TAKUA PA, Thailand (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - With the bodies of almost 400 victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami still unidentified a decade on, Thai police were holding out little hope of gleaning any new information from opening a cargo container packed with unclaimed personal items.
Watches, chunky gold necklaces with Buddhist amulets, an Egyptian souvenir coin purse, and a wad of $1,800 in cash were pulled from tattered cardboard boxes and police evidence bags stashed in the container that has not been opened since 2011.
The three meter by 12 meter container was passed to various Thai police agencies after the 2004 Boxing Day disaster that killed at least 226,000 people in 14 countries. It was handed over to Takua Pa district police in southern Thailand in 2011.
But the Takua Pa police never looked inside until recently when, after requests from Reuters, they opened the container ahead of the 10-year anniversary of the Dec. 26 tsunami when the items can, by official regulation, be put up for auction.
They initially believed the container held the belongings of unidentified victims, but found some items were identification cards and credit cards and could be claimed by relatives.
“I’m a bit surprised by the large number of valuables,” Lieutenant Colonel Voravit Yamaree from Takua Pa district said as his team surveyed the items on a long, white table.
“I think back then everyone was so busy focusing on identifying the corpses they may have forgotten about this.”
The tsunami left 5,395 dead and 2,932 missing in Thailand, including about 2,000 foreign tourists, when a wall of water several meters high ripped through resorts and fishing villages on the Andaman Sea coast in southern Thailand.
In the aftermath of the tsunami, forensics experts from 39 countries convened in Phang Nga, where about 80 percent of the victims in Thailand perished, to identify the bodies.
The Thai Tsunami Victim Identification unit was considered one of the largest and most successful projects of its kind, putting names and faces to the thousands of tourists, Thais and migrant workers killed in the Boxing Day disaster.
However, 10 years after the one of the most devastating humanitarian disasters in recorded history, about 400 unclaimed bodies – 369 of them still unidentified – rest in metal coffins, marked with coded numbers.
In the past four years, just 24 bodies have been claimed, all but one Thai nationals, according to various reports.
In Ban Nam Khem, a sleepy fishing village on the north end of Phang Nga, the tsunami left 661 dead and 765 missing.
Ban Nam Khem resident Hin Chan-ngern lost five family members in the tsunami - his wife, brother and three daughters. In the three years after the disaster, four of their bodies were found, but his eldest daughter remains among the missing.
“We provided all of the information – dental records, tissue and DNA samples ... but they still can’t find her. I don’t know what more I can do,” said Hin, sitting amid photos of his loved ones killed in the tsunami.
The unidentified and unclaimed bodies are all in a cemetery in Bang Maruan village, just south of Takua Pa.
The graveyard, with a metal plaque at the gate listing the nations involved in the project, is often overgrown with weeds.
Of the bodies there, authorities have identified 26 Thais and 26 Burmese, but their families have not come to claim their bodies, according to Colonel Yuthaphong Intaraphone, the police superintendent overseeing the Police Forensic Science Office.
“It would cost them (the relatives of Burmese migrant workers) a decade of life savings to come to Thailand and reclaim the bodies,” Yutaphong said in an interview at the Disaster Victim Identification Centre in Bangkok.
What happens now to the personal possessions that have been stashed in the container for years remains unknown with the police headquarters in Bangkok to make that call.
Even if the items in the container do not go up for auction, the chances of victims’ families claiming the possessions of their loved ones are narrowing as the boxes holding the contents deteriorate, said Voravit.
“We have records with code numbers listed on each box, but it is rather difficult to check as the numbers are fading,” he said.
Reporting by Prapan Chankaew, Damir Sagolj and Juarawee Kittisilpa, writing by Alisa Tang, editing by Belinda Goldsmith.