UTHAI SAWAN, Thailand (AP) — Hundreds of mourners and victims’ families gathered Tuesday evening to watch flames burn from rows of makeshift pyres at cremation ceremonies for the young children and others who died in last week’s mass killings at a day care center in Thailand’s rural northeast.
Families bid their final goodbyes at a Buddhist temple a short distance from the Young Children’s Development Center in the town of Uthai Sawan, where a former policeman, who was fired from his job earlier this year for using drugs, barged in last Thursday and shot and stabbed children and their caregivers.
The police sergeant, Panya Kamrap, ended up killing 36 people, 24 of them children, in the small farming community before taking his own life. It was the biggest mass killing by an individual in Thailand’s history.
Joint ceremonies for most of the victims were held at three temples to spare families from having to wait long hours for successive cremations to be completed, said Phra Kru Adisal Kijjanuwat, the abbot of the Rat Samakee temple.
A ceremony for 19 of the dead, 18 of them children, was held at his temple. With a large crowd watching, monks slowly walked out of the temple hall, followed by grieving relatives. Each family was led by one monk, with police bearing the coffin behind them.
After the coffins were placed in each of the small, brick-enclosed funeral pyres, the victims’ relatives came forward in the darkening skies to put portraits of their loved ones on top. Some family members also placed children’s toys alongside.
A large mesh barrier was set up, separating onlookers from the relatives, monks and royal palace officials tasked with lighting the fires, who began putting paper flowers along the sides of the pyres and dousing them with gasoline. The officials then ushered the family members to take the portraits and toys away, and move several meters (yards) from the coffins where they knelt on mats.
Buddhist chants played from a speaker system set up behind the relatives, as the officials and monks began lighting the pyres one by one. The coffins were soon engulfed by flames, at times stoked by the officials adding more gasoline. The victims’ relatives sat silently by, hands clasped in prayer.
“Each one of them watched the cremation with their minds in a state of conscious awareness,” said the abbot. “The support they received from people all around has blessed them, lessened the sorrow they have.”
On Tuesday morning, many of the young victims’ bodies had been outfitted as doctors, soldiers or astronauts — what they wanted to be when they grew up — before their evening cremation.
“The more we talked (to the families), we realized that these children also had dreams of becoming doctors, soldiers, astronauts, or police officers,” said volunteer rescue worker Attarith Muangmangkang, whose organization arranged for the costumes.
Petchrung Sriphirom, 73, was one of many local residents who traveled to the temple to offer condolences to the families and make a small donation to help with funeral costs, which is a common Thai custom.
“I just want to help our friends and share our thoughts with them,” said Petchrung. “We are not talking about money or anything but rather sharing our thoughts and feelings as a fellow human being,”
The perpetrator’s body was cremated Saturday in a neighboring province after temples in Uthai Sawan refused to host his funeral, Thai media reported.
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 compared to only 0.3 in Singapore and 0.25 in Japan. 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 eventually being killed by them.