- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 11, 2005

BANGKOK — Authorities handling the Katrina aftermath can look to Thailand for what comes next — No sooner had last year’s tsunami receded than the nation’s coast was hit with a wave of scam artists, clairvoyants and real estate speculators seeking to cash in.

More than 5,400 people died in Thailand when the tidal wave swept in from the Andaman Sea on Dec. 26. And unlike in its hard-hit neighbors, many of those killed in Thailand were well-off foreign tourists, making the experience a test case for what could follow on the Gulf Coast in the United States.

Thai authorities quickly discovered there was an urgent need to identify the dead, so that relatives could file insurance claims, inherit property or simply keep businesses running.

That brought the clairvoyants and mystics, offering their services to the desperate and gullible. Private security services sprang up offering quick results to relatives frustrated by bureaucratic red tape. Con artists also offered help for a price but provided none.

Close behind came a second wave made up of property speculators, buying up distressed sites at popular beaches, such as Phuket and Khao Lak Beach at rock-bottom prices, or intimidating poor villagers into vacating prized plots.

The chaos offered an opportunity of another sort for career criminals. The international police agency Interpol set up special measures to try to make sure known criminals didn’t fake their deaths to avoid future arrest.

Authorities say the principal methods of identifying the dead from the tsunami were through fingerprints, DNA and dental records. But in many cases, it was a unique tattoo that enabled a body to be matched to a name.

Such methods, coupled with a computerized database staffed by specialists on several continents, made it possible for about 3,500 corpses to be named and consigned to burial or cremation in Thailand and abroad.

But more than eight months after the tidal wave, 1,900 bodies remain unidentified in refrigerated storage units in Thailand alone.

In some cases, whole families perished, leaving no relatives to report the missing people, and no one to offer DNA samples for comparison.

“It will take another two to three years” to identify the remaining corpses, said Noppadol Somboonsub, head of the Victim Identification Center last month.

Among those who may forever go unidentified are the countless undocumented immigrants from Burma who worked in the tourist trade, on construction sites, in factories and in the fishing industry. The comparison with undocumented Mexicans working in the United States is evident.

In most cases though, the Katrina victims, like the tourists in Thailand, will have left extensive paper trails, including residential records, driver’s licenses, employment, welfare and other financial documents.

U.S. authorities will likely take similar steps to the British police, who, after the tsunami, visited apartments, houses and offices in England, meticulously dusting personal property for fingerprints to be matched against Interpol’s tsunami database.

After that disaster, world governments agreed upon a set of standard “forensic identifiers” for victims that could be applied in Louisiana and Mississippi.

“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 official explained.


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