Thailand has done a fantastic job in rescuing the “Wild Boars” — 12 young soccer players and their coach, who were trapped deep in a cave in Northern Thailand.
It was amazing to see how Thai authorities moved quickly to mobilize army, navy and air force personnel, government officials and volunteers to help find the missing children.
When the forces assembled at the cave, the coordination, teamwork and spirit were impressive and the international community watched breathlessly to see how the Thais would organize and begin the rescue operation while maintaining their customary smiles and resilience.
In effect, we were enthralled by two simultaneous contests – one was the World Cup and the other the race against time to save the lives of the young soccer players. In the end, even FIFA could not ignore the drama and has invited the kids to the World Cup Final. To get assistance from abroad, the Thais opened their doors to foreign experts and renowned cave divers to come and join a squad of Thai Navy Seals.
Over 1,000 troops and doctors and nurses and volunteers quickly set up camp at the cave and helicopters flew in from nearby to rush the rescued boys to the hospital in Chiang Rai.
Closely watching the rescue operation from next door, Myanmar citizens could only wonder what would have been the fate of the kids if a similar emergency had happened in our country?
The contribution from Myanmar was unusual as the popular Shan monk known as Maing Hpone Sayadaw visited the Tham Luang cave complex three times to hold religious rites.
The day after his second visit, the rain that had been pouring down in the area for days stopped and the missing group was located. Many Thais believe the monk’s intervention prompted the hiatus in the rain. But it was the divers and Navy Seals who did the dangerous job of rescuing the boys.
Aside from the Shan monk, we discovered that the wonderful 25-year-old-coach Ekkapol Chanthawong, better known by his nickname “Ake,” is from Shan State. He has been credited with keeping the boys alive while the cave ordeal riveted the world.
In the dark and surrounded by floodwaters, Ake told the boys not to move around too much to conserve energy, and taught them meditation techniques to keep them calm. Ake spent most of the past decade as a monk in a Buddhist monastery. He then left the monastery to care for his ailing grandmother in Mae Sai, northern Thailand, and was later hired by the Wild Boars football team’s head coach to train the boys in daily practice sessions. In Mae Sai–Tachilek, many children live such cross-border lives with some ending up studying in Thai schools. Of course, some of the children leave Myanmar due to the poverty and ongoing armed conflict.
This includes the ambitious but gentle 14-year-old Wa student Adun Sam-on, a.k.a Aik Lu, who was among the 12 children. He was the one who communicated with the British divers who first reached the group on July 2.
Go Shin Maung of Mae Sai Grace Church, which Aik Lu has called home for most of his life, told The Irrawaddy that he was born in Thailand to ethnic Wa parents from Myanmar’s Wa Self-Administered Region. Aik Lu’s parents left him in northern Thailand so that he could get a better education.
Aik Lu speaks English, Thai, Burmese and Chinese, which he learned at the church, is an all-around athlete and also plays the violin, piano and guitar. He also helps take care of his friends and teachers as well.
While the children were in the cave, some Thai media played a key role in calming the public, telling them it was not the time to blame anyone, especially the coach. Doctors and psychiatrists went to see family members to counsel them.
Inside the cave, with the water level rising, a rescue operation to extract the children was ordered earlier than planned. Everyone worked together, regardless of race or religion, as the goal was to save the lives of the young soccer players and return them home.
Much credit must go to the provincial governor, Narongsak Osotthanakorn, who demonstrated leadership skills in directing and coordinating the rescue mission.
During the operation, he told his staff, “Anyone who cannot make enough sacrifices can go home and stay with their families. 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…”
The 17-day rescue operation was a life and death situation — hopes rose and faded day by day. It may be quite convenient to follow and watch this news on TV but in reality the operation was carried out in difficult conditions: rising water, changing weather and a large and complex cave system.
When we learned that Saman Gunan, a 38-year-old Thai Navy Seal, had died in the cave during the rescue effort, everyone feared that the boys would not come out alive. But hope lingered.
When D-Day arrived, the media was relocated as the Thais began the final rescue. The 12 boys wore full-face scuba masks and were attached to divers as they traversed the underwater parts of the cave. The Navy Seal chief appeared to confirm reports that the boys had been sedated for the journey, telling the press briefing: “Along the way some may have slept.”
The Thai government released a video clip to confirm that the 12 young soccer players and their coach rescued from the Tham Luang cave were all in good health.
Luck was on the Wild Boars’ side. The emergency ended like a Hollywood movie, with the kids the winners and everyone getting to share in the happiness and joy. The world wanted to connect with the boys and to share in an inspiring story at this time of political divisiveness and uncertainty in the world. Great characters, it seemed, were in all the right places to defeat the odds.
Narongsak, who has become a national hero following the successful rescue, called the boys “a symbol of unity among mankind”. He added: “Everyone worked together, regardless of race and religion, as the goal was the rescue of the youth soccer team and returning them home safely.”
It was mission impossible with a happy ending.
The Irrawaddy dispatched a group of reporters to Mae Sai to broadcast live reports and stories from there to its readers in Myanmar and beyond.