Hope lives on as cave rescue crisis unfolds
Time is not on their side, and not on ours. To beat nature and to outrun time -- and what cruel nature and pitiless time -- we give it everything we have.
The rescue saga at Tham Luang Cave in Chiang Rai has attained the status of national operation, as it should, and for once the whole country has become one in hope and prayer, in thought and willpower. To save the lives of 12 boys and their football coach trapped for seven days in that nightmarish cave has become, in a way, a mission to save our soul -- a collective light at the end of the tunnel, a proof that hope is alive in the land where hopelessness often reigns.
As of Friday evening when I wrote this, the lost still hadn't been found, despite the non-stop efforts of rescue workers, volunteers, geologists, diggers, divers, cartographers, underground water specialists, elite soldiers, witch doctors, veteran spelunkers and the international coalition of cave experts. I hope this article becomes inaccurate, dead-wrong and outdated when Saturday comes. I hope they were while we were still asleep.
To risk a cliché, what has happened at the cave over the past week sums up the broad spectrum of 21st century Thailand -- the scientific Thailand, the supernatural Thailand, the dogged, indefatigable, never-say-never Thailand, and the unready, politicised, emotional Thailand.
The Thailand where academics rally to provide coordinated information of the cave system while Buddhists pray to sacred beings, Muslims organise special prayers, and spiritual mediums held seances to unblock the dark forces that might be holding the victims captive in the depth of the cavern. The Thailand where incense is burned next to a water pump, and offerings are made for the local Goddess Nang Non as the Seals team braves the muddy water. Nature is all-powerful, and the supernatural is an all-too-human need of convincing ourselves that we still have a say.
Then, reporters of varying stripes descended upon the cave entrance, performing their duty and feeding us hourly updates. In some cases, they also got in the way of the rescuers. Worse, the public's anxious anticipation for good news has fed into a sewer of exploitative, attention-seeking fake news agencies and wild rumours, and every day we keep seeing groundless reports that the boys have been found and saved -- only to be dismissed minutes later. Then the next day, the cycle repeats. Be careful that our hunger for news is turning delusional, and our desire for emotional satisfaction often overrides fact. It's not the first time this has happened, and it certainly won't be the last.
Then came the VIPs.
To start with, no one should ever doubt the sacrifice of the officers and staff working round the clock, but with all the bigwigs at the already crowded cave we're seeing the Thailand where every social phenomenon risks being turned into a spectacle, a festival, a stunt, and where politics, power play and public opinion is exploited. Our top police chiefs are there on the scene -- some of them have real work to do, others simply don't. Freshly becoming a meme-of-the-week character is deputy national police chief Srivara Ransibrahmanakul, who epitomised the finger-pointing boss when he was captured in a video reprimanding rescue staff for digging in the cave without a licence -- are you serious, sir, a licence?
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha himself visited the operation yesterday, and his spokesperson assured us that this wasn't a red-carpet distraction for those who're racing against time. At the cave interview, the PM said something about an election. Are you -- swear it on Goddess Nang Non -- absolutely serious, sir?
In all fairness, I won't question these VIPs' motives. They're worried and anxious, just like us, and they have the right to be. But as public figures with political status and huge entourages, it wouldn't hurt if they, too, weighed the benefit of their presence in a situation that's becoming more dire with every hour.
The arrival of these VIPs also points to something more fundamental: the lack of a national emergency management agency, not just for this cave incident, but for similar disasters that might happen. That our geography exempts us from the curses of fault lines and volcanic wrath doesn't mean we don't have to prepare for flash floods, mudslides, tsunamis or stranded tourists. Cobbling together help from charity and volunteerism is admirable but not sustainable. We rely on the superheroes and the supernatural, and yet we should realise that, unfortunate as these 13 victims are, such misfortune is natural, and the best way to deal with it is to be ready at all time.
We continue to send thoughts and prayers. Their hope is our hope. And hope, despite the odds, will prevail.
Kong Rithdee is Life Editor, Bangkok Post.
Bangkok Post columnist
Kong Rithdee is a Bangkok Post columnist. He has written about films for 18 years with the Bangkok Post and other publications, and is one of the most prominent writers on cinema in the region.