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Why Thailand’s Strict Gun Laws Don’t Keep It Safe


As Thai authorities investigate Thursday’s gruesome mass killing of 36 people by a former police officer, they are also confronting the role of their own ranks in the gun market and gun culture. distortion of the country.

Police said the gunman, Panya Kamrab, 34, used a 9mm pistol he legally obtained. He also owns a shotgun. And before he was fired from the police force in June for drug possession, both were easy for him to buy. Thailand’s security forces can buy as many weapons as they want through the government and at a large discount.

In contrast, ordinary people looking to buy guns will face strict laws and high prices – a disparity that creates false incentives and other problems. In some cases, it has led those responsible for public safety to sell stockpiles of weapons for a profit.

In rarer moments of horror, they pointed guns at innocent people.

“We will definitely have to do something,” Anutin Charnvirakul, the health minister, said on Friday, when asked if he was concerned about security officers involved in the shooting. . “I’m sure the people in charge – the prime minister, the police chief – will definitely weigh in and try to tighten enforcement as much as possible.”

The challenge for Thailand is immense. According to experts, a nation of 70 million people divided by class and long shaped by military rule, is now grappling with an indescribable act of violence, bound in part by flawed gun laws and culture and financial incentives for the country’s most powerful institutions and elites.

Guns may not mark political identity in Thailand the way they do in the United States, but to a degree not seen in most Asian countries, they represent forces that have always resisted change. : power, prestige and money. Like other status icons, guns are something some people have and many want.

That helps explain why no action was taken after an earlier mass shooting in Thailand. In February 2020, a disgruntled soldier shot dead 29 people at a shopping mall and an army base. Senior military officials had called for an immediate overhaul of gun policy, but within months the conversation faded as attention turned to anti-government protests. .

And in the case of Thursday’s attack, the gun problem is compounded by other issues – drugs, mental health. Mr. Kamrab used both a gun and a knife to kill 23 children at a day care center, many too young to tie their own shoelaces. Additionally, he killed his wife, their son, and himself hours after appearing in court on drug charges. In total, 37 people died, excluding the gunman.

Some government officials were quick to deflect any systematic diagnoses. As Prawit Wongsuwan, deputy prime minister, said when asked about the killer’s law enforcement past: “What can we do? He is a drug addict. “

Strengthening the case for those who watch the latest episode as a tragedy that just happens, the murder rate in Thailand is not particularly high, with statistics from a few years ago placing it below the Philippines, much lower than that of the Philippines. with killer capitals like Honduras, and roughly in line with New York City before the coronavirus pandemic.

But Thursday’s murder of two dozen young children – carried out during nap time in colorful classrooms – has horrified the nation. Many, inside and outside the government, see the massacre as an indictment of more than one man. They fear that easy access to weapons, especially for security forces, has made life less safe.

Last month, an army officer shot dead two colleagues at a military college in Bangkok. The killings are also concentrated in areas of southern Thailand with high levels of militarization and gun ownership, while video clips show men swinging guns around, fighting traffic or just to bragging, went viral from social media to the nightly news.

Rangsiman Rome, a member of Parliament from the Move Forward Party, said: “These internal conditions, if we do nothing about it, it will be a ticking time bomb where there are mass murders. , mass shootings like this will continue to happen.” He added that some officers had been trained to be like a “destruction machine”, able to “point a weapon at anyone”.

Critics are demanding higher standards in policy and behavior, especially for the 230,000 members of the Royal Thai Police, and for the country’s military, which includes more than a dozen members. 245,000 people.

For most people, Thailand’s gun regulations are already very strict. Offensive weapons are prohibited; there is a limit to the amount of firearms and ammunition that can be sold or owned; and civilians pay a 40 percent import tax to legally buy guns.

Buyers will have to go through a background check and provide a reason for possession, such as hunting or self-defense. Possession of an illegal firearm carries a prison sentence of up to 10 years and a fine of 20,000 baht (about $535).

However, these laws are more porous than they might have imagined. There are no drug or mental health checks, as required by Japan and other low gun violence countries. Gun licenses exist almost exclusively on paper. Enforcement tends to be messy, often encouraging corruption.

“It took me quite a while to get my license – and I bought my license as an MP,” Mr. Rome said. Others, he added, “pay under the table to make it easy.”

Or they just head to the black market. Glock 19 Gen5 from a licensed reseller can cost $2,000, with a six-month lead time. Michael Picard, an independent researcher who studies the arms trade and has conducted field investigations in Thailand, says online can cost half that. He said a police officer could buy the same gun for about $600.

“With those prices, an employee can make very good profits,” said Mr. Picard.

“On top of that, they can blackmail buyers on the black market by threatening arrest or exposure as a way of taking advantage of bribes,” he added. “When I followed black market sellers on social media, I once saw a seller trick some of his buyers by posting screenshots of their personal information from their database. government”.

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, guns have been infiltrating the country from all sides for decades – smuggled from Cambodia, running back from Myanmar. Of Thailand’s 10 million privately owned firearms, only 6 million are registered, according to estimates from gunpolicy.org, which tracks firearms worldwide. An additional 1.2 million is directly held by the defense and police forces.

Paul Chambers, a lecturer and special adviser on international affairs at Naresuan University in northern Thailand, says the proliferation of weapons partly reflects Thailand’s history and simple math: “With Thailand having had 14 coups since 1932, the army and police are ubiquitous. – and their guns too. “

The most recent coup in 2014 added to what some have described as heavy unrest. The military has retained power and influence, acting as a brake in democratic reform.

“There is a sense of hopelessness – that there is no way to bring about any kind of real change in the political pathways available,” said Matthew Wheeler, a senior analyst in Bangkok for the International Crisis Group. yes”.

Video clips revolving on Thai news channels and YouTube show some people asserting themselves with guns and in public for all to see. Arguments in restaurants and neighborhoods have resulted in people brandishing weapons.

In one case a few months ago, a man driving a full-size SUV pulled out a gun, but was pulled out by a man in cycling shorts after a minor accident.

“Why are you carrying a gun?” asked the cyclist.

In another case, a man drove next to a woman showing off a gun in what appeared to be creepy flirting.

Krisanaphong Poothakool, a former senior police official and chair of the Department of Criminology and Administrative Justice at Rangsit, said: “We have to admit that Thais feel that when they own a gun, that makes them feel like they have power. University.

“This power,” he added, “must be checked and regulated.”

Sui-Lee Wee contribution report.

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