Posted online: Saturday, January 01, 2005 at 0308 hours IST
KHAO LAK, DECEMBER 31: As ash from cremation fires drifted through the air
around the devastated beach resort of Khao Lak on Thursday night, Thai
soldiers unloaded numbered body bags from a lorry at a graveyard in Bangmuang.
Inside them were the corpses of 57 Thais, some of them children, which had not
been claimed. They were lined up alongside two 5 ft-deep ditches in the sandy
soil, bulldozers standing by to cover them once their order had been recorded.
Down the coast at Hat Sai Kaew, on the northern tip of Phuket, six refrigerated containers
enough to hold more than 700 bodies - stood by to receive bodies believed to be
those of foreigners. Starting Friday, all apparently Western victims are to be
transported to three central locations, where foreign forensic teams will collaborate in a
mass identification operation, focusing on DNA.
Diplomats on Phuket had made clear to Thai authorities that they would not tolerate mass
burial of foreigners, but there is a danger of disease breaking out with thousands of
corpses lying in high daytime temperatures. Given the number of people killed, cold
storage for all is unfeasible.
Somboon Thamtakerngkit, head of the department of forensic medicine, said hair was the
key racial indicator - virtually all Thais have thick black hair. ''Race is easy to tell at
the start but now it's beginning to be harder and harder because, when they decompose,
everybody just looks alike if they are without hair,'' she said. But race is not proof of
nationality and Asiatics from other nations are liable to be identified as Thai.
The recording process is detailed and has already worked in one case. An official at the
graveyard said that 141 bodies had been buried on Thursday and one had been retrieved
after a family had recognised a victim's description and photograph.
In a status-obsessed society, where foreigners are assumed to have money, the policy of
splitting the victims into those who are to receive a mass burial and those who are not is
Thai hospitality, and concern for the future of its tourist industry, will also have played a
part in the decision, but it still rankled with some Thais. ''It's unfair,'' said one Thai