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An Appointment With Dr. Death

  • Dr. Porntip Rojanasunan investigating Santika Pub Fire in Bangkok after New Year’s Day 2009, killing 59 clubbers. (Photo courtesy: The Nation (Thai land)/ AsiaNews)

Thailand’s most famous forensic pathologist is also the most relentless and colourful the country has seen.

Meeting Dr Pornthip Rojanasunand is not like a visit to your regular physician. Her “patients” are all dead. As Thailand’s most famous forensic pathologist, the 54-year-old fights for those victims that can’t speak anymore and have lost their lives in suspicious circumstances.

Her work gained recognition for educating the importance of forensic evidence. On the other hand, she is loathed by the police, because her findings often contradict with their conclusions, if not reveal their involvement.

At the age of 26 she worked at a hospital in Northern Thailand, when she decided to change her field of expertise and begun studying forensic anthropology and pathology at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Washington DC.

"They would never admit that I was right and also the media will mix it up and will credit me."

Dr Pornthip came into the public spotlight 10 years ago, when one of her medical students was murdered by her boyfriend. Her head was severed, her body cut into 168 pieces and flushed down the toilet. The police noted a bloodstain in the boyfriend‘s car, but failed to act upon it. A month later the murderer confessed to the police he killed her in his apartment. Dr Pornthip found a bloodstain in the bathroom, which DNA matched with the victim‘s and soon after found her remains in the toilet.

“Since then, the police started to hate me. The Thai people saw that they needed to trust me and the forensic evidence, not the police,” Dr. Pornthip remembers.

But also since then the public made a celebrity out of her. She soon became famous nation wide as “Dr Death” and whenever there is a murder case, chances are that Dr Pornthip is investigating.

And even if she is not involved, like when the American actor David Carradine was found dead in his Bangkok hotel room, she was able to solve the case quicker than her colleagues. “I was not part of the investigation. Typically for Thai media, they asked for my expert opinion about this case. From what I saw as an outsider, it didn‘t look like murder or suicide. So I said it could be an accident.”

Dr Pornthip concluded that the actor strangled himself while performing auto-erotic asphyxiation, in order to enhance sexual satisfaction.

Until today, the police did not announce a final conclusion on the Carradine case. “They would never admit that I was right and also the media will mix it up and will credit me,” she says.

Dr Pornthip is used to corpses, having performed over 10,000 autopsies over the years. But her biggest challenge probably was the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami, which hit the west coast of Thailand and claimed over 5,000 lives. She and her team headed immediately to Phang Na, the province with the most casualties.

“On the first day I had to face 30 bodies at a temple. There was only time for a brief identification,” she remembers, “The next day the governor of the region asked me to go to another place, where six or seven hundred bodies were brought to a temple.”

Currently, Dr Pornthip works in the deep south of the kingdom, where insurgent violence has killed over 3,000 people over the last five years. Armed assaults and roadside bomb attacks are almost a daily occurrence. She and her team are trying now to find out who are behind the killings. During the investigations, they are accompanied by the army for their own protection.

Forensic pathology has come a long way in Thailand where evidence collection was under the supervision by the police. “Nobody wanted to work as a crime scene investigator and no one understood the value of forensic evidence,” Dr Pornthip explains. Today, she is now the director of Central Institute of Forensic Science under the Ministry of Justice. In 2003, she was given the the honorary title of Khunying, the Thai equivalent to Dame.

One more thing that sets her apart is her trademark punk rock look. She sports spiky red hair, multiple bracelets dangling around her arms and fashionable boots.

“It‘s my artistic side. Before I became a doctor, I wanted to be an interior designer and the first magazine I subscribed to was the fashion magazine Glamour. The second one was National Geographic. You see, these are two opposite things in my life.”

At least the dead can’t complain if she has a bad hair day. (By Saksith Saiyasombut in Bangkok/ ANN/ AsiaNews)

MySinchew 2009.09.30



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