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Siam Paragon shooting casts spotlight on Thai youths' mental health, sparks calls for tighter gun control

BANGKOK: The shooting incident in Bangkok’s high-end department store on Tuesday (Oct 3), when a teenager killed two people and injured several, has brought Thai youths’ mental health into the spotlight and sparked calls to tighten gun control.

The perpetrator, identified by police as a 14-year-old teen with mental health issues, carried out the attack using a modified pistol intended to fire blanks inside the shopping complex in downtown Bangkok frequented by locals and tourists before surrendering at gunpoint about an hour later.

The incident has exposed Thailand’s problematic regulations on firearms, taking place less than one year after a mass shooting at a nursery and nearby areas in Nong Bua Lamphu killed 36 people – including 24 young children.

Criminologist Dr Krisanaphong Poothakool from Rangsit University told CNA the Tuesday gun attack reflects a worrying trend in juvenile delinquency in Thailand.

Data from the Department of Juvenile Observation and Protection showed that between October 2020 and September 2021, there were 1,477 offences committed by people aged under 18 against life and body. The number went up to 1,695 during the same period the following year.

“The severity of crimes by children and youths is increasing. We have to admit that right now, the laws are the problem as they haven’t caught up with perpetrators,” Dr Krisanaphong added.

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THAI POLICE TO RECLASSIFY BLANK GUNS AS FIREARMS

According to authorities, the teen perpetrator used a blank gun that had been modified to fire live ammunition in the mall attack. 

Blank guns are not considered firearms in Thailand and can be legally, and easily, purchased online. 

“Blank guns are not illegal under Thai law because they cannot kill a person. However, the perpetrator used a modified model and here, the laws must be adjusted to be on a par with criminal behaviours,” Dr Krisanaphong said.

Currently, it is unknown whether the shooter modified the blank gun himself or hired someone to do it, or how he obtained live ammunition. 

The investigation is ongoing and according to Thai national police chief Pol Gen Torsak Sukvimol, the perpetrator is not in the right state to give testimony.

On Wednesday, Pol Gen Torsak told local media he had commanded cyber police to eradicate websites providing information on illegal gun modification and crack down on illegal sale of firearms on the Internet.

He also revealed he had already liaised with the Ministry of Interior to reclassify them as firearms in order to block the import and sale in Thailand.

But besides reviewing legal regulations, Dr Krisanaphong from Rangsit University suggested that future sale of firearms should require buyers to go through proper mental health evaluation and behavioural assessment.

Currently, gun ownership in Thailand requires a permit and the applicant must be at least 20 years old. They cannot be disabled or have mental impairments, and have to go through a background check which looks at their income, career, misdemeanours and criminal offences.

“We can’t just look at their criminal record,” Dr Krisanaphong said.

“As for illegal firearms, security officers must develop their skills and knowledge in order to become specialised in the field. We also need officers to oversee this issue in particular as right now, all these are limited.”

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BANGKOK GUN ATTACK SPARKS MENTAL HEALTH CONCERN

The shooting incident could dent Thailand’s efforts to recover its sluggish economy and tourism sector, which have badly suffered from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Clips showing shoppers running out of Siam Paragon flooded the Internet on Tuesday afternoon when hundreds of others were trapped inside, hiding in shops and the conference hall. 

The new government under Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin recently waived visa requirements for Chinese tourists to give tourism a boost, but there are now concerns that the gun attack could tarnish the country’s image.

Authorities said the two people killed on Tuesday were Chinese and Myanmar nationals. As for the injured, they include two foreigners from China and Laos and three Thais.

The fatal incident has prompted Prime Minister Srettha to promise that his government will come up with preventive measures to ensure the safety of every tourist in Thailand.

But at the same time, it has also turned public attention to mental health problems among youths in the country. 

Dr Varoth Chotpitayasunondh, a psychiatrist and spokesperson of the Mental Health Department, Public Health Ministry, told CNA there has been a growing trend of mental health problems among children and adolescents in Thailand since the pandemic started. 

These problems, he said, include stress and risks of depression and suicide.

“We’ve been monitoring the situation where people seek mental health services and found the visits have increased over the past three years,” Dr Varoth added.

Between Feb 12, 2022 and Oct 2, 2023, 278,358 people aged 18 and younger took the department’s mental health test. 

Data showed that while 51.6 per cent of them had good mental health, 10.24 per cent were at risk of depression and 17.68 per cent were prone to suicide.

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WATCH OUT FOR SIGNS OF VIOLENCE

Dr Varoth told CNA that family plays a crucial role in youths’ mental health and their careful observation could prevent violence from happening.

“Family has a key role in detecting behavioural changes or violence that may be building up. There are signs of violence and if we can detect them early, we may be able to stop it,” he explained.

The signs include verbal and physical abuse such as swearing, self-harming or hurting others.

“We increasingly have to watch out for online violence these days as well, as  it could signal something,” he added. “Behaviours such as collecting weapons and expressions that seem to be more and more violent are also signs.”

According to the psychiatrist, people with mental health problems but do not receive proper treatments have a tendency to commit violence, either against themselves or other people. 

Their symptoms could also worsen and may result in auditory hallucination, delusions and paranoia.

For some people, their conditions may not even show until somebody starts talking to them or notices their pent-up frustration, he said.

“Mental health problems can develop by themselves,” Dr Varoth told CNA. “If the family doesn’t communicate, it’d be hard to release all the feelings that are kept inside.”

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