BANGKOK: The mass shooting at the Terminal 21 mall in Thailand’s Nakhon Ratchasima (or Korat) over the weekend is unprecedented in Thailand.
It raises serious questions about the security of arms in the Royal Thai Armed Forces. It also sheds light on corruption in the armed forces and on Thailand’s gun culture in general.
The assailant killed at least 29, including civilians, soldiers and police responders and wounded scores more with a staggering amount of firepower he was able to single-handedly seize from a military armoury.
This included at least a pistol, two assault rifles, an M60 machine gun, upwards of a thousand rounds of ammunition, and possibly more.
The assailant – a sergeant major in the Royal Thai Army – may have used his rank and position to gain easier access to this weaponry. But he also used force, overpowering an unknown number of soldiers in the process of gathering assault weapons and ammunition.
The fact that only one individual was able to violently gain access to the state’s weapons of war raises serious questions about stockpile security.
For example, the weapons seized by the assailant were stored in a way that allowed for their quick and efficient use. The assailant was also able to acquire additional arms and ammunition from a nearby guard tower.
When not in use, arms should be stored in a central facility with a special guard detail to restrict external access, as well as a responsible officer (or key holder) to limit internal access.
Furthermore, arms should be stored separately from their bolts, magazines, and ammunition, rendering them no more lethal than a metal rod. Each component should be stored in different rooms with different keys, as Thai Army Chief General Apirat Kongsompong alluded to in his press conference earlier in the week.
Had these stockpile controls been observed, this incident undoubtedly wouldn’t have become what it did.
But it wouldn’t have stopped the incident altogether. The rampage was initiated by a business deal over land gone awry. The assailant’s commanding officer – a colonel – was running a side business with his family, exploiting a government loan system for soldiers to acquire housing.
READ: Mass shooting puts Thai army officers' side deals under scrutiny
Side businesses are common for high-ranking members of Thailand’s security establishment due to their positions of power, experts have pointed out in news and commentary in Thai news outlets over the last few days.
In this instance, the assailant was denied about US$13,000, leading to the murder of the colonel, his mother-in-law, and the wounding of a real estate agent who was also involved. This incident had been brewing for several days, if not weeks.
The fact that a colonel could engage a subordinate of so many ranks in an extortionate land deal is a shocking breach of protocol within a military hierarchy.
Yet, it is not uncommon.
Stories proliferate of ranking security officials using their positions to extort clients, civilians, and subordinates.
Testimonies from low-ranking soldiers carried by various Thai news outlets after the massacre even reveal a degree of sympathy for the assailant, indicating such extortionate practices may be widespread in dealings where superior officers are involved.
Thai Army Chief General Apirat Kongsompong acknowledged these charges. “The reason for the perpetrator in this incident was the injustice he received from his commanding office and relatives,” General Apirat said in a press briefing on Tuesday, adding:
There are cooperation between units and private contractors that lobby for deals … I know about this and I want to assure that in the next three months, some general and colonels will lose their jobs.
Killings and gun homicides over financial dealings and land access are a sadly recurrent trend in Thailand.
In general, the proportion of homicides committed with a gun in Thailand are higher than elsewhere in the region save for the Philippines. News of another shooting near Chulalongkorn University show the regular stream of gun-related incidents in the country.
This is undoubtedly connected to the fact that Thailand boasts an active gun culture and has some of the highest firearm possession rates among civilians in Asia.
There are just over 6 million registered firearms in Thailand, while the Small Arms Survey estimates there are another 4 million unregistered firearms in illicit circulation.
Most of the registered firearms are owned by security personnel, such as the assailant, who must procure their own personal side arms off of the civilian market. To assist security personnel, the government has what are termed “gun welfare” programmes, which give these individuals access to firearms at discounted prices, with tax exemptions.
The assailant used his own gun throughout the rampage. In a sense, the assailant was in many ways a poster child of Thailand’s gun culture: A member of the security establishment, a distinguished marksman, and a regular sharer of firearm photos and days at the range on social media.
Though a pacifist society, guns are idolised in Thailand as symbols of power and privilege. That security personnel receive special access to firearms reinforces this perception.
Demand for firearms is high, especially through illicit channels as the official licensing process is expensive and restrictive. Social media channels have emerged as a major marketplace for acquiring firearms illegally in Thailand.
A survey of common social media outlets – including Facebook, Twitter and more - reveals a rich market for converted firearms (for instance, blank-firing pistols that have been converted to fire live ammunition), home-made guns, as well as name-brand imported firearms.
A worrying trend is that models that recurrently surface in the online black market closely correspond with those commonly acquired by security personnel through these gun programmes – models like Glock 17s and Sig Sauer P320s.
It has been documented in the past that these discounted weapons provide dealers and corrupt security personnel an opportunity to sell these weapons onto the black market for a profit, as these weapons can then be sold to unlicensed purchasers at the market price or more.
While there is no evidence that the assailant’s personal firearm was illicitly acquired or trafficked, it nevertheless shines a rare light on the impacts of government programmes that allow easier access to high quality firearms.
Coupled with the lapses in stockpile security and improper conduct on the part of high-ranking military officials, these were the key elements that led to the Korat tragedy.
The Thai government has acknowledged at least some of these shortcomings, though without concrete and transparent reforms on the part of the Thai military and state security sector, these elements will remain in place until tragedy strikes again.
Michael Picard is a researcher specialising in national gun control approaches and armed violence. He is research director for GunPolicy.org, a UN-funded project of the University of Sydney’s School of Public Health that publishes data on firearms.