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Richard Ehrlich: Thai Tsunami Volunteer Kidnapped

Tsunami Volunteer Kidnapped In Thailand


by Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- The nightmare of Asia's tsunami took an ugly twist with the alleged kidnapping of a woman who was held for 24 hours and interrogated about the forensic identification of Thai and foreign corpses.

Outrage and suspicion quickly focused on a possible role by police amid accusations and denials on Thursday (March 10) over the alleged kidnapping of Arunswasdi Bhuridadtpong, a university liaison official who worked as a volunteer amid thousands of cadavers at a Buddhist temple morgue near Phuket.

"If those people -- I'm not saying who -- want information about the volunteers, they can come and ask us at the Forensic Center for it. There is no need to kidnap people," Thailand's top forensic expert, Dr. Porntip Rojanasunan, said in remarks published on Thursday (March 10).

When interviewed by telephone on Thursday (March 10) and asked about her statement, Dr. Porntip replied: "I don't want to talk about this issue. There will be another problem.

"I don't have a problem with the police, but I still have the problem with the illegal abuse of power," Dr. Porntip said. "I want to improve the forensic system in Thailand."

Asked about the alleged kidnap victim, Dr. Porntip replied: "Yes, I knew her. She was a volunteer. I often saw her after work. She is a good girl.

"The Department of Special Investigation -- something like America's F.B.I. -- is taking care of her," said Dr. Porntip, who is deputy director of the Justice Ministry's Central Institute for Forensic Science.

Ms. Arunswasdi, 24, claimed she was abducted in Bangkok at about 8 p.m. on Saturday (March 5) near a public "skytrain," or monorail, station by two men.

She said the unidentified kidnappers took her to an unknown location where two other men joined them in questioning the black-haired woman for several hours until she felt sleepy.

When she regained consciousness on Sunday (March 6), it was nearly midnight and she found herself in a different Bangkok neighborhood, Ms. Arunswasdi told police.

She said the four kidnappers asked about her work with Dr. Porntip and the forensic identification process conducted in Wat Yarn Yao, a Buddhist temple converted into a makeshift morgue in tsunami-devastated Phang Nga province's Takua Pa district just north of Phuket island.

The temple's morgue was seen around the world in media reports, and visited by Thai and foreign officials who were aghast at the thousands of corpses laid outdoors in the tropical heat, cooled by dry ice.

The emergency facilities lacked refrigeration and forensic personnel, so Ms. Arunswasdi joined volunteers from all over the world to unload corpses from arriving trucks, and assist in extracting DNA samples so the bloated, blackened bodies could be named.

More than 5,300 Thais and foreigners perished on Dec. 26 when tsunamis drowned resorts and villages along the tropical edge of Thailand's west coast, and about 2,000 of these victims are still unidentified.

Many of the corpses were initially brought to the Buddhist temple, under the supervision of Dr. Porntip, who was lionized by the media, volunteers and officials for her ceaseless efforts amid the macabre conditions.

One month after the tsunami, police demanded Dr. Porntip turn over control of her forensic work, including all DNA records, so the system could meld with international forensic standards.

Dr. Porntip and Police General Nopadol Somboonsub then aired conflicting complaints over the move, blaming each other for "substandard" forensic work.

The vocal forensic expert previously clashed with police in cases involving alleged extrajudicial killings by police, especially during Thailand's ongoing "war on drugs" in which more than 2,300 people were mysteriously executed in streets and the countryside in the past year.

"I would like to say once and for all, we do not have any problems with [doctor] Porntip or her people, and there would be no reason for police to commit such an outrageous act," Mr. Nopadol told reporters.

"In the daybook records, Ms. Arunsawasdi said she was not abused or manhandled in any way, but the four men took turns asking her the same questions over and over against for hours on end," said the Crime Suppression Division's Police Colonel Prasert Phannadee.

Volunteers who worked at the temple's morgue also voiced suspicion that police were involved in the kidnapping, but no evidence has surfaced to link anyone to the alleged crime.

"Many of the other volunteers are coming up with the same conclusions," said Dr. Stephen Wilson, an American volunteer from Hawaii, according to the Bangkok Post.

"Many of us suspect police involvement in this masquerade," Dr. Wilson said.

On Thursday (March 10), the government gave Dr. Porntip a "Woman of the Year" award for her human rights work.

She joined a handful of Thai females awarded by the Social Development and Human Security Ministry to mark International Women's Day, which was on Tuesday (March 8).

"Dr. Porntip characteristically invited controversy in her acceptance speech, when she blamed women for destroying the opportunities handed out to them, saying that women let other people trample down their chances," the government-run Thai New Agency reported on Thursday (March 10).

*************

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 www.geocities.com/glossograph/

-ENDS-


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