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NY Times, Feb. 11, 2020
Thai Soldier in Mass Shooting Had Business Clash With His Commander
By Richard C. Paddock, Muktita Suhartono and Ryn Jirenuwat

KORAT, Thailand — Fellow soldiers described him as quiet and affable, a skilled marksman who liked to play soccer. But people who knew Jakrapanth Thomma also knew this: He had a deep-seated grudge against his superior officer, a colonel, and the colonel’s mother-in-law, believing that the pair had cheated him in a land deal.

On Saturday, he shot them dead, and embarked on a deadly, 18-hour rampage that became Thailand’s worst mass shooting in memory. In all, Sergeant Major Jakrapanth, 32, took the lives of 29 people before the police shot him dead as he hid in a seven-story shopping mall.

“Nobody can escape death,” he posted online during his killing spree. “Rich from cheating and taking advantage of people … Do they think they can take money to spend in hell?”

As a soldier, the gunman was a small part of one of Thailand’s most powerful institutions, which is heavily involved in both politics and business. For some, joining the military is a means to power and wealth, and many high-ranking officers have their own side businesses in addition to their official duties.

The colonel’s family flatly denied that he had cheated Sergeant Major Jakrapanth, but the Thai military hierarchy remains a system in which senior officers often take advantage of the lower ranks and conscripts are known to serve as their servants.

“It says a lot about the Thai military that the sergeant major would be entangled in land deals with his commanding officer’s relatives,” said Anthony Davis, a Bangkok-based analyst who writes for the Jane’s Group of defense publications. “This is not how truly professional militaries operate.”

Senior officers operate with impunity, he said, which can breed resentment in the lower ranks.

“In Thai society it is not uncommon that those with rank and privilege treat their subordinates dismissively or unfairly,” he said. “When in the military, the subordinate in question has access to weaponry. Things can go badly wrong.”

The military has staged 18 coups since the end of the absolute monarchy in 1932; the most recent one, in 2014, installed the current prime minister, the former general Prayuth Chan-ocha. In 2017, the military won voters’ approval of a constitution that gives it the dominant role in today’s quasi-democratic government.

Sergeant Major Jakrapanth, called Jak by his friends, grew up in one of Thailand’s poorest regions, and on graduating from high school, he enrolled in a military academy for noncommissioned officers. He rose steadily in the army, achieving the rank of sergeant major first class, the highest possible for a noncommissioned officer.

The prime minister, Mr. Prayuth, who met Sunday with some of the 58 injured victims, said that the gunman had been enraged over a “land problem.” He said it was a conflict that could have been resolved peacefully.

But soldiers say they have little recourse in disputes involving a superior officer.

Sergeant Major Jakrapanth began the rampage by killing his superior officer and his mother-in-law. It was unclear why he went on to kill people at a temple, and then holed up in one of the city’s largest and most popular malls, where he gunned down many more.

“Nobody knew what was in his mind,” said the minister of social development and human security, Juti Krairerk, who came to Korat to help counsel survivors. “Nobody knows even now because he is already dead. You can only speculate.”

On Monday, grieving families held funerals and dozens of local residents visited the mall, Terminal 21, to leave flowers. Workers and volunteers began cleaning up the mall in preparation for its planned reopening on Thursday.

Relatives of victims picked up coffins from the morgue, including that of police Senior Sergeant Major Chatchawal Thaengthong, who was among the first to respond to the shooting.

In a slow-moving motorcade, relatives, army officers and police officials delivered the coffins of two police special forces officers to the airport. There, hundreds of mourners and an honor guard sent them off to Bangkok, 160 miles southwest of Korat, where they were to receive a royally sponsored bathing ritual.

The dispute that preceded the massacre involved the gunman’s superior officer, Col. Anantharot Krasae, and a business operated by the colonel’s family that sold homes and helped soldiers borrow money from a military lending program.

Often soldiers would borrow amounts that gave them cash surpluses above the value of the houses they were buying. At times, the surplus could equal as much as a third of the value of the property.

The colonel’s wife, Pornlaphat Mitrchan; her mother, Anong Mitrchan, and her father, Narupol Mitrchan, a retired colonel, were all part of the business.

A friend of Sgt. Maj. Jakrapanth, who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution, said that the sergeant major had expected to receive about $13,000 in cash back from a loan they had arranged — a significant sum — but the money had disappeared.

He asked repeatedly for the money but did not receive it and had lost hope, the friend said.

On Saturday, the sergeant major met with Col. Anantharot, Ms. Anong and a property agent to discuss the money he was owed.

He shot all three, killing the colonel and his mother-in-law. The agent was seriously wounded but survived.

The friend, who said he had not been in recent contact with the gunman but followed him on Facebook, said many soldiers were cheated in similar fashion and were sympathetic to his plight, even after the massacre. Many soldiers and low-ranking officers feel like they are treated like slaves by their superior officers, he said.

Surviving members of the family defended their transactions with the sergeant major in interviews with Thai media, and blamed a third party for not paying him the money he was owed.

“No, we did not cheat him,” said Mr. Narupol, the retired colonel. “We were actually trying to help him because he was the subordinate of the colonel and had debts.”

Ms. Pornlaphat, the colonel’s widow, said that the family built houses to sell to soldiers but insisted that her mother and her husband, who were killed in the rampage, had nothing to do with the money owed to the sergeant major. She said he was owed about $1700 from the loan for the house, which he bought for about $50,000.

“This was the discount from the house he bought from us,” she said.

She added that her husband had never bullied or oppressed the sergeant major.

“My husband was a very kind guy,” she said. “You can ask his subordinates.”

Richard C. Paddock has worked as a foreign correspondent in 50 countries on five continents with postings in Moscow, Jakarta, Singapore and Bangkok. He has spent nearly a dozen years reporting on Southeast Asia, which he has covered since 2016 as a contributor to The New York Times. @RCPaddock

Muktita Suhartono reports for The New York Times in Indonesia and Thailand. She joined The Times in 2018 and is based in Bangkok.

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