The burnt-out truck of the Nong Bua Lamphu mass shooter

Condemnation of the gruesome attack launched by a former policeman at a Nong Bua Lamphu childcare center was so strong that no temple in the community would cremate his body. The Isaan Record went to the site to talk to several people who could shed some light on the situation. Some said the mass shooter had been a good student who was admired by his community.

What happened to him? One of his neighbors said the shooter had complained about being discharged from the police force. However, it was unclear whether he was actually guilty of drug possession. The stress from the criminal proceedings, plus other troubles from his personal life, might have been triggers to one of Thailand’s greatest tragedies.

Photos and story by Achawit Inha

“He was a brave man, not afraid of anyone. He had been like that since he was a child. Growing up, he was a good student. He graduated with honors. After passing the police exam, he went to work in Bangkok before being transferred to Na Wang.”

Disgraced policeman Panya Kamrab was lauded for his sterling school performance by one of his relatives, speaking with the Isaan Record in a late afternoon, two days after he killed 36 people in a mass shooting at a childcare center in Nong Bua Lamphu province.

The sentiment was one of the few expressions of admiration for the killer, amid strong an onslaught of condemnations for his heinous act, so much so that none of the locals would allow a temple in the community to cremate his body.

“When he was studying in Na Klang, he was a bright student. He was good at studying. If you asked teachers at Kham Saen Witthayasan School, you would hear he was one of their better students,” says a relative [whose name we have withheld for their own safety – the Editor].

Toys and flower bouquets laid in mourning in front of the Uthai Sawan Child Development Center, Nong Bua Lamphu, the site of the mass shooting

Exemplary student

Aside from his good school performance that set an example for the community and made his family proud, he also spent a lot of his time during his teens on recreational activities such as music.

“In class, he was known to be a good example. In the evening, he would play the guitar and sing. He didn’t drink, smoke, or do drugs. Many of his classmates got great jobs as police, lawyers, and teachers. He was one of those, too,” recalls another relative.

A turning point

“A turning point for him might have been when he was transferred to Na Wang. His life started to encounter trouble,” this relative says.

After breaking up with a girlfriend who he had been seeing while working in Bangkok, Panya moved closer to home and found a new love. They had been together for over two years. His wife was a widow with a child, and used to work in a karaoke bar in Nong Bua Lamphu.

“When he tried to start over, he got into trouble in his career. He was fired, and people talked behind his back, critical of his background of his wife. So he had a lot on his mind,” she says.

She says that being unemployed and married to a woman whose past was deemed unacceptable in a typical countryside community made all the ridicule fall upon his 4-year-old son, who used to go to the Uthai Sawan Child Development Center — the mass shooting site.

“At the childcare center, the kids made fun of him,” this relative says. Panya had told her that “he wanted to move his son to another place because when the boy came home [from school],” the child told his father “that his friends made fun of him” and that Panya “wasn’t his real father. So, he hadn’t wanted to let his son go there since a month ago.”

But she said she had tried to dissuade Panya. She told him that when the new school term started, he should just let the boy go there as usual. But Panya still insisted that wanted to transfer his son away.

“Why are people like this?” this relative said Panya had asked her just five days before the tragedy struck. “If they have anything against me, just take it out on me. Why do they have to involve my child and my wife?” she recalls Panya saying.

She says that although the boy wasn’t of his own blood, Panya loved him and took good care of him. He taught the boy to be humble.

“He wouldn’t let his son spend so much time on the phone and social media. He loved him very much,” his relative says.

She thinks that it might have been resentment from being ridiculed and stress from losing his job that had psychologically undermined Panya.

Following the mass killing of small children at the childcare center, Panya returned to his home and killed six of his neighbors. He killed three from his car; another three were killed at their homes, all 300-400 meters away from his house, where he lived with his wife and child.

The surviving neighbor 

Sompong Rattanee, another neighbor who sells water, was spared.

“I saw him shoot a neighbor in the front yard, and drag the body to the house’s parking space. He then looked at me, but he didn’t do anything,” Sompong says.

“When it was happening, I didn’t know why he was doing it. From what I saw, he shot everyone obstructing him. It was just me. He looked into the eyes for a moment, but he didn’t pull the trigger,” he says softly.

According to Sompong, Panya was usually quiet and reserved, but also friendly and humble. Whenever he came to buy water from Sompong, they usually had an enjoyable conversation and joked around.

Sompong Rattanee, a neighbor of the Nong Bua Lamphu mass shooter.

Sompong was one of the few neighbors visited frequently by Panya.

“One day he told me about the charges against him. He said he was fired. He was accused of using amphetamines. The case was already before the court,” Sompong says.

Sompong says he asked Panya whether he really had drugs in his possession, or if he had been wrongfully accused. Panya, he says, stayed silent.

“I asked myself why he chose the childcare center that is a bit far away. But I think it might have been related to his drug case. I think there might be a reason for him to choose that place.”

Suwan Tonsomsen, a neighbor of the Nong Bua Lamphu mass shooter

Torching neighbor’s car

Besides killing his neighbors, the shooter also burned a car belonging to Suwan Tansomsen, another neighbor. Suwan had just bought the car three months ago.

“I never thought this would happen to me. I never thought something like this would happen in the neighborhood. The perpetrator didn’t socialize much and rarely talked to anyone. So not a lot of people knew him,” she says.

Burnt grass shows where a ceremony for the dead was performed near the home of victims of the Nong Bua Lamphu mass shooter.

Near the torched car, a ceremony for the passing of souls was performed for the victims so they could rest in peace. Burnt grass was seen near the crime scene.

“Do you see this burnt mark? I performed a ceremony for the dead here,” Suwan says, pointing to the street where it happened. Bloodstains remained there with ashes left from the ceremony.

Suwan’s car, burnt by the shooter.

A family traumatized

Suwan lives near the shooter’s home. While the shooting was happening, her family members, including small children, witnessed it, but fortunately they managed to take cover in time.

Although everyone in her family survived, they remain shaken, even traumatized. Suwan says every time she walks past the site where people were killed, or a forest, or just anywhere with a lot of trees, the sound of gunshots from that day still rings in her ears.

Read in Thai version here