 staff of the TTVI remain unclear, but one official at an embassy told Phuketwan yesterday that the international funding had simply run out.

The TTVI unit is also believed to be deeply divided about how the international project should be brought to an end, and whether moral considerations and families' need for closure should take precedence over forensic science imperatives.

About 380 nameless bodies remain buried in special tombs at the TTVI cemetery at Bang Maruan, a drive of an hour or so north from Phuket.

The debate is over whether absolute proof should be required for establishing the identity of the remaining victims, or whether some compromises should be made to bring closure to as many grieving families as possible.

While the international Interpol standard requires 99.9 percent certainty of identification, it is understood that at least some of the remaining nameless victims can muster 80 percent certainty.

The final chapter in the identification of tsunami victims in Thailand may have brought one corruption scandal and now a pay dispute.

But it should not be forgotten that the process has returned thousands of nameless victims from 40 countries to their families.

Another issue: if the process is to end, what happens to the identified but unwanted bodies?

There are 24 identified bodies of Burmese awaiting collection in above-ground cooled shipping containers, but the government of Myanmar denies that the victims are its citizens.

Another tsunami victim, from Nepal, was identified as long ago as January 2006. The TTVI has been awaiting collection of his body ever since.

The first 40 days of identifications after the December 26 2004 tsunami, before an international team from more than 30 countries took over, produced an unknown number of mistakes that have continued to bedevil the system ever since.

Somewhere between one in 20 and one in five of those early identifications were probably wrong, forensic experts say, making a successful conclusion to the entire project more difficult.

Winding up of the TTVI process at this point would leave open the question of who takes responsibility for the unidentified bodies buried at Bang Maruan, where international funding has preserved them in neat rows in a cemetery where the flags of more than 40 countries figure on the entrance nameplate.

As well as going unpaid for five months, TTVI staff at the cemetery are understood to be disappointed at the apparent lack of interest from senior officers in Bangkok, who seldom visit.

The TTVI, an international unit established in February 2005 that later was left to the Thais alone to run, is a mix of civilians and officers seconded from the Royal Thai Police.

Nitinai Sornsongkram, a civilian who is Project Manager at the Bang Maruan centre opposite the cemetery, is among those who believe that greater effort should be made to return bodies to families, even with less than 99.9 percent certainty.

The present ructions about pay and a recent corruption scandal involving one TTVI officer will horrify hundreds of police, forensic pathologists and dentists from countries all over the world who took part in the international identification process.

Of the 5400 victims of the tsunami in Thailand, about half were Thai and the rest were tourists or Burmese workers and their families.

Phuketwan's Tsunami File Highlights


Human Bones Add to Great Tsunami Mystery
Photo Album Human bones surface to add to the mystery of the 2004 tsunami. Can the final pieces ever be put together? Or did early mistakes make closure difficult for some families?
Human Bones Add to Great Tsunami Mystery

Tsunami Wave Carries Powerful Memories
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Phang Nga was the epicentre of the big wave that devastated the Andaman coast on December 26, 2004. Four years on, the region reflects on the significance of the tsunami.
Tsunami Wave Carries Powerful Memories

Tsunami ID Cremation Mixups Trouble Families
Photo Album 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.
Tsunami ID Cremation Mixups Trouble Families

Tsunami Missing: Families Still Waiting to Hear
Tsunami tears will flow this week for the dead, and for those still missing. Despite a forensic triumph that identified most of the unnamed victims, families still seek closure.
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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

The Man Who Waits in The Cool Container
Lost and found. Those three words tell a tsunami story that applied to thousands of victims. But for one of the lost and found, there has been no reunion with loved ones. And there may never be.
The Man Who Waits in The Cool Container

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 is a report of one reunion.
Water and Fire: A Tsunami Reunion

Phuket Wall of Remembrance Now a Disgrace
The world gave to Phuket and the Andaman coast after the 2004 tsunami. Now the island's Wall of Remembrance sits in a disgraceful state, with some flags of 45 countries blown away.
Phuket Wall of Remembrance Now a Disgrace

Tsunami Warning Test: How Safe Are We?
Warning drills for a tsunami are easy in sunshine. But the unpredictable arrival of a big wave in the middle of the night, when telephones and television are switched off, leaves us asking: How safe are we?
Tsunami Warning Test: How Safe Are We?

Tsunami Warning: 'Resorts to Blame'
The lessons of the 2004 tsunami have not been learned. And for the first time, the reliability of the big wave warning system is being questioned. An adequate answer is essential.
Tsunami Warning: 'Resorts to Blame'

US Calls For Tsunami ID work To Continue
A US grant to Thailand of up to $1.5 million to assist in restoring names to victims of the Asian Tsunami expires on March 31. But a scandal continues to obscure the future of the identification process.
US Calls For Tsunami ID work To Continue

Thai Official Accused of Tsunami Corruption
Accusations of corruption by a Thai official take the edge off a generous international tsunami project that involved about 40 countries and gave names back to thousands of unidentified victims.
Thai Official Accused of Tsunami Corruption

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