UTHAI SAWAN, Thailand (AP) — Grieving families prayed Saturday at a Buddhist temple filled with children’s memorabilia, flowers and photos of the smiling toddlers who were killed while napping on blankets in a day care center in northeast Thailand.
Coffins containing the 36 killed, including 24 children and mostly preschoolers, were freed on Friday and placed inside Wat Rat Samakee and two other temples in the city nestled among rice paddies in the one of the poorest regions in Thailand.
Several mourners spent the night at Wat Rat Samakee in the tradition of keeping company with those who died young.
“All relatives are here to make merit on behalf of those who died,” said Pensiri Thana, an aunt of one of the victims, referring to an important Buddhist practice. She was one of those who spent the night at the temple. “It’s a tradition that we keep our young people company. We believe we should be with them so they don’t feel alone.
The massacre left no one in the small town unscathed, but community leaders found that helping others helped ease their own grief, at least temporarily.
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“At the beginning, we all felt so bad and we couldn’t accept that. All the officials feel sad with the people here. But we have to take care of everyone, of all these 30 victims. We run everywhere and take care of people, giving them moral support,” said Somneuk Thongthalai, a local district official.
A mourning ceremony will continue for three days before the royal funeral, which will culminate with the cremation of the bodies according to Buddhist tradition.
No clear motive can ever be known for Thailand’s deadliest massacre after the perpetrator left daycare on Thursday and killed his wife and son at home before killing himself.
On Friday evening, King Maha Vajiralongkorn and Queen Suthida visited hospitals where seven people injured in the attack are being treated. The monarch met family members of the victims in what he said was an attempt to boost morale.
“It’s a tragedy that this evil thing happened,” King told reporters in a rare public appearance. “But right now we have to think about what we can do to improve things to the best of our abilities.”
Outside the Uthai Sawan Early Childhood Development Center, bouquets of white roses and carnations lined an exterior wall, along with five tiny juice boxes, bags of corn chips and a stuffed animal.
At Wat Rat Samakee, mourners and those trying to support them thronged the grounds.
“It was too much. I can’t accept this,” said Oy Yodkhao, 51, sitting on a bamboo mat in the searing heat on Friday as relatives gave her water and gently wiped her forehead.
Her 4-year-old grandson Tawatchai Sriphu was killed and she said she was worried about the child’s siblings. The rice farming family is close, with three generations living under one roof.
Police identified the attacker as Panya Kamrap, 34, a former police sergeant who was fired earlier this year on a drug charge involving methamphetamine. A daycare worker told Thai media that Panya’s son had come but hadn’t been for about a month. Police said they believed Panya was under a lot of stress due to tensions between him and his wife and money issues.
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Panya was cremated in neighboring Udon Thani province on Saturday after Buddhist temples in Uthai Thani refused to host his funeral, Thai media reported. The website of the newspaper Manager specifies that the abbot of the temple hosting the ceremony, which was attended by a dozen relatives, asked not to be identified so as not to upset its members and neighbors.
The director reported that his mother, performing the traditional bathing ritual next to his coffin, implored the spirit of Panya: “When you are born in the next life, do not kill anyone. I love you son. If you had problems, why didn’t you talk to me? Don’t do that again. I gave you credit. Go to heaven, my son.
Mass shootings are rare but not unheard of in Thailand, which has one of the highest civilian gun ownership rates in Asia, with 15.1 guns per 100 people. That’s still far below the US rate of 120.5 per 100 people, according to a 2017 survey by Australian nonprofit GunPolicy.org.
Thailand’s previous worst massacre involved a disgruntled soldier who opened fire in and around a shopping mall in the northeastern city of Nakhon Ratchasima in 2020, killing 29 people and holding off security forces for about 16 hours before being killed by them.
The worst attack on civilians was a 2015 bombing of a shrine in Bangkok that killed 20 people. It would have been carried out by human traffickers in retaliation for the repression of their network.
Associated Press writers Chalida Ekvitthayavechnukul, Grant Peck and Kaweewit Kaewjinda in Bangkok contributed to this report.