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Korat mass shooting: a sign that reform and preparedness are badly needed

Many lessons to be learned from last weekend’s tragedy but it is up to the country’s leaders to find the will to put them into place

A week has passed since a rogue soldier went on a shooting spree in downtown Nakhon Ratchasima, killing 30 and injuring another 58 yet no one seems willing to take responsibility for the Army’s reported lack of security, which allowed one solider to raid the armoury and steal war weapons to kill and maim innocent civilians.

The tragedy prompted civil society, politicians and academics to call for army reform, for an analysis to identify the lessons learned from this horrifying incident and prevent it happening again, for the resignation of Prime Minister and Defence Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha and Army chief General Apirat Kongsompong to show responsibility and for a truly transparent investigation (with neutral party participation) into what happened.

Professor Surachat Bamrungsuk from Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science told Thai online media, The Standard, that the Army must take responsibility for this highly controversial issue. If the Army and the Government do not handle this in the right way, this case could turn into a political hot potato driven by social media that the Defence Minister, Army chief, and Second Army Region commander would find troublesome to their careers, he warned. This tragedy requires the taking of responsibility not just sending representatives to lay wreaths at funerals or presenting assistance money to the relatives of deceased victims.

“We’re calling for the Army to cleanse its force of dirt. Society is today giving an opportunity to the Defence Minister and Army chief so they should not shy away from taking responsibility. Even if society is silent and not making any demands right now, one day this issue will spill onto the streets.”

Photo Credit: Terminal 21 Korat shopping mall’s Facebook page

If Thai society, the government and Army mutually agree to solve this underlying problem today, there will be ample opportunity to prepare for any threat to city areas – be it a terrorist attack or a mass shooting. This also could be an opportunity for army reform and for the improvement of conditions for low-ranking officers in the force, he said.

But the government and the Army seemed to ignoring that chance. In a press conference on Tuesday (February 11) during which reporters asked if General Apirat Kongsompong would resign and assume responsibility for the mass shooting, the army chief replied he wouldn’t resign over an individual’s wrongdoing.

The mass shooter might have been an officer of the armed forces but what he did was certainly not an Army mission and he was driven by personal reasons, the army chief said, firing back at the reporters and asking them if it was even appropriate to ask him such a question. “I have responsibility for the missions I command and have displayed responsibility in every position I have held and all the crises I have been through from the start until now, when I am not far away from retirement,” he said.

Photo Credit: https://twitter.com/armypr_news

“The moment that he fired at innocent people, he became a criminal, not a soldier anymore,” Apirat told the press as he apologised over the incident with tears in his eyes. Apirat admitted some Army units appeared to be lax in guarding weapons and ammunition at camps and this posed a risk that armouries could be robbed. He also vowed to the press that he would clean up the businesses that operate from within the military camps.

The government meanwhile established a committee to follow up with remedial measures and aid for those affected by Korat mass shooting chaired by Deputy Prime Minister Wisanu Krua-ngam while bank accounts were opened to accept financial donations to aid the families of those slain and those wounded in the tragedy.

Prime Minister Prayut also addressed the nation about the mass shooting on Monday evening (February 10). The day after he also instructed Cabinet members and officials to wear attire and colours appropriate to the memory of those killed.  Another committee was set up to analyse the lessons learned from the incident but little progress has been made as the premier has yet to delegate responsibilities and concrete measures to anyone.

The tone might have been sombre but some people still remember what happened on February 9, right after the mass shooter was killed, when the premier went to Korat to visit the wounded and was seen showing a “mini heart” to the camera – a light-hearted gesture that came out as inappropriate to the time and place. The mini-heart gesture and some parts of his comments that should have been less about wooing voters and more sympathetic to the grave losses people were suffering inevitably drew a storm of criticism towards the premier.

In the meantime, civil society tossed and turned over the Korat mass shooting, an unprecedented attack of this nature in the country. “We never thought a mass shooting in public would happen in Thailand. We saw it happen in Europe and the US and we thought that incidents of this kind only occurred far from home. The Korat mass shooting was a warning that violence can erupt in a public space and so there must be protection in city areas against such incidents. Our national security officers have to move away from the old way of thinking that the largest threat comes from wars and the solution is to buy weapons so they are ready to fight. That solution might be less valuable in tackling a terrorist attack in a city area,” he warned.

Surachat made the point that Korat mass shooting originated from a military camp and a relationship between a supervisor and a subordinate in conditions involving commercial benefits – it is all too easy to make a subordinate the supervisor’s customer in a property deal.

There are similar activities going on in many military camps, not just this one in Korat, and it is thus urgent that the Army puts an end to all illegal or non-transparent commercial projects or a supervisor’s use of his men as a business base for profits. The military isn’t a business organization so supervisors must not reap benefits from the army hierarchy or use military welfare residences as business sites, he urged.

The military organization is in need of a new culture and must stay away from the old feudalism with low-ranking officers being like servants to their supervisors, Surachat stressed. The supervisors must be held responsible if they do wrong and must be more careful in issuing orders to subordinates, who they must no longer regard as pushovers they can order around.

While the Army seemed to take note about the poor security for  armouries in some army camps, Thai society wants strict measures or some kind of guarantee because such sites are home to heavy and dangerous war weapons that could cause massive destruction if used in attacks on communities.

Politician Khunying Sudarat Keyuraphan, chairwoman of Pheu Thai Party’s strategic committee, meanwhile, called for the government to analyse the lessons learned from Korat mass shooting, while Future Forward Party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit organized a brainstorming event titled “From Korat to Army Reform,” on Saturday (February 15) at the 14 October 1973 Memorial in Bangkok’s Khok Wua area.

Thanathorn explained in his Facebook post that as far as the Thai public was concerned, the Army had always been a “twilight zone” – a mysterious place where complicated things go on in secret or lurk in the shadows. In such a zone, he claimed high-ranking officers suppress and take advantage of their subordinates while abusing state resources for their own or their associates’ benefits. Huge budgets were spent on items undisclosed to the public while the force’s structure was also outdated but remained untouchable, he claimed, noting that the Army knew about the problems but didn’t solve them and continued to hide behind a mask called “national security and patriotism” until a tragedy occurred.

Another issue that has arisen from Korat incident is journalistic ethics and a call for the media reform. Some news agencies’ reporting of the incident had been “out of line”, resulting in the Thai social media users’ call for a ban of those “unethical” news agencies that revealed too much information about officers’ operations hence sabotaging the attempt to rescue people trapped inside the Korat mall as well as the attempt to capture the shooter. They also gave out too much information about the mass shooter that many feared could later create attention-seeking copycats.

With questions raised about how to report on violent crime without affecting victims and without creating copycats, the Office of the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) has urged broadcasters to observe guidelines on the reporting of violent extremism as outlined by the World Health Organization (WHO), by avoiding live coverage and foregoing video clips of the incident, avoiding frequent reports on violent crimes or writing dramatic headlines, and avoiding giving terrorists a platform to advocate their cause.

Photo Credit: Terminal 21 Korat shopping mall’s Facebook page

The Korat mass shooting can be an opportunity to learn various lessons for change – not just army and media reform but other issues, including warning systems of a violent attack, the preparedness of agencies to tackle a critical situation, the accurate assessment of a violent attack to plan steps to handle it appropriately and effectively, the rehabilitation of those caught in the violent incident and how to move on from it without forgetting valuable lessons. The government should conduct the probes, the reforms and the incident analysis with transparency and be ready to explain these to the public.

Surachat insisted that if Thai society, the government and the Army mutually agreed to solve  the problem, this will be an ample opportunity to prepare for any threat to city areas, to reform the Army, and to improve the conditions of low-ranking officers in the forces, thus giving a chance for Thai society to truly move forward.

Chularat Saengpassa

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