Warning: This article contains graphic accounts of violence against children.
It was a seemingly normal Thursday when six-year-old Saifon, a nickname, was preparing to go to her village’s nursery like any other weekday. But something was different that day – her parents needed her to stay at home. The school semester for older kids like Saifon had already ended, but she would normally join the centre’s daily activities while her parents were at work.
Although the family didn’t know it at the time, missing school that morning saved Saifon’s life.
At about noon that day, 6 October, former police officer Panya Khamrab arrived at the Young Children’s Development Center in the Uthai Sawan subdistrict of Nong Bua Lamphu province in northeast Thailand. Disgruntled after becoming aware that he would face drug charges the day before, he went to the nursery to find his young stepson and take him home.
But when he didn’t find his stepson, who reportedly hadn’t been at the centre for more than a month, he turned on the children and daycare staff around him with a gun and a large knife. Within 30 minutes, he had murdered a dozen adults and 24 children between two and five years old. After the killings, he went home to murder his wife and young stepson. He then shot himself in the head next to his child’s body.
The world watched in horror as the tragedy became Thailand’s worst mass killing of its kind – a lone-wolf rampage driven by personal grievances.
Although gun death rates are relatively low in Southeast Asia, Thailand had the highest gun homicide rate in the entire Asian continent in 1995, according to GunPolicy.org. Since then, the country’s rate of civilian gun possession remains one of the highest in the region with 15.6 per 100,000 people.
The last mass shooting in Thailand resulted in 29 people shot dead by a soldier at the Terminal 21 shopping mall in Nakhon Ratchasima, better known as Korat, in February 2020. The man was eventually killed by special forces after carrying on the attack through the night.
In Uthai Sawan, daycare families are left struggling to understand last week’s tragedy.
Vongchan Sengsawath, Saifon’s grandfather, told the Globe at the Young Children’s Development Center that the shooter had previously been known to the community.
“The attacker had problems with the school staff for a few months since they found out that he was using drugs. But nobody expected this tragedy to happen,” Vongchan said.
Meanwhile, the child Saifon is “terrified now,” said her mother, Sounanthae, as she gently caressed her daughter’s hair with one hand and hugged her tight with the other.
“Saifon usually comes to this daycare centre when her parents go to work,” explained grandfather Vongchan.
“We are so thankful that she was not here yesterday, but we are also very sorry for the families of those children who were killed.”
The entire town is profoundly traumatised.
Nong and Chen, two 13-year-old girls who requested to only use their nicknames, are former students of the nursery in Uthai Sawan. They now study at a school in a nearby village.
“We are scared too now. You can never know what people around you would do,” Nong said.
“This man was just too bad. I don’t understand why he had to do this,” her friend continued.
‘All the victims were stabbed’
Immediately following the massacre, a local rescue team raced to the scene of the crime hoping to rescue injured people. But once they arrived, the men were appalled at what they saw.
“All the victims were violently stabbed in the heads,” said Prachak Wongrod, the team leader. “Although the attacker made his way to the centre through gunshots, he killed most of his victims with a knife.”
The men started collecting the bodies, then laid them in white and pink wooden coffins and took them to Songsermtham Foundation, a rescue group with paramedics, in the nearby province of Udon Thani awaiting autopsy. Less than 24 hours later the empty coffins were meticulously piled up at the centre of the foundation’s storehouse.
At nine in the morning, the attacker’s body and that of his wife and stepson were the last of the 38 bodies to be moved to Udon Thani Hospital for autopsy on Friday, 7 October.
In the early hours of the attack, many wanted to blame the killings on Panya’s drug use. But no longer than three hours later, authorities reported that Panya did not have any traces of drugs in his body at the time of the attack.
Throughout Thailand, citizens are at a loss for words.
Strength and solidarity
While at Udon Thani Hospital, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Public Health Anutin Charnvirakul tried to assure the public.
“Those who survived and are still under medical care will be given the best treatment and medication,” Anutin told the press while walking through the hospital.
Back at the daycare centre, hundreds of people gathered to pay their respects to the victims. The community grouped together in tears, laying white flowers and soft toys at the school’s front gates.
The government dispatched a team of mental health professionals to the site to address the trauma following the mass killing. They also distributed toys and books on mental health awareness for children.
“These people experienced severe trauma,” one mental health professional told the Globe. “Their mental health care is an essential aspect of their recovery now.”
With similar intent, but different methodology, lottery ticket sellers also massed to the site, believing that spirits can tell winning lottery numbers as a way to bring better luck to the affected community.
“Lottery can bring good luck in this terrible situation. When lots of people die at the same time, it’s possible that some of their ghosts will share lucky numbers,” a lottery lady explained.
As events unfolded the day after the tragedy, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, and his deputy Prawit Wongsuwan, arrived at the shooting location. The bodies of the victims had already reached three different local temples for initial funeral celebrations after undergoing autopsy.
“The government and I are deeply sorry, and so are the people of Thailand,” Prayut said, calling on Thai police to immediately investigate the massacre.
As high-ranking politicians were leaving the school premises after their visit, close family members of the victims gathered at the nearby temples to say the last goodbye to their children’s bodies.
At Wat Sri Samran in Na Klang district, the new coffins were positioned in two rows, one opposite the other, leaving a central aisle in the pagoda free for family members to sit and mourn their little ones.
A palpable sense of agony permeated the entire area. Each refrigerated casket was decorated with flowers, incense, candles, donations for the spirits, and a picture of the victim.
Mothers could not help but scream at the top of their lungs, and when the suffering became unbearable, they repeatedly fainted. The siblings of the victims were confused and incredulous, every five to ten minutes they would burst into tears. Fathers tried to be strong for their families by withholding their emotions, but they too gave in to the immeasurable pain around them.
Sitting alone to the side of the crowd, observing the tragic scene in silence, one elderly villager told the Globe: “In my 78 years of life, these eyes have never seen this much suffering.”
Photos by Beatrice Siviero for Southeast Asia Globe