BANGKOK — Following a mass shooting by a disgruntled soldier who killed 30 people, army commander-in-chief Apirat Kongsompong on Tuesday said a communication channel will be set up to hear complaints from troopers who feel they are mistreated.
Gen. Apirat touted the bid as a response to the soldier’s rampage, which also wounded 50 people. Speaking tearfully at a news conference, Apirat offered an apology to the public on behalf of the serviceman, and pledged to look into a land dispute between Sgt. Jakkrapanth Thomma and his commanding officer, which allegedly led to the shootings.
“We have to investigate as to who were involved,” Gen. Apirat said. “But the moment he pulled the trigger on other people, he was a criminal, and no longer a soldier.”
News reports say Sgt. Jakkrapanth was cheated by his commander in the land sale and his pleas for justice were ignored. Gen. Apirat said the new communication channel will allow soldiers to lodge complaints in anonymity if they feel their superior officers are taking advantage of them. However, they would still have to reveal their identity to Gen. Apirat.
The killings, regarded to be Thailand’s worst mass shooting in history, shocked the country and raised questions whether business deals between rank-and-file soldiers and their commanders in the military institutions are appropriate.
Army spokesman Winthai Suvaree said he’s not aware of any regulations forbidding such practice.
“I have never heard about it,” Col. Winthai said by phone, though he said he would double-check just to be sure.
Winthai also said it’s too early to assume that Jakrapanth’s rampage was solely caused by the land transaction with his commanding officer, as more information is needed in the investigation.
At the news conference, Gen. Apirat promised the army will take care of family members of the victims. Their children will also receive funding from the army to complete their studies, and those who already graduated will be offered jobs in the force relevant to their education backgrounds.
“I, as army chief, am willing to do everything to alleviate the mental and physical wellbeing of the affected families,” the general said.
Nevertheless, he rejected calls to resign, and urged the critics to focus their anger on him, not the army, which he branded as a “sacred” institution.
“It’s a sacred organization,” Gen. Apirat said. “Soldiers who are still serving along the borders, cracking down on drugs, risking their lives to defend our national sovereignty, assisting in draught, forest fire, and sacrificing themselves can be found throughout the army.”
He continued, “Please do not criticize them. Do not use the word ‘soldier gunman.’ They will feel discouraged in their work. No one in this world wanted such incidents to happen. Do not criticize the army. If you want to criticize, criticize me, General Apirat Kongsompong.”
But Uchaen Cheangsen, an academic at Walailak University’s School of Political Science and Law, said Apirat is still obligated to set up an independent fact-finding commission to find out what really transpired in the 18 hours of the massacre.
Uchaen said questions over the army’s ability to protect the public and integrity are legitimate.
“They live with weapons. They should have discipline and have strict controls of armament,” the lecturer said in an interview. “We must recognize that there’s a problem. The system where commanders seek to profit from selling things to subordinates must also end if the armed forces are to be reformed.”