BANGKOK – On the afternoon of July 11, 2017, six or seven gunmen dressed in military outfits arrived at the home of a village chief in the subdistrict of Ban Klang, in Thailand’s Krabi province. Pretending to be government officials, they demanded entry to search the property and warned the chief’s family not to leave the house.
Realizing the chief wasn’t at home at the time, they waited until 8:00 P.M., when he returned. They proceeded to handcuff and blindfold him and his family. They waited until midnight before killing them execution-style, shooting most of them in the head.
The assailants then fled in a car, leaving the police to find six dead bodies and two people fatally wounded. Among the eight dead were three children.
The nature of the killing was shocking for many, especially as it happened in a province popular with tourists for its white cliffs and sandy beaches. Police suspect the killing to have been in a personal dispute with the chief himself.
Although mass killings are rare in Thailand, the incident reignited public interest in a peculiar issue that blights the kingdom. Namely the people’s love of guns.
When you think of Thailand, you might think of intricate temples, sandy beaches, a bustling nightlife and an idyllic vibe. A country awash with gun violence might be the last thing you consider. And yet, a 2013 study by the University of Washington ranked Thailand number one out of 10 countries in Asia in terms of gun-related deaths per capita.
With 7.48 deaths per 100,000 people in 2013, the Buddhist kingdom suffered higher fatalities from shootings per capita than did the United States, which experienced 3.55 deaths per 100,000 the same year.
Thailand also has the dubious honor of having one of the highest gun-ownership ratios in Asia. According to the country’s interior ministry, there are around six million registered guns among a population of around 67 million, meaning that every one in 10 persons in the country legally owns a gun.
However, the figures are substantially higher once you consider unregistered arms. According to a 2007 report by Small Arms Survey, an independent research project at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, there were an estimated 10 million guns in circulation in the kingdom in 2007, ranking it 11th globally in the number of privately-owned firearms by country.
Guns are fairly easy to acquire in Thailand. Since 1947 it’s been legal to own firearms for “purposes of self-defense, protection of property, sports or hunting,” according to the law. You have to be 20 years old and pass background checks to acquire a license.
The guns themselves can cost around $600 to purchase — “not an insurmountable sum for the average Thai,” according to John J. Brandon, the senior director for the The Asia Foundation’s regional cooperation programs.
Acquiring arms on the black market isn’t difficult. Many guns are smuggled over the Cambodian and Myanmar border and can be found in markets in border areas. Even authority figures help feed the proliferation of illegal arms. Since government employees are entitled to buy a gun at a discount, some declare their weapon lost and sell it for a hefty sum on the black market.
Others accept bribes to speed up the process of acquiring a license. Military and paramilitary officials have also been known to sell weapons to non-state entities.
A long running insurgency in Thailand’s deep south probably doesn’t help matters. Since 2004, a low-level insurgency has been waged by quasi-secessionists in the Malay-Muslim majority provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat.
Unable to provide proper security for its residents, the government decided to delegate security responsibilities to paramilitary groups and civilian militias, most of whom are Thai Buddhists. These groups range from paramilitary rangers armed with M-16s assault rifles to civilian volunteer units armed with pump-action shotguns.
Authorities waive firearms regulations and subsidize gun purchases for vulnerable groups in the provinces, including government officials, teachers and militiamen.
However, experts claim Bangkok’s policy of arming its citizenry only exacerbates the conflict. Many of these militias groups are often ill-supervised and poorly disciplined. They exploit gaps in the rule of law to commit human rights abuses against the Malay majority.
Current policies also make it substantially easier for Thai Buddhists to acquire guns, compared to Malay Muslims, leaving the latter to feel defenseless and discriminated against. Armed Malays often suffer harassment by authorities.
The presence of guns only encourages violent, indiscriminate retribution rather than peaceful arbitration, allowing for tit-for-tat attacks which only fuel communal tensions. In June 2009 in Narathiwat, two Buddhist Thai teachers — including a pregnant woman — were killed by insurgents.
On June 8 that year, six masked gunmen opened fire at a mosque, killing 10 worshipers. Authorities believe the perpetrators to have been militiamen. Soon thereafter, Buddhist monks and Buddhist temples came under attack. A vicious cycle has formed in the deep south. Guns fuel insecurity and paranoia, which in turn increase the demand for guns.
Arguably, Thailand’s gun problem is not simply an issue of lax policing or short-sighted counterinsurgency strategy. It may also speak to a deeper cultural malaise. “Thailand has a fervent gun culture on par with the United States,” the U.S. State Department’s Bureau for Diplomatic Security noted in a 2013 safety report for its staff in Thailand.
Personal vendettas, fits of passion and loss of face over a business or personal dispute are often attributed for the kingdom’s high gun-related deaths. ‘There is a real culture of guns in Thailand,” a Western embassy staffer in Bangkok noted. “It’s a military-style culture, a place of uniforms and male power.”
Consider some recent shootings in Thailand. A senator who accidentally killed his wife with an Uzi over Sunday dinner. A bus driver who shot a passenger in the chest after the victim criticized his driving skills. A woman shot by an angry lover in a mall. A man shot dead in his apartment after arguing with his security guard. Two rival gangs having a shootout following a “Gangnam Style” dance-off.
School students arm themselves to uphold the honor of their school against rival schools. “Thailand has become a Wild West movie,” remarked controversial politician and once-seedy massage parlor tycoon Chuwit Kamolvisit. “People pull out their guns at a moment’s notice.”
People also point to Thailand’s notoriously unstable and corrupt political system. If you have no faith in the system to provide justice, owning a gun might seem like a way of ensuring justice. “If a man can’t wear a uniform, having a gun is the next best thing,” Chuwit said.
What attention Thai authorities do show to the problem tends to be very fleeting. Apart from occasionally demanding the handing-over of guns, Thais seem oddly apathetic toward gun crime. Kasit Piromya, a former foreign minister and advocate of gun control, attributes this to the Buddhist mentality of karma. “When you die, you die. It’s acceptance and resignation. We take death calmly as part of life.”
Whether this latest mass killing in Krabi inspires a serious discussion in Asia’s gun capital remains to be seen. The problem with gun cultures is that, once entrenched, they become very difficult to break. On Children’s Day in January 2017, kids as young as three were allowed to handle assault rifles and machine guns at the Royal Thai Naval Academy in south Bangkok.
Fun for the kids, probably. But also arguably fueling an already trigger-happy culture.