PHUKET, THAILAND — An elderly Western man approaches the forensics desk in Phuket's city hall. He doesn't want to talk. He just wants to offer his DNA with hopes that it might help find his sister. There are forms to be filled and a hair to be plucked - that's it. He bows his head, elbows resting on the table, as a woman lifts the tweezers.
At least 5,265 people perished in the waves that hit Thailand on Dec. 26; at least 2,510 were foreigners, mostly vacationers. According to the Thai government's latest figures, more than 3,700 people are still missing, more than 900 of them foreigners. And identifying human remains found in the disaster zone grows trickier each day.
"The government tries to encourage people to use DNA because there is no other way to identify the body," said Somchai Saiburi, a major in Phuket's police forensic-science office. Any relative of a missing person - Thai or foreign - can register a DNA sample for no charge. The Thai government has established several DNA collection centers in Bangkok and throughout the affected region, and a temporary morgue is opening in Phang Nga province, where the most victims died. But Mr. Somchai says most of the visitors to his office are foreigners.
"[Many Thai people] don't want to take [DNA samples] from the dead," he says. "This is Thai superstition."
Additionally, some people mistakenly think they must pay a high price for the tests. Tsum Prok, a student-turned-volunteer at Wat Bang Muang, a temple in Phang Nga where 1,200 bodies were stored, thought it would cost relativesabout $75 for a DNA test - which many people cannot afford. But government officials insist the tests are free.
"According to the prime minister, everything that relates to helping the sufferers - we will not charge," said Nick Fuangrabil, a junior officer in the Foreign Ministry.
The Thai government has asked foreign forensics experts to help in the identification process, and several foreign teams have arrived to take DNA samples. Mr. Fuangrabil said foreign teams will conduct their own studies and create databases of DNA information. It's possible those groups may charge their own fees.
The entire process will likely take months of painstaking work. Somchai Pholeamer, a clinical professor and forensics doctor at Bangkok's Siriraj Hospital who volunteered at Wat Bang Muang, says the first task is distinguishing whether a corpse is Thai or foreign.
At first, clothing and jewelry provided some of those clues. But by the fifth day, the possibility of identifying a body on sight grew slim. The situation has since improved. "At that time, we still lacked refrigerated containers," Fuangrabil says. "Now I think we have enough containers."
Fuangrabil says rumors have been an equally challenging problem. "I can confirm that not one single body of a foreigner was cremated," he says, contradicting several Thai news reports. He says that every foreign body will be kept until a positive identification can be made.
Volunteers across the region are continuing to search through wreckage for bodies. At Khao Lak, one of the hardest-hit beaches north of Phuket province, a Korean rescue team on its fifth day of work found a backpack and spiled its contents, looking for clues: wallet, cellphone, medications, lipstick. In all, that team found 11 bodies, rescuer Lee Insun says. He didn't think they would find more, and decided to head to the north, where the tsunami wiped out an entire fishing village.