By TASSANEE VEJPONGSA and DAVID RISING
UTHAI SAWAN, Thailand — Grief-stricken families prayed Saturday morning at a Buddhist temple filled with children’s keepsakes, flowers and photos of the smiling toddlers who were slain as they napped on blankets at a day care center in northeastern Thailand.
Coffins containing the 36 killed, 24 of them children and most of them preschoolers, were released Friday and placed inside Wat Rat Samakee and two other temples in the town nestled among rice paddies in one of Thailand’s poorest regions.
Several mourners stayed at Wat Rat Samakee overnight in the tradition of keeping company for those who died young.
“All the 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 among those staying the night at the temple. “It is a tradition that we keep company with our young ones. It is our belief that we should be with them so they are not lonely.”
The massacre left no one untouched in the small town, but community officials found helping others was helping assuage their own grief, at least momentarily.
“At first, all of us felt so terrible and couldn’t accept this. All the officials feel sad with the people here. But we have to look after everyone, all these 30 victims. We are running around and taking care of the people, giving them moral support,” Somneuk Thongthalai, a local district official, said.
A mourning ceremony will continue for three days before the royal-sponsored funerals, which will culminate in the cremation of the bodies according to Buddhist tradition.
No clear motive may ever be known for Thailand’s deadliest mass killing after the perpetrator left the day care center Thursday and killed his wife and son at home before taking his own life.
Late Friday, King Maha Vajiralongkorn and Queen Suthida visited hospitals where seven people wounded in the attack are being treated. The monarch met with family members of the victims in what he said was a bid to boost morale.
“It is a tragedy that this evil thing has happened,” the king told reporters in a rare public appearance. “But right now, we have to think of what we can do to improve things to the best of our ability.”
Outside the Young Children’s Development Center in Uthai Sawan, bouquets of white roses and carnations lined an outside wall, along with five tiny juice boxes, bags of corn chips and a stuffed animal.
At Wat Rat Samakee, mourners and those trying to lend them support crowded the grounds.
“It was just too much. I can’t accept this,” said Oy Yodkhao, 51, sitting Friday on a bamboo mat in the oppressive heat as relatives gave her water and gently mopped her brow.
Her 4-year-old grandson Tawatchai Sriphu was killed, and she said she worried for the child’s siblings. The family of rice farmers is close, with three generations living under one roof.
Police identified the attacker as Panya Kamrap, 34, a former police sergeant fired earlier this year because of a drug charge involving methamphetamine. An employee at the day care told Thai media Panya’s son had attended but hadn’t been there for about a month.
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 weapons per 100 people. That’s still far lower than the U.S. rate of 120.5 per 100 people, according to a 2017 survey by Australia’s GunPolicy.org nonprofit organization.
Thailand’s previous worst mass killing involved a disgruntled soldier who opened fire in and around a mall in the northeastern city of Nakhon Ratchasima in 2020, killing 29 people and holding off security forces for some 16 hours before being killed by them.
The previously worst attack on civilians was a 2015 bombing at a shrine in Bangkok that killed 20 people. It was allegedly carried out by human traffickers in retaliation for a crackdown on their network.