October 4, 2023
BANGKOK – For over an hour, Mr Tai Huang crouched in the dark behind the furniture in a cafe in Bangkok’s Siam Paragon shopping mall.
As gunshots punctured the air, he and about a dozen or so patrons hid in terror, not daring to make a move or a sound.
“All of us were afraid,” said Mr Tai, 39, a tutor. He added that the cafe staff had closed the doors and turned off the lights, but one could still see through the glass panels of the shop.
“We must have hidden for an hour or so, but honestly I lost track of time,” the Thai national told The Straits Times.
As a lone gunman opened fire in one of Bangkok’s busiest luxury shopping malls on Tuesday, hundreds ducked for cover throughout the nine-storey complex, while others fled through its multiple exits.
Opening fire at around 4pm, the suspected assailant, a 14-year-old boy, killed two people – one Chinese and one Myanmar national – and injured five others, said the authorities shortly after apprehending him at the Siam Kempinski hotel, adjacent to Siam Paragon.
The shooting that took place along Bangkok’s main shopping belt came as the country had been rolling out measures to boost its sluggish economic recovery.
These included stimulus measures to increase tourism through visa waivers for some nationalities, including travellers from China, which has just begun its annual Golden Week holiday.
Tuesday’s shooting also elicited widespread panic on social media. Videos and posts about the incident, showing crowds running and the sound of gunshots, started circulating online, and as police cordoned off the entrances and exits to the mall.
The Siam BTS Skytrain station was also closed, but people were still able to move freely on the sheltered pedestrian sky walk opposite the mall.
A Filipino tourist who gave her name as Clarissa, was at the train station, which is elevated and connected to Siam Paragon, when she saw a crowd running out of the mall’s main entrance.
“They were shouting that there was one man shooting at people inside,” she said. Shocked, she tried to return to her hotel but said the roadblocks made it difficult.
When The Straits Times arrived on the scene at around 4.45pm, amid pouring rain, police outside the mall were directing people, including families with children, out of the mall. Traffic on the main stretch of road was gridlocked.
Police and emergency vehicles were parked outside the mall. With its siren and lights blaring, one ambulance pulled out of the mall lobby into congested traffic, with medical personnel inside the vehicle seen doing chest compressions on someone inside.
An off-duty police man who declined to be named helped to usher people along the sky walk, shouting for the crowds, many of them tourists, to drop into a defensive crouch as the shooting was ongoing across the street.
“Move back, move back! It’s dangerous!” he shouted repeatedly in English.
Inside Siam Paragon, Mr Santhosh, 20, a cook at one of the restaurants on the fourth floor, said he and his colleagues heard loud sounds and thought that a fight had broken out.
“But our manager shouted at us to crouch down and hide,” said Mr Santhosh, a Myanmar national whose name has only one word. “There must have been about 20 shots fired.”
He evacuated the shopping mall by going down the emergency stairwell and out the carpark.
Even when reports about the shooter’s arrest started trickling in via social media at around 5pm, Mr Tai said he and others waited for about 20 minutes to make sure the coast was clear before leaving the mall.
“We weren’t sure if it was safe yet, but eventually we decided to leave,” he said.
At about 5.45pm, those who had taken cover inside the mall, including staff, shoppers and tourists, were finally seen leaving it.
Tuesday’s incident also came just days before the one-year anniversary of one of Thailand’s most shocking and deadliest shooting incidents in recent times, and was a reminder of the prevalence of gun crime across the country.
Gun ownership laws are strict in Thailand, but it is not uncommon for people to still possess unlicensed firearms.
At least two major mass shootings have occurred in the last three years.
On Oct 6 last year, a former police officer, armed with a gun and knife, stormed a nursery in Nong Bua Lamphu province in the north-east of the country, killing 38 people – 22 of them children.
It was the deadliest mass shooting since a 2020 rampage, when a soldier gunned down 29 people and injured more than 50 others in a 17-hour period in Nakhon Ratchasima, another north-eastern province.
In 2019, there were 31,419 gun-related crimes, according to the Royal Thai Police. Of these, the bulk of them of around 24,000 or 76 per cent, involved unregistered firearms, reported The Nation newspaper.