Mass Shooting: Thai Military in the Cross-Hairs

A mass shooting in Thailand has put the spotlight on the military’s involvement in business.

Royal Thai Marines conduct a dry run ahead of a combined arms live-fire exercise during Cobra Gold 19, February 2019. (Photo: U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, Timothy Valero)

 Supalak Ganjanakhundee
18 February 2020

The first-ever mass shooting in Thailand’s largest province by area, Nakhon Ratchasima, killed 30 people including the gunman and left 58 people injured. The incident has alarmed the country. It has compelled the authorities to relook issues such as crisis management, military reform and, more importantly, strategic planning for new threats to urban security.

A rampage by Sergeant Major Jakraphanth Thomma, 32, took the lives of innocent civilians in early February. He shot most of his victims in a high-end shopping mall in the capital of the north-eastern province. While his motivations are unclear, the soldier’s social media accounts revealed that the killings were subsequent to his taking revenge on his commanding officer over a business transaction.

The rogue soldier, who served at Surathamphitak Army Camp, killed Colonel Anantharot Krasae and his mother-in-law after they failed to settle a dispute involving a real estate transaction linked to the Army’s welfare scheme. Subsequently, Jakraphanth stole HK-33 assault rifles, an M-60 machine gun and 800 rounds of ammunition from the armoury. He shot security guards, took a military vehicle and killed bystanders as he drove to the Terminal 21 shopping mall located 13 kilometres from the camp. The standoff ended 18 hours later, when commandos took down the gunman.      

The incident sparked widespread criticism of the authorities. Prime Minister and Defence Minister Prayut Chan-ocha arrived in the province, also known as Khorat, an hour after the end of the incident. But critics accused him of failing to show deep sympathy to the victims. He had blithely offered a ‘mini-heart’ symbol – a hand gesture typically used by celebrities to greet their fans – before staging his exit.

While national police chief Police General Chakthip Chaijinda was praised for taking command and worked with the commandos to end the crisis, the authorities did not appear to have considered alternative approaches that would have minimised casualties. The option of negotiation was apparently not considered.

The Thai media also came under fire for depicting Facebook postings by the gunman as event unfolded, as well as horrific and graphic images from other social media users. The reality is that the Thai media have never adhered to best good practices in reporting crises. Understandably, the pressure of deadlines, tensions on the ground and fierce competition could be the proximate causes for poor adherence to best practice. That said, media associations and regulators need to implement a code of conduct for covering crises.

“ … the bloody drama has put the spotlight on ambiguous and opaque practices in the military. It is not rare in Thailand … for military personnel and organisations to conduct businesses on the side.”

On another front, there are now growing calls from various sectors, including the House of Representatives, for the government to implement drastic military reforms. The Khorat incident has provoked a number of fundamental questions. How, for example, did a side business tied to a military welfare scheme lead to such a tragedy? How were deadly weapons removed from a military armoury so easily? Why was the security in the military camp so poor? And how could the army have been so incompetent in managing a deadly situation?  

Army chief General Apirat Kongsompong said that the force would scrutinise the business linkage involved in this case and punish the senior officers involved. But the bloody drama has put the spotlight on ambiguous and opaque practices in the military. It is not rare in Thailand, with its long history of military rule and a bloated officer corps, for military personnel and organizations to conduct businesses on the side. But the military’s foray into sectors such as television and radio networks, golf courses and other commercial projects have never been subjected to rigorous auditing. The government will need to effect more significant changes in the armed forces to eradicate such linkages. A related issue is the prevalence of superior officers taking advantage of their subordinates. In doing so, these officers enjoy privileges and immunity from prosecution. No independent agency has the authority to investigate such cases in the military.

The Khorat tragedy has also highlighted the need for the country to review its strategy for ensuring public safety. The death of the rogue sergeant has deprived investigators of the means of finding out whether mental illness or political motivation propelled his actions. That said, the active shooting does not differ much from the bombings during the 2007 New Year’s season which killed three people in Bangkok and a bomb blast at the capital’s Erawan Shrine in August 2015 which claimed 22 lives.

While the intelligence community might know how and why such mass killings occur in urban areas, the public does not have the knowledge or expertise in dealing with such  contingencies. It behoves the government, which boasts of expertise in security matters, to come up with an effective strategy for addressing such non-traditional security threats. 

Many Thais have lived under successive military governments for such a long time and may have grown inured to the sight of military personnel packing heat in urban settings. Still, they deserve to demand the right to feel secure when such deadly weapons are actually turned against them.

Supalak Ganjanakhundee is a Visiting Fellow in the Thailand Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute and the former editor of The Nation (Bangkok).

ISEAS Commentary – 2020/16 

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