Another tragedy in the making?

Another tragedy in the making?

NOTE: ASSIGNED PHOTO FOR ONLINE USE ONLY File photo dated June 13, 2022 shows Crime Suppression Division's press conference on the seizure of weapons after launching multiple raids on an illegal gun trading network.  (Photo by Pattarapong Chatpattarasill/Bangkok Post).
NOTE: ASSIGNED PHOTO FOR ONLINE USE ONLY File photo dated June 13, 2022 shows Crime Suppression Division's press conference on the seizure of weapons after launching multiple raids on an illegal gun trading network. (Photo by Pattarapong Chatpattarasill/Bangkok Post).

On Thursday afternoon in a small province in northeast Thailand, an ex-policeman killed 24 pre-schoolers and 13 adults.

As gruesome details of Thailand's worst mass killing have emerged over the past few days, anger and grief have failed to comfort, given the macabre nature of the crime.

Though the healing process will continue long into the future, and in such circumstances, retrospect is important; to ensure the chances of such an incident happening again remain as low as possible. To achieve that, first we must not dismiss this crime as a random act by a crazed or drugged lunatic, and not be afraid to admit there are two systemic problems that require urgent action: rampant gun ownership, and lack of mental health access for security personnel.

According to the University of Sydney's School of Public Health, Thailand has the highest gun ownership rate in Asean, with 10 million privately-owned guns (of which 4 million are unregistered) despite the Thai law on gun ownership being restrictive. Under the law, individuals must be 20 or older to legally purchase a firearm and they can do so only for specific uses such as self-defence or hunting. Licensed firearm dealers are limited by the volume and ammunition they can sell each year. Add on top of that expensive administrative and import fees, and legal gun ownership should in theory be a costly process that dissuades most people.

Penalties are stiff too, with unlicensed gun owners risking 10 years in prison along with fines of up to 20,000 baht. But in reality, there is a massive black market. The internet is chock-full of social media pages selling "Thai pradit guns" or homemade guns for as little as 6,000-8,000 baht, well within the reach of the average person. On YouTube, those who are more hands-on can even learn to assemble their own home-made guns.

In this case, the 34-year-old killer cop had been suspended from duty, and was facing trial on drug charges, so why wasn't his gun confiscated? And if it had been, how was he able to acquire another so easily? Why is there still no policy in effect that punishes homemade gun ownership or modification of guns into dangerous firearms?

It's baffling that despite the high rate of gun violence, the government has yet to take strict action to tackle the issue. Certainly, there have been crackdowns and raids on illegal sellers, but that barely scratches the surface. Why has there yet to be a major cybercrime push that attempts to locate and break networks selling guns illegally online? It seems that until there is outcry from the public or civic and civil groups, no one will pay much attention, so it's important the public raise their voice until it's heard.

The other big question hanging in the air is the mental state of the country's men in uniform. Security personnel rarely undergo a thorough background check when recruited or routine checkups. Should not that change to ensure a person is of sound mind and does not have an unruly past?

But besides recruitment, mental health support on the job is equally important. Between 2018-2021, 443 police took their own life, a reflection of how the institution that entrusted them to safeguard others, failed to protect them. Tough working conditions and pressure from superiors are public knowledge, but what's not known is how much access staff have to mental health services. With just 2.3% of the health budget reserved for mental health, many slip through the cracks.

So, instead of viewing meetings with therapists and psychologists as punishment or unmanly, institutions must change their mindset. Funding for mental health services should be increased and when a member of the force seeks help, he or she should have adequate channels available.

Sadly, Thailand has yet again been reminded of the devastating consequences of easy gun access. Only two years ago, a soldier used an assault rifle to kill 29 people and terrorise a shopping mall in Nakhon Ratchasima. Unless reforms within the police and armed forces regarding access to guns and mental health services are taken seriously, such tragedies could happen again.

The onus is not only on the government to act but on common people and civic groups to ensure there is political will for change. Otherwise, it won't be long before the government can no longer brush off such deaths as an uncommon occurrence.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

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