Relatives of a victim from Myanmar mourn on October 4, 2023 at the Central Institute of Forensic Science following Thai police's arrest of a teenage gunman who is suspected of killing foreigners and wounding other people in a shooting inside the luxury Siam Paragon shopping mall in Bangkok a day earlier. Image Credit: REUTERS

BANGKOK: A deadly shooting in a Bangkok mall allegedly by a 14-year-old has again exposed Thailand’s gun violence problems, with police selling firearms onto the black market and a youth culture that celebrates weapons among the driving factors.

Two people were killed and five others wounded on Tuesday when a shooter opened fire at the upmarket Siam Paragon mall in the heart of the Thai capital, sending terrified shoppers fleeing into the streets.

Friday marks a year since a former policeman murdered 24 children and 12 adults at a nursery in northern Thailand using a knife and legally owned handgun bought under a government scheme.

That incident prompted shock around the world and government promises on gun control, but the kingdom is still awash with firearms and deadly shootings are reported in Thai media almost every week.

Thailand’s prime minister on Wednesday vowed “preventive measures” after the shooting.

Shoppers returned in dribs and drabs as the Siam Paragon mall reopened less than 24 hours after the shooting - Thailand’s third high-profile deadly gun attack in four years.

The shooting at one of Bangkok’s biggest, most upmarket malls will come as a fresh blow to the kingdom’s efforts to rebuild its vital tourism industry after the pandemic.

Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin joined a minute’s silence at the mall before offering the government’s condolences to the families of the two female victims - one Chinese and one from Myanmar.

“I am confident Siam Paragon and government officials did their best to minimise the casualties and damage,” he said.

“Let this be the only time this happens. My government insists we will give priority to preventive measures,” he added, without giving details.

Police arrested a 14-year-old suspect, a student at a $4,000-a-term private school just metres from Siam Paragon.

Investigators say the boy was being treated for mental illness, has not been taking his medication and reported hearing voices telling him to shoot people.

Similar promises

New interior minister Anutin Charnvirakul had promised “tougher restrictions” on firearm licences even before the mall shooting, and National Police Chief Torsak Sukwimol called Tuesday for increased mental health checks.

But similar promises have been made in the past to little avail, and experts are sceptical effective action will be taken.

Thailand has one of the highest rates of gun ownership in the region, with 10 million firearms in circulation according to the website - roughly one for every seven Thais.

Security guards check a visitors' bag before allowing them into the Siam Paragon Mall on October 4. Image Credit: AP

The result is brutal: Thailand recorded almost 1,300 gun deaths in 2019, the latest year data is available - compared to around 130 in neighbouring Vietnam, where the population is around 40 percent higher.

Boonwara Sumano of the Thailand Development Research Institute pointed to cultural norms that valorise guns from a young age.

“It’s very common among students of vocational education institutes to build their own guns,” she told AFP.

Police said the Bangkok mall shooter appears to have used a blank-firing pistol modified to shoot live rounds.

“The underpinning factor in Thai society is the norm that you need to look strong, look powerful, and guns are the way of showing that,” Boonwara said.

Cheap gun scheme

Thailand strictly controls arms imports, with merchants restricted to small annual quotas and hobbled by high prices.

To legally purchase a gun, buyers must be older than 20, undergo a background check and give a reason for ownership, such as self-defence or hunting.

But a government-run so-called gun welfare programme has seen hundreds of thousands of firearms flow into the kingdom - mainly from the United States.

“The real issue was the gun welfare programme,” Michael Picard, an independent researcher who focuses on small arms proliferation and corruption, told AFP.

Under the scheme, government personnel are given discounts on personal guns and buy them directly through their agencies, rather than through the civilian licensing process.

And while there are restrictions on the number of guns and ammunition a private individual can buy, there are no limits under the welfare programme.

“This leads to a dangerous status quo in which some cops sell their discounted guns onto the black market for profit,” Picard said.

After the nursery massacre, the police announced the indefinite suspension of the programme, telling reporters that unscrupulous officers were reselling firearms.

But a police source told AFP the scheme remained alive and well.

“Junior and low-ranking policemen could not afford the guns,” they said.

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Police patrol in Siam Paragon Mall on October 4. Image Credit: AFP

Privately bought firearms would set them back 100,000 baht ($2,700), they said, while guns bought via the welfare programme were only 30,000-40,000 baht.

And many officers use their own weapons to avoid heavy fines if an official firearm is damaged or lost.

“Policemen who want guns can bring their own cash or loan money from police cooperatives,” the source added.

‘Guns win’

Promised changes in the wake of the nursery shooting - including regular mental health evaluations and stricter licence restrictions - have not materialised.

Officers undergo mental health assessments before joining, but checks afterwards are sporadic.

“During (their) service it is up to their superior who can request their own men to check from time to time, or policemen can do it individually by themselves,” the source said.

Police officials did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Academic and former police lieutenant Kritsanapong Phutrakul told AFP it was rare for any officer to have his firearm taken away.

Nursery attacker Panya Khamrab carried out part of his assault with a legally purchased weapon, police said at the time. The weapon was not confiscated - despite him having been fired for drug abuse.

Researcher Boonwara said that in a country undermined by repeated military overthrows of democratically elected governments, citizens have turned elsewhere for security, legal or illegal.

“It’s like guns win in the end,” she said.

Tourism impact

Thailand is desperate to rebuild its tourism sector after travel restrictions during the Covid-19 pandemic saw visitor numbers dwindle.

China - which sent around 10 million visitors a year before the pandemic - is a crucial market, but numbers are not returning as fast as Thai officials would wish.

This is partly because of fears in China about whether Thailand is a safe holiday destination, and the fact one of the mall shooting victims was Chinese is unlikely to improve this situation.