Narongsak Osotthanakorn, the former Chiang Rai governor who won worldwide praise for his leadership of the mission to rescue the “Wild Boars” football team from the Tham Luang cave in 2018, has died of cancer at the age of 58.
Narongsakak, who served most recently as governor of Pathum Thani, passed away peacefully at 5.40pm on Wednesday at Siriraj Hospital in Bangkok, where he was being treated.
A career civil servant, Narongsak was known for a scrupulous and no-nonsense approach that sometimes got him in trouble with his bosses at the Interior Ministry. In his 15 months as governor of Chiang Rai, he refused to sign off on some controversial projects billed as economic stimulus as he suspected irregularities.
A transfer from Chiang Rai to Phayao — believed by many to be a demotion — was already in the works when fate intervened, in the form of a boys’ football team that had become trapped in a flooded cave on June 23, 2018.
As the rescue effort got under way and began to attract experts from many countries — along with hordes of reporters — it became clear that a steady hand would be needed to coordinate all the moving parts. Narongsak rose to the occasion, and the Interior Ministry agreed to delay his transfer until the mission to bring the 13 people out of the cave was complete.
At the launch of the rescue mission, Narongsak declared that any officials who felt daunted by the tough rescue task ahead could go home.
“Anyone who cannot make enough sacrifices can go home and stay with their families,” he said. “You can sign out and leave straight away. I will not report any of you. For those who want to work, you must be ready any second. Just think of them as our own children.”
Reflecting a year later on the success of the mission, Narongsak proposed that an anniversary event should be held each year to keep the memory alive.
“I wish to see an anniversary every year at Tham Luang Cave to remember what we achieved. I want to remember the 18 days in which everyone displayed the power of cooperation,” he said.
When the Asia Society decided to give its Asia Game Changer Award to “The Rescue Team at the Tham Luang Caves”, it invited Narongsak to New York to accept it.
He said he hoped the rescue would lead to more people doing good deeds in the future.
“The mission (was conducted without regard) for race or nationality, and it united humanity as a whole,” he told his audience. “With over 10,000 people involved, even if one function was missing, we would not have been able to do it.
“I wish the entire incident would inspire everyone to start living for others. This small change could be a game changer for the world.”
More recently, Narongsak was being courted to consider a bigger stage after successful stints as a governor in Phayao, Lampang and Pathum Thani. The ruling Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP) was reported to have expressed interest in making him its candidate in the Bangkok governor election. He politely declined.
“I’d rather take care of folks in the provinces,” he said.
Narongsak is the second person associated with the Wild Boars drama to pass away recently. Duangphet “Dom” Phromthep, 17, the captain of the football team, died in at the Brooke House College Football Academy in Leicester, England.
Chiang Rai governor Narongsak Osotthanakorn prepares to enter a press briefing on the mission to rescue the boys trapped in the Tham Luang cave on July 3, 2018. (Photo: Wichan Charoenkiatpakul)