Mass exhumation planned in tsunami-hit Thailand

The Guardian

Bang Muang, January 10:

About 800 bodies will have to be exhumed from Bang Muang temporary cemetery and re-examined because of fears that foreigners may have been mistakenly identified as Thai nationals in the chaos that followed the tsunami.

The news will add to the pressure on UK prime minister Tony Blair when he gives a statement to the House of Commons today amid criticism that his government turned down offers of help from UK forensic experts who might have been able to accelerate and improve the process of victim identification in the crucial first few days.

Despite the largest forensic investigation in history, which has involved pathologists from more than 20 countries, only 50 of the British dead have been found and their identities confirmed. The confusion, which is almost inevitable given that the morgues were largely staffed by student volunteers and holidaymakers after the tsunami, might have been eased if international specialists had arrived earlier. One of Britain’s leading forensic experts urged the Foreign Office to dispatch a large team to Thailand soon after the tsunami, but her suggestion was turned down and a 20-strong UK police team did not arrive until December 30.

Professor Sue Black, head of the anatomy and forensic anthropology department at Dundee University and a director of the Centre for International Forensic Assistance (CIFA), told her local newspaper, the Dundee Courier, the offer was greeted with ‘a deafening silence’ from the Foreign Office. The Thai authorities estimate it will take at least two months to collate DNA information on the thousands of bodies that have become too bloated or decomposed for visual identification. The process may have been made more difficult by the preferential treatment given to ‘foreign-looking’ bodies. Western corpses have been placed in refrigerated containers at Yanyao temple, the main temporary morgue in the disaster area, where they are being dealt with by team of experts from around the world.

Asian-looking bodies are stored two metres underground at the Bang Muang temporary cemetery because there were not enough fridges for everyone and it was feared that leaving corpses in the open would create a health risk.