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Thai Authorities Exhume Bodies for Forensic Tests

  • Raymond Thibodeaux

In the haste to bury the dead after the December 26 tsunami, many governments simply buried thousands of victims in mass graves. Now, Thai authorities are digging up many of those bodies for forensic tests to help identify them.

In the days after the tsunami killed more than 5,000 people, Thai authorities ordered the burial of thousands of bodies to avoid the spread of diseases.

In Thailand, the tsunami hit tourist areas packed with tens of thousands of visitors from Asia, Europe and the United States. Up to half of Thailand's victims may be foreigners.

For the most part, Western looking corpses, as well of those thought to have been Asian tourists, were shuttled into refrigerated units and makeshift mortuaries until they could be identified.

But now the government suspects that some foreigners were mistakenly buried in the mass graves.

Thai authorities and forensic teams from at least 20 countries are exhuming about eight hundred bodies to establish their identities.

It is part of a larger effort to identify the 2,300 bodies that remain unclaimed in southern Thailand.

Apirath Zienravi with Thailand's Foreign Affairs Ministry is helping direct the process. He says the effort depends on getting photos, dental records and other documents from victims' relatives to match what the forensic experts find.

"What we did at the moment is DNA sample collection," he said. "Then if those persons who actually still have their relatives missing would send a DNA profile through their embassy to the [Thai] Ministry of Foreign Affairs for us to process it."

The information is funneled through the Disaster Victim Identification - or DVI - center, which has teams of forensic technicians to examine bodies for clues such as fingerprints and tattoos, and collect DNA samples.

The information is loaded into a microchip and placed in the body, making it easier to match bodies with data provided by relatives.

But the Thai government has criticized some foreign forensic teams for giving priority to Western-looking corpses over those of Thais. Officials at the DVI center have vowed to treat the all the dead equally.

"But mind you, with due respect, the bodies we find as far as we can see at the moment are decomposing and are difficult to identify whether it's foreigner or Thai," Mr. Zienravi said. "I went down to the spot and looked at some of the pictures and thought, Oh, how could we identify them? They're all black and blue."

The December 26 earthquake and tsunami killed more than 150,000 people in a dozen Indian Ocean countries. Either because of the high number of deaths or poverty, many countries have simply consigned all victims to mass graves, spending little effort in identifying them.

In Thailand, officials and forensic workers urge patience for those waiting confirmation of a loved one's fate. The process for identifying the tsunami's victims could take several months.

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