Attack in Thailand sheds light on country’s black-market guns problem

by Eve Jamilkowski

Content warning: gun violence

On October 6, Panya Kamrab, a recently fired police officer, armed with a knife and a handgun ended the lives of 36 people, 23 of them were children taking their daily afternoon nap at Young Children’s Development Center in Uthai Sawan, Thailand. He then drove home, shooting at passersby, arriving to kill his wife and child, and finally turning the gun on himself.

One of the surviving witnesses Nanticha Panchum, also head teacher at the childcare center, said she first heard the gunshots after sending the children off to nap, according to the BBC. The initial shots killed four colleagues of Panchum who were eating lunch outside.

Normally, there would be 92 children present at the center on any given day, but because of the combined conditions of rain and a shared bus breaking down, there were only 24. One teacher, who gave her interview to the BBC but remained unnamed, remembers locking the door trying to keep the shooter out before he gunned it down and shot her colleagues as she escaped and ran away from the building to get help.

Kamrab was able to ram a motorbike and injure two people while fleeing the scene in a truck. The husband of another person who lost their life, Seksan Sriraj, said his wife was a teacher at the Young Children’s Development Center who was eight months pregnant and among one of the first victims. “I cried until I had no more tears coming out of my eyes. They are running through my heart. 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,” said Sriraj. 

Families Mourn

Since Thailand is majority Buddhist, the Thai families mourned with coffins lining their temple. Inside the temple, Wat Rak Samaree, a long white string that is a Buddhist symbol of purity and protection, ran across the closed tops of the coffins. Encircling each coffin were items family members brought that were favorites among the lost that the children can carry with them into the afterlife: a Spiderman outfit, a stuffed animal, juice boxes, grilled pork, and an abundance of toy trucks. Malisa Yodkhao told The New York Times that she brought her son, Dawn, a bicycle and remote-controlled car along with some other toy cars he’d been wanting. 

Buddhists believe that doing good deeds is essential for the deceased to live well in the afterlife, before rebirth. Many funerals, especially ones of children, often show this belief by holding colorful events following a march in the streets to the cremation site. The casket is paraded on a flat decorated with bright lights and fragrant lotus flowers, a symbol of resurrection in Buddhism. 

No temple in the nearby province where the shooting happened was willing to cremate and hold services for the body of the gunman, Panya Kamrab. His remains were driven to Udon Thani, a city about 90 minutes away from Uthai Sawan where the massacre took place. “Why do we say we won’t take him?” asked Maha Boonho Sukkamo, the abbot of one of the temples that refused to house Kamrab’s remains, “This is because the two communities have a resolution that he was vile.” 

Thailand Gun Issues

Kamrab’s drug habit and marital problems are blamed for the attack. However, the horrific attack by the ex-policeman has brought Thai politicians to enact changes in the already strict laws

As of now, civilians seeking to buy guns face a restriction on the ratio of guns per person, high prices, and tough laws, including immediate exclusion for prison time or lack of employment. There are no tests for mental health or drug screenings.

In contrast, a member of Thailand’s security, whether police or the Thai Royal Guard, can purchase an unlimited number of firearms at a high discount, and have a much shorter wait time and query period than regular civilians. This loophole fuels Thailand’s black market for guns, with a high profit rate. This is why many people are turning to black market to get cheaper guns in a faster amount of time. For example, a Glock 19 Gen5 could cost $2,000 and a six-month wait through a licensed dealer, or, it might cost half the price online, according to Michael Picard for The New York Times, an independent researcher who has studied the illegal-arms business in Thailand. He said a police officer could buy the exact same gun for around $600, legally obtained. “With those prices, an officer could make a very healthy profit,” Picard said. “On top of that, they can extort black market buyers by threatening arrest or exposure as a way of leveraging further bribes. When I was tracking black market sellers on social media sites, I once saw a seller dox several of his buyers by posting screenshots of their personal information from a government database.” 

Guns in Thailand have come to represent power, prestige, and money. Like a fast car or a big house, guns are what some have and many in Thailand want. YouTube and local news channels air stories that include people flashing weapons during arguments with neighbors or in restaurants, a driver with road rage pulling out his gun against a cyclist, and even an instance where a man driving next to a woman shows off his gun in an intimidating manner as if trying to appear flirtatious. “We have to admit that Thai people feel that when they own a gun, it makes them feel like they have power,” said a former high-ranking police official and the chairman of the Faculty of Criminology and Justice Administration at Rangsit University in an interview with NYTimes

Government Response

Some government officials have been quick to deflect. In response to questions about the attacker’s previous job as a law enforcement officer and why he was still allowed to have guns despite being discharged for drug use, “What can we do? He’s a drug addict,” said Prawit Wongsuwan, the Deputy Prime Minister. Prime Minister Praytuh Chan-ocha issued an order to authorities to revoke gun licenses from people who have behaved in a way that “threatens society” or “creates chaos or unrest,” attending government spokesperson Anucha Burapachaisri said in a statement received by the Washington Post. The prime minister ordered a crackdown on illegal sales and possession of illegal guns and told officials to “step up” drug testing among their fellow government officials, including the police task force. 

Michael Picard, an independent journalist who researches Thailand’s black market, believes closing the loopholes that make it easier for officials to register firearms, as well as abolishing the rules that allow them to not pay import tax should be the first steps made in any effort to reform Thailand’s gun policies. He notes another very important step in change would be digitizing Thailand’s firearm registry. “Unfortunately, these processes are subject to little external civilian oversight and accountability, so while any of this would be feasible in a functional democracy, it essentially depends on the will of the junta [Thailand’s military government],” Picard said.


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