Guns, drugs and mental health – questions for a grieving nation

Since at least 37 people were killed in Thursday’s daycare centre massacre, Thailand has been forced to ask itself some very uncomfortable questions.

Gregory Raymond is a lecturer in the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs researching Southeast Asian politics and foreign relations. Writing for Australia’s ABC News, Raymond identifies some areas that should be of concern to everyone in Thailand.

Greg Raymond
Raymond expects a national conversation on drugs, gun control and mental health in the run up to the spring election.

The alleged gunman was a former member of the police force, who was facing trial on a methamphetamine possession charge after having been dismissed from the police over drug allegations.

As elections loom in the spring, the shocking incident has sparked a national conversation around guns and drugs, as well as on questions of mental health.

Lone gunman massacres have been very rare in Thailand. Aside from the tragedy in Uthai Sawan, there’s only one other similar incident. That occurred in February, 2020, when a Thai soldier killed 29 people and wounded 58 others at a shopping mall in Nakhon Ratchasima.

COVID-19, poverty and poor mental healthcare are a potent mix. Buddhist stoicism in the country means accepting the reality of suffering and keep going in the face of hardship. There has been serious suffering since the pandemic began, and there’s resentment towards the current government.

The economy shrunk by more than 6% in 2020 and many workers lost their jobs, particularly in the hospitality and tourism sectors. The worst affected are poorer families, whose kids stopped going to school. If they do not return, this could turn out to be an ongoing generational issue.

Thailand is not very well-resourced when it comes to support for mental health and while the country is better than most of Southeast Asia in terms of welfare, there are still problems.

In the past, opposition parties have occasionally campaigned on issues around reforming the security forces. One such topic has been that of military conscription. All men over 21 years of age in the country must register for the draft, which takes the form of a lottery every April. This practice is very unpopular, and became a political issue in the last election.

There’s relatively little oversight of the security forces, because of the country’s governance — in many respects, the military is the government.

Another central issue is methamphetamine use. Manufacturing has been slowly switching from opium to meth, as the latter is much less visible than poppy fields. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime regularly warns about meth moving through the Mekong region, a lot of which is being shipped through Thailand. There’s a view among anti-drug agencies that such volumes probably could not be moved around without high levels of security forces being involved. The issue isn’t new. It dates back to the mid-20th century and the days of the Golden Triangle. In 2003, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra launched an anti-drug campaign that featured extra-judicial killings.

Gun control is not an issue in Thailand. There’s never been mass community outrage about gun control — and there’s no “gun lobby” in Thailand — although this latest massacre may change that. The alleged killer who carried out this week’s massacre legally purchased the gun he used in the attack. There’s a significant number of weapons in the community and it’s relatively easy to get your hands on one.

Crime News

Jon Whitman

Jon Whitman is a seasoned journalist and author who has been living and working in Asia for more than two decades. Born and raised in Glasgow, Scotland, Jon has been at the forefront of some of the most important stories coming out of China in the past decade. After a long and successful career in East sia, Jon is now semi-retired and living in the Outer Hebrides. He continues to write and is an avid traveller and photographer, documenting his experiences across the world.