BANGKOK (AP) — The teenage boy who allegedly shot two people dead and wounded five others inside a major shopping mall in the center of Thailand’s capital used a blank-firing handgun that had been modified to fire real bullets, police said Wednesday.
The suspect was taken into custody less than an hour after the first gunshots Tuesday afternoon at the Siam Paragon Mall, one of Bangkok’s biggest and most upscale shopping destinations.
Video on social media showed a long-haired teenage boy in the custody of police. Major Thai media reported he was 14 years old and a student at a Bangkok private school. Recently appointed Police Chief Torsak Sukvimol said the suspect had a record of being treated for mental illness and gave an incoherent account of his actions to police after his arrest, claiming that voices told him what to do.
Police on Wednesday declined to provide more personal details about the boy, citing privacy laws and legal procedures covering children aged 15 years or younger accused of committing a crime.
But Police. Col Noppadon Tiammetha, head of Bangkok’s Pathumwan precinct station, told The Associated Press that the suspect has five charges lodged against him: premeditated murder, attempted murder, possession of a firearm without a permit, carrying a firearm in a public place without a permit, and shooting in public without a permit.
He identified the Chinese tourist who was killed as 34-year-old Jinnan Zhao, who was traveling with two children about 5 years old. Poh Teck Tung, a Thai-Chinese charity organization, said the children were twin girls and it is offering support to the family.
Assistant National Police Chief Samran Nualma said at a news conference Wednesday that the suspect “used a blank gun, a plastic gun, and adapted it to use real bullets.” He added that the authorities were looking into regulating such items.
Replica weapons are popular among military buffs in Thailand and can be freely purchased. Police in several nations have raised concerns about how such guns can be converted to use live ammunition, though experts differ over how difficult the process is. Licensing of real guns is restricted in Thailand and limited to people 20 years or older. The penalty for unlawful possession of a firearm is up to 10 years in prison and a fine of 20,000 baht ($538).
Tourism and Sports Minister Sudawan Wangsuppakitkosol, also at the news conference, spoke of the need to rebuild confidence.
“We will discuss with the National Police putting safety measures in malls and communities to prevent such incidents,” she said.
Thailand is relying on its once-robust tourism industry for a full economic recovery after the coronavirus pandemic. It is especially encouraging visitors from China, who before the pandemic were by far the largest national group. But Chinese social media have lately been filled with warnings about safety in Thailand because of some high-profile crimes and scam operations.
Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin, who on Wednesday gave a previously scheduled speech at a business event at the mall, said he had called the Chinese ambassador and apologized to him for the “unfortunate incident.”
Srettha said he offered reassurance that the Thai government is doing all it can to help, and the envoy in turn offered support and understanding and said the shooting would not affect ”the confidence of the Chinese government and Chinese tourists.”
Siam Paragon installed metal detectors at its entrances during political tensions several years ago, but recently they have been only casually monitored. Security guards were conducting hand searches of customers’ bags at entrances on Wednesday. Inside, workers were repairing the front of a luxury shop that was apparently damaged by the gunfire.
“If it’s not necessary, I wouldn’t come here today. I would avoid being here for now,” said Chanon Vongsanitkul, an 18-year-old Thai student. “The security system is not that good. It’s still very loose.”
Dean Liu, a 37-year-old tourist from China, appeared relaxed.
“I still have faith in Thailand. I believe in Thailand’s handling of the situation. So it doesn’t affect me much,” he said.
Israeli tourist Eyal Sheffer, 53, said he wasn’t concerned.
“Basically we are coming from Israel. For us, it’s something that is very usual so it’s not so threatening. It was yesterday evening and today we came,” he said. “We feel safe here. We trust the local police that will handle everything, and it’s quiet here.”
A Malaysian prince who was at a nearby luxury hotel with his family when the shooting occurred recounted people screaming and running out of the mall. Tunku Ismail Idris said he and his security team created a human shield to protect his terrified family as they fled to the Singapore Embassy nearby amid the chaos.
“I still have images of me telling my kids ‘everything is going to be okay’ … and telling them to lay low while waiting for the car,” he wrote on Facebook. “This is my worst ever experience, protecting my children from a killer. Two people died. May God bless their innocent souls.”
Gun violence is not uncommon in Thailand, though mass shootings are rare. There are about 10 guns per 100 people in Thailand, including those owned illegally, compared with less than one per 100 in neighboring Malaysia, according to GunPolicy.org, a project at Australia’s University of Sydney.
Tuesday’s shootings occurred days before Thais are to mark the anniversary of the country’s biggest mass killing by an individual, a gun and knife attack at a rural day care center in a northeastern province that killed 36 people, most of them preschoolers, on Oct. 6, 2022.
In 2020, a disgruntled soldier opened fire in and around a mall in the northeastern city of Nakhon Ratchasima, killing 29 people and holding off security forces for about 16 hours before eventually being killed by them.
Associated Press journalists Penny Yi Wang, Grant Peck, Tian Macleod Ji and Jintamas Saksornchai in Bangkok and Eileen Ng in Kuala Lumpur contributed reporting.