Tragic Thai massacre raises issues of mental health, drug use and gun control ahead of next year’s election

At least 37 people were killed on Thursday by a lone assailant at a day care centre in Thailand’s north-eastern province of Nongbua Lamphu, local police say. Among the dead are at least 24 children, while the alleged gunman also killed his wife and child, then himself.

The alleged killer was a former member of the police force, who was facing trial on a methamphetamine possession charge after having been dismissed over drug allegations.

This shocking incident will trigger a national conversation around gun control and drug use, as well as on questions of mental health after a really difficult couple of years since the onset of COVID-19, ahead of the next election scheduled for around May 2023.

Lone assailants rare

Lone gunman massacres have been very rare in Thailand.

Aside from yesterday’s tragic killings, there’s only one other similar incident in the country’s modern history. That occurred in February 2020, when a disgruntled Thai soldier killed 29 people and wounded 58 others in the city of Nakhon Ratchasima, most of whom were shot at a shopping mall.

Other mass shooting incidents have occurred when the military has put down popular demonstrations. For example, the “Black May” mass demonstrations in 1992 where over 50 civilians were killed, and the 2010 military crackdown following the “red shirts” protests in which just under 100 people were killed.

COVID, poverty and mental health

I think (and hope) this incident will trigger a national conversation in Thailand about issues surrounding mental health. But I have my doubts. There’s somewhat of an attitude of Buddhist-informed stoicism in the country, to accept the reality of suffering and just keep going in the face of hardship.

There has been serious adversity since the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic and there’s an accumulating resentment towards the current government. The country has had a very difficult time over the last two years, as the national economy shrunk by more than 6% in 2020 and scores of workers lost their jobs particularly in the hospitality and tourism sectors. Some of the worst affected have been poorer families, whose kids stopped going to school. They may not return, which suggests this could turn out to be an ongoing generational issue.

Thailand isn’t very well-resourced when it comes to support for mental health. A 2015 study found “an urgent need to invest in the policy, practice, and research capacity for mental health promotion” in Thailand.

While the country is better than a lot of parts of Southeast Asia in terms of welfare payments (they have been prepared to take on government debt during the pandemic), there are still problems rolling it out. Consequently, there’s been growing resentment directed towards the current prime minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, who’s very unpopular.

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Security force reform?

This massacre has happened just ahead of the next election, which is scheduled for the first half of next year. Politicians are starting to get into campaign mode.

In the past, opposition parties have occasionally campaigned on issues around reforming the security forces, and in recent years there have been signs the government wants to be seen to be doing things on this issue. One such topic has been that of military conscription – all men over 21 years of age in the country must register for the draft, which takes the form of a lottery every April.

This practice is very unpopular, and became a political issue in the last election. The military has floated ways to scale back conscription, but whether changes will actually be implemented is another matter.

My studies of the Thai military over a long period suggest such announcements are often quietly shelved later.

Indeed there’s relatively little oversight of the security forces, because of the country’s governance – in many respects, the military is the government. Other agencies of the government are reluctant to put any pressure on the security forces, as is the country’s anti corruption commission. Military reform is left to the military itself.

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Drug use and gun control

Another central issue that will likely be raised in the national conversation is methamphetamine. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has for some time been warning about the volume of meth moving through the Mekong region, a lot of which is being shipped through Thailand.

There’s a view among anti-drug agencies that such volumes of probably couldn’t be moved around without high-levels of the security forces being involved. The issue of corruption among security forces isn’t new, and dates back to the mid-20th century where the “Golden Triangle” (at the confluence of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar) was a notorious haven for drug lords and opium production.

In the 1950s, Thailand’s most powerful generals Sarit Thanarat, Phao Sriyanond and Phin Choonhaven worked with Chinese syndicates in opium and heroin trafficking.

Manufacturing has been slowly pivoting from opium to meth, as the latter is much less visible than vast poppy fields.

Drug issues have from time to time become a national issue, such as in 2003 when Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra launched an anti-drug campaign, which featured extra-judicial killings. Hence this period has since been compared to that of former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s infamous war on drugs.

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At least one prominent Thai, the Director of Thailand’s Moral Promotion Center Dr Suriyadeo Tripathi, has called for gun control since the massacre, but it’s a relatively new debate in the country.

The alleged killer who carried out this week’s massacre legally purchased the gun he used in the attack (though he mostly used a knife).

There’s a significant number of weapons in the community and it’s relatively easy to get your hands on one.

There’s never been mass community outrage about gun control (and there’s no United States’ style gun lobby in Thailand) though this latest massacre may spark a reckoning.

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