'Do not make any loud noises': A Thai soldier's 18-hour shooting rampage

People stand outside the Terminal 21 mall, where a mass shooting took place, in Nakhon Ratchasima, Thailand, on Feb 9, 2020.
People stand outside the Terminal 21 mall, where a mass shooting took place, in Nakhon Ratchasima, Thailand, on Feb 9, 2020.PHOTO: AFP

KORAT, THAILAND (NYTIMES) - Authorities killed the gunman near the cold storage refrigerators of the Foodland supermarket in the mall he terrorised during Thailand's deadliest mass shooting.

It was just before 9 local time Sunday morning (Feb 9) - 18 hours after he fired the first shots in a relentless spree that left at least 29 people dead and 58 injured in the city of Korat, north of Bangkok.

Thailand's prime minister said the rampage started with a real estate dispute. The gunman was bitter and lugging weapons stolen from a military base. It ended with hundreds of shoppers fleeing for their lives, their shoes slapping on the mall's white tile floors as gunshots cracked, leading to a failed police raid, a follow-up - and finally, the lifeless body of the 32-year-old gunman, dressed in military gear and surrounded by red plastic grocery bins.

"My two children are at home with their grandma now," said Viparat Wansaboiy, who was watching a movie at the mall with her husband when the shooting broke out. "Luckily they didn't come today."

The mix of bloodshed and the banal has become all too common in the United States, even as it bursts into lands less accustomed to violence like New Zealand and Norway. In a sign of what some psychologists call a contagion, the gunman mimicked other perpetrators of mass shootings by posting messages and video to Facebook, which shut down his account within minutes.

But in a nation where mass killings are still rare despite high levels of gun ownership, the sudden appearance of such grisly horror in a seven-story complex of consumerism has already prompted deeper questions about what happened, the government's response and the underlying forces that led a young man to kill so many who were so innocent.

"This will be seen as not just an individual case but as a sign of underlying tensions," said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division. "It's about the fact that people are really getting desperate; the economic situation is really not going well. A lot of people are very unhappy."

Thai officials initially said the man, Sergeant Jakrapanth Thomma, simply "went mad." Later, on Sunday morning, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha suggested that the gunman was enraged over a "land problem," citing a dispute about selling a house. It was a conflict, he said, that had been simmering for days and could have been resolved without violence.

Korat, a bustling city of 166,000 between the central plains and Thailand's underdeveloped north-east, is supposed to be where people come together. Sitting on the so-called Friendship Highway originally built by the United States in the 1950s, the unassuming city is a strategic hub for both the Thai military, which has several bases in the area, and regional agriculture, with processing plants for rice, sugar cane, sesame and fruit.

Jakrapanth believed he was owed money. On Saturday, he arrived for a meeting about a payment from a deal with Anong Mitrchan, who was well known for selling real estate to military officers in Korat.

It is unclear whether she was the target of his ire, or whether she did anything wrong. But she was at the centre of a long-running dispute, authorities said, and she was not alone. Her son-in-law, a superior officer from the sergeant's command - Colonel Anantharot Krasae - was there at her house, along with her business partner, according to Anong's husband.

 
 

The soldier shot all three of them. Only the partner survived, with serious wounds.

After the initial surge of violence, a photo of bullets appeared on the soldier's Facebook page. "Nobody can escape death," he wrote. "Rich from cheating and taking advantage of people … Do they think they can take money to spend in hell?"

Jakkrapanth fled, speeding toward a military base where authorities said he shot and killed a third person before stealing a military Humvee and an arsenal of weapons. Firing out the window, he reached the parking lot of the Terminal 21 shopping centre some time after 3pm, around the time police received their first call about the shooting at Anong's house.

The mall - a tower of exuberance, with floors dedicated to different parts of the world, from the Caribbean to London, Paris and Hollywood - pulsed with the rhythm of a busy Saturday. Movie theatres were filled. Families, couples, teenagers were all oblivious, crammed into cellphone stores, Toys "R" Us and the food court.

Then, they heard gunshots. Video taken outside showed people diving for cover as bullets carried across the area. Several people were killed outside the mall, some while walking, others in cars.

Viparat, 39, and her husband, Somwang Kwangchaithale, 39, were sitting in a movie theatre on the fifth floor of the mall when the lights came on and an emergency announcement came over the loudspeaker around 5.30pm. Initially, they stayed in the theatre. Then the mall's staff moved them to an office with a locked door. They huddled together there, 100 of them altogether, until around 10pm, when the message from authorities landed: They were about to be evacuated.

"They told us they're going to turn the lights off," said Somwang. "'Stay low and do not make any loud noises.'" When they reached the basement, the gunman heard them. He started shooting.

"All of the people who gathered at the parking lot started screaming and running for their lives," said Viparat. "Rescuers helped us out. Police, rescuers, military, different officers."

 
 

By that time, authorities had launched into full operation mode. Shortly after 8pm, police declared the gunman a most-wanted person and urged the public to call in tips, presenting a photo that showed him looking bored, with indifferent eyes.

They also started moving large numbers of people out. They urged evacuees to "raise their hands" and identify themselves. They were wary that the gunman was hiding in the crowd.

Outside, dozens of orange-clad emergency workers set up triage areas, helping victims and the rescued. Relatives and friends of those believed to be trapped in the mall anxiously awaited word of their fate. The stalemate lingered for hours. The entire city seemed to be awake.

At 3am, authorities staged what appeared to be an attempt to capture or kill the gunman. A barrage of gunfire pounded and ricocheted, but authorities had to retreat. An officer had been hit. He later died. One official said he was the last one killed - shy of the gunman.

The final raid occurred as officials seemed to be in lockdown, tense, refusing to answer questions from reporters. Details eventually came out through a video posted to Twitter, with officials confirming what people inside had witnessed. The gunman was dead, his body lying outside a cooler with an open door, near two other bodies - one of them a police officer, another a woman who seemed to be a supermarket employee.