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Tsunami Corpse Turf Wars Break Out In Phuket

Tsunami Corpse Turf Wars Break Out In Phuket

by Richard S. Ehrlich

PHUKET, Thailand -- An embarrassing turf war has erupted between Thailand's respected, forensic expert and angry police about the thousands of corpses of foreigners and Thais being examined for identification, where they are kept, and who is issuing death certificates.

In an unrelated announcement, the U.S. Embassy has advised Americans who want to help victims of the tsunami, not to travel to Thailand's devastated region unless they have advance confirmation that their assistance is needed.

"Organizations and government agencies from around the world are conducting extensive recovery operations in the disaster area," the U.S. Embassy said on Friday (Jan. 14) in a "public" announcement.

"So that these operations can function as smoothly as possible, Americans are urged not to travel to the area in hope of volunteering their services unless they have been informed in advance that their skills can be put to use," the embassy said.

American survivors, tourists and residents have joined hundreds of people of other nationalities and volunteered to help Thais deal with the aftermath of the tsunamis. American volunteers and other foreigners have helped carry corpses at forensic centers, provided medical relief to victims, delivered food and other aid, cleared rubble, and provided free consultation to businesses and other groups crippled by the huge waves which slammed Thailand's west coast on Dec. 26.

The Thai government has benefited from the foreign volunteers' generosity because Thai rescue and relief teams were short-staffed, poorly coordinated, suffered translation difficulties and faced other woes, especially during the first two weeks.

At least 5,291 people died when tsunamis hammered Thailand. Thai officials said about half of those deaths may be foreign tourists.

Thailand's top forensic expert, Dr. Porntip Rojanasunan, is deputy director of the Justice Ministry's Central Institute for Forensic Science, and has worked round-the-clock amid the stench and chaos of makeshift mortuaries, to identify and preserve about 4,000 corpses.

International forensic teams, plus foreign and Thai volunteers, the media and others have praised her tireless efforts to coordinate DNA sampling, refrigeration of cadavers, databases of names, and other work which Dr. Porntip began soon after the tsunamis hit.

In the past few days, however, Police General Nopadol Somoonsub, a "police legal adviser", has publicly blasted Dr. Porntip's role, and said police should be overseeing the forensic work, not her.

An international Disaster Victim Identification (DVI) center opened a few days ago in Phuket, run by Europe-based Interpol, and was now coordinating foreign and Thai police, and all forensic information.

Police Gen. Nopadol has demanded Dr. Porntip turn over all her information to Thai police, Interpol, and the DVI.

"I don't know why she does not give us the information," Police Gen. Nopadol was quoted by the Bangkok Post as saying.

"If we have to start things all over again, it will be time-consuming," Gen. Nopadol said.

"It is a police job by law. Other agencies [handling corpses] do not understand the protocols...they have also confused the public with their incorrect information through the media," the police general said.

Dr. Porntip is an extremely popular forensic expert and has impressed Thais in the past with her fearless criticism of police.

"If they want to do the job, let them come and take the corpses themselves," Dr. Porntip said.

"I just want to send those bodies home, not to fight with any people in power."

She claimed her forensic work at outdoor mortuaries at three Buddhist temples in Phang Nga province, just north of Phuket, was efficient and providing information.

Some foreign volunteers, however, expressed shock and dismay at the lack of proper refrigeration of thousands of corpses at the temples, and the poorly trained Thai medical staff who were desperately trying to do DNA tests during the first two weeks.

"DNA, dental tests or even [Caesarian and other] surgical marks on some corpses need to be re-examined thoroughly to ensure that the right human remains are returned to relatives," Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra said on Wednesday (Jan. 12) when squabbling first surfaced between Dr. Porntip and the police.

The prime minister recently visited Dr. Porntip at the mortuaries, however, and publicly extended his blessings to her for working under such grisly conditions.

Hundreds of bodies of foreigners and Thais were packed in dry ice, outdoors, to cool them in the tropical heat at the Buddhist temples while DNA was extracted.

Hundreds of bodies which could not be immediately identified were then buried in temporary graves at the temples to slow their decomposition, because not enough refrigerated containers were available.

Those bodies are currently being exhumed and examined again, under the auspices of the DVI's foreign forensic teams.

Foreign governments recently agreed how to extract and identify DNA at the sites in Thailand, evaluate dental records, and analyze fingerprints, so the forensic work will be faster but still take several months to complete, according to DVI officials.

Interpol has provided a professional standard of "forensic identifiers", to confirm the identity of corpses recovered from the tsunamis.

"There are three identifiers: fingerprints, DNA or dental records. For a death certificate to be issued, you need two of those. Any combination, but two-out-of-three," a British diplomat said in an interview.

Thai media reported police were feuding with Dr. Porntip because some of them were angry after she gained control over forensic work in Bangkok in 2002, which police previously ruled upon, and her repeated criticism of the police's allegedly sloppy forensic work.

"The police were major opponents of the setting up of the Central Institute for Forensic Science at the Justice Ministry," where she now works, said the Bangkok Post in a Friday (Jan. 14) editorial.

Dr. Porntip "has also been outspoken in her criticism of the police, alleging cover-ups of extrajudicial killings after the war on drugs in 2003 multiplied such abuses and ruined Thailand's credibility abroad," the editorial added.


Richard S. Ehrlich, a freelance journalist who has reported news from Asia for the past 26 years, is co-author of the non-fiction book, "HELLO MY BIG BIG HONEY!" -- Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews. His web page is

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