A truck with soldiers and sniffer dogs enter Thai army's 22nd Ammunition Battalion in Surathampitak Military Camp, where a Thai soldier turned mass shooter stole a cache of weapons in Nakhon Ratchasima, Thailand, Monday, Feb. 10, 2020. It's still unclear how a Thai soldier managed to steal heavy weapons from an army base which he then used to kill 29 people and hold off security forces for almost 16 hours while he was holed up in a popular shopping mall. That he could do so is less surprising, experts in military matters say. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)

Thai soldier's deadly rampage reveals security lapses

February 11, 2020 - 12:15 am

NAKHON RATCHASIMA, Thailand (AP) — As this Thai city mourns the 29 people killed in a weekend shooting rampage, many are questioning the apparent security lapses that allowed him to steal the weapons he used in the assault.

It's still unclear how the gunman, identified as Sgt. Maj. Jakrapanth Thomma, snatched three assault rifles and two machine guns from the base and escaped in a stolen military vehicle.

A junior officer at the base who said he often acquired ammunition from Jakrapanth’s unit for his own unit’s target practice said the shooter would have had to overpower soldiers guarding small armory depots to take the weapons and ammunition. The officer asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.

The gunman’s actions show "that the level of control over this base's armory was woefully insufficient in terms of manpower and access restriction," said Michael Picard, research director of GunPolicy.org.

After stealing the weapons, the gunman then headed for a shopping mall, firing along the way. He held off security forces for almost 16 hours while holed up in the shopping center.

Questions about military security carry a special sting in Thailand because just a few weeks ago the country's tough-talking army commander said in an interview that he had ordered all army units to take care of their weaponry.

The Bangkok Post quoted Gen. Apirat Kongsompong as saying that "all weapons must be kept under good care and ready for use." He stressed that the army "will never let ill-minded people steal them," referring to political opponents of the current government, led by former army commander Prayuth Chan-ocha.

On Tuesday, Apirat was due to address criticism of the operation at army headquarters in Bangkok.

A junior officer who said he often withdrew ammunition from Jakrapanth’s unit for his own unit’s target practice said the shooter would have had to overpower soldiers guarding small armory depots to take the weapons and ammunition. The officer asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.

In many past cases, guns have been quietly siphoned off by corrupt officials from police and army facilities.

The most disastrous weapons theft took place in Thailand's deep south in 2004, when Muslim separatist militants raided an army base, killed four soldiers and made off with about 400 assault rifles. Some of the weapons are believed to have been sent to Muslim militants in Indonesia's Aceh province, but most stayed with the Thai rebels, who have waged an insurgency that has claimed about 7,000 lives.

Wanwichit Boonprong, a professor at Thailand's Rangsit University who specializes in the country's military, said more controls were needed on weapons on military bases.

“The safety system in the buildings where they keep weapons are obsolete. They just lock the room with padlocks," he said. “With this kind of system, once someone get in, he can easily grab a weapon."

Access to the main gate to Jakrapanth’s military unit, the 22nd Ammunition Battalion, was restricted on Monday, but much of the rest of the sprawling base in rural Nakhon Ratchasima province was open to through traffic.

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Peck reported from Bangkok. Associated Press Writer Preeyapa T. Khunsong contributed to this report.

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