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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The diminutive Dr Death

Vanguard: Thailand’s Central Institute of Forensic Science director Dr Porntip Rojanasunan investigating the fire that broke out at Santika Pub in Bangkok after midnight on New Year’s Day 2009, killing 59 clubbers. – Photographs courtesy of The Nation


Despised by the police but hailed by the masses, Dr Porntip Rojanasunan is relentless in her pursuit of truth.

IT IS 5pm in Bangkok and Dr Porntip Rojanasunan is wrapping up another hectic day in Parliament fighting for funds for Thailand’s Central Institute of Forensic Science, of which she is director.

Dr Death, as she is nicknamed, is surprisingly diminutive. We expected an opinionated, fiery character. Instead she is wraith-like and soft-spoken with firm, kind eyes. It belies her trademark punk look of spiky hair and lips painted the colour of dried blood. Her jeans are tucked into Dr Martens boots laced with large green ribbons.

Dr Porntip is far from an ordinary physician and not just because of her image in a conservative society. Thailand’s most famous forensic pathologist is on the forefront of social change by challenging, often as a lone voice, corrupt police covering up crime for powerful politicians and deaths in custody. She has claimed that 60% of police findings are wrong.

Dr Porntip’s badgering for an independent and professional approach to forensic science paid off in 2002 when the Thai Government founded the Institute and appointed her deputy director. She introduced DNA testing to Thailand and expanded the field of forensic science where previously only the police conducted autopsies.

The police despise her. Dr Porntip has been threatened, insulted, bullied, ridiculed, sued and hauled to court countless times. Her countrymen revere her. In 2003 she was given the honorific title Khunying, which is equivalent to the British Dame.

“Dr Porntip? She No.1!” says one taxi driver, waving his thumb at us in the rear-view mirror.

Her work is so well-known that she has even been invited to testify at the Teoh Beng Hock inquest this Thursday in Kuala Lumpur.

Crime and punishment

Justice for the dead is part of human rights, says Dr Porntip. “We need fair justice. Perpetrators of crime must be punished. But in Thailand, the poor, illiterate and defenceless are jailed. The privileged escape the rule of law.

“This is not right. Why is there selective punishment for different people? Anyone abusing their power, who kill and harm others must be equally punished.”

Forensic science in Thailand remains an unattractive field to venture into. There are less than 10 forensic pathologists working alongside Dr Porntip.

“Our forensic science lags far behind international standards; we do not even have forensic anthropologists,” she says. “We’ve doubled our budget today but we badly need equipment, facilities and training to improve our officers’ expertise.

“But we’ve had some improvements. The Institute now conducts autopsies and DNA testing under the Ministry of Justice. Our work must be independent to preserve its integrity.”

Dr Porntip became known in 1999 when she countered police claims that thugs had killed one of her medical students. It was actually the girl’s boyfriend who had dismembered her body into 168 parts and flushed the pieces down the toilet.

More families of victims brought their cases to her. In September 1999 came the high profile case of powerful Thai MP Hangthong Thammawattana who was administrator of his family’s vast fortunes. He was found shot in his brother’s bedroom clutching a gun in his hand.

Police closed the case as suicide. Dr Porntip countered that Hangthong had been hit on the head and shot. His younger brother Noppadol was eventually charged with his murder in 2003 but acquitted in September 2007.

In April 2003, the Surat Thani police sued Dr Porntip for claiming that they had beaten a suspected rapist to death. Suthisak Rimdusit, 21, was accused of raping a child and taken in for questioning. He died after one hour. The police said it was from asphyxia.

His family brought his body to Dr Porntip for an independent autopsy. It revealed signs of torture, melted plastic on his groin and bruises on his chest, indicating police brutality. The police later refused to release his semen for independent tests.

Dr Porntip went on to reveal extrajudicial killings during the brutal 2003 crackdown on drug dealers in which 1,500 people died. But it was her work in leading an international team of forensic scientists to identify, tag and bag over 8,000 tsunami victims in 2004 in Phuket that won her public praise.

In October 2004, she exposed that the 78 protestors rounded up in Tak Bai had suffocated to death after they were crammed into trucks transporting them to Pattani. And in May 2005, she defied police findings that fugitive Sunthorn Wangdao couldn’t have committed suicide with four bullets in his lung and one to his head.

Most recently she upset actor David Carradine’s family when she reported that he’d died of auto-erotic asphyxiation, in an attempt to heighten sexual satisfaction.

“In Thailand, we have much abuse of power and corruption,” says Dr Porntip. “We need someone to stand with the victims. I believe forensic science will always reveal the truth, if we allow it to.

“There have been too many unexplained disappearances and deaths. My goal to create a national Missing Persons Institute is not yet realised.”

A life less than ordinary

Born in Bangkok in 1955, Dr Porntip was educated in medical science at the Ramathibodi Hospital at Mahidol University, where she later lectured.

At 26, while serving at the Phra Buddhachinaraj Hospital in Pitsanulok, she decided that the life of an ordinary doctor was not for her. She took up forensic anthropology and pathology at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Washington DC. Upon her return home, she passionately embraced her new job, often working alone on corpses at the Ramathibodi Hospital from as early as 5am, in an era when there were only six forensic pathologists in Thailand. Much of what she knows is self-taught from books.

“I love being a doctor, but I enjoy solving puzzles instead of diagnosing diseases,” she says. She stresses she never sought to be different. Her dressing compensates for her gruesome work in slicing and cutting up cadavers.

“I had wanted to become an interior designer,” Dr Porntip, who studied in a missionary school, explains in halting English. “As a doctor, I can’t wear whatever I want. I suppose I express my creative side through my dressing. And the dead do not complain about the way I look.”

Dr Porntip has been criticised of playing up to the media but reporters have said she actually shied away from the press. During the 2004 tsunami aftermath, ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s wife Potjaman had showed up offering to help, and was turned away.

Dr Porntip lives in Bangkok with her husband, bank manager Viroj, and their daughter Yaravee, 17, an aspiring artist.

“My husband actually looks more like a doctor than I do,” she says laughing. “He’s afraid of my work though, of dead bodies and bone saws. When he married me he thought I worked with microscopes in a lab.”

Weekends are spent at home. Dr Porntip is an ardent fan of TV series CSI. She also loves dancing to Latin music. To support her meagre government salary, she writes best-selling books on her cases.

After having examined over 10,000 bodies, Dr Porntip believes that the spirits of the dead are her guardian angels.

“I never see myself as a hero. My father taught me to believe in Buddhism – to be brave, to love my country and king, and to always do what is right and good,” she recalls. “He’d instruct me to pick up broken glass from the pavements to prevent others from injuring themselves.

“Studying in a missionary school instilled discipline in me. I learnt systematic thinking from my parents as they were both scientists. I loved going to the movies, and I had to write a conclusion after each one. Exercises like that helped me develop clear thinking from young.”

In 1999 just as Dr Porntip was becoming famous, she discovered cancer in her thyroid and colon as her mother had. Early detection prevented the cancer from spreading. It gave her a new perspective on life and death.

“The first body I autopsied was a former patient during my internship in Pitsanulok,” she recalls. “I didn’t realise she wasn’t going to live through her illness.

“I learnt then that there’ll always be a time when our lives end, so I’d better make the best of it. All the good I can do, I want to do when I’m alive. If you have one life and you’re not making something good with it, then what’s the point?”

Still there were times when surrounded by so much death and violence got to her.

“As Buddhists, we believe we will be reincarnated. But I don’t want to be born again,” she says.

“I only want to be remembered as a person who intended to do what’s good and right, and as someone who overcomes obstructions.”

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