Korat, Thailand – The day of horror started like any other Saturday for Tanatit, “Tok”, 43, a moto-taxi driver who works in front of Nakhon Ratchasima’s Terminal 21 shopping centre.
He was sitting with a group of other riders – making light of another busy day – chatting, laughing between rides. The men could not have known they were about to witness a massacre.
“He just walked up and started shooting. He killed two people right here,” Tok told Al Jazeera, pointing to a street curb just metres away. “He then walked inside and kept shooting. Everyone started running,” he said.
Once the shooter entered the centre, Tok immediately began helping the wounded by carrying them away, trying to get them to safety before emergency responders arrived.
“One was shot through both legs and hip. The other was shot through the shoulder and chest,” he recalled of the wounded he tried to help.
It was around 3pm Saturday, February 8, when Jakrapanth Thomma, 32, a sergeant and expert marksman in the Thai armed forces, began his rampage. He first shot and killed his commanding officer, Colonel Anantharot Krasae over a real estate deal gone bad. Then he raided an unprotected weapons bunker at a nearby army base before advancing to Terminal 21 where he began to shoot civilians indiscriminately.
The attack carried on through the night as Thomma went from floor to floor, executing anyone he found hiding in the centre. Finally, in the early hours of Sunday, authorities dispatched the country’s top team of special forces to clear the complex. After about 18 hours of carnage, Thomma was finally shot dead.
Many people are angry. But most citizens of Nakhon Ratchasima – also known as Korat – are quietly dealing with lingering trauma.
One week after the tragedy, the country is still grappling with what happened. Thomma’s motive is still opaque. And the nation is profoundly disturbed over the question of how a lone soldier went from violently carrying out a vendetta over a financial dispute to killing dozens of innocent civilians.
Some say Thomma is symptomatic of a military out of control – a product of a system that too often seems to encourage violence. Others say the root of the issue comes down to a deadly combination of unchecked mental health issues and access to firearms.
‘Trying our utmost’
In response to the tragedy, Thailand’s Department of Mental Health (DMH) has dispatched teams to support victims, those who have lost loved ones and anyone who is affected by the event. Health experts agree that the shooting will have long-term effects on Thai society.
Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul told Al Jazeera the government was doing everything possible to meet Korat’s needs.
“We’re trying our utmost to make sure all patients are taken care of with the highest level that we can. Regarding PTSD, as you can see, we have dispatched psychiatrists and a team to be here and to give consultations to all the people who came in. We’re trying to console them, to let them feel that it has passed and they should come back to live their lives normally,” he said.
He added the government was taking steps to protect its citizens in the future.
“The government is trying to do whatever we can to make sure this will never happen again. And we won’t blame anyone. We have to take the blame because we are the administrators. So, everyone in the government feels very sorry,” said Anutin.
“You could see that the prime minister visited all patients himself. He went to the funerals of the deceased himself. And we are under the process of approving subsidies for all the families of the deceased to make sure that survivors will continue to live a normal way.”
Memorials across the country
Over the week, ceremonies were held throughout the kingdom. In Korat, 10,000 monks held prayer vigils for those who lost their lives. Last Thursday, Bangkok citizens also held a vigil in the capital. But many of those who attended the event were not afraid to publicly voice their thoughts on who they thought was responsible.
One of the organisers of the Bangkok event, Nuttaa “Bow” Mahattana, told Al Jazeera the shooting had left many divided on what caused the attack.
“At first, it was shocking. Some responded with sadness, many with anger,” Bow said of the shooting. “Then after the media revealed the truth about its context and reasons that caused a person to turn violent – political agenda played a role in dividing opinions,” she said.
Bow and other organisers submitted a request to parliament to investigate shady business dealings within the army, abuse of power and to inquire at how Thomma was able to raid an arms bunker with such ease.
‘Profound gun culture’
Although there has never been a mass shooting of this kind, Thailand has the second-highest rate of gun crimes in the region. The latest data from Gunpolicy.org says in 2016 there were 1,729 gun deaths in Thailand.
In 2015, just under 2,000. Only weeks before the Korat shooting, another gunman killed three people and injured four others in a jewellery heist. Last Wednesday morning, a teenage boy was accidentally shot and killed. Last Friday, a man opened fire at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University – luckily no one was hurt.
It is no surprise that those who study gun-related crimes in the region say that Thailand has a serious problem with guns.
Michael Picard, the research director for GunPolicy.org of the University of Sydney and an expert on various firearm-related issues in Southeast Asia, told Al Jazeera the Korat shooting was the first of its kind in Thailand – noting the military could be negligent.
“What’s unique about this shooting compared to other mass shootings around the world, as well as shootings in Thailand, is how deeply it emanates from the armed forces,” Picard said.
“Several failures on the part of the security establishment allowed for this incident,” he explained, citing “lax security over military firearms, extortionate dealings by senior-ranking officers with distant subordinates, and special access to personal firearms for security personnel.”
Civilians are legally permitted to acquire and possess handguns and low-power rifles like shotguns and .22 rifles and ammunition. But the process of obtaining licensing is strict and only processed through the interior ministry.
“Nevertheless, Thailand has a profound gun culture – in many ways reinforced by the government itself – that undercuts the effectiveness of its strict gun laws,” he said.
Picard said guns are idolised as symbols of power, particularly because security personnel hold hegemony in Thai society. Despite tight gun laws, Thailand has a massive black market for firearms. Because of this, Picard said if someone really wanted a gun in Thai society, they are relatively easy to find.
Chutimas Suksai, an independent researcher examining violent crimes and gun use in Thailand, told Al Jazeera that it was unlikely Thailand would see more mass shootings like Korat’s.
“I do not see that mass shootings of this scale will likely continue to happen in the future because the weapons the gunman used were military assault rifles, which are not readily available to the general public … If armouries are not modernised, mass shootings may happen in military bases with a potential to spill over to civilian areas.”
On Saturday, back in Korat, scores of people attended a memorial event inside the shopping centre. Holding back tears, locals wrote notes on a wall of remembrance – honouring those who lost their lives.
Hooky, 44, a local musician who had just finished placing a sombre note on the memorial wall, told Al Jazeera, “Everyone in Korat is coming together now. Because of this, we are finding strength to get better. People from Korat are strong. We will get through this.”