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A mass killing by a former police officer at a child-care center earlier this month has forced Thailand to confront two of its main scourges. First, former members of the police and military have ready access to guns, even when there are questions about their mental health. They can buy guns through the government, essentially from government gun sellers, and amass large stocks. This is, of course, designed to keep weapons in the hands of the police and military in what has primarily been an authoritarian state for the past seven decades. Regular Thais, instead, face very tough gun laws, in part to prevent Thai protestors from using deadly force when they revolt against various authoritarian governments. As a result, the country’s police and military are awash in guns, which do make it into the hands of disturbed or drugged individuals. In recent years, this has led not only to this tragedy but also to other killings in shopping malls, army bases, and other locations by soldiers and other authorities. As the New York Times reported, an army officer used a gun to murder two peers at the armed forces college in Bangkok last month.
Yet Thai politicians, at least from the current ruling military party-dominated alliance, are not going to do anything to curb the military and police’s control of guns, even while maintaining strict gun laws on the general population. Imposing even mild rules on military and police officers, despite the occasional massacres by disturbed, angry, mentally ill, or drugged authorities, would set Thailand down the path of possible broader gun control for the armed forces and the police.
This reform will never happen unless parliament is thoroughly controlled by a coalition of parties truly determined to enact military and police reform. The last few times such coalitions controlled parliament, in the early 2000s and the early 2010s, they were ousted in military coups. And although there will be an election next year in Thailand, and in a free and fair poll a pro-democracy, anti-military coalition would likely win, a genuinely free and fair election is improbable, as I recently wrote in World Politics Review.
At the same time, Thailand has a serious problem with a massive influx of amphetamine/methamphetamine drugs coming over the border from Myanmar and Laos. A sizable percentage of the Thai population, many working low-paying jobs, has become addicted to these drugs. The killer at the daycare center had faced a drug charge, and Thailand certainly needs to address its severe amphetamines problem, partly due to the extreme inequality in Thai society.
Yet the response from many politicians in this campaign season is to reprise disastrous ideas of a brutal, bloody crackdown on drug users. Former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra tried this approach in the early 2000s, which resulted in the deaths of thousands of people, many of them innocent. Thaksin’s party is pushing for a restoration of the brutal, useless drug war—even though former president Rodrigo Duterte tried a much larger version of this war in the Philippines, resulting in massive abuses and tens of thousands of deaths.