Thirty-seven people have been killed, most of them young children, in an unprecedented gun and knife attack on a preschool in northeastern Thailand that has horrified the country.
The gunman, a former police officer, opened fire while the children were sleeping at the center in Na Klang district of Nong Bua Lamphu province around noon on Thursday, police and witnesses said.
Police said most of the children killed at the center were stabbed to death. While leaving the kindergarten, the attacker drove off in a car and shot passers-by, then returned home, where he shot himself, his wife and child.
Police identified the gunman as Panja Hamrab, a 34-year-old former police lieutenant colonel who was fired from the force last year for possession of methamphetamine and appeared in court earlier Thursday on drug charges.
Witnesses said he was in an agitated state when he arrived at the kindergarten.
Pictures from the scene show the children’s room, its walls covered with letters of the alphabet and pictures of animals. The bodies of the children lay on sleeping mats, with white sheets over them.
Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who is expected to visit Nong Bua Lamphu on Friday, said in a Facebook statement that he offered his deepest condolences to the families of the victims. “I have ordered the police chief to go to the area immediately and all relevant agencies are urgently assisting all those affected,” he said.
A teacher who spoke to Thai Rath TV said she saw Panja open fire in the parking lot before heading toward the center. “I begged [for him to stop] but he was loading the bullet so I ran to the back and we closed the door, we ran out the window,” she said. The two- to four-year-old children were sleeping at the time, she said.
Another teacher told the channel that she was on the phone when she heard a loud bang. “I thought it was a firecracker and then when I looked out the window I saw people on the floor.” “I saw him loading the gun,” she said. Another teacher present tried to close the door, but the man fired at her, she said, adding that she ran behind a wall for cover.
She said that there were 24 children in the center at the time. Fewer children were present than usual, reportedly due to heavy rains that forced some to stay at home.
Witness Paveena Purichan (31) told AFP that the attacker was known locally to have had problems with drug addiction. She was riding her motorcycle to her shop when she saw him driving erratically.
“He intended to run into others on the road,” she told AFP. “The attacker rammed the motorcycle and two people were injured.” I rushed to get away from him. There was blood everywhere.”
Officials said the results of an autopsy will determine whether he had taken drugs before the attack. “First of all, we believe it is due to drugs and stress.” [of his court appearance]”said the chief of police,
Thailand, along with Myanmar and Laos, forms part of Southeast Asia’s Golden Triangle, which has long been a notorious center for drug trafficking and production.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) warned in June of “extreme amounts of methamphetamine” being produced, trafficked and used in Southeast Asia. The surge in supply has caused wholesale and street prices in Thailand to fall to all-time lows in 2021, the statement said.
Mass shootings are rare in Thailand, although in 2020 a soldier angry at his superiors over a property deal killed at least 29 people and wounded 57 after opening fire at four locations, including a busy shopping mall in northeastern Thailand. The attack, and other recent reports of gun violence, have sparked a public debate about the country’s gun ownership rate.
Possession of an illegal firearm can result in a prison sentence of up to 10 years and/or a fine of up to 20,000 baht (£480), although unregistered guns are still prevalent due to poor enforcement.
Thailand had about 10 million privately owned firearms in 2016, according to Gunpolici.org. This includes about 4 million firearms that were illegal and unregistered. The firearm used in Thursday’s attack was obtained legally.