Thai nursery massacre puts focus on guns, mental health of security personnel

Subel Rai Bhandari, Nontarat Phaicharoen, and Kunnawut Boonreak
Bangkok and Chiang Mai, Thailand
Thai nursery massacre puts focus on guns, mental health of security personnel After autopsies at the Udon Thani Hospital in Udon Thani, a line of ambulances transport the bodies of victims of an attack at a daycare center in neighboring Uthai Sawan, northeast Thailand, Oct. 7, 2022.
Wason Wanichakorn/AP

The massacre of pre-schoolers by an ex-policeman in northeastern Thailand casts a stark light on questions around mental health and the prevalence of guns among the country’s security forces that must be tackled, experts and authorities said.

Panya Khamrab, 34, who had been dismissed from the police department after being caught with drugs earlier this year, went on a killing spree Thursday in Nong Bua Lam Phu province. At least 24 of the 36 people he killed in the gruesome knife attack and shooting were children aged between two and five.

Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said the massacre was “an indication of more serious, deeper-seated problems that need to be addressed” rather than a one-off incident.

People “immediately believe that he [Panya] was crazy, and on drugs, thereby placing all the focus on the gunman himself rather than serious systemic problems this incident has brought to light,” he said.

“The fact is that Thailand is literally awash in guns, both legally registered and illegally owned, and regulatory oversight and control is sporadic.”

Thailand, a majority Buddhist country of about 69 million people, has some of Asia’s highest rates of gun ownership and gun homicide, authorities say.

According to a 2020 study by the Geneva-based organization Small Arms Survey, Thailand has the highest number of firearms in civilian possession among ASEAN countries with more than 10 million firearms in civilian hands as of 2017 – about 15 percent of the population.

The survey group said six million in circulation were registered arms, while the rest were unregistered.

With 5.2 deaths per 100,000 people, Thailand has the highest reported rate of gun-related deaths in Asia after Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Philippines, according to a global mortality from firearms report published in 2018.

However, compared with members of the security forces, it’s generally harder for civilians to access firearms because armed forces and police personnel aren’t subjected to such stringent background checks, according to experts.

Phongpat Greeprom, a firearms expert who writes for Guns and Games Magazine, said it would be hard to contain gun-related violence in Thailand.

“The problem comes with illegal guns and unruly individuals. Licensed guns are a bit hard to obtain for good, law-abiding citizens. However, a bad person can easily find an illegal gun,” he told BenarNews.

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha offers flowers in a tribute outside the daycare center where a mass killing occurred in Nong Bua Lam Phu province, Thailand, Oct. 7, 2022. [Athit Perawongmetha/ Reuters]

This is not the first time that someone associated with the Thai security forces has been accused of committing violent crimes in recent years.

Last month, an army officer shot two of his colleagues dead at a Bangkok base.

In February 2021, a drunk police officer shot and injured a 25-year-old noodle vendor in Phuket. A few months later, a former Thai soldier killed a patient in a hospital, after earlier shooting dead shop employee.

In 2020, an active duty soldier angry with his superior suffered a “psychotic break,” killing at least 29 people and injuring dozens of others at four locations. He was gunned down after an hours-long standoff.

Robertson said it was “worth noting that troubled security force members are the culprits in both of Thailand’s worst mass killing episodes.”

“So Thailand needs to do much better in vetting police and soldiers during the recruitment process, and assessing issues like mental health as part of that process,” he told BenarNews.

“Otherwise, there are likely to be similar incidents in the future, especially given that access to guns in Thailand seems to be quite easy.”

‘We have ignored their mental health’

Wiroj Lakkhanaadisorn, a politician with the progressive Move Forward Party, said the two incidents “reflect some problems in the army and police, including mental health and problems with command.”

“If the problems are not solved, it would mean that the lives of people are at risk from the people who have these weapons in their hands,” he said on his Twitter.

Meanwhile, an editorial in the Bangkok Post focused on the same message. The two incidents “beg questions about the recruitment process employed by the army and the Royal Thai Police,” the daily English language newspaper opined.

“Society needs to know how the police deal with the mental health issues their staff face. The suicide rate among police is high, with 443 taking their own lives from 2008-2021,” said the editorial published on Friday.

Following the attack at the nursery, Panya took his own life after killing his wife and their child at their home.

Thailand has around 1,070 psychiatrists and psychologists and allocates just 2.3 percent of the health expenditure to mental health, according to a World Health Organization report in 2020.

A psychology professor at Chiang Mai University said the Thai government had continuously neglected the mental health of security officers, who face intense pressure from their superiors.

“We have ignored their mental health, many of whom have easy access to a gun,” said the psychologist, who only identified herself as Wassana, citing a fear of a backlash if she revealed her name.

“But what is harder to achieve is to make those in the police and military understand that seeking help for mental health issues, meeting psychologists, psychiatrists, and therapists, is not to belittle them or disclose confidential government secrets,” she told BenarNews.


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