Gun Violence: When Sunantha Ratchawat was hit, her body went numb. It was dark inside the bar, popular with young Thais drinking and dancing and on this night, it was crowded.
Sunantha, who goes by the name of Pam, was in her early 20s and on a casual night out in 2006 with friends on Khao San Road, a rowdy nightlife district in Bangkok.
It was a normal place for her to hang out, and when an altercation broke out near her inside the bar, she initially did not pay much attention.
But when gunfire ripped through the bar, her life changed.
“I heard that someone shot a gun,” Pam said. “My friend was so scared and we tried to sit down and make ourselves as safe as much as we could.
“But unfortunately, the one that was shot and ran away from the bad guy came to us and fell down on us and the bad guy tried to kill him. But it was me and my friend that were shot.”
“The second I got shot, I didn’t know myself because it was very hectic, very loud: Bang bang bang bang, I didn’t know,” she said.
“First, I felt numbness on my under arm first and then I saw my blood on my arms and then I felt hurt, very hurt, and at that second I realised I’d been shot.”
Bleeding profusely, she was admitted to a nearby hospital and stayed in an intensive care unit for seven days. She did not know it at the time, but she had been shot twice; another bullet was still lodged inside her.
Her friend Not had been shot in the stomach, while another victim, someone Pam had never met, was dead.
‘GUNS MAKE PEOPLE EQUAL’
Thailand is known widely as the land of smiles. But within the fabric of its society is an underlying pattern of firearm use.
Studies show that Thailand has a higher rate of gun-related killings per capita than the United States, a country where deadly shootings dominate news headlines and the political agenda. Thailand is second only behind the Philippines within the region.
There are millions of powerful weapons across the country and many of them are illegal and unregistered.
In 2016, there were more than 3,000 homicides by a firearm in the country – a rate of 4.45 deaths per 100,000 people, according to research by the University of Washington.
Thailand’s rate is nearly eight times that of neighbouring Malaysia and when deaths from armed conflict are removed, it is even greater than one of the world’s most dangerous countries, Iraq.
Most of the homicides in Thailand are put down to criminal elements, gang activity or conflicts related to a loss of face or personal grievances. There is not the spate of mass shootings that occur so often in the US.
“Sometimes we get in a conflict and guns seem to be the answer. Guns make people equal,” said Pol Col Naras Savestanan, the director general of the country’s Department of Corrections.
Yet despite the high rates of violence, Thai authorities still do not have a clear picture of exactly how many guns are out there on the streets.
A MURKY PICTURE
The man tasked with compiling national data admits that it is incomplete and messy. All of the records throughout the country since gun ownership laws were introduced in 1947 have only ever been recorded manually by hand.
“Not only that, all the records are scattered among the districts and the provincial offices. There are errors. We had five to six million licenses, and now we’re trying to put them into a computer,” said Chamnanwit Terat, the deputy director-general of the Department of Provincial Administration.
“We found that there are duplications, or one license that belongs to multiple weapons and therefore we have to go through those errors one case at a time.”
The department is attempting to create a central, online database for national gun records in an attempt to make the country more accountable for its weapons.
Chamnanwit believes self-defence is a justifiable reason for “mature” citizens to own firearms, especially when, he admits, they “can’t always rely on the state’s protection”. However, he wants licensing laws tightened to allow for reviews of a person’s suitability to possess a gun.
“Personally, I think those who possess or use firearms should have their license renewed once in a while. But as of now, once you get the permission to get your gun, you can keep it for life. You might be well behaved this year, but what about next year? What if you get sent to jail?”
More than 30,000 people are held in Thailand’s jail system for gun-related offences. Some of the most common are for lesser crimes like possessing an illegal weapon, or making guns; the homemade trade is known to be rife across the country, particularly by organised crime groups.
Earlier this year, an initiative was launched to give gun offenders three weeks of specialist weapon-making training – overseen by the government and the Royal Thai Army, with the aim of reducing the rates of released inmates re-offending.
“One of the biggest problems in Thailand is recidivism. One of the alternatives to the problem is finding them a job or employment,” Pol Col Naras Savestanan said.
The Department of Corrections handpicks the “geniuses” of homemade weapon making to get a better impression of how criminal groups are operating, and in the process hope to turn them into patriotic citizens.
“Some of those people make the gun themselves. They are a kind of naughty boy making the gun and trying to do something with it. So they will gain the knowledge, skills and experience of how the army works, how we develop our own weapons and on the other hand, the army, the government will gain some new ideas from them,” he said.
And while the law is tough on gun offenders, resulting in mass incarcerations, Pol Col Naras makes no apologies for the hardline stance.
“It’s better than having a high murder rate. Actually, we do have a high murder rate but at least to have a strict gun law might help to reduce that figure.