By Kalinga Seneviratne
The massacre of 37 people, 26 of whom were preschool children taking an afternoon nap in their day-care centre, in a remote north-eastern township of Thailand on October 7 has shocked the nation, with many social media postings calling for the extrajudicial killing of those involved in the drug trade and gun running.
Many medical experts have also raised the issue of the weakness of the Thai public health system, where visiting a psychiatrist is very costly and carries with it a stigma in society.
The perpetrator of the massacre is a 34-year-old former police officer Panya Kamrap, who was dismissed from the service in June for possessing methamphetamine, attended a court hearing on October 6, and was due to be sentenced on a drug-related case by the local courts on October 8.
Panya was a small village success story where he won a scholarship to study law at a private university in Bangkok. After graduation, he joined the police force and served in some of Bangkok’s wealthiest neighbourhoods.
How such a seemingly successful and well-behaved village boy—who grew up in Nong Bua Lam Phu, a poor north-eastern province lush with rice and sugarcane fields—turned into such a monster is a complex question that both the public health authorities and the police force are unable to answer. But, it has raised serious issues with regard to how large sums allocated to fighting Thailand’s drug menace that has gone on for decades is been spent.
This has also raised questions within the country about corruption in the police force and the need to monitor both drug use and the trigger-happy culture of law enforcement officials. The very people who are entrusted with protecting society have turned against them.
Armed forces and police officers are not subjected to the strict criteria which ordinary citizens have to go through to obtain a gun. Yet, with over 10.3 million firearms in the country, with about 15 per cent of the civilian population owning a gun, Thailand is ranked second after Pakistan in gun ownership. Over 40 per cent of guns in Thailand are believed to be illegally acquired.
Phongpat Greeprom, a firearms expert who writes for Guns and Games Magazine, told online news service BenarNews that 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 noted.
Unfortunately, these “bad persons” seem to be well-represented within the security forces. This is not the first time that someone associated with the Thai security forces has been accused of committing violent crimes in recent years.
In February 2021, a drunk police officer shot and injured a 25-year-old noodle vendor on the southern Thai island of Phuket. A few months later, a former Thai soldier killed a patient in a hospital after earlier shooting a 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.
Thus, it is worth noting that troubled security force members are the culprits in both of Thailand’s worst mass-killing episodes, which begs the question whether
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.
Pravit Rojanaphruk, Senior Staff Writer with kgaosodenglish.com, argues that many police officers are under tremendous stress and need proper care and regular psychological monitoring.
“Calling for the extrajudicial execution of others may fulfil your thirst for instant gratification, but proceeding without respect for human rights, due process and understanding of the mammoth systemic challenge facing Thai society will likely bring about more deaths and carnage and not the less,” warns Pravit, adding, “this is not just about evil people but a rotten system that needs a comprehensive overhaul”.
A pill of methamphetamine is cheaper than a can of soft drink in Thailand, and both the police and military are widely believed here to be involved in this trade.
“Why do many end up using drugs, to begin with, and what role does systemic corruption within the police force, as well as the military, play in the massive flow of methamphetamine from Thailand’s neighbours, particularly Myanmar?” asks Pravit, who pointed out that one psychiatrist has written on social media that the killer was taking revenge on the society who turned him into what he became.
“Systemic corruptions, where many honest police officers have to turn a blind eye to their corrupt peers and superiors in order to survive and keep their career simply, these are but some of the factors making the challenge much more complex.”
The other important issue that is being debated here is the need to ensure a better healthcare system is available to cater to people who are extremely stressed out, including those in the police force.
Thailand has just 7.29 mental health workers for every 100,000 people, according to WHO statistics. There is no psychiatrist available in Panya’s village Nong Bua Lam Phu, and if needed, he would have had to travel more than 100 km to reach one.
“In Thailand, seeing a psychiatrist is both very costly and comes with a big stigma where one is almost judged by others as mad … while traditional systems that heal the mind such as Buddhism are becoming less and less attractive to younger Thais,” notes Pravit.
In this predominantly Buddhist country, there are numerous meditation centres and programs where people from overseas, especially from the West, come to learn about how to calm their minds. But other than conducting merit-making rituals for the dead, Buddhist monks have been silent on how Buddhism could be incorporated into the process of treating mental stress and addressing the crisis of gun violence. Even Thai medical professionals have been silent on such home-grown remedies.
Dr Suriyadew Trepati, Director of the Center For Morality Promotion, a government agency, called for legislation to ban off-duty police officers from carrying guns and called on the community, together with the government agencies, to take care of important places such as schools, hospitals, meditation centres, building a surveillance system of persons with violent behaviour with a mental health assessment scheme.
Dr Deja Piyavhatkul, a former medical lecturer and psychiatrist, told Thai PBS that Panya clearly had mental health issues, but he is uncertain whether they were directly related to his decision to launch the mass killing. A post-mortem on Panya’s body revealed no traces of drug use.
It was possible that the killer hated society so much that he wanted to make it “cry out in pain”, said the expert. “He may have wanted to commit suicide but thought he would harm as many people as he could before killing himself. Maybe this was his way of hitting back at society.”
A post-graduate scholar at a leading Buddhist university here, who did not want to be named, told IDN that this is the time for the Buddhist clergy to come out and speak out about the need for spiritual awakening in Thailand.
“Buddhism has the remedies for it (and) Buddhist institutions and temples could work in collaboration with the public health bodies to plan a long-term solution to this menace (of drugs and violence)”, he said. “(But) at such a sensitive and serious stage, many senior monks are afraid to speak out in case they get on the wrong side of the Sangha(monks) Council (that controls them). Unfortunately, Buddhism is failing Thai society at a time of greatest need.”