Oct 6 marks one of the most tragic days in Thailand's history. Back in 1976, hundreds of students and protesters were attacked and killed at Thammasat University's Tha Prachan campus. Last week, 37 people, 24 of them preschool kids, lost their lives in a gun and knife attack at a childcare centre in Nong Bua Lam Phu province.
The recent attack raised several issues that merit serious discussion. In this article, I will focus on two points -- the first is the process of gun permit issuance, and the second is the culture of tolerance for violence in Thailand.
It is no secret that the level of gun ownership in Thailand is high. According to World Population Review, Thailand has more than 10.3 million firearms and the civilian gun ownership rate is 15.10 per 100 persons, which is the highest in Asean and the second highest in Asia after Pakistan. Moreover, Thailand has 1,052,815 military and 230,000 law enforcement firearms, higher than many richer countries such as Australia and Canada, and even countries with ongoing conflicts such as Afghanistan and Syria.
The shockingly high rate of gun ownership in Thailand is due to the convenient process of gun permit issuance. It is easy to apply for and get gun permits in Thailand. The Department of Provincial Administration under the Interior Ministry is assigned to handle the task. In practice, people can visit more than 900 district offices nationwide to apply for a permit. It is ironic that getting approval for a gun permit is fast and convenient. The whole process takes no longer than 86 days and costs only five baht per gun. It needs to be said that gun permit issuance is faster than the safety assessment for feeding bottles and milk containers for infants and young children which takes up to 250 days for government officials to test and approve. The figures speak volumes about the government's policy related to guns.
So, it is no wonder that Thailand ranks second after the Philippines among Asean countries with the highest total gun deaths, at 2,804, with a firearms-related death rate of 3.91 per 100,000 people. Just two years ago, in February 2020, a military officer committed a mass shooting at a shopping mall in Nakhon Ratchasima province, killing 30 people and wounding 58 others. In August this year, rival teenage gangs exchanged fire for 40 minutes next to a supermarket in Ubon Ratchathani province, leading to two deaths. On Sept 14, another military officer carried out another shooting spree at the Army War College in Bangkok resulting in two deaths and one injury. In the same month, a student took a self-made gun to school and accidentally fired it, killing his best friend during a computer class.
Despite all these tragedies, there are no meaningful attempts by legislators and policymakers to curb gun violence. It needs to be stressed that Thailand does not lack laws related to guns. The major law concerning gun control is the Firearms, Ammunition, Explosives, Fireworks and Imitation Firearms Act 1947 (BE 2490). There are 35 organic laws and ministerial regulations at various government agencies, many of which have been in force for several decades.
Recently the government updated gun laws. It was done to make it easier to access guns. For example, in 2010, a ministerial regulation was issued to exclude 31 government agencies and 14 state-owned enterprises from the enforcement of some gun control laws including the strict Firearms, Ammunition, Explosives, Fireworks and Imitation Firearms Act 1947 (BE 2490) That said, despite a series of glaringly violent gun incidents, the laws relating to gun control have been made more relaxed.
Relaxed laws and policies towards guns suggest a high tolerance for gun violence in Thai society. Society tends to look at violent crimes as individual cases, not structural problems. Look at the news reports for the latest childcare centre attack in Nong Bua Lam Phu province, where many people pointed to the mental health and drug abuse of the perpetrator. Overlooked were structural problems that enabled a person with mental and drug issues to gain access to guns. The perpetrator in this case -- despite having a record of drug use and belligerent behaviour, had not been asked to be assessed and assisted for his mental condition.
Policymakers just decided to attend to the mental health issues of civil servants. On Sept 20, the cabinet approved a draft law proposed by the Office of the Civil Service Commission to include psychosis and severe mood disorders as conditions unsuitable for civil servants. It will take time for this draft law to be tabled in parliament for reading.
Meanwhile, physical and mental abuse among military and police officers is ongoing, and that turns police stations and barracks into hotbeds of violence. There has been a raft of reports on military draftees being physically abused or even killed during training. If we allow those who can easily access firearms to be treated as such, how can we ensure that they will not repeat the violence or unleash their anger against others? After all, violence begets violence.
Tolerance of violence among civilians is also alarmingly high in Thailand. Although the 1976 massacre was led by the police, there were many civilians who took part in the lynching -- using weapons within their reach such as wooden clubs. One of the most horrendous pictures from the incident was a lynching of a student surrounded by people with smiles on their faces, among them young children. On Children's Day every year, kids in Thailand are encouraged to visit army camps and take pictures with tanks and big guns. What type of values are we implanting into our nation's future?
There are still many other issues that we have yet to discuss such as illegal guns and the gun registration process, as well as the availability of big, sharp objects such as the knife used in the childcare attack. But the first thing that we can do now is to pledge our zero tolerance for violence and demand real change for a safer Thailand.
Boonwara Sumano, PhD, is a senior research fellow at the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI). Policy analyses from the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI) appear in the Bangkok Post on alternate Wednesdays.