Difference Maker

This Thai crime investigator is no friend to the 'big shots'

Colorful forensic pathologist Porntip Rojanansunan solves human rights cases.

By , Correspondent

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    Forensic pathologist Porntip Rojanansunan is a celebrity in Thailand – and no friend to the puu yai (big shots) of organized crime, militant groups, or government. She pioneered using DNA evidence to solve crimes here.
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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.

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.

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"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.

At the small laboratory she runs on an Army base in Pattani, her handpicked team of young volunteers – newly graduated scientists from Bangkok – pore over ion scanners (to identify substances) and DNA scanners. Sheets of paper taped together and laid on tabletops chart the movements and crime histories of suspected militants.

Violence is fueled as much by thriving organized crime, Porntip says, as by Islamist ideology. Uncovering links sets her pulse racing. "It's like piecing together jigsaw puzzles," she says excitedly.

"Dr. Porntip leaves no stone unturned," says Col. Yotin Juntamala, a military intelligence officer.

Her zeal has earned her some powerful enemies. By speaking truth to power, the self-taught forensic investigator, a longtime fan of the fictional TV detective Columbo, violates an unspoken rule in Thailand: Never question the puu yai, the "big shots." Doing so as a woman further aggravates matters.

"The chief of police hates me," Porntip notes matter-of-factly.

Her critics accuse her of being a meddler and self-promoter. She shrugs off the charges.

"I just can't walk past an injustice without trying to do something," she explains.

"Dr. Porntip has been a crusading light in independence and professionalism," says Dr. Adrian Linacre, a British forensic scientist who has worked as a consultant on controversial murders in Thailand.

Porntip was first thrust into the limelight – and high-profile forensic investigation – in 1999, after a student at the Bangkok medical school where she lectured was brutally murdered. When it appeared that the police had bungled the investigation, Porntip, then a medical pathologist, launched her own.

With her help, the young woman's boyfriend was convicted of murder. "I had to spend six hours explaining the importance of DNA evidence [to investigators]," recalls Porntip, who pioneered its use in Thailand.

Thai police routinely rely on confessions, sometimes allegedly coerced, for establishment of guilt. By insisting on sound forensic evidence, the pathologist is helping modernize the Thai justice system.

"There's a culture of impunity in Thailand," she notes, adding that the law is often applied differently to the haves and the have-nots.

In 2002 Porntip set up the Central Institute of Forensic Science for independent investigations. People unhappy with official findings often seek her help.

"People crave justice," says Natnipoon Rattanarungruang, a young forensic archaeologist who volunteers in Porntip's missing-persons investigations. "When people need help, they turn to her."

In 2005 the pathologist made news when, at the request of the victim's relatives, she performed an autopsy on a man who had died in police custody in what was officially declared a suicide. She insisted the suspect had been tortured and killed by police. Porntip was sued for defamation.

The case was eventually dropped, she says, after the victim's relatives "began to die" and the family dropped their lawsuit against implicated officers.

"Dr. Porntip is very brave," notes Ms. Natnipoon, who says she's inspired by the doctor's outspokenness and quest for justice. "She's an idol and a role model for us."r

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