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Buddhist monk recalls Thai soldier's rampage at temple

NAKHON RATCHASIMA – A rogue soldier whose rampage left 29 people dead and dozens more injured in northeastern Thailand terrorized a Buddhist temple on his way to a shopping mall where he held people hostage in a nearly 16-hour siege.

The peaceful seclusion of the Wat Pa Sattharuam forest monastery was shattered Saturday when the soldier from a nearby army base, Sgt. Maj. Jakrapanth Thomma, 31, roared through in a stolen military jeep, fatally shooting nine people.

At the temple complex Tuesday, yellow police tape cordoned off the road to the back gate with dozens of red circles marking where bullet casings were found.

The temple complex had opened its back gate to devotees for Makha Bucha day, a holiday in the Theravada Buddhist tradition that honors Buddha ordaining some of his early followers.

Before Jakrapanth arrived at the temple, he had already fatally shot his commanding officer and the officer's mother-in-law, apparently over a land dispute, and killed a soldier and wounded two other guards to steal weapons from the Surathampithak military camp where he was stationed.

When Phra Manaswin, a 24-year-old monk, saw the military jeep drive past him and heard shots, he initially didn’t think anything was amiss. As elsewhere in predominantly Buddhist Thailand, the monks and soldiers have lived peaceably as neighbors for decades. When the complex gates were open, soldiers, like other local residents, often drove through, taking advantage of the shortcut.

“I thought, ‘why would a soldier do target practice inside a temple?’” Manaswin said, not thinking much of it and turning back to his work sweeping the grounds of dead leaves.

But Manaswin then saw the soldier park his jeep behind a small group of trees, load his weapons and aim at any vehicle that entered the complex through the back gate. Jakrapanth’s victims at the temple included Rachanon Kanchanamethi, a 13-year-old boy riding a motorbike home.

Manaswin said the soldier shot at a woman and a child in a sedan, and an SUV full of people, all of whom were killed except for the front-seat passenger, who was shielded by the driver’s slumped body. Jakrapanth’s reign of terror lasted 10 minutes, Manaswin said.

Another monk taking a video of the shootings called police.

The operator said they were aware of a confrontation between a soldier and police.

“Yes, the soldier is here! He’s inside the temple!” the monk replied.

Samrit Kuimeunwai, an 85-year-old nun, said she was with her dogs at her concrete hut, built 30 years ago by soldiers from the nearby base, when she heard the clattering of bullets on her zinc roof. She said Buddhist teachings helped her to remain calm.

“When he started firing, I was shocked at first but then I became conscious. After that, I started to pray extending love and kindness. Then I meditated,” she said.

Samrit scrambled to safety at another nun’s hut.

When police arrived, Jakrapanth met them with heavy fire. Manaswin ran to inform another monk to clear the prayer pavilion where devotees were meditating near the front gate, the direction the gunman was heading.

Preecha Kitsanoh, a police volunteer who responded to the shooting, knelt before Manaswin in the meditation pavilion on Monday night, thanking him for the warning that saved his life.

Kisanoh ran behind the front gate's concrete pillar as Jakrapanth tore through in his jeep, shooting all the way.

“I feel like I died and have been reborn,” he said in tears.

Police Sgt. Maj. Peerasak Witthakanok said he rushed to the scene to discover that the gunman had fled, leaving a trail of bodies on the road.

Jakrapanth’s rampage ended early Sunday at Terminal 21 Korat, a seven-story shopping mall in Nakhon Ratchasima city, when special forces fatally shot him. Buddhist monks, who have joined daily vigils since the shootings, will lead a prayer ceremony when the mall reopens Thursday.

Manaswin, the monk, isn’t convinced that the temple complex is now secure.

“It’s really easy for this kind of situation to happen,” he said. “We cannot tell whether it’s a normal person or a criminal, we cannot judge from the exterior nowadays whether this is really an officer or civil servant or soldier. I am afraid but I’m mindful. But if we are careless, we might face this again.”