In wake of nursery killings, Thailand faces reckoning over drugs, guns and mental health

Experts say the authorities must tackle the highest gun ownership rate in south-east Asia, cheap drugs and deep-seated problems within the police

In Uthai Sawan, in north-eastern Thailand, families have said a final goodbye to the victims of the mass killing that horrified the country. The attacker, a former police officer, opened fire and stabbed children at a nursery before returning home to kill his girlfriend, her son and take his own life. He killed 36 people, mostly children.

It was the second mass killing to occur in just a few years in Thailand, where such events have been rare, and the country has been searching for answers over how such a tragedy could have been prevented.

The attacker, Panya Khamrab, had been fired from the police for methamphetamine use, however an autopsy showed he had not taken any drugs in the 72 hours prior to the attack.

The government has promised a crackdown on drugs and gun ownership. Commentators have also pointed to gaps in mental health services, especially within the police, and say deeper problems of corruption and patronage must be reformed. While the recent attack was by a former police officer, a previous 2020 shooting was by a soldier.

Too many guns

Thailand has the highest gun ownership rate in south-east Asia, yet the issue has been neglected – in part because no mass shootings had occurred until recent years, said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division. “Thailand’s sort of honeymoon with these arms – and expecting that something unique to Thailand will allow them to not face these kinds of mass killing episodes – it’s now finally passed,” Robertson said.

Currently, anyone who wants to own a gun must be at least 20 and undergo background checks, including of their criminal record. Illegal possession can lead to 10 years in prison and a fine of 20,000 baht ($US525).

The government has promised to tighten checks, but critics point out that even the current rules are not properly enforced. Of the 10m privately owned guns in Thailand, 4m are unregistered.

Associate Prof Dr Kritsanapong Phutrakul, a former police officer and chair of the faculty of criminology at Rangsit University, said that research suggests an amnesty could help. “But it depends – if someone who has illegal guns doesn’t trust the government, what are they going to do?” he said.

The firearm owned by Panya was obtained legally. As a police officer, he benefited from a state-subsidised scheme offering guns at a below-market rate. When he was fired, it was not taken back.

Kritsanapong said some officers buy their own guns and gas because they are not given a big enough allowance by superiors. “They have to work without full support from the state,” he said.

Ironically, strict internal police rules that make it impractical for officers to borrow guns from the force also encourage people to buy their own, said Dr Dhiyathad Prateeppornnarong, associate professor of public administration at the National Institute of Development Administration.

The prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, promised that former members of the police or military will need to undergo regular evaluations for gun ownership, while he has also ordered officials to scan the community for drug addicts, so that they can be sent to rehabilitation.

In Uthai Sawa, locals say methamphetamine is common. Tablets can be bought for at little as 20 baht, they say, and are available with a strawberry or chocolate scent. The UN has also warned that prices in Thailand have fallen to all-time lows due to a surge in supply.

At Bua Khao clinic in Nong Bua Lamphu hospital, close to where the nursery attack occurred, patients seen for addiction have weekly appointments of up to 90 minutes for up to four months, and then receive follow-up appointments for one year. It’s hard to get people to agree to treatment, or to stick with it, said Julanit Janchomphoo, a senior nurse. “If you go back to the same environment, it’s so easy to get back into the circle,” she said.

Nong Bua Lamphu does not have a single public health psychiatrist, according to Thai PBS.

Nantaphol Chuenchooklin, who works for an NGO in Bangkok helping people who are dealing with addiction, said rehabilitation services are also limited in the capital. He worries that crackdowns will just mean harsher treatment of drug users, who he says are already vulnerable to exploitation by police.

“Poor people are easier to take advantage of,” he said. “If you really want to fix this problem, you should focus on police reform.”

‘History will repeat’

Additional mental health checks for officers would be helpful, said Dhiyathad. But it is also the structures within the police – including its system of patronage, placing immense pressure on low ranking officers – that need reform, he added.

Ex-police officers have often told the media and academics that promotions depend not on how well you serve the public, he said: “There is no career prospect if you are not taking good care of your boss.”

Previous misconduct cases indicate officers collect bribes, from drugs syndicates or illegal businesses such as pubs or brothels, to give to their superior. Their boss then uses that money to buy a position in an area that is more lucrative.

Such a system of patronage contributes to a culture where wrongdoing is swept under the rug. On the occasions that someone is accused, they might be transferred to a different post, or described as simply being a bad apple. “I don’t think so, this is the rotten barrel,” said Dhiyathad.

Reforming the police would be a huge task, he added. “The government needs much courage to do that, and I think the people need to support it,” said Dhiyathad. Public scrutiny after last week’s tragedy shouldn’t dissipate, he added: “If the police force is not reformed, history will repeat itself.”


Rebecca Ratcliffe, south-east Asia correspondent, and Navaon Siradapuvadol

The GuardianTramp

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