CSI Bangkok?

by AFP/Shino Yuasa, Feb 26, 2008 | Destinations: Thailand / Bangkok

Porntip Rojanasunan's multicoloured, spiked hair has drawn almost as much attention as her relentless efforts to modernise police work in Thailand by introducing forensics to criminal investigations. Known throughout the country as "Doctor Death," she has been ridiculed and intimidated by police and subject to death threats as she has tried to drag police work into the 21st century. Now as she turns her attention to the escalating troubles plaguing southern Thailand, she tells Bangkok correspondent Shino Yuasa about her latest project to improve the way attacks in the region, where Buddhists and Muslims are locked in intensifying conflict, are treated by officials.

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BANGKOK, Dec 6, 2007 - After examining more than 10,000 corpses in her 30-year career, Thailand's leading forensics expert Porntip Rojanasunan says she believes the spirits of the dead have become her guardian angels.

"Spirits of the dead keep protecting me," says Porntip, known in Thailand as Doctor Death.

With crimson lipstick and multi-coloured spiked hair, Porntip has stood up to police bullying and death threats as she pursues goals she says the spirits have set up for her.

"They want me to do two things. First, they want me to improve forensic science in Thailand. Second, they want me to establish an institute for missing persons in Thailand," says the 52-year-old pathologist.

In addition to examining thousands of bodies, Porntip led massive forensic operations after the 2004 tsunami tragedy and pioneered the introduction of DNA testing as a criminal investigative tool in the kingdom.

A cancer survivor, she has fought death one-on-one, and has battled the country's male-dominated criminal justice establishment -- which has been quick to belittle one of the most powerful women in the profession.

The outspoken doctor frequently appears in the media to challenge autopsy findings by police, who control all aspects of criminal investigation in Thailand.

As a result, she has become a prime target for harassment, bullying and lawsuits.

"Police," Porntip sighs.

"They don't like me. They say bad things about me -- like, I'm not a good doctor, or I steal money. Because they see me as a threat undermining their power."

My father taught me to be strong

A devout Buddhist, Porntip never drinks nor smokes. But that does not mean she is dull.

"I love dancing and fashion," says Porntip, who defies the conventional image of big-haired, middle-aged Thai women by dressing up like a punk rocker with tight black jeans and platform shoes.

As a child she wanted to be an interior designer, but Porntip believes she has found a calling in dealing with the dead, and says her biggest frustration is working with police.

"Thai police still tend to rely on witness accounts rather than scientific evidence, and almost all senior police officers continue to ignore me," says Porntip, the acting director of the Central Institute of Forensic Medicine of Thailand.

As an example of police reluctant to make use of science in their investigations, she tells the story of a man who three years ago was suspected of killing his wife, who had been found dead in his house with five bullet wounds on his body.

Police said the man shot himself, but Porntip disputed their finding. "What I found was not compatible with suicide. Blood patterns and a position of his gun indicated he was murdered," she says in an interview at her office.

Porntip went on television to knock down the police account, and very quickly drew scorn and ridicule from them, with a senior police officer accusing her of just wanting to become a celebrity.

"I only want justice, and I only want the public to pay attention to our criminal justice system," Porntip says.

A court eventually ruled the death was indeed murder, but that didn't stop the Thai police from suing Porntip for defamation. A judge tossed out the suit.

She says her toughest case so far was the death of Hangthong Thammawattana, a rich and famous lawmaker in Bangkok who at age 50 was found dead with a gun in his right hand in his younger brother's bedroom in 1999.

Police said Hangthong committed suicide, but Porntip's autopsy report found he had not only been shot but might also have been hit across the head with a hard object.

"The position of his body, blood patterns and the position of his gun all pointed out that this man was killed. He did not commit suicide," she says.

While working on the Hangthong case, Porntip received anonymous calls from a man warning that she should quit the case or would be dead by "tomorrow morning".

But Porntip, who has survived two gruelling battles with thyroid and colon cancer, refused to give in.

"My father taught me to be strong," she says. Both her parents were scientists.

 Hangthong's younger brother, Noppadol Thammawattana, was eventually charged with the murder, but a criminal court in September this year acquitted him in a verdict that was splashed across front pages of Thai papers.

If I were a man I would be dead by now

Even at the pinnacle of her career, Porntip says she still experiences ridicule and harassment at work as one of the few female professionals in Thailand's male-dominated criminal justice system.

But she insists being a woman has helped her survive, saying a man in her position would have been killed long ago.

"If I were a man, I would be dead by now. I would be shot dead by someone. Maybe by angry police. I am still alive only because I am a woman," Porntip says with a smile.

Since graduating from the medical school at Bangkok's Mahidol University in the 1970s, she has raised public awareness of forensic science in Thailand, writing several books on the subject for general readers.

 Her first book titled "Investigation of Corpses" sold more than 100,000 copies, and her popularity rose as she solved a series of high-profile cases including the murder of one of her medical students in 1998.

The student was killed in a love triangle feud by her boyfriend, who then chopped her body into 168 pieces and flushed them down the toilet. Her severed head was found on a riverbank.
"She was a very good student," Porntip says.

The doctor has single-handedly urged the government to take forensic science more seriously, and helped create the forensic institute under the justice ministry in 2002.

In 2003, the Thai king recognised her public works, including many years of teaching at Ramathibodi Hospital of Mahidol University, with the title Khunying, equivalent to the British Dame.

But Porntip says nothing prepared her for the unprecedented forensic operations in the wake of the tsunami disaster in December 2004.

About 5,400 people -- half of them foreign holidaymakers -- were killed in Thailand alone after the Indian Ocean tsunami hit the kingdom's southern resort island of Phuket and other provinces along the Andaman coast.

Porntip rushed to the site and took charge of identifying the dead, which became one of the world's largest-ever forensics jobs.

"I just wanted to help. But it was very difficult because there was no coordination," she says.

"The most important lesson I learned from the tsunami is that we need a special organization that can coordinate with various government agencies during times of large-scale natural disasters," says Porntip.

Listening to the spirits of the dead

She has now set her sights on an insurgency in Thailand's Muslim-majority south where thousands of people have been killed in almost daily shootings, bombings and ambushes since January 2004.

Mainly Buddhist Thailand annexed the troubled region bordering Malaysia a century ago and separatist violence has flared periodically since.

"I recognise problems in the south. The situation there is like a war, and I really want to help my country," Porntip says.

She has helped set up a DNA database for local authorities in the south to identify suspects and victims. She says her forensic team mostly works with the military due to the violence, adding that police rarely cooperate with them.

"Senior police officers ordered low-ranking officers not to talk to me. But they cannot stop me from working," the doctor says.

Porntip says she has reopened cases that were long closed by local police following strong requests from bereaved families.

The doctor has also collected DNA samples from teachers and students at Islamic schools to try to exonerate people who feel they have been wrongly accused by authorities.

"My daughter does not want me to work in the south. She is worried about my safety," she says, referring to 15-year-old Yarawee, her only child with banker husband Vichai, 55.

But Porntip says she cannot slow down until she succeeds in setting up a national institute for missing persons.

"Creating such an institute is my next goal.

"Also this is the second wish of my spirits of the dead," she says.

Each year hundreds of unidentified bodies are found in Thailand, especially in the violence-torn south and northern provinces bordering Myanmar, the doctor says.

"In five to 10 years, all of these unidentified remains will be cremated with no investigation, and I want to stop that," she says.

Having met more corpses than mortals in her life, Porntip says she has learned a lot from the dead.

"We cannot control our lives, and I try to be happy all the time," she says, admitting she prefers working with the dead to the living.

"My 'patients' cannot talk to me. They cannot complain about me or my hairstyle," laughs the doctor.

She calls human flesh "cooked meat" and says dead bodies still fascinate her.

"When I look at a dead body, I feel happy and get excited. I love doing an autopsy," Porntip says.

"Besides," she smiles, "working with people always creates problems and conflicts. Working with the dead is easy."

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