A year after Thai day care centre massacre, a family copes with their grief


Tawee Lasopha holds a portrait of his daughter Maliwan Lasopha who was killed in a knife and gun attack at The Young Children's Development Center. - AP

UTHAI SAWAN, Thailand (AP): In a simply built concrete house a few meters (yards) off a dirt road in the rural town of Uthai Sawan in northeastern Thailand, Tawee Lasopha wakes up before sunrise to catch fish from his pond, then moves onto household chores with his wife, cooking breakfast and preparing his grandchildren for school.

Under the blazing morning sun, he walks his two young grandsons out to the main road to wait for their school van before going about his day, picking vegetables and weeding.

It’s an idyllic scene, and not so rare for the Thai countryside. But a dark cloud hangs over Tawee and his village. His family is forever scarred by the sudden loss of the boys’ mother, who died last year in Thailand’s deadliest mass killing, in which 36 people were killed, including 24 toddlers.

Although the shock was felt all over Thailand, highlighting gun control issues, memories of the tragedy had largely faded outside the village until this past Tuesday, when a 14-year-old boy with a handgun shot dead two people and wounded five others at an upscale mall in the country’s capital, Bangkok.

"These kinds of incidents seem to happen more as days go by. If the law is stronger, it might help reduce them, but if we continue as we are now, that won’t happen. Things will remain the same,” Tawee said this week in an interview at his home.

Thailand has one of the highest rates of gun deaths in Asia, 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 neighbouring Malaysia, according to GunPolicy.org, a project at Australia’s University of Sydney.

On Friday (Oct 6), Tawee marks the first anniversary of the death of his daughter, Maliwan Lasopha. She was one of the two teaching staff among the three dozen people killed by a former police officer who carried out a grisly gun and knife attack at the local day care center in Nong Bua Lamphu province, which is in one of Thailand’s poorest regions.

"I lost hope. I don’t know how much longer I can go on like this,” Tawee said softly as he sat on his home’s porch, which he fashioned himself. He repeatedly turned with sad eyes to cast a glance at a framed portrait of Maliwan, his youngest child, who died at the age of 34.

Tawee, now 59 and unemployed, lives with his 58-year-old wife Mongkol Uppachai, trying to make ends meet to help support three grandchildren, two of whom are Maliwan’s offspring. Tawee said he continues to fish and farm vegetables on his land to sell, but most of the household income comes from Maliwan’s widower, who now works in the neighboring country of Laos and only comes back to visit a few times a year.

Tawee and Mongkol laugh and play cheerfully with their grandchildren, their voices lilting with joy around the kids, but betray sadness when speaking about the loss of their daughter. Tawee recalled that Maliwan, who was a strong personality not inclined to speaking in an overly sweet manner, was well loved by the children, their parents and her colleagues.

"These days, when I go out to see neighbours, they tell me to forget. How could I forget? I can’t forget it for the rest of my life,” he lamented. "This child... I can’t forget.”

His small town remains shaken in the aftermath of the gruesome mass killing, which also upended the relatively secure, if modest, existence Tawee’s family once had.

The former welder said his daughter always worked hard to help out the family, in which she was the only one with a regular income. Her prospects looked good, as she was about to get her state-certified degree in non-formal education before the attack occurred.

Although several government agencies provided compensation to Tawee’s family after Maliwan’s death, her parents said their future remains unsettled as the money is not enough to cover their debts and the grandchildren’s education.

Kingsag Poolgasem, the village chief of Ban Tha Uthai Nuea, where Tawee’s family lives, said residents who were affected have received both monetary aid and mental health care, and their lives have started to slowly return to normal. He noted, however, that it would take years for people to truly heal.

"Our people started to get better, but if you ask me, on behalf of the administration that leads and governs all people in the village, I still think about it. I still worry. I don’t want anything bad to happen again,” he said.

He said security measures against another such outburst of violence have been implemented, such as checkpoints and patrols around the village.

The man who carried out the 2022 massacre was Panya Kamrap, a 34-year-old police officer fired a year earlier for drug use. His rampage began as he drove to the day care center, where he shot and stabbed staff and children. He then fled, continued running people over with his truck and shooting passersby as he headed home, where he killed his wife and child before taking his own life.

Two dozen of those killed were preschoolers who had been taking an afternoon nap, and photos taken by first responders showed their tiny bodies still lying on blankets. In some images, slashes to the victims’ faces and gunshot wounds in their heads could be seen.

The trigger for the attacker’s actions remains unknown, though it appears he was under pressure due to money and marital problems. He was due to appear in court on a drug charge the following day.

Tawee sadly recalled that he had not seen his daughter for about a week before her death because he had some temporary work away from home.

He said he collapsed twice that fateful day when he learned that Maliwan had been slain. She had been slashed and shot in the head, he explained, and he couldn’t bear seeing her body until the day she was cremated, five days afterward.

The site of the attack is now an empty building, although the local administration office in the same compound still functions. All signs and display boards that were in front of the center have been removed and its operations shifted to a school that sits a few kilometers (miles) away.

Fate granted Tawee’s family one lucky break. Maliwan’s youngest boy, who is now 3 years old, usually went to the child care centre with his mum if his grandparents were busy preparing fish for sale. On that day, however, Maliwan appeared to be in a rush and left home without taking her son, said Tawee.

"He was blessed. If he went that day, I wouldn’t be sitting here, if it were both of them,” he said. "It’s already so difficult that I lost one.”″

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