Thailand’s army chief on Tuesday tearfully apologized to the nation and offered condolences to victims of a deadly shooting spree by an army sergeant, while claiming that the soldier had been cheated by his superior officer in a land deal.
Sgt. Maj. Jakrapanth Thomma, 32, was killed by security forces Sunday morning, ending a 17-hour stand-off at a shopping center in Nakhon Ratchasima, a city of 2.6 million people about 260 km (160 miles) northeast of Bangkok. During the rampage, which began on Saturday, he allegedly killed 29 people including his superior, civilians and police while injuring 58 others.
As of Tuesday, 24 remained hospitalized – five of them in intensive care units, according to Narinrat Phitchayakhamin, the health official in in Nakhon Ratchasima.
During a nationally televised news conference, Army Chief Gen. Apirat Kongsompong discussed the timing of events that led to what officials are calling the worst mass shooting by a lone gunman in Thailand.
“As army chief, I apologize and offer deepest condolences to the families of the slain civilians, officials on duty and the injured in the tragedy carried out by an army personnel,” said Apirat, who burst into tears.
“At the second he pulled the trigger to kill his commander, he turned into a criminal, no longer a soldier,” Apirat said. “Don’t scold the army, soldiers, but me Gen. Apirat Kongsompong. I accept criticism. You can scold me because I’m the army chief.”
Despite that statement, Apirat, who is to retire in September, said he had no plans to leave his post because of the mass shooting.
“Is it appropriate to ask me this question?” Apirat told a reporter who asked if he would resign. “I’m responsible for what I order, but I cannot assume responsibility for a personal matter. ... I can’t accept that.”
He said Jakrapanth was angered over a bad deal with a superior officer.
“The perpetrator did not receive justice from his superior and his family over a land-purchase deal. We will take a look at the details. When the promise was broken, that motivated him to carry out this rampage,” Apirat said.
The survivors of Col. Anantharot Krasae, Jakrapanth’s superior officer and the first person killed on Saturday, challenged Apirat’s statement. Anantharot’s mother-in-law, Anong Mitrchan, was shot and killed as well.
Anantharot’s widow, Pornlaphat Mitrchan, said her husband never bullied the gunman and had nothing to do with the loan, The New York Times reported, adding that Jakrapanth was owed about $1,700.
“My husband was a very kind guy,” she said. “You can ask his subordinates.”
Her father, Narupol Mitrchan, a retired colonel, also discounted Apirat’s statement.
“No, we did not cheat him,” Narupol said, according to the Times. “We were actually trying to help him because he was the subordinate of the colonel and had debts.”
Commander promises probe
Speaking to the nation, Apirat vowed to investigate alleged shady deals carried out by some senior military officials.
“There are many projects among army personnel who collaborate with businessmen including real estate and loan sharking businesses. I know that and there will be generals down to colonels who will go jobless this month and in the coming months,” Apirat said.
In addition, he said changes would be coming to the military to better serve lower ranking members.
“[W]hen we see something that needs to be changed and needs to be developed, we have to develop the whole plan at every level,” he said. “We have to take a very good care of our soldiers down to the privates and especially the lower subordinates, including NCOs.
“[F]or the welfare of our soldiers, we need to give them good direction and we must have direct communications with them which in the past has been lacking.”
Also on Tuesday, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, said officials should learn from the weekend assault.
“All sides must find a practical way to prevent repetition of this,” Prayuth told reporters following Tuesday’s routine cabinet meeting.
“I’m concerned about copycats, especially through websites and social media,” Prayuth said.
Police said they have arrested at least five people who allegedly posted threats of similar attacks on social media.
Also on Tuesday, the Office of Sheikhul Islam, Thailand’s Muslim leader, expressed remorse.
“The Sheikhul Islam and the Islamic committee of Thailand hope this incident will be taken as a lesson learned to create justice, mercy and compassion in society and adopt religious teaching to guide our lives forward,” it said in a statement.
Security measures questioned
Meanwhile, a former national human rights commissioner questioned security measures at military facilities in light of Jakrapanth stealing weapons and ammunition from an arsenal before carrying on with his rampage. It ended at the Terminal 21 shopping center where he was killed Sunday morning.
“I wonder how such a young and lone perpetrator could rob the arsenal and caused massive tragedy. Security at the arsenal must be lax,” Angkhana Neelapaijit said.
During his news conference, Apirat explained that Jakrapanth had exploited his familiarity with a soldier on guard duty, forcing him to turn over an HK-33 rifle.
From there, Jakrapanth moved to a battalion arsenal, killing a private and injuring two others before shooting open a door lock and ramming the arsenal door with a military vehicle to steal a machine gun and ammunition, Apirat said.
The military commander said Jakrapanth’s actions showed the need to review security measures, which vary depending on the post.