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2004 Tsunami Crisis: Impact on Thailand

After the nations of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and India, Thailand was the next hardest hit country in terms of human death toll.  The tsunami devastated much of the southern coastal regions, which are highly popular amongst tourists like Phuket, Krabi, and Phi Phi Island.  More than 5,300 people are confirmed dead, but these estimates are considered conservative and are expected to rise.  Half of the bodies identified were foreign tourists hailing from a total of 36 countries.  More than 3,000 people are still missing.      

Thailand is more reliant on their tourism industry, which accounts for over 10-12% of the country’s GDP, than the other affected countries.  The tourism generated from Phuket alone accounts for almost 2% of the nation’s national income.  Understandably, officials expect that there will be a short lull period in the wake of the tsunami.  Despite this, economic analysts do not believe that the disaster will change any economic output for the year.  Unlike Sri Lanka and Indonesia, the Thai Government has shown little interest in debt relief, preferring to maintain its credit rating.  Instead, the government has proposed special tax breaks in international markets for Thai products - something that a few foreign governments have reportedly informally approved.

Here are some of the tsunami-related stories coming out of Thailand:

- Hundreds of dead victims of the tsunami have been exhumed in Thailand due to mistakes made in identification.  Authorities say some victims quickly visually identified as Thai and buried may actually have been foreign nationals.  The mistakes had been made in the widespread confusion and panic in the first few days following the tsunami as rescue teams quickly ran out of enough refrigerated containers to store bodies in.  Bodies were then divided according to whether they were visually identified as Thai or foreign.  Many apparently Thai victims were then quickly buried in sandy trenches at Bang Muang temple.  But some relatives of foreign tourists now suspect their loved ones may have been buried at Bang Muang.  The Thai government has asked for DNA samples from families of some missing foreign tourists to aid in the identification procedure.  Microchips will also be implanted in bodies to allow accurate identification of remains.  Officials say the nationalities of more than 2,100 victims were still unknown, a 10-fold increase on previous reported figures.

- Although there is no denying the tragedy of the horrific tsunami, the most destructive in history, there have been some silver linings – as there usually is with any great disaster.  In Thailand, naturalists and environmentalists were pleased to see the return of one of the most endangered species.  The Leatherback sea turtle, one of the world's most ancient species, had been crowded off Phuket's beaches by the growing tourism trade and had not been seen for three years.  Just a few days ago, a boy on Mai Khao beach had discovered a leatherback nest with about 80 eggs.  The leatherbacks, placed on the critically endangered list, are viewed as a living fossil that has existed for 100 million years.  They once made their annual egg-laying journey to Phuket, but over the last decade, their numbers had decline due to the invasion and encroachment of people on most of the beach areas, which has forced the turtles to change their destination to lay eggs. 

- Elephants that were used in the Hollywood major motion movie, Alexander, have been deployed to the Thai islands of Phuket and Phang Nga to help in the tsunami relief efforts.  The six male elephants, who will be able to access remote areas of the islands that automobiles cannot, will be used to help remove debris to assist in recovery of dead bodies and also possibly find survivors.  The animals are said to have pulled away concrete slabs and trees to reveal an unidentified body, and to have dragged a submerged van from a lake littered with debris.