Thirty-seven people have been killed, most of them young children, in a gun and knife attack at a preschool centre in north-east Thailand that has horrified the country.
The attacker, a former police officer, opened fire as children were sleeping at the centre in Na Klang district in Nong Bua Lamphu province at about noon (6am Irish time) on Thursday, police and witnesses said.
Police said most of the children killed at the centre were stabbed to death. As he left the nursery the attacker drove his car towards and shot at bystanders then returned home, where he shot himself, his wife and his child.
Police identified the attacker as Panya Khamrab, a 34-year-old former police lieutenant colonel who had been dismissed from the force last year for methamphetamine possession and had appeared in court earlier on Thursday on a drugs charge.
Witnesses said he was in an agitated state when he arrived at the nursery.
Images from the scene showed a nursery schoolroom, its walls covered in alphabet letters and paintings of animals. The bodies of children lay on sleeping mats, with white sheets placed over them.
Thailand’s prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, who is expected to visit Nong Bua Lamphu on Friday, said in a statement on Facebook that he offered his deepest condolences to the families of the victims. “I ordered the police chief to immediately go to the area and all the related agencies help all those affected urgently,” he said.
A teacher who spoke to Thai Rath TV said she saw Panya open fire in the car park before walking towards the centre. “I was begging [for him to stop] but he was loading the bullet so I ran to the back and we closed the door, we ran out of the window,” she said. The children, aged between two and four years old, were sleeping at the time, she said.
Another teacher told the channel that she was on the phone when she heard a loud bang. “I thought that it was a firecracker, then when I looked out of the window, I saw people on the floor. I saw him loading the gun,” she said. Another teacher present had tried to close the door, but the man shot at it, she said, adding that she ran behind a wall for cover.
She said there were 24 children in the centre at the time. There were fewer children present than normal, it was reported, due to heavy rains that forced some to stay home.
A witness, Paweena Purichan (31), told AFP that it was known locally that the attacker had drug addiction problems. She was riding her motorcycle to her shop when she saw him driving erratically.
“He intended to crash into others on the road,” she said. “The attacker rammed a motorbike and two people were injured. I sped off to get away from him. There was blood everywhere.”
Officials said the results of a post mortem would determine whether or not he had taken drugs prior to the attack. “Primarily, we believe that it’s because of the drugs and the stress [of his court appearance]”, said the police chief,
Thailand, along with Myanmar and Laos, forms part of south-east Asia’s Golden Triangle, which has long been a notorious centre for trafficking and drug production.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime warned in June of “extreme volumes of methamphetamine” being produced, trafficked and used in south-east Asia. The surge in supply had caused wholesale and street prices in Thailand to fall to all-time lows in 2021, it said.
Mass shootings in Thailand are rare, though in 2020 a soldier, angry at his superiors over a property deal, killed at least 29 people and wounded 57 after opening fire in four locations, including a busy shopping mall in the north-east of the country. The attack, and other recent reports of gun violence, prompted public debate over gun ownership rates.
Possession of an illegal firearm can lead to a prison sentence of up to 10 years and/or a fine of up to 20,000 baht (€545), though unregistered guns remain prevalent due to poor enforcement.
Thailand had about 10 million privately owned firearms in 2016, according to Gunpolicy.org. This includes about four million firearms that were illegal and unregistered. The firearms used in Thursday’s attack had been obtained legally. – Guardian/Agencies