Dr. Pornthip Rojanasunand has an unexpected and startling appearance.
For sure, the 54-year-old has the fine, classic features of very many Southeast Asian women.
But they are topped by an aggressively spiky punk hairstyle dyed flaming red. And in her ears are more metal studs than in a biker’s belt.
But be not fooled. Pornthip is the region’s top pathologist. She is director-general of Thailand’s Central Institute of Forensic Science, has written several textbooks on the subject and has personally conducted more than 10,000 autopsies.
She was involved in terrible job of identifying the bodies of people killed in the tsunami that hit Thailand’s west coast resorts on Boxing Day in 2004 and one of the most recent objects on her stainless steel workbench was the remains of the actor David Carradine, who hanged himself in a Bangkok hotel room earlier this year.
With a record like that, some eccentricity is allowable. Decorative body piercing and an explosive coiffeur count as light relief.
So when Pornthip stepped into the witness box of a coroner’s court in Malaysia last week to give evidence in the inquiry into the July 16 death of Teoh Beng Hock, a 29-year-old aide to a minister in the Selangor State government, her opinions were bound to be authoritative and probably controversial.
She did not disappoint.
After 50 years of effective one-party rule by a national coalition dominated by the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), Malaysian politics is in upheaval. Selangor State is now ruled by the Pakatan Rakyat, a coalition of opposition parties that has a good shot at winning national power in the next elections.
But even in disarray, UMNO has a feel for power. The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission has been busy in recent months turning over stones looking for dirt to pin on the opposition.
To this end Teoh, who was due to be married to his two-month pregnant fiance a few days later, was picked up on July 16 and taken to the Commission’s headquarters. The graft cops wanted information about $700 in public funds Teoh’s boss, state minister Ean Yong Hian Wah, had used to buy flags for a Freedom Day celebration.
According to the commission police, they questioned Teoh into the evening, when he was allowed to leave. But he, for some reason that is not explained, chose to sleep on a sofa in the offices.
In the morning his body was found on the roof of a neighbouring, lower building.
The conclusion, backed by a couple of forensic scientists appearing at the inquest for the commission, was that Teoh had committed suicide.
But no one believed this, not especially in the ethnic Chinese community from which Teoh hailed. The case had all the hallmarks of a police interrogation that got out of hand. And in Malaysia, there are plenty of hallmarks on which to judge such cases.
Even official government figures show there were 108 deaths of people in police custody between 2000 and 2006, and at least 350 have died since 1990. The number of people shot by the police in the course of investigations is considerably higher.
And to the surprise of few, Dr. Pornthip found on Teoh’s body all the classic examples of a Malaysian police interrogation.
Teoh, she said, had been beaten on the back of the thighs.
He had a skull fracture consistent with being hit with a club.
He had bruises to the neck indicating he had been strangled.
And he had been sodomized with a large, blunt object.
None of the injures, Pornthip said — and backed her opinion with meticulous forensic detail — was consistent with a fall.
Because of his position, Teoh’s death was bound to excite special public attention.
But the publication of an anonymous letter naming names and showing what appears to be an eyewitness account of what happened in the commission offices that night ensured the case could not be swept under the rug, as so often happens with murder cases involving senior people in Malaysia. If the letter is right, the chief instigator of Teoh’s death was a former UMNO minister deposed from office by the opposition victory.
Even Prime Minister Najib Razak is struggling under the cloud that in 2006 two of his bodyguards murdered the jilted mistress of his best friend, Abdul Razak Baginda.
Courts and officials have, of course, entirely exonerated Najib and Baginda. Only the bodyguards have taken the fall.
It would be encouraging to be able to report that the Teoh case is likely to mark the beginning of the end of such apparent abuses of power. Dr. Pornthip did, after all, give her evidence just days after the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations inaugurated its long-awaited human rights commission. But, sad to tell, this is a toothless tiger, as any human rights commission must be if it is to represent Burma, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and, yes, Malaysia.