Heartbroken families prayed Saturday for the victims of a Thai nursery massacre as the king offered his support, telling relatives he “shares their grief” in a rare public interaction with his subjects.
King Maha Vajiralongkorn met survivors and relatives at a hospital in northeastern Nong Bua Lam Phu province late on Friday, a day after an ex-policeman murdered 24 children and 12 adults on a three-hour gun and knife rampage in a sleepy rural area.
Families and well-wishers offered prayers at a Buddhist temple on Saturday, beginning three days of funeral rituals for the victims of one of the country’s worst ever mass killings.
Incense mingled with the smell of countless bouquets of flowers arrayed around the coffins, many topped with photos of the smiling chubby faces of children cut down by sacked police sergeant Panya Khamrab.
Flowers and toys offered as gifts to the departed youngsters piled up at the gates of the nursery as the close-knit community in rural Na Klang district struggled to comprehend the atrocity.
“I have son myself and he likes to play with toy cars, so I thought the children killed in the attack would love it as well — they were about the same age as my son,” Weerapol Sonjai, 38, told AFP after leaving an offering.
– Rare royal visit –
As the king offered his help and condolences during his hospital visit, grieving families knelt on the floor — as is Thai custom in the presence of the monarch, who is seen as semi-divine.
“I come here to give you support. I am extremely sad for what has happened. I share your sorrow, your grief,” he said in video footage published online on Saturday.
“There are no words that can express the sorrow. I support you all and wish you to be strong, so the spirits of the children can be at ease.”
The king, with Queen Suthida at his side, said he would pray for the dead.
“We have to do our best, the best that we can,” he said.
The royal visit came after a day of grief at the small yellow-walled nursery on the edge of a village some 500 kilometres (300 miles) north of Bangkok.
Weeping parents placed white roses one by one on steps of the nursery where their young children’s lives were cut short.
Duenphen Srinamburi, the grandmother of one of the victims, described the horror of the attack.
“The children were sleeping. He didn’t use a gun, only a knife,” she told AFP.
“My grandson’s face was slashed from here to here,” she added, gesturing diagonally across her face.
“His face was all mangled.”
The attack has stunned Thailand and caused horror around the world. On Saturday the Thai community in Melbourne, Australia, held a candlelit vigil to mourn the victims.
– Inconsolable families –
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha joined mourners on Friday, laying flowers and handing out compensation cheques to grieving families.
Some, struggling to comprehend the atrocity, wept inconsolably, clutching their children’s favourite toys or blankets — and in one case a half-full bottle of milk.
The dead include pregnant teacher Supaporn Pramongmuk, whose husband posted a poignant tribute on Facebook.
“I would like to say thank you for all the support for me and my family. My wife has fulfilled her every duty as a teacher,” Seksan Srirach wrote.
“Please be a teacher in heaven, and my child please take care of your mother in heaven.”
The attacker forced his way into the childcare centre at about 12:30 pm (0530 GMT) on Thursday to begin his murderous spree, opening fire with his own legally owned 9mm pistol and slashing with a knife.
Afterwards the 34-year-old went home to murder his wife and son before taking his own life, police said, ending the rampage at about 3 pm.
In total, he killed 24 children — 21 boys and three girls — and 12 adults. Most died from a combination of knife wounds and gunshots, according to police investigators.
PM Prayut has ordered a swift probe into the massacre, and police said they will question 180 witnesses.
Senior officers have said Panya was sacked from the police for drug abuse, while several people in the close-knit community have told AFP he was known in the area as a methamphetamine addict.