Thailand was in a state of mourning on Friday after a gun and knife attack at a nursery left dozens dead and prompted calls for gun control and a crackdown on illicit drugs.
Thirty-seven people were killed when a former police officer opened fire and stabbed children as they slept at the preschool in Uthai Sawan, a town 310 miles north-east of Bangkok on Thursday.
After the attacker left the nursery he drove his car towards and shot at bystanders, then returned home where he shot his wife, child and himself.
On Friday, the relatives of those killed gathered at the nursery, where they lay white roses on the building’s entrance steps before travelling to local temples to receive their loved one’s coffins. Twenty-three children were killed in the attack.
The Thai government ordered all Thai flags to be lowered to half mast while the prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, visited the nursery and laid flowers outside. Afterwards, he met families of the victims and handed out compensation cheques.
On Friday evening, King Maha Vajiralongkorn and Queen Suthida were also expected to meet victims and their families. Crowds gathered outside a local hospital to see the motorcade pass by.
The attacker, identified by police as Panya Khamrab, a 34-year-old former police lieutenant colonel, was dismissed from the force in January for methamphetamine possession and was officially fired in June. He had appeared in court earlier on Thursday on a drug charge and was due to appear again on Friday.
His mother told Nation TV that he was in debt and had drug addiction problems. “I don’t know [why he did this], but he was under a lot of pressure,” she said.
Thai media reported that autopsy results indicated he had not taken drugs in the 72 hours prior to his death. However, the mass killing has prompted calls for a tougher stance on drugs, including methamphetamine, supplies of which have grown rapidly across south-east Asia over recent years.
The opposition Pheu Thai party said it is preparing to open an extraordinary session of the House of Representatives after the tragedy.
“I blame the government for neglecting the problem of drugs that caused this tragic event,” said Prasert Chantararuangthong, secretary-general of Pheu Thai, the party formed of loyalists to exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whose infamous “war on drugs” left 2,500 people dead.
More than 1bn methamphetamine tablets were seized in east and south-east Asia in 2021 – seven times higher than 10 years ago. Analysts say the cartels, whose production is centred in south-east Asia’s Golden Triangle along the borders between Thailand, Myanmar and Laos, continue despite police raids.
A recent UN report said that the price of tablet and crystal methamphetamine had fallen to all-time lows due to a surge in supply.
According to local reports, a tablet costs 10 baht (£0.24) for wholesale, about the same as a bottle of water. The street price for the pills is between 20 and 25 baht.
Mass shootings are rare in Thailand, though gun ownership rates are high. In 2020, a soldier killed at least 29 people and wounded 57 after opening fire in four locations, including a busy shopping mall in north-east Thailand.
In Uthai Sawan, local people and grieving families struggled to come to terms with what had happened.
“I cried until I had no more tears coming out of my eyes. They are running through my heart,” Seksan Sriraj, 28, told Associated Press. He lost his pregnant wife, who was due to give birth this month.
“My wife and my child have gone to a peaceful place. I am alive and will have to live. If I can’t go on, my wife and my child will be worried about me, and they won’t be reborn in the next life,” he said.
The attacker first opened fire outside the nursery, according to witness accounts given to local media. Teachers had tried to lock the front door to keep him out, but he shot and kicked his way into the building.
In an interview with Amarin TV, Satita Boonsom, who worked at the daycare centre, said she and three other teachers climbed the centre’s fence to escape and call for help. By the time she returned, the children were dead. She said one child who was covered by a blanket survived the attack, apparently because the assailant assumed he was dead.
Sumate Uthathit, of Ruamjai Kupai Naklang rescue team, who recovered victims on Thursday, said the atmosphere was one of chaos. “When we entered, we saw a lot of bodies. We were shocked because we only got information about four bodies, but it was more than 20 bodies,” he said. “Their families tried to get in. They were panicking.”
Some families stayed outside the nursery until late on Thursday evening, Thai media reported, with trained staff giving mental health support.
On Friday, relatives gathered again at the nursery, many wearing black, where they were given government assistance.
In the afternoon, coffins bearing the bodies of the victims were taken to local families, to be handed over to relatives. Some fainted as the small coffins were opened. Paramedics revived them with smelling salts.
Politicians across the world offered their condolences, while the UN secretary general, António Guterres, said he was “profoundly saddened by the heinous shooting”.