At least 38 people, including 24 children, were killed in a gun and knife attack Thursday at a child care center in northern Thailand. It was the country's deadliest ever mass shooting carried out by an individual.
The killing spree took place in Nong Bua Lam Phu, about 482 kilometers north of the capital Bangkok,
Local authorities identified the gunman as Panya Kamrab, an ex-police officer who was fired from the force last year because of his involvement in drug trafficking.
The 34-year-old gunman was initially on the run after fleeing in a white Toyota pick-up truck, but police colonel Jakkapat Vijitraithaya from the province told local media the gunman had since killed himself, along with his wife and child. The motive for the killings is unknown. An investigation is underway.
In a Facebook post, Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-Cha called the incident “shocking,” and he expressed his deepest condolences to the families of those killed and injured.
"This shouldn't happen," he said. "I feel deep sadness toward the victims and their relatives."
His spokesman later confirmed that the prime minister would travel Friday to Nong Bua Lam Phu.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken offered condolences.
“We are deeply saddened by the tragedy in Nong Bua Lam Phu province,” he said. “This violence is both senseless and heartbreaking. We stand with the people of Thailand and extend our deepest condolences to those who lost their loved ones today. The United States is ready to assist our Thai allies in the wake of this tragedy.”
Described as “filled with natural beauty” by Thailand’s Tourism Authority, Nong Bua Lam Phu sits in Thailand's northeast, and the forest outside the provincial capital was home to one of the most famous practitioners of Buddhist meditation.
But there was nothing peaceful about Thursday’s incident.
Local authorities said the former police officer was facing trial over drug charges and had been in court hours before the shooting.
According to district official Jidapa Boonsom, the gunman had entered the nursery in Uthai Sawan town around lunchtime before shooting four or five staff, including a teacher who was eight months pregnant, before forcing his way into a locked room where children were sleeping and killing them, she told Reuters. Victims in Thursday's attack were as young as 2-years-old.
But the number of those killed could have been more. Many parents had kept their children out of the nursery because of bad weather during Thailand's current monsoon wet and rainy weather.
Images have since emerged online that show children and adults lying in pools of blood on the floor following the deadly attack. Eyewitnesses say Kamrab had several weapons with him, including a pistol, shotgun rifle and a large knife.
Thailand's police chief General Damrongsak Kittiprapas confirmed the gunman used his own 9mm legally owned pistol in the shootings, and said he believes he was under the influence of amphetamine drugs at the time.
Mental health speculation
Although investigations are continuing, speculation about Kamrab's state of mental health has been questioned. According to a WHO report, an estimated 1.5 million suffer from depression in Thailand.
But Dr. Apichat Jariyavilas, a psychiatrist at Vejthani Hospital in Bangkok, said the understanding and availability of mental health help has increased in recent years in Thailand.
"People understand more about mental health, and with social media nowadays, Thai people tell each other, and many people [speak] out that psychiatry is one part of a medical condition [that] they can seek help. Thai people seek mental health help much more than before," he told VOA.
Mass shootings are rare in Thailand, but this is the second incident in less than three years that has resulted deaths. In 2020, a solider of the Royal Thai army shot and killed 29 people and injured 58 more at a military camp and a shopping mall in Nakhon Ratchasima before being shot and killed by authorities. At the time, it was the was the deadliest mass shooting in Thailand's history.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Asia with Human Rights Watch in Bangkok, says Thailand has a problem with guns and action needs to be taken.
Thailand has one of the highest civilian gun ownership rates in Asia, with 15.1 weapons per 100 population, compared with 0.3 in Singapore and 0.25 in Japan. That's still far lower than the U.S. rate of 120.5 per 100 people, according to a 2017 survey by Australia's GunPolicy.org nonprofit organization.
"This is an unimaginable tragedy that calls out for action. What's clear is Thailand is awash in guns, both legally registered and illegal, and this is the second mass shooting in two years. It's time for Thailand to wake up and realize that protecting its people means getting this situation under control rather than treating this as a 'one-off' incident that can be ignored," Robertson told VOA via email.
"The Thai government has not recognized that they have a problem with so many guns held in communities across Thailand, but perhaps this incident will serve as a wake-up call that they need to develop strategies to prevent further tragedies like this in the future," he said.
Jon Ungphakorn, a former member of the Senate of Thailand, posted on Facebook that Thailand should have strict gun control restrictions like Japan, England and other European countries.