What the rescue of the trapped boys means
text size

What the rescue of the trapped boys means

The magnetic appeal of the rescue of the 13 shows a coming together in an increasingly contentious world, but it is ultimately a one-off even though we would like to believe otherwise.
The magnetic appeal of the rescue of the 13 shows a coming together in an increasingly contentious world, but it is ultimately a one-off even though we would like to believe otherwise.

Global news cycles over the past two weeks have been saturated by Thailand's gripping story of 12 boys from a local youth football team and their 25-year-old coach trapped in a labyrinthine and partially submerged cave complex in the Chiang Rai hills in the north of the country. Even after their successful rescue, the story continues.

Attention to the plight of the boys and their coach, Ekapol Chanthawong, how it could have happened, and what could and should have been done about it, has turned into how it all ended up so smoothly and happily.

The tale of the 13 is so magnetic because it is a rare coming together of an increasingly fragmented and contentious world, a united effort in Thailand's polarised society and yet "un-Thai" in many ways, and ultimately a "one-off" even though we would like to believe otherwise.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak teaches International Relations and directs the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University.

First, at its base, this was a common story of humans and nature -- with a twist. It was not about humans beating nature but about not letting nature get the better of humankind. It was also about an unlikely triumph over what looked for a time like a probable tragedy.

Stories abound of the human spirit and humanity, of humans helping each other out against the odds installed and imposed by nature. Humans have survived seeming eternity on deserted islands and the high seas, deep inside pristine forests with nowhere to flee, on forbidden mountaintops scraping the sky. What sets the boys' ordeal apart is their youth and innocence. Had it been 13 adults lost so far inside a dark cave full of deep ponds after nine days, they may well have been beset with bickering and infighting, disunity and utter despair.

But somehow these boys -- no doubt guided by their coach -- survived for nine straight days with collective calm and composure, without food and any hint of help. The mind games, group dynamics and physical toll that took place were kept under control while their camaraderie and mutual belief and faith in each other and in the elements beyond them somehow prevailed. This was the most incredible chapter and scene of what surely will become the stuff of books and Tinseltown. That they had the presence of mind to greet British rescuers when found just added a glow to their unlikely triumph. The tragic death of Petty Officer 1st Class Saman Gunan (retired), a former member of the Thai navy's elite all-weather, cross-terrain special forces, known as the Seals, has made him a martyr to the cause.

Through these boys, we have seen something good about humanity, especially and sometimes only through the young and innocents. For them, humankind closed ranks. Moral support and active assistance came from the world over. We kept up with their story because it was about us, about our common lot as humanity. Overcoming their ordeal validates our very own existence. Now we are reassured and reminded once again that no matter how ugly and brutish the world around us gets, there is still and always will be something good left worth saving.

Thai Navy Seals earlier this week released a video clip on Facebook, dubbed 'The operation the world never forgets', showing how the extraction of the 12 boys and their football coach from Tham Luang cave was successfully achieved. (Screen cap from the video)

Second, the international cooperation and multinational expertise and effort brought to bear were as spontaneous as uncommon. Within hours, seasoned cave divers descended on Chiang Rai's Mae Sai district, towards Tham Luang cave's entrance, from the United Kingdom, Australia, the United States and China, among other nationalities. They assembled, gathered data and mapped out plans in a coordinated fashion. The mission to save the 13 became larger than the multinational rescue crew themselves. The Thai Seal teams provided the legwork and manpower to set up supply lines and the escape route but did not take charge directly. The multinational team of divers, who communicated through the language of their equipment and technical expertise, not just English, was operationally in charge.

Third, this mission was smooth and successful partly because it was sort of un-Thai. The patented Thai way is makeshift and ad hoc, poor at planning but capable and resourceful at fixing and repairing when things go wrong. Thais are innately tacticians, not strategists. Normally, in a predicament of this gravity and scale, there would have been degrees of disunity and disorganisation. Different senior officials typically would have said different things to different people. Conflicting media leaks would have been the norm. Confusion and convolution should have been expected.

However, the command and control was exemplary. Narongsak Osotthanakorn, the well-suited Chiang Rai governor, was in charge of communication, and the multinational expert divers stayed in the background. Clearing the media from the cave site was as smart as it was unusual. Controlling the news flow enabled the authorities and divers to focus on the task at hand, avoiding unnecessary confusion and controversy. That the method for transporting the boys out of the cave complex by medical sedation was kept confidential to the very end was crucial. Again, keeping this kind of information from the media increased the chance of success.

Fourth, Thailand's military government should be faulted for many infractions and shortcomings in making the country go backwards in time but with the cave rescue it deserves credit for taking a hands-off approach, decentralising and delegating authority to local officials on the scene. The military government could easily have cited patriotism and nationalism to marginalise foreign experts and taken charge itself. But in this case, it knew cave diving and rescue were not its forte and so it took a back seat in favour of foreign experts.

In addition, other factors included country appeal given that global audiences could relate to Thailand and its people. Many have visited the country, as attested to by rising tourist numbers. Popular culture from food and boxing to famous beaches allowed virtual access to the outside world. If this had happened in a country less familiar to outside viewers, then the magnetism and fixation would have been less. Global attention also grew with the exponential social media coverage where one tweet could replicate into thousands.

Finally, it is tempting to think of this happy ending as a potential catalyst for Thailand's broader reconciliation or for a public-relations gain for the government. Such hope is misplaced. As soon as normalcy returns, all things will revert to the norm.

There could actually be worse to come as commercialisation of the cave boys and their coach will eventually kick in. The feel-good effects could later turn into disappointment and disillusion. How Thai society and authorities handle the post-rescue aftermath to safeguard and ensure the 13 are not exploited for their harrowing experience will show this country's true character.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak

Senior fellow of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University

A professor and senior fellow of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, he earned a PhD from the London School of Economics with a top dissertation prize in 2002. Recognised for excellence in opinion writing from Society of Publishers in Asia, his views and articles have been published widely by local and international media.

Do you like the content of this article?