One of the most fascinating aspects of living half my time in Thailand is to observe the very different cultural features from Australia. Take celebrities. In Australia’s they are either grey politicians, or inarticulate sports stars, who begin every interview by saying ‘thang hammy.’ Translated, this is ‘thanks for having me.’ The conversation usually descends from there. The media is now saturated also with people famous for being famous. Thailand has these too, but they also produce another breed, which surprises and would never emerge from the pack in Australia.
The classic example is the eccentric and brilliant Dr Pornthip Rojanasunand, the DNA investigator. Forensic sleuths in Australia are usually circumspect types you come to expect will hang over microscopes for hours on end and write indecipherable reports for the layperson. Not so Pornthip, 62, who the Thai Government honoured by making the equivalent of a Dame. She is more often than not seen in skin tight jeans and adorned with jangly bracelets, rings and fancy wrist-bands. The most striking feature is her hair. It’s spiked like a teenager’s and coloured red and pink. Purple and green are discernible sometimes. Pornthip’s sparkling eye make-up adds to her youthful appearance. Mutton dressed up as lamb? Hardly. She has a personality and demeanour that can’t be categorised by appearance.
Her platform shoes give her added height and authority when she is dealing with a male dominated criminal justice department, the military to which she is closely tied, and Police who detest her interference into their work that she often contradicts. They have tried to belittle her but she has learned to use the media to challenge autopsy findings by the police, who control all aspects of criminal investigation in Thailand.
Her parents, both scientists, wanted her to do medicine. She obliged. But she found that doctors were supposed to act conservatively and not upset patients by dressing eccentrically. Pornthip decided the best way around this block to her natural behaviour was to deal with the dead instead of the living. She positively lights up when discussing corpses.
‘The dead can’t criticise me or complain about my hairstyle,’ she says, ‘so I wear what I like. Besides, working with people always creates problems and conflicts. Working with the dead is easy.’
This is said with an inscrutable smile. You wonder if she is joking or not. But more research on her makes these kind of responses comprehensible. Pornthip has killed off the expression ‘dead men tell no tales.’ To her the deceased and their DNA, in their own way, are story tellers and at times, loquacious. She is a Buddhist and like most Thais, spiritual. She claims to commune with spirits of the dead.
‘They are my guardian angels,’ she says, ‘they keep protecting me.’ Pornthip claims these ethereal beings dictate her aims that include setting up a national institute for missing persons.
‘They also want me to improve forensic skills in Thailand,’ she notes.
She has taken on Governments, the police, the military and people worried that her forensics genius will uncover uncomfortable truths. When the police decide suicide, Pornthip has said on more than one occasion, ‘no, it’s a murder set-up.’ Her skills in interpreting crime scene evidence puts her eons ahead of police who are more comfortable with rounding off, or even covering up slayings by declaration rather than presenting hard evidence.
Pornthip is a survivor. Two different bouts of cancer, thyroid and colon, failed to defeat her. She believes these personal victories strengthened her for future fights.
‘If I were a man, I would be dead by now,’ she says, ‘I would be shot by someone. Maybe by angry police. I am still alive because of I am woman.’
There is more logic in this remark than is apparent at first glance. Pornthip is one of the best known individuals in the nation, next to the new King Vajiralongkorn and the self-appointed Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha, who heads the military Junta running the country. Yet she is more popular and respected than them or anyone else, including pop and film stars that figure prominently in Thai culture.
Pornthip has the image of a harbinger of truth and credibility; a subtle reminder to authority that the integrity of events involving high crimes could be exposed in the modern era by DNA, if handled by a fearless investigator. Her shield is honesty. This and a high public profile make her near untouchable. Anyone violating her rights or even getting rid of her would incite the opprobrium of the nation. In addition, she is representative of women, who form the backbone of Thailand in a suppressed society under non-democratic rule. Pornthip is the acceptable face of rebellion.
The police dubbed her ‘Dr Death,’ and the attempted smear stuck in the media. But Pornthip wears the label like a badge. In her case it represents strength and she is feared by those who have something to hide. She has examined more than 10,000 corpses in a 30 year career. Death is her life.
I have followed this exceptional woman’s career ever since she rose to international prominence after the Tsunami hit Thailand and South East Asia in 2004. She had rushed to Phuket voluntarily to help identify thousands of corpses in a Buddhist temple. In the middle of writing the first draft of the fiction The Assassin on the Bangkok Express I realised I needed an authoritative figure to take charge of investigating a murder on the luxury train; a Hercule Poirot type. I based this on someone like Pornthip with similar characteristics of courage, cunning, humour and a ‘sixth sense.’ There is not one quote in my story from her real life commentary in books, articles and the media. It’s not necessary. She is such a forceful, predictable and outstanding individual you can imagine her reaction in every scene. Especially one of murder.