The tiny bodies lay on tiny mats, tiny heads occasionally resting on pillows.
But the children were not asleep.
On Thursday at what was normally nap time at government-run day care centers in Thailand, a recently fired police officer armed with a handgun and a knife went on a rampage that by day’s end had killed 36 people, 24 of them children, according to Dr. Surapong Phadungwiang, a provincial health official.
The victims at the facility, the Child Development Center Uthai Sawan, included a 2-year-old child and a teacher who was eight months pregnant, police said.
After the massacre at the child care facility, in Nongbua Lamphu province, the gunman shot himself fatally at his own home, where his wife and son were also found dead, said Gen. Dumrongsak Kittiprapas, the national police chief. About 10 people were injured in the attack, he added. Police identified the gunman as Panya Kamrap, 34.
The attack Thursday ranks as the worst mass shooting by a sole perpetrator in Thailand’s history and exceeds the death tolls of the deadliest school shootings in the United States. Twenty-six people, including 20 children, were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012, and 19 children and two adults were killed in Uvalde, Texas, in May.
The rampage Thursday — which came two years after a mass shooting at a Thai shopping mall and army base by a soldier who killed 29 people — has catalyzed national soul-searching. Thailand’s gun homicide rate, while far lower than that of the United States, is among the highest in Asia. Yet drills to respond to shootings are not part of the culture. And in a country where military-style hierarchies pervade everything from schooling to offices, there remains a dearth of mental health care.
The Royal Thai Police confirmed that Panya had been fired in June for possession of methamphetamine, a stimulant that has flooded the region in recent years and has filled Thai jails with drug offenders. Panya was set to go on trial Friday, and the 9 mm pistol used in the attack was legally owned, police said.
“He abused drugs and was very stressed and upset about his career, his position, his status,” said Kritsanapong Phutrakul, the chair of the faculty of criminology and justice administration at Rangsit University and a police lieutenant colonel. “To reduce the risk to Thai society, his gun should have been taken away from him when he was fired.”
Grieving family members gathered outside the day care center Thursday afternoon, the remnants of a sticky rice lunch scattered on tables vacated by panicked teachers. The massacre occurred in one of Thailand’s poorest provinces, where parents are often forced to migrate to the big cities for work, leaving their children at home with grandparents or other family members. Government day cares, such as the one targeted Thursday, are free and plentiful, serving about 860,000 preschool children, according to the United Nations’ children’s agency.
A string of deadly episodes involving security personnel trained with firearms, though, has fractured any sense of innocence in Thailand. In addition to the mass shooting by a soldier in February 2020, a police lieutenant general opened fire in a military school in Bangkok last month, killing two people.
“We think of mass shootings as something from far away, like in the United States,” Kritsanapong said. “But it’s now obvious that it has happened again and again, so we have to start now to protect the vulnerable groups at schools, shopping malls, universities, community halls.”
Anutin Charnvirakul, Thailand’s minister of public health, said Thursday that something needed to change.
“Thailand is considered one of the safest countries in the world, but, you know, there are still exceptions, like the thing that happened today,” he said. “We have to safeguard probably more public places.”
Not long ago, Thailand was hailed for its efforts to save a group of young people, as an international team of divers and security personnel in 2018 successfully rescued members of a youth soccer team and their assistant coach who were trapped for 18 days in a waterlogged cave. The youngest squad member was 11.
But Thailand has been buffeted by other crises in the years since. A majority Buddhist country of about 70 million people, Thailand is struggling with societal ills that have been exacerbated by the economic pain of the pandemic and cross-border crime in a region rife with it. As COVID-19 hit, suicides, drug use and personal debt loads soared. And while Thailand’s public health care system is generally strong, a mere 2.3% of the government’s health expenditures go to mental health, according to the World Health Organization.
There were only 656 psychiatrists and 422 psychologists in the entire nation, according to the WHO’s Mental Health Atlas 2020. The Royal Thai Police force alone has roughly 220,000 officers.
Drug possession, mainly of methamphetamine, is the crime that sends the most people to Thai jails, according to police. Thailand abuts the so-called Golden Triangle, a lawless border zone of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar, where many of the world’s synthetic drugs are churned out by warlords and kingpins, mostly in Myanmar. Following an army coup there in 2021, drug production has intensified.
“The flow of drugs into the region is just crazy, a literal flood,” said Jeremy Douglas, the regional representative of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime for Southeast Asia. “It’s only going to get worse.”
“He always had a history of using drugs,” said Maj. Gen. Paisan Leusomboon, a spokesperson for the Region 4 police force, referring to the gunman who attacked the day care center. Before he was dismissed from his job, Panya served as a corporal, a low rung in the police hierarchy.
Thai police officers tend to be poorly paid, and critics of the system say that the paltry salaries can give rise to petty corruption. At the same time, the impunity of high-ranking police and army officers can breed a sense of resentment among the rank and file, who feel pressure to hew to their commanding officers’ every demand.
Sgt. Maj. Jakrapanth Thomma, the soldier whose rampage at a shopping mall killed 29 people and wounded 58 others two years ago, was angered by a financial dispute with the family of his superior officer, according to the country’s then-army chief. Members of that family refused to pay him money he was owed, he told friends. There was no recourse, he told them.
Still, why the soldier went from killing members of that commanding officer’s family to massacring civilians in a shopping mall is not clear. The soldier was shot dead by the authorities, ending the attack.
As dusk fell in Uthai Sawan on Thursday, the sky already dark with rain clouds, the parents of the slain children gathered in pods of grief and the nation struggled with a slew of questions. Why had Panya attacked the day care center? Was it because the facility was in a government compound? Why had his gun not been taken away from him when he was dismissed from the job? Why were more than 20 children left so vulnerable?
One by one, into the night, the bodies of the children were carried to the hospital for autopsies. Many of the coffins, too, were tiny.
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