Thailand’s fearless ‘Dr Death’

Lucy Ash meets Thailand’s most senior forensic pathologist and discovers that finding the truth about how people died is not always welcomed.

pornthip282“The boss is round the back,” says the young man pulling off his rubber gloves. “You’re just in time for lunch.”

Behind the makeshift laboratory, deep inside this military camp, there is a space shaded by coconut palms where I find the boss standing over a giant wok.

Her face glistens with sweat, but her purple eye shadow is intact.

“I like to cook,” she says, prodding the noodles. “But I won’t cut raw meat. That’s too much like an autopsy.”

Forensic pathologist is the last job to spring to mind when you see Dr Pornthip Rojanasunan. She is wearing jangly bracelets and skin tight jeans. But what really stands out – and up – is her spiky red hair.

The dead can’t criticise me so I wear what I like

Dr Pornthip Rojanasunan

Her fashion sense helped determine her career choice.

As a girl she loved medicine, but since doctors in Thailand are expected to dress and behave conservatively, she decided to shun patients in favour of corpses.

“The dead can’t criticise me,” she says, “so I wear what I like”.

She does not always go for acid colours, though. On the cover of one of her best-selling true life crime books she appears draped in virginal white silk, cradling a skull.

DNA revolution

It is not just Dr Pornthip’s looks and books which are unconventional. So is her attitude to the police. .

She has been at odds with them for more than 20 years, ever since a case involving one of her own medical students.

The student was killed by her jealous boyfriend, who chopped her body into 168 pieces.

Police found a blood stain in the boyfriend’s car, but failed to act on it.

Dr Pornthip finally got permission to search his flat, found another bloodstain on the bathroom floor and established that it was the victim’s. Then she found human remains in the toilet tank.

The case was a sensation and alerted many Thais to the importance of DNA evidence.

Death threats

In several cases since, Dr Pornthip’s findings have contradicted those of the Thai police and sometimes even pointed to their involvement.

Dr Pornthip Rojanasunan examines bodies at a temple

When people die in mysterious circumstances or in police custody, families often bring the bodies to her for an independent autopsy.

One incident involved a Thai MP who was found with a gun in his hand and a bullet hole in his right temple.

Dr Pornthip did not think it was a suicide, and she got death threats for saying so.

Dr Adrian Linacre, a forensic expert invited over from the UK, came to the same conclusion. Eventually the dead man’s brother was charged with conspiracy to murder. That case is on-going.

Dr Linacre says that he, like Dr Pornthip, found that evidence from the morgue did not always fit the official version of events. He says she is a brave woman.

Dr Pornthip made international headlines after the tsunami when she helped identify thousands of corpses at a Buddhist temple.

She has been warned that the insurgents have put a high price on her head


A police chief later attacked her for not following correct procedures.

She also angered police over the so-called war on drugs, in which 2,500 people – mainly dealers and addicts – were killed.

Bodies were found clutching weapons and drugs as if they had died in gun battles with police. But Dr Pornthip discovered that residue from gun barrels had been smeared on some victims’ hands after their deaths.

Army protection

Now she is facing fresh controversy over her work in the south.

Map of Thailand showing Bangkok and Tak Bai

I watch her and her team searching a suspected bomb maker’s house.

It is in a remote village and we have to fly there by helicopter with an armed escort.

The next morning she is quickly on the scene, after soldiers have been ambushed and shot at by mystery assailants.

I suddenly understand why she is cooking noodles for lunch. It is too dangerous to go out and eat at a local restaurant.

She has been warned that the insurgents have put a high price on her head.

A retired police general in Bangkok tells me that Dr Pornthip is an obsessive self-publicist. He says she should concentrate on corpses and stop acting like a cop.

There have also been complaints from some human rights groups and local people in the south who distrust her close ties with the military.

Dr Pornthip says she has to work with the army for her own protection but denies she is under their thumb.

She tells me that if she sees any evidence that soldiers have physically abused anyone she immediately informs their superiors.

What effect that has I do not know, but it is true that when scores of protesters from the southern town of Takbai were killed five years ago, Dr Pornthip was the first to go public.

She said 80 men had died of suffocation after they were trussed up and piled on top of each other in army trucks.

“Dr Death” – as the papers in Thailand call her – is not not easily blown off course. On our way back to Bangkok I ask about her next challenge.

“I want to be a kindergarten teacher,” she says eventually. “With that kind of job no-one can criticise me.”

Listen to the extraordinary story of Thailand’s leading forensic scientist who has turned a straightforward autopsy into a battleground for the truth.

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