Nong Bua Lamphu massacre in Thailand: Recounting mistakes, seeking a way forward

Police officers and other officials at Uthai Sawan Child Development Centre after the killing.

Police officers and other officials at Uthai Sawan Child Development Centre after the killing. Photo published by Prachatai (Source: Pheu Thai Party press team)

This article was originally published by Prachatai, an independent news site in Thailand, and an edited version is republished by Global Voices under a content-sharing agreement.

In the wake of the October 6 mass shooting in the northeastern Thai province of Nong Bua Lamphu that left 37 dead, authorities and the media have begun to reflect on past errors and look for a way forward.

On 12 October, bodies of the dead were cremated in three separate Nong Bua Lamphu temples. The Thai Post reported that the ceremonies were held under royal patronage with Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha acting as representative.

Panya Kamrab, the perpetrator, a former police officer, subsequently shot himself along with his wife and her child. He was cremated at a temple in neighbouring Udon Thani Province. The Manager Online reported that Panya's mother escorted his corpse to the crematorium.

Over the past week, the small northeastern town continued to attract the country’s attention. Officials pursued their investigations and media representatives lingered at the scene, reporting from the field.

The police are still trying to understand what triggered Panya’s actions, having found no trace of drugs in his body. According to a BBC Thai report, Pol Gen Surachate Hakparn, the national police deputy commander, believes that Panya was driven by stress due to staggering debt and loss of employment.

Pol Gen Surachate ordered that all 180 witnesses to the slaughter be interrogated only once so that they do not have to repeatedly relive the trauma.

Public anger, desire for censorship

State authorities and media representatives were early targets of blame. The morning after the incident, the entrance to the Child Development Centre, where 23 children and two teachers died, was decorated and a red carpet installed in preparation for a wreath-laying ceremony on behalf of Princess Sirivannavari. The carpet, however, was deemed inappropriate and removed before the province’s deputy governor began the ceremony.

Because government ministers took some time to arrive on the scene, victims’ families were reportedly obliged to wait a long time to get the bodies of their loved ones back from the morgue and receive relief money.

Such unnecessary measures in time-sensitive circumstances were not the only disturbances. A CNN reporter and a cameraman were photographed climbing over a police cordon to film inside the day care centre, attracting the fury of the public and local media. Many felt that taking footage inside the centre was not only insensitive and unethical but also amounted to tampering with the crime scene.

In reply to condemnations issued by the Foreign Correspondent Club of Thailand (FCCT) and the Thai Journalists Association (TJA), CNN said local staff allowed them to enter and that there were no police cordons in place at the time. The pair reportedly filmed for 15 minutes then left.

In a subsequent statement, CNN International's executive vice president and general manager Mike McCarthy insisted that the CNN reporters had asked for permission to enter, but “now understand that these officials were not authorised to grant this permission,” adding that it was “never their intention to contravene any rules.”

He added that CNN had stopped broadcasting the report and pulled the video from its website. The CNN crew on the scene, award-winning journalist Anna Coren and cameraman Daniel Hodge, also met with Pol Gen Surachate and apologized. They were fined 5,000 baht each (US$133) and asked to leave the country when it was discovered that they had been working on tourist visas.

In an interview with Inside Thailand news on October 10, Pol Gen Surachate revealed the CNN personnel had entered while the venue was being prepared for the wreath-laying ceremony. At the time, the police cordon had been removed and the gate was opened. Several other people also entered the facility during the preparation period.

In addition to CNN, eight local media outlets came under scrutiny for “improper” coverage of the incident. On October 11, the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) issued a letter summoning Channel 3HD, Thairath TV, Amarin TV HD, Channel 8, Nation TV, WorkPoint, National Broadcasting Services of Thailand (NBT), and ONE Channel to discuss reportage containing interviews with the families of victims and the wounded, disturbing photos, and graphics simulating the massacre. The media outlets were censured for their alleged insensitivity in reporting disturbing news, rekindling a long-standing debate about how journalists should cover such tragedies.

In an interview with PPTV, Teeranai Charuvastra, the TJA vice president who oversees the association’s media reform and freedom of expression division, said that the media needs to take three things into account when reporting sensitive content: is the reportage of public benefit; will it cause harm; and can any possible backlash be managed.

There is no concrete rule. Despite how we draft it, despite how stringent it appears, there is no clear rule. The media and its audience are the only ones who can answer.

On the same program, Sakulsri Srisaracam, an assistant professor of journalism from Chulalongkorn University, said that media coverage should focus on content that questions the root cause of a tragedy, brings people out of sorrow, and helps them to better address problems together in the future.

A step forward?

The 24 children killed in the incident were each offered special burial outfits made by a children’s clothing shop in Lampang Province. The outfits reflected the dream careers the children had expressed to their parents: astronauts, nurses, pilots, soldiers, firefighters, doctors, and police officers.

Ranked as one of the world’s deadliest massacres of children, the incident has shaken the country, giving rise to calls for steps to be taken to ensure that it is never repeated.

On October 12, the prime minister announced four measures to address what many believe are the root causes of the incident: a proliferation of drugs and guns, and a lack addiction rehabilitation and mental health programs.

The measures include a crackdown on narcotics networks, reducing the number of drug possessions that result in criminal prosecution and mandatory rehabilitation; tightening firearms licensing; revoking gun licences for known drug addicts, the mentally ill, and individuals deemed to be a threat to society; and cracking down the illegal gun market.

Suwit Chantaworn, Nong Bua Lamphu's deputy governor, said that plans have been made to provide victims’ families with short-, medium-, and long-term counselling services.

On a recent Thairath TV program, Yongyut Wongpiromsant, an advisor at the Mental Health Department, discussed the mental health problems of perpetrators. Citing research from other mass shooting incidents, he said that only about 5% of the killers had mental illnesses. The rest were motivated by stress, alcohol, or personal disputes.

According to Yongyut, those with mental illnesses often suffered from untreated drug addiction and severe delusional disorders. He added that treatment would greatly decrease the possibility of violent behaviour, and proposed that efforts be made to rehabilitate those who are addicted to drugs.

With respect to perpetrators who were employed in the security sector, Yongyut said that removing such individuals from office alone did not address the problem, suggesting that mental health treatment be imposed along with disciplinary measures to reduce the risk of violent ex-officers turning on society.

One of the incident's victims, however, has been largely overlooked: the perpetrator's mother, alive and grieving, is preparing to leave her home to live with another of her offspring, to reduce stress and come to terms with the situation.

Initially subjected to public condemnation and anger, this abated when the mental health department published her apology for not attending the royal funeral ceremony. She said she hoped to apologise to everyone personally when she was better.

Some people have asked why a mother should accept blame for a crime she didn’t commit. On his Facebook page, Decha Piyawatkul, a psychiatrist from Thai Nakarin Hospital, posted a critique of “injecting guilt” into people not responsible for the wrongdoing, adding that apologies should be made instead by the National Police:

Claiming [the killer] was no longer a police officer is hideous. He used to be an employee under your affiliation. He had problems all along and when you didn’t have any way to take care of him, you turned him out. That doesn’t mean that you can brush off responsibility.

You’re a public organisation with a public responsibility; you don’t have the rights to brush off the burden.

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