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A haunting memory from the tsunami: faded images not forgotten

Thailand's Tsunami Legacy Haunted by Mistakes

Sunday, December 27, 2009
News Analysis: Photo Album Above

THE PROCESS of identifying the remaining unnamed victims of the 2004 tsunami is to continue, senior police and diplomats confirmed yesterday in a surprise announcement.

For the first time yesterday, it was officially admitted that mistakes had been made in the earlier identification process, clouding the potential successful conclusion of the entire operation.

Giving names back to 3705 victims of the 2004 tsunami was never going to be easy, especially as they included citizens, many of them tourists, from 40 countries.

Observers figured that, running short on funds, the Thai Tsunami Victim Identification process might be wound up . . . and the fifth anniversary loomed as an appropriate time.

Yet somehow, probably with assistance from the international community, extra money has become available. The end has yet to be reached for one of the most amazing sagas of forensic science.

It's hard to find sufficient praise for the intense investigative process that has returned 3307 bodies to families around the world over the past five years. That's a remarkable scientific and humanitarian achievement.

Yet because of inevitable human error in the early days of visual identification, the end-game continues to be difficult.

It was never going to be easy.

For example, the generals who hold power in Burma refuse to accept responsibility for 24 bodies that have been identified as Burmese citizens. How can they be citizens if they have left our country illegally, says the mindless junta.

In the massively tragic aftermath of a natural disaster on the scale of the tsunami, some mistakes are inevitable.

Relatives think they have found a loved one: they want to believe they have found a loved one. Numbers are written in different shapes, by different nationalities. One body bag looks the same as any other.

Only after the first 40 days of forensic work were international standards introduced. From then on, mistakes probably still happened, but given the rigors of the process, probably less frequently.

Today with 398 bodies remaining and 444 people listed as missing, every mistake has returned to haunt those who want to return the remaining bodies to their rightful families.

Compounding the situation is human emotion. Phuketwan was present earlier this year when a Thai man accepted and cremated the body of his wife . . . for a second time. The first hand-back had been found after cross-checking to be the body of the wrong woman.

Others are less accepting of mistakes. The bodies of three Thais, identified positively by DNA, dental records or fingerprints, are not being taken back by their families . . . because they are certain that they collected the right people, and the bodies have been cremated.

Mistakes within the system have also affected families in Britain and Hong Kong: we have been told about those by reliable sources. Other mistakes are almost certain to have occurred among the more than 1060 Swedes and Germans who were victims of the tsunami. There are undoubtedly more.

One man, identified in 2006 as a citizen of Nepal, has been awaiting collection ever since. While the TTVI continues to claim that he is a Nepalese citizen, the Napalese embassy in Bangkok, the editor of a newspaper in Nepal told us, denies that he is one of theirs.

Denial, denial, denial. That's the main end-game issue.

Those 28 identified bodies, 24 Burmese, three Thais and the lone Nepalese, have been kept in cooled sea containers above-ground, awaiting collection. Now these named bodies, successes for the scientific process, are to be re-buried alongside the 370 unnamed victims, within 30 days.

To put those 28 back in the ground is a defeat for the ID process that restored so many names and returned so many ''loved ones.'' As the TTVI had promised: ''We Will Take Them Home.''

But when home does not want them, or they are not loved by all . . .

The process, though, is to continue. During the early days of identification, amid the layers of sand and confusion, DNA samples were fortunately taken.

So, remarkably, five years on, the scientific checking and cross-checking will continue. Perhaps there are more who will be taken home. One day, somehow.

It's a shame that the Thai authorities were not careful with the statistics covering the tsunami.

There were 5395 dead. But a Thai bureaucrat at one stage during 2005 added the ''missing'' to the bodies, double-counting and ignoring the TTVI identification process, so that the official tally remains at an astronomical 8212.

It's a significant mistake, one of several that will hopefully be rectified, for the sake of Thailand's history and many families, before the sixth anniversary.
Thailand Tsunami: Did 2800 More Die Near Phuket?
Update Five years on, the final tally of Thailand's tsunami dead remains elusive. Was their double counting, with some Missing and Dead actually being counted twice?
Thailand Tsunami: Did 2800 More Die Near Phuket?

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 Forensic Team Goes Unpaid: Is it the End?
Photo Album The noble global initiative to identify as many of the 2004 tsunami victims as possible in Thailand may be collapsing amid lack of funds and debate about how the process should end.
Tsunami Forensic Team Goes Unpaid: Is it the End?

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

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

'That's My Mum' as Tsunami Victims Remember
Photo Album Tears flowed, memories flooded back, and the world shared a moment's memory of a day that will never be forgotten along the Andaman's tsunami coast.
'That's My Mum' as Tsunami Victims Remember

Comments

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Unidentified bodies are 388 excluding those 28 (24+3+1) pending repatriation.
You may check with PlassData records at TTVI - IMC in Bangkok. The machine never lie! Otherwise there will be no accurate & reliable figure. (All are miss)

Editor: We are keen to set the record straight. At the weekend, we were told by the TTVI that there are 398 bodies. That figure includes the 28 who have been identified but remain unwanted (24 Burmese, 1 Nepalese and 3 Thais.) A total of 3307 bodies have been identified since the TTVI began its process. What's not clear is how many bodies were returned in the earlier 40 day period, and how many of those were incorrect. We believe there were a total of 5395 bodies in Thailand, meaning that 2116 were probably handed back in that early high-risk period. Does anyone know for sure? The missing tally, according to the TTVI, now stands at 444. Can we safely assume most of the missing are among the 398 bodies? If all the missing are genuine, this means only 46 people have been ''lost,'' probably swept out to sea or buried along the shoreline. It remains a remarkable scientific process.

Posted by Khemmarin Hassiri on December 29, 2009 09:10

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It is not difficult to count. The cemetery has a lay out divided by zones. Before the manager left this mission I had regular contact with him but I could not access information at TTVI-IMC though I was an ex-commander, Everything there seems to be mysterous to me. (including you) Have you ever asked the officer in charge whether he has tried to contact the relatives of identified victims?

For the figure of returned bodies in the first 40 days we have to add the numbers from every sites (Site 1A - Wat Yan Yao, Site 1B - Wat Bang Muang, Site2 - Mai Khao in Phuket and some other from hospitals, Site 3 - Krabi, Ranong, Trang and Satun. From the best of my knowledge during my term for site 1A misidentification mostly by physical comparison are about 30+ or less than 1.5 percent ( I have to review case by case for official reference )The figure 2116 is pretty close to my figure 2117 but please make noted that some months later we discovered human remains from Khao Lak and also Koh Pee pee which believe to be victims of Tsunami 2004. My death toll goes over 5400.( means 5400+ ) You can not assume that most of the missing are among the 398 ( I wouldn't like to quote 398 as it is 388 ) The result from the last DNA analysis shows that the DNA profiles of 388 unidentified and being buried at the Cemetery in Bang Muang could not be matched with the majority of those 444 missing ( I doubt this number too, it should be higher ) So frankly to say that I don't trust the current TTVI information which you recently obtained.

Editor: Forensic experts have said that the number of mistakes in the first 40 days is likely to be at least five percent. Others say the figure could be as high as 20 percent. Sorting out those mistakes is likely to now be a major part of the TTVI's work. If not for that, why would it be continuing? We were told there have been five identifications in 2009, a low return. There is no longer an 'officer in charge' on site at the Bang Maruan cemetery. Most of the year it is left to the caretaker, and the grass grows over the headstones.

Posted by Khemmarin Hassiri on December 30, 2009 01:12

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The 28 identified bodies are not unwanted. Some of those related to misidentification which you have to deal with families patiently. Some families informed me that they were not well explained and they also were afraid that they had offended the law by receiving the wrong bodies.

Moreover, they would not be paid for the cost of the new repatriation as they had collect once. When I was at Site1C (Bang Maruan) I received kind assistance from the Finnish Red Cross who provided funding for the abovesaid problem. I belive that the current team does not put sufficient effect of trying to facilitate the victims' families. Do not trust me right away, please try to reach one of those families and you will be clear of why those 28 bodies have been staying in the freezer awaiting their beloved ones to collect their bodies for more than 2 years. Now they give only 30 days to the relatives or else those 28 bodies will be returned to the graves. Let's count down (I can place my bet that the rebury will never happen!!) And how can they return the premise to the community and say "We have done our best"

Editor: Why have most Burmese bodies been returned directly to families, while in the case of these 24, the Burmese Government is expected to claim them? I can understand the issue with the three Thai bodies. Yet the man from Nepal has been waiting since 2006.

Posted by Khemmarin Hassiri on December 30, 2009 01:23

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TTVI tried to contact the Burmese Embassy in Bangkok at the beginning of TTVI operation but the embassy declined to handle the matter (repatriation) then come the NGO and the working group from the Lawyer Council of Thailand who helped organize with the Burmese victims families not and easy job as you know that some of them were illegal migrants (sorry to state this). Then we decided to handle the Burmese victims this way (through the NGO and LCT working group) It came to and end that the budget provided to these two organizations was spent. The cooperation between TTVI and them was concluded in June 2007. Since then there was no contact from TTVi to the Burmese families. The lone Nepalese is an exception as we had contacted the Napalese Embassy in Bangkok and later the embassy had been able to contacted two families (but they could not locate the third familiy). Later, the Nepalese communities went to TTVI - Bang Maruan to collect the two bodies and cremated the bodies there with their ritual ceremony.

Editor: Thanks for the information and the good work. There are still hundreds of families waiting to hear . . .

Posted by Khemmarin Hassiri on December 30, 2009 08:27

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Police can not work alone to achieve this mission, there are number of organization await Royal Thai Police to say "Can you help me?" (Me too)

Posted by Khemmarin Hassiri on December 30, 2009 13:15

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You know what? I think the reason why there was a US representative at the memorial service is because the US is largely funding the continuation of the TTVi process. Continuing the science can probably tell them things about identification that they feel may offer insights in similar natural or man-made disasters. In many ways its an extension and expansion of the 9/11 process. If the US is funding it, that's good. If more families find closure, great.

Posted by Angelfire on January 2, 2010 20:14

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US Cooperative agreement (the funding to TTVI - 2.5 million USD) was allocated from the anti terrorism program funding. The agreement is an add-on to TTVI operational fund but is not inclusive.

Editor: What is expected to be achieved, I wonder, under the TTVI banner? Five identifications in 2009 . . .more in 2010?

Posted by Anonymous on January 4, 2010 07:39

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The automobile without showrooms will never sell any good vehicles to the market. I am so surprised that TTVI had made 5 identifications as there is no exhumation of unidentified bodies from the cemetery. The factory declared that they have sold certain vehicles but we never see one of them on the road!!!. Please ask TTVI the body numbers of those 5 identifications.

Posted by Anonymous on January 4, 2010 17:51

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TTVI spent out almost 23 million baht from TTVI Operation Fund (EU funded) within two years with five identifications return. How much will they spend to identify other 388?

Posted by Anonymous on January 5, 2010 09:07

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I was there in Phang Ngam working with the TTVI. I saw the tremendous efforts they made, though the international DVI caused significant problems, along with much grief. I know for a fact that the real mistakes were made by the international DVI, not Thai forensics. They just get the blame.

Posted by Hans B on March 14, 2011 23:46

Editor Comment:

Mistakes were less likely under the international system. But the claim that only one mistake was made in the first 40 days, before the internationals too over, is unlikely to be true. Every mistake created problems as the number of nameless was reduced.


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