Dr Porntip, Thailand’s funky ‘voice of death’

Dr Porntip, Thailand’s funky ‘voice of death’

Like something from a bizarre TV crime series, the combination of Dr Porntip's hip fashion and her pursuit of justice have made the forensic scientist a household name
Dr Porntip
Dr Porntip
Dr Porntip
Dr Porntip
Dr Porntip
Not your stereotypical scientist -- replete with a rock chick haircut and hip outfits, Porntip is considered a fashion icon.

Thailand's top forensic scientist, Dr Porntip Rojanasunan, confronts security forces about their alleged "abuses of power," performs grisly autopsies and reconstructs the faces of unidentified murder victims.

One of her most confrontational investigations involved the deaths of 78 Muslim men while in custody in 2004 in southern Thailand. Hundreds of people had been arrested and loaded onto army trucks during a violent protest. That transportation deprived them of oxygen -- dozens were dead on arrival at a military camp.

Porntip is also a fashion icon, famous for her spiky, dye-streaked haircut and hip, Gypsy-inspired outfits, which liven up her grim work and attract younger Thais into her profession despite its horrors. Her face appears on the cover of Thailand's glossy women's magazines as often as it does in the black-and-white columns of newspapers reporting gruesome tragedies.

But when Porntip speaks, hers is the voice of death.

Murder mysteries swirl around her as she sleuths through organs, DNA fragments and other clues, hoping to point the finger at who-done-it.

Porntip is a medical doctor and Director General of the Central Institute of Forensic Science, attached to the Justice Ministry. Surrounded by skulls and skeletons in her "bone lab," she describes in an interview the way Thais have been dying during the past few decades, and warns that life is becoming increasingly macabre.

"The trend of deaths has changed a lot in Thailand, and has become worse. Now there are a lot of criminals, and very serious, serious crimes. We also found a lot of occupational death during people's work, which means we need protection for workers in factories, on farms, at construction sites and other dangerous places.

"Also, a lot of traffic accidents. It means maybe the control of alcohol abuse, or maybe the safety equipment in the car, is not enough."

Infectious diseases, such as flu and SARS, are also taking their toll, she adds.

Unsolved mysteries

Dr PorntipA silicone cast of an unidentified human skull completes a silicone skeleton, wired together, which stands in Dr Porntip's "bone lab."

Porntip performed her first autopsy 30 years ago, and is still enthusiastic about revealing the opaqueness of death, especially when a corpse is nameless.

Her institute's small lab in the modern Jasmine Tower, on Chaengwattana Road on Bangkok's northern outskirts in Pakkret, Nonthaburi, allows recovered human bones to be laid out and pieced together.

"All of these are the unidentified remains that we found, of people who died unnatural deaths," she says, gesturing at two skulls which had their tops sawed off so the brains could be scooped out.

"We try to build up the face," she adds, explaining the use of silicone rubber, dental stone and a clay-like material which is laid onto a molded cast of the skull to create thick, fake flesh.

After a while, a face is sculpted, similar to a clay bust, which can then be examined by witnesses, possible relatives, and others who might recognize the unidentified dead person's theoretical appearance and expression.

"There are nearly 1,000 autopsies in our institute each year. Maybe 10 or 20 percent are of unidentified remains.

"If we can find who they are, we will let the police or the Department of Special Investigation do a further investigation, because all of these are criminal cases," she says, indicating the current collection of skulls in her lab. "The majority of the unidentified are men."

"In our country, there are more than 10,000 unidentified remains each year. Out of these, the majority are sent to the local Chinese foundations and will be cremated within five to 10 years without identification and without investigation," she laments.

Setting her sights south

Dr PorntipSilicone rubber and dental stone are used to create a greenish molded cast of an unidentified skull, which can then be covered with clay, in an attempt to create a face.

The Central Institute of Forensic Science does not perform routine autopsies, or pursue normal cases, and instead gives priority to disputed deaths. The institute also acts as a last resort for distraught relatives or others who demand answers after a suspicious or murky death.

Murders, accidents and other fatal events in and around Bangkok occupy much of the institute's work. Porntip, however, has been focusing most of her attention during the past five years on Thailand's south, where minority Malay-Thai Islamist separatists have been fighting a guerrilla war against the country's Buddhist majority.

Since 2004, more than 3,700 people on all sides have died in the three Muslim-majority southern provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala. In the south, she is trying to create a bullet database for ballistics, a DNA database, and a fingerprint database.

"But it is very difficult," she says, because police won't cooperate with her efforts, unlike the military which she insists is much more responsive and supportive. (see the box below this article for more on Porntip's relationship with police authorities).

Immediately after the army tied up scores of Muslim men and piled them into army trucks in the south in October 2004, Porntip investigated the deadly result. (read here for a full description of the deaths, the investigations and Porntip's findings).

"Seventy-eight people were found dead on arrival in the vans at the military camp," she said at the time. "They showed bleeding in the eyes, in the white part of the eyeballs, and bleeding on the body underneath the skin. Only tiny spots of bleeding."

This is evidence of suffocation, she claims.

Thai and international human rights groups have repeatedly criticized the authorities, because no senior military officers were ever put on trial for the deaths.

In May 2009, a court cleared security officials of misconduct in the case.

Porntip's testimony remains the best evidence of the suffocations.

Dr PorntipA clay-like material is used to create thick, fake flesh, so a face can be sculpted, similar to a clay bust.

She was also on the front lines during the aftermath of the December 2004 tsunami which slammed into beaches in and around Phuket, killing more than 5,400 Thais and foreigners.

And two weeks after Katrina hit America's Gulf Coast in 2005, killing about 1,000 people, Porntip and other Thai officials traveled there to learn how a superpower deals with disaster.

On fears of the supernatural and funky fashions

Porntip was awarded the honorary title of "khunying," which is given to notable women in society.

But her personal concern is to get young Thai students to join her work, and not to be afraid of ghosts.

"I try to tell them that we have to understand the spirits of the dead, or the ghosts. There is life after death in Buddhism, so we do not need to be afraid, because in the future we have to be in that situation too.

"So if you understand it is a normal cycle of life, you will understand not to be afraid. And more important than that, to work for the one who cannot ask -- I mean, to work for the dead -- is worth more than to work for the living people."

Many Thais, meanwhile, simply want to know why she favors a rock chick haircut and freaky fashions.

"I love the Western style, because the color of the hair of the Western people is not all the same. It gradually changes. I love that it looks like a drawing or painting, because I love art," she says, grinning. "And I love pop music, especially dance music, because I love to dance."

Heel dragging and police monopolies?

Despite being extremely well-respected by Thais and foreigners who have witnessed her bold stance during controversial murder cases, Porntip suffers a seemingly ruthless foe.

"Sometimes my work deals with the abuse of power by the police. For our institute, we try to improve our forensic science service for the people, so maybe we have to be the enemy of the police.

"I am trying to establish a Missing Persons Center. I am interested in the work of identification of human remains. So we need the government's full support.

"But the problem right now is the police try to hold the power of investigation. Maybe because they are involved in the abuse of power.

"When relatives of the dead want a further investigation, or maybe want an independent organization to investigate, they will come to our institute only, because the other forensic medicine service, in a university, will serve the police and not be for human rights or justice."

If a person was allegedly killed by police, or by the military or other officials, then it is difficult for any other organization to investigate.

When Porntip wants to piece together the clues of a dead person's identity, she tries to get the police to relinquish their monopoly on the investigation and allow her to do her job.

Police are empowered to investigate much of Thailand's criminal activity, and decide whether or not to forward a case to a public prosecutor.

Police insist that allows them to determine if sufficient evidence exists, and to crush frivolous or false allegations.

Critics however contend it gives cops too much power because it blocks public prosecutors and courts from launching inquiries and investigations of new crimes, and creates potential conflicts of interest -- especially when police are accused of crimes.

Porntip argues that in some cases, forces working against her included "incomplete investigation" by officials who "ignore" the case.

When Porntip gets involved in those incidents, "the police will not be happy," she adds.

As a result, Thais and foreigners pay attention whenever she announces her findings.

Richard S. Ehrlich is from San Francisco, California. He has reported news for international media from Asia since 1978, based in Hong Kong, New Delhi and now Bangkok.

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