General Apirat Kongsompong, an arch-royalist more commonly prone to rants against pro-democracy figures, broke down in tears as he apologised during a televised press conference on behalf of the army to the victims of the shooting.
“As the commander of the army, I apologise and I am wholeheartedly sorry that the man behind the incident was a soldier," Gen. Apirat said.
“I extend my condolences to the relatives of the slain victims.”
The gunman, 32-year-old Sergeant-Major Jakrapanth Thomma, was shot dead by a commando unit on Sunday (Feb 9) morning, ending a 17-hour rampage that left 30 dead and 58 more wounded.
The Thai army has been at pains to portray him as a rogue soldier rather than a product of the army system.
Gen. Apirat said he would not stand down from his post in charge of an army which has seeped into all aspects of Thai life, from politics and business to conscription, with a mega-billion budget that has surged since the last coup in 2014.
“The army is a huge organisation comprising of hundreds of thousands staff... I cannot focus on every subordinate,” he said.
“"There are people who criticise the army, I urge them not to blame the army... because the army is a sacred organisation,” adding “blame me - General Apirat.”
Instead, he pledged to open a “special channel” to investigate all future complaints from junior officers about their superiors, blaming the attack on a debt dispute between the gunman and his commanding officer.
The gunman “did not receive justice from his commander and his relatives who promised him financial returns,” Gen. Apirat added, apparently from a commission over the sale of house.
Jakrapanth killed his commander and the commander’s mother-in-law first as he embarked on an around 17-hour shooting spree.
Serving army top brass sit on the boards of state-enterprises, while many declare assets in their millions of dollars despite their meagre soldier’s wages.
Army Chiefs routinely flip to become civilian prime ministers, often following coups, while barracks are accused of being hives of grey-zone businesses, such as real estate agencies and private security firms.
Senior officers often use conscripts as effective private butlers in taxpayer-funded grace and favour homes.
“I guarantee between February and April there will be many, from generals to colonels, who will be jobless,” Gen. Apirat said, also promising to throw out retired army officers from government housing.
Gen. Apirat himself is due to retire in September.
Thais have flooded social media with criticism of their leaders for a perceived lack of empathy in the aftermath of an unprecedented mass shooting.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha was forced into rare public contrition on Sunday after he smiled and high-fived a crowd as he visited Korat, the city where the shooting took place.
No member of the royal family has so far visited survivors although they did express condolences and extend their moral support to the families of victims (see story here).