After shooting dead a rogue soldier gunman on February 9 in a Thai provincial shopping mall where he killed at least 30 people, Thailand’s military faces hard new scrutiny of its ability to secure weapons and control troops at its bases and barracks.
The killing spree dominated national headlines and is being touted as perhaps the worst mass shooting of civilians in the often violent kingdom’s modern history. At least 57 others were wounded in the gun violence, officials said.
The Thai military, critics said, may also want to examine the wisdom of having many of its senior-most officers busy in politics, running ministries and staging frequent coups instead of imposing discipline among its rank-and-file.
The killings, which gunman Sergeant Jakrapanth Tomma apparently documented and narrated on his Facebook page, also raises hard new questions about the role of social media in such violence. Jakrapanth’s page has since been taken down by Facebook, reports said.
It is nearly impossible to stop a lone gunman determined to kill innocent people at an undefended venue anywhere in the world. Mass shootings of civilians are rare in Thailand, unlike the United States and some other Western countries where firearm ownership is widespread.
The shopping-mall massacre in Korat, a northeastern Thai city officially known as Nakhon Ratchasima, showcased heroic unarmed security guards, who bravely escorted terrified mall-goers to safety during the 17-hour ordeal.
Heavily armed security forces who entered the mall also displayed impressive techniques while hunting for the killer. They tapped into the mall’s array of closed-circuit TV cameras to track his movements and eventually kill the 32-year-old gunman.
They also deployed drone surveillance through the multi-story building to track the gunman’s movements. Some of the most decisive acts to end the slaughter occurred while security forces lay flat on the mall’s shiny polished tiles one floor above Jakrapanth.
Peering through high-powered assault rifle’s telescopic lens, security forces aimed past empty escalators at Jakrapanth in the basement floor, near several shops next to the base of a red-and-white faux lighthouse, an iconic part of the Terminal 21 shopping mall’s interior design.
Security forces finally got a clear shot and killed Jakrapanth at the base of the lighthouse, according to graphic video they released shortly after the end of the siege. It showed gruesome bloody streaks trailing from the lighthouse where someone had dragged Jakrapanth’s body away.
The gunman’s rage allegedly erupted after a land sale where he apparently expected to receive a commission fee. Thai soldiers are often involved in side businesses, many security-related, to bolster their low incomes.
The first person among three killed at the Suatham Phithak military camp was his commanding officer, who allegedly was involved in the land deal. Details about their relationship were not immediately clear.
Nor was it clear why he then went to the mall and opened fire on innocent people. In one of his Facebook posts during the siege, he cryptically wrote “nobody can avoid death.”
Thailand’s heavily politicized and sometimes poorly disciplined military culture has not yet been mentioned as a possible motivating factor in the killings. But officials, dissidents, politicians and others have frequently criticized its lack of focus on purely military affairs.
Senior army officers and their units have been involved in 18 coups and attempted putsches since 1932, the year that ended absolute monarchy.
By diverting attention to Thailand’s murky, often corrupt and treacherous politics, dangerous gaps have appeared in some of the military’s most vulnerable points, the same critics say.
Minority ethnic Malay Islamist guerrillas in the south have occasionally been able to raid military camps and checkpoints, and steal weapons and ammunition.
With the mass killing, the army will now need to bolster the security of its arms, not only in the insurgency-racked south but also nationwide.
Millions of legal gun licenses are issued by the Interior Ministry each year, but it is not easy for Thais to purchase and possess a well-made, reliable gun.
Guns are also relatively expensive and are bought and used mostly by middle- and upper-class Thais, primarily for personal protection but also for sport or collections.
Prices are steep because this predominantly Buddhist country lacks a major indigenous firearms industry and instead imports most of its weapons, according to the Firearms Association of Thailand.
With high import taxes and retail profits, a Glock pistol that might cost US$500 in America could sell for up to $2,500 in Thailand.
Those prices are dearer, no doubt, than on Thailand’s long-thriving black arms market that has for decades supplied neighboring Myanmar’s various ethnic insurgent wars.
At the same time, Thailand scores high in the rates of homicide, gun suicides, unintentional gun deaths and gun deaths from an undetermined cause in Asia. The tragedy in Korat will likely push that rating even higher.
Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based American correspondent reporting from Asia since 1978.