This Thai crime investigator is no friend to the 'big shots'
Colorful forensic pathologist Porntip Rojanansunan solves human rights cases.
Pattani Province, Thailand
A cotton earplug discarded near the scene of a bomb attack. A wooden club found where a Buddhist monk was hacked to death with a machete. Saliva on the flaps of an envelope containing a death threat to a village leader later assassinated.Skip to next paragraph
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Such are the clues Porntip Rojanansunan uncovers in search of traces of DNA, explosive residues, and other telltale clues.
Risking life and limb several days each week in Thailand's predominantly Muslim southernmost provinces, where a brutal insurgency rages, the forensic pathologist from Bangkok scours the scenes of daily shootings, bombings, arson attacks, and beheadings.
"Forensics can help bring justice to this region," she says during her investigation, under military escort, at a Muslim village in Pattani Province, where three militants were reportedly hiding out in a rubber tapper's rattan hut. "We want to find the [real culprits], so the police and the military won't go looking for scapegoats and harass the locals."
Recently, a roadside bomb exploded ahead of her car. Unfazed, Dr. Porntip set about collecting forensic evidence. Last year a military helicopter transporting several of her civilian colleagues to a remote crime scene crashed in the jungle, killing everyone onboard.
"It's a very dangerous job," Porntip notes. "But we have to do the right thing; that's my Buddhist belief."
By publicly challenging dubious official verdicts of high-profile crimes, Porntip has become a household name across Thailand. Soldiers, Muslim villagers, airport crews, passersby – people everywhere greet her, seeking to take a picture with her.
She isn't hard to recognize. In a country where officials dress with uniform anonymity, the pathologist's trademark retro-punk hairdos and eccentric wardrobe have earned her the nickname "Dr. Redhead." She's regularly featured in fashion magazines.
Today she sports a stylishly messy hairstyle with bangs dyed flaxen and rusty red. She's attired in an all-black faux Goth style accessorized with chunky plastic rings and clunky bracelets, which lends her the eerily cheerful look of a character in a Tim Burton fantasy.
She decided to practice pathology, Porntip says, because "the dead don't complain about how you dress for work."
She says they also protect her. "The spirits of the dead watch over me, I believe that," she says.
When on Dec. 26, 2004, a tsunami killed thousands of vacationers in southern Thailand, she was at the scene within hours. She set up a makeshift morgue at a Buddhist temple. For several months she worked tirelessly to identify hundreds of dead bodies.
The experience she gained now serves her well in her unofficial missing-persons identification project. In Pattani Province alone, Porntip says, a thousand unidentified remains turn up each year.
Unsought by relatives, many victims of crime are cremated anonymously without police inquiries into their deaths.
She's focusing her attention on Thailand's troubled south, the pathologist says, to introduce modern forensic techniques into the investigations of local authorities and wean them from alleged torture to obtain evidence.
"These are human rights and abuse-of-power issues," Porntip says.