Thais demand responsibility from army after mass shooting

Criticisms of the army and government have been growing as Thais demand that the army take responsibility for the mass shooting on Saturday night (8 February) at the Terminal 21 shopping centre in Nakhon Ratchasima, which now has a death toll of 30.

The 904 Royal Volunteers and Terminal 21 employees cleaning up the shopping centre following the attack (Source: Terminal21 Korat Shopping Mall) 

The gunman has been identified as Sgt. Maj. Jakrapanth Thomma, a soldier from a nearby military base, who shot and killed his commanding officer before stealing guns from the armoury at the Surathampitak Military Camp and going on a shooting spree at various locations around the city, including a Buddhist temple. He finally arrived at the Terminal 21 Shopping Centre, where he opened fire indiscriminately at people inside and outside the shopping centre. Dozens of shoppers were trapped inside the shopping centre for hours while police and military officers attempt to gain control of the building.

Sgt. Maj. Jakrapanth used social media heavily, and was posting updates on Facebook during the attack, including a video of himself holding a rifle inside the mall. Facebook took down his post and profile around 19.30 on Saturday, and released a statement saying “our hearts go out to the victims, their families and the community affected by this tragedy in Thailand.”

“There is no place on Facebook for people who commit this kind of atrocity,” said the statement, “nor do we allow people to praise or support this attack.”

The BBC reported that people trapped inside the shopping centre were hiding in bathroom cubicles. Another BBC report said that one of the survivors, 33-year-old Chanathip Somsakul, barricaded himself and dozens of others inside the women’s toilets on the fourth floor of the shopping centre. They were trying to find information using their mobile devices, but he said there was so much information and no one knew what to believe.

The BBC report also quoted Chanathip telling AFP news agency that “a friend who works at the mall” was talking to someone in the CCTV control room who was giving them updates on the location of the gunman. However, it was a Channel 7 reporter’s drone that helped the police locate the gunman after several police drones and CCTV cameras were shot down.

At one point, the police brought in the gunman’s mother in the hope that she can persuade him to surrender, but this attempt was not successful.

The standoff lasted around 17 hours, ending on Sunday morning (9 February) when the gunman was killed.

The attack left 30 people dead, including the gunman, and 57 injured, with around 20 people still in hospital. Several international media outlets, including Al Jazeera and the New York Times, have named it the worst mass shooting in Thailand’s modern history.

The gunman was reportedly in a financial dispute with his commanding officer, and the officer’s mother-in-law, both of whom were his first victims. There are reports that he believed they cheated him in a land deal, but it is not clear why this prompted him to attack civilians at random.

The New York Times reported that the commanding officer, Col. Anantharot Krasae, operated a business selling homes and helping soldiers borrow money from a military lending programme, often at an amount above the value of the property they were buying. Sgt. Maj. Jakrapanth reportedly arranged a loan with the colonel and expected to receive a significant amount of cash back from the loan, but never received the money.

Surviving members of Col. Anantharot’s family defended their business. The colonel’s widow insisted that her mother and her husband had nothing to do with the money owed to Sgt. Maj. Jakrapanth, claiming that it was a “discount” from the house he bought from them. She also claimed that her husband “had never bullied or oppressed” the sergeant major. 

Mourners light candles in memory of the victims (Source: Khaosod English)

In response to the attack, on Sunday, people began leaving flowers and messages of support outside Terminal 21. A candlelight vigil was then held on Sunday night in front of the statue of local heroine Lady Thao Suranari in the centre of Nakhon Ratchasima. A Buddhist ceremony was also held in which 40 monks prayed for the souls of the dead.

The Department of Mental Health (DMH) has also sent in Mental Health Crisis Assessment and Treatment Teams (MCATTs) to support the victims of the attack and those who lost relatives. The Department said they have set up a headquarters for the MCATT teams at the Nakhon Ratchasima Rajanagarindra Psychiatric Hospital to offer mental health services to the victims and their families.  

The Department found that out of the 280 people who came in for mental health assessments who have either been injured or have relatives who were killed or injured in the attack, 108 had high stress levels and are at risk of long-term mental health issues. Meanwhile, of 269 people who witnessed the attack, were among those trapped in the shopping centre, or were personnel who were on duty in the attack and who came in for mental health assessment, 38 were found to have high stress levels and need consistent mental health monitoring.

The DMH also said that those experiencing stress, anxiety, insomnia, panic attacks, or flashbacks may contact their 24-hour mental health hotline at 1323. Those who live in the Nakhon Ratchasima area may also contact the Nakhon Ratchasima Rajanagarindra Psychiatric Hospital at 044-233-999.

Amnesty International Thailand issued a statement on Sunday offering “our deepest condolences to the victims and their friends and families.”

“AIT are deeply saddened by the tragedy and urge the Thai government to ensure all families of the victims and injured persons promptly receive support and remedy,” said Amnesty International Thailand director Piyanut Kotsan. “More measures should be put in place to ensure public safety and security of everyone. No one should receive any harm simply for travelling on the road or shopping in a mall. In addition, an effort should be made to restore the morale of the public and concerned officials in order that they can live normal lives as soon as possible.”

Thailand “has high rates of gun ownership,” and such mass shootings are rare outside of the Deep South, an article in The Guardian observed. However, the incident in Nakhon Ratchasima came just a month after another mall shooting in Lopburi, in which a gunman killed three people and injured four others while robbing a jewelry store. The suspect, a school director who was arrested two weeks later, reportedly confessed and claimed that he did not mean to shoot anyone. 

Criticism of government and army grows

Following the attack, the Thai public began raising questions about how the army should take responsibility for the crime, with many questioning the security around military base armories and how the gunman was able to steal the weapons he used during the attack.    

On Tuesday (11 February), political activists Ekkachai Hongkangwan and Chokchai Paibulratchata went to army headquarters to file a petition, signed by around 1000 people, demanding that Gen. Apirat Kongsompong take responsibility for the attack by resigning from his position as army chief.

Ekkachai said that Gen Apirat should take responsibility as it was army personnel who failed to stop the gunman inside the military base, allowing him to attack civilians, and that the army has neglected issues of commanding officers bullying their troops.

Gen Apirat Kongsompong

At a press conference on the same day, Gen Apirat apologized on behalf of the gunman, while also saying that “the moment [the gunman] he pulled the trigger on other people, he was a criminal and no longer a soldier,” a sentence which has been criticized by the Thai public as a way of shirking responsibility. 

Gen. Apirat said that they will be investigating the land dispute which allegedly led to the mass shooting, and that the army will be setting up new communication channel to allow soldiers to file anonymous complaints if they feel they are being taken advantage of by their superiors. He promised that the army will take care of the victims’ families, but rejected the demand that he resigns.  

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha is being criticized for the tone of his speech at a press conference on Sunday after he visited the wounded in hospital. He took selfies, waved to the crowd, and made “mini-heart” gestures, behaviour that many thought was an inappropriate response to the situation.

Netizens took to social media to condemn him for his response to the attack, with many commenting that he should take some cues from New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, whose response to the Christchurch terrorist attack is once again being circulated around Thai social media, alongside a photograph of former U.S. President Barack Obama drafting his speech following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.

On Wednesday (12 February), the opposition raised a question in parliament on the mass shooting, questioning the way the situation was handled and the security lapses in the way weapons are stored in military bases.

Answering a question from Palang Pracharath MP Tawirat Rattanaseth on the possibility of copycat shootings, Deputy Minister of Defence Gen Chaichan Changmongkol, on behalf of the Prime Minister, said that since the gunman liked to play video games, it is important that families keep a close eye on gamers in their family.

Future Forward MP Wiroj Lakkhanaadisorn then responded by saying that nothing can be accomplished by blaming video games, since the gunman’s conflict with his commanding officer was over a land dispute. Wiroj asked whether it was true that army officers are selling off state land, and what measures the government would take to compensate those affected by the attack. He also raised questions over recent reports that victims are being compensated from public donations, even though the compensation should come from government budget.

Gen Chaichan insisted that the land over which the gunman and his commanding officer were in dispute was not state land, and that the conflict was a personal issue between two people. He also said that the army is in the process of compensating the victims.

Future Forward MP Piyabutr Saengkanokkul also argued that army reform is severely needed in order to prevent such incidents, that there is especially a need for transparency and for the army to be kept under checks and balances by parliament.

Piyabutr also criticized Gen Prayut for his inappropriate response to the attack, saying that he did not show “good leadership” in the face of tragedy. He asked that some space be opened to speak of and mourn those who died in the attack, before reading out the names of some of the dead, their age, and the manner in which they died.  

Terminal 21 reopened today (13 February) with a Buddhist ceremony. Meanwhile, a candlelight vigil in memory of the victims will be held today in front of the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre at 18.00.