Lessons from the ‘Thailand 13’ Rescue


The rescue of all 12 young boys and their football coach trapped in a flooded Thai cave is a lesson in hope, resilience and generosity of the human spirit, ideals that can be aspired to irrespective of economic power, writes Demola Ojo

Over the past couple of weeks, in the midst of a football World Cup and other global events, the attention of the world was focused on Thailand as the fate of 12 young boys and their football coach trapped in a cave hung in the balance. A few days ago, a collective sigh of relief was exhaled globally, when they were finally rescued.

It is important to recap the events that have spanned over two weeks (and still continuing with the rehabilitation of the boys) to understand why it attracted so much attention worldwide.

On Saturday, June 23, 12 members of the Wild Boar soccer team, aged 11-16, entered the Tham Luang cave system in Thailand’s Chiang Rai Province along with their 25-year-old football coach after a team practice. The cave system, which is 10km (6 miles) deep, is known locally for its deep recesses and narrow passages. The team had visited the cave before – but this time heavy rains caused flooding, impeding their exit.

After the children failed to return home, they were reported missing and search efforts began. Initial rescuers at the site reportedly found the team’s bicycles, football boots and other belongings close to the cave’s entrance.
Three days later, divers from the Royal Thai Navy arrived to assist local search efforts. Thai government officials then visited the site, and Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon proclaimed the government’s optimistic that the team would be found alive.

Rescuers considered different routes in, with teams of soldiers searching for alternative entrance points, while authorities considered drilling into the mountain to get access. By Wednesday June 27, diving and survival specialists from all around the world had arrived in the country to help with search efforts.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha visited relatives and offered comfort, telling them: “They’re athletes. They’re strong.”

Then on Monday July 2, came news that divers had found all of the boys and their coach safe, nine days after they went missing. The team was found on a rock shelf about 4km (2.5 miles) from the cave mouth.
Medical aid and food were then brought in to the team, as rescuers considered the best way to get them out to safety.
Millions of litres of water were pumped out of the cave system, but with the rainy season in full flow, officials warned that the boys may have to learn to dive to get free – or wait months until conditions improve.

Unfortunately, the buoyant mood at the site soured dramatically after a diver working on the rescue dies. Saman Gunan, 38, a former Thai navy diver volunteering in the cave, lost consciousness while delivering oxygen air tanks. Important to emphasise he was volunteering. In a race against the rain, officials then designated a limited window during which they believed the team can be successfully evacuated out.

With conditions optimum on Sunday July 8, intensive rescue operations began. The operation was very complex, and involves a mixture of walking, wading, climbing and diving along guide ropes already in place. The next day, it emerged that four of the boys had been successfully freed. Those evacuated were cared for in local hospitals, gradually being weaned back onto solid foods.

Very importantly, the government strictly guarded information about the rescue, including the names of those saved. The boys were supervised in hospitals, with access for visiting parents limited because of potential health risks.
Efforts continued throughout the next day (Tuesday), until officials confirmed that all 13 had been rescued safely. The travails of the boys and their eventual rescue remind one of a similar incident eight years ago that also ended on a positive note.

The 2010 Copiapó mining accident, also known then as the “Chilean mining accident”, began with a cave-in at the San José copper–gold mine, located in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile. Thirty-three men, trapped 700 meters (2,300 ft) underground and five kilometres from the mine’s entrance via spiralling underground ramps, were rescued after 69 days. After the state-owned mining company, Codelco, took over rescue efforts from the mine’s owners, exploratory boreholes were drilled, and seventeen days after the accident a note was found taped to a drill bit pulled back to the surface: In English it translated to, “We are well in the shelter, the 33 of us”.

Three separate drilling rig teams, nearly every Chilean government ministry, the United States’ NASA space agency, and a dozen corporations from around the world cooperated completing the rescue. On October 13, 2010, the men were winched to the surface one at a time, in a specially built capsule, as an estimated One billion people worldwide watched.

Private donations covered one-third of the US$20 million cost of the rescue, with the rest coming from the mine owners and the government.

Why this is Noteworthy
The events in Thailand over the past two weeks are noteworthy especially, for Nigeria and other countries in the developing world. It is not surprising seeing the value placed on human life by governments in the US, the UK and other nations known to be advanced in terms of financial resources and technology among other things. It is almost an ‘us’ and ‘them’ dynamic, as we subconsciously give in to the idea that we’re not as fortunate.
However, coming out of Thailand, which many can easily relate too, beyond economic and technological power, the most important thing in the story is the premium placed by the government on the lives of its ‘ordinary’ citizens; the idea that a tragedy that befalls a few is a common tragedy. Of course, the joy of those few should also transmit to all.

This is a poignant point because Thailand is not one of those countries held up as examples for others to follow by the Western world. It does not practice the Western form of democracy that many in developing countries see as a prerequisite to a better society. Thailand as a country is a unitary state in Southeast Asia known to many Nigerians for tourism and rice production.

Although nominally a constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy, the most recent coup in 2014 established a de facto military dictatorship. Through the 18th and 19th centuries, Siam as it was then known, faced pressure from France and the United Kingdom, including forced concessions of territory, but it remained the only Southeast Asian country to avoid direct Western rule.

Following a bloodless revolution in 1932, Siam became a constitutional monarchy and changed its official name to “Thailand”.

In the late 1950s, a military coup revived the monarchy’s historically influential role in politics. Apart from a brief period of parliamentary democracy in the mid-1970s, Thailand has periodically alternated between democracy and military rule.
In the 21st century, Thailand endured a political crisis that culminated in two coups and the establishment of its current and 20th constitution by the military junta.

It is considered a regional power in Southeast Asia and a middle power in global affairs. However, with a high level human development, the second largest economy in Southeast Asia, Thailand is classified as a newly industrialised economy with manufacturing, agriculture, and tourism as leading sectors.

In 2016, Thailand was ranked 87th in Human Development Index, and 70th in the inequality-adjusted HDI. It has a population of about 70 million, which is largely rural, concentrated in the rice-growing areas. The country has for long been one of the largest rice exporters in the world and 49 per cent of its labour force is employed in agriculture, down from 70 per cent in 1980.
In 2014, Credit Suisse reported that Thailand was the world’s third most unequal country, behind Russia and India.

The Lesson for Nigeria
The statistics above are presented to prove that a country does not need to be a global economic power or live by the ideals of Western democracy to share a common humanity and add value on the lives of its people. This is a lesson that Nigeria needs to learn.

In Nigeria, the blame game is played early and hard when tragedy strikes. Politicians clash and point fingers, rather than look for a solution first. This has been exhibited on so many occasions and has now become the norm.
Are people dying from avoidable communal clashes? The retort is that it was worse under previous administrations. But this is not just at a governmental level.

The 25-year-old soccer coach and former monk, who led the boys on the ill-fated cave adventure, has been supported by some parents in a letter exchange set up by Thai Navy Seals, not threatened. No lawsuits have been reported.
“We would never do that … On the contrary, we have warm feelings towards the coach,” one father was quoted. “He is a good person and he helps kids by training them as footballers.”

A mother wrote to the coach, “We want you to know that no parents are angry with you at all, so don’t you worry about that.”

The coach was the only family survivor of an illness in 2003 that killed his parents and sister, reported The Daily Mail. He eventually entered a monastery, and learned healthy living and survival skills.
Those have reportedly been helping the boys survive and the coach gave up his own food rations to his charges. It is hard to imagine that being the case in these climes, where making excuses and blaming others come first before finding solutions that benefit all. The boys themselves need to be commended for their response to a potential tragedy. A 13-year-old wrote to his parents, “I’m fine but it’s a little bit cold. Don’t worry and don’t forget my birthday.”

The Thai community’s early response to what could have been a national disaster does raise questions about how we treat one another and whether we are adequately teaching the art of resilience in Nigeria.

Meanwhile Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha kept a low profile that the ongoing operation was not disturbed by his presence in the process of scoring political points. The governor of the province, Narongsak Osottanakorn, was the only spokesperson, and no other VIPs were allowed to grab the microphone and make hay from adversity. The media, emotionally moved by the whole scene, steered clear of the murky waters of sensationalism while the stunned parents of the children showed grace and dignity under fire. There were no histrionics or threats.

Against this backdrop, the military was allowed to create a medical facility, carved out a full-scale military plan and initiated a four-day rescue procedure, without interference from government or the slippery element of politics. There was no opposition rant, merely a nation willing the success of the operation.