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The Cave Boys in Three Acts

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by Andrew Biggs

ACT ONE: Lessons Learned

I will never forget the moment man first landed on the moon.

I won’t ever forget the morning the Shuttle exploded, or the night the jets crashed into the twin towers in New York.

And now this week. I will never forget the moment, at 10.41 pm last Monday night, I discovered the boys in the cave were found alive.

To see footage of them sitting on that rock, all alive and well, made this crusty, curmudgeonly, hard-hearted columnist break down and cry. Twice.

There are so many lessons to be learned from the boys in the cave. Just off the top of my head I can think of five.

1. In times of difficulty, Thais are wonderful.

I know. We can all be wonderful in difficult times, not just the Thais. But this happened on Thai soil, and the workers and volunteers in the mountains of Chiang Rai were simply superb. I know colleagues and students who were there, and the spirit of unity in the face of adversity was magnificent.

One Navy seal, via Twitter, commented on how the women who volunteered in the makeshift mess hall smiled so beautifully when they served the food “and kept smiling afterwards”. Another expressed great surprise at finding an espresso machine smack bang in the middle of the jungle. “Thailand, I salute you!” he said.

We westerners often gripe about the Thais and their myriad faults and shortcomings and devious tricks and selfishness and ruthlessness and inhumanity. I will never, ever be part of that clique, and I always wonder, when I hear such complaints, which perfect country the bellyacher comes from. I do not require an answer; I simply hold a fervent hope for the bellyacher to return to it quickly.

2. It’s time we taught Thai youth how to swim.

This is not a bellyache.

It sounds like one but it’s not. This is a cry for common sense, even if it does reek of locking the stable after the horse has bolted.

It’s time swimming is incorporated into the national curriculum. I was once told by a high-ranking official that students in Bangkok would benefit from this, but rural kids don’t get that much of a chance to enjoy swimming pools and thus it would be a waste of budgetary  funds to provide lessons at a national level.

You wanna talk waste of budget money, Mr High Ranking Official? It’s kind of difficult to know where to start. Perhaps we could begin with the 88 million baht embezzled by high-ranking officials from the Education Ministry’s poor students fund. Or perhaps we could alert him to the fact that water isn’t found just in swimming pools, but also in reservoirs, ponds, dams, rivers and khlongs.

He does have a point, though. Such an addition to the physical education curriculum would require additional funds. So here’s a radical idea: How about a moratorium on Education Ministry officials skimming the usual 20-30 per cent of budgets. I’m not advocating ceasing their behavior entirely — that would be like asking the tides to stop coming in and out.

Rather, just for one year, they should allow education budgets to be used fully for educational purposes. It may mean sacrificing the purchase of Mercedes Benz vehicles and Fendi handbags for a short while, but think of the benefits. Those kids would be out now, for a start.

3. Thai kids can speak English!

I’m so happy I just want to put on my boogie shoes and dance.

Did you hear those kids when the British diver first spoke to them? They answered him straight back in English! I’m so damned proud of them!

There is this unsubstantiated notion that Thai kids, especially rural types, are ignorant when it comes to English. The 12 boys in that football team proved them wrong.

The Japanese media highlighted this part of the story. Apparently in Japan they believe that like themselves, Thais are bad at English. The trapped cave boys were able to converse with the driver and give him information. Of course they used vocabulary like “eat” and “hungry”  and even asked if they were leaving today. God bless you, kids. You made us ESL nerds proud of you.

4. Decent, good-hearted governors never die. They just get shunted off.

It is a generally accepted fact that the higher the position of government civil servants, the sparser the talent.

The further out of Bangkok, too, the more propensity for provincial governors to engage in untoward practices that make those Education Ministry embezzlers look like kindergarten students.

Not our Narongsak from Chiang Rai.

Governor Narongsak Osotthanakorn’s got five bachelor degrees, for crying out loud! They run the gamut from geology to engineering to law. Not only is he smart, he’s a straight-shooter who scrutinizes projects and building proposals, especially those submitted by dark forces driving Mercedes Benz cars clutching Fendi handbags, and rejects those that appear untoward. He recently rejected a major tourism project and waste-processing plant because something was fishy.

He’s not only honest. Look at the way he coordinated the campaign with these boys.

There is a great clip of him, filmed clandestinely a week ago, of Narongsak addressing divers before going into the cave.

“You go in there imagining those boys are your own children,” he is seen saying. “And you pull out all stops to make sure they come back. If you can’t do that, then leave right now. It’s okay. I won’t report you to your superiors if you choose to leave. This is your one opportunity. But if you stay, rescue those kids like you’re rescuing your own children.”

It’s powerful and heart-warming.

Such a person should be held up as a role model, but he’s not. He has been shunted off to the smaller province of Phayao. Make no mistake; it’s a demotion. In a system riddled with corruption and dark feudal lords with claws in rural provinces, a man like Narongsak has to go.

How ironic it is to have a system that allows corrupt government civil servants to be moved to inactive posts when they do something wrong, with the same fate dealt out to those who do something right.

5. Over in the Royal Thai Police, when do they say “enough already”?

The appearance of that high-ranking cop at the cave site, and his threatening conversations with the tireless people frantically trying to locate the missing boys, was like pulling back a bandage to reveal a festering wound that absolutely refuses to heal.

Surely there must be a level to which human decency can no longer be breached, resulting in a need to act to rectify a bad situation. The reform of the police system is so long overdue, it is surprising police officers themselves are not marching in the streets.

So much of Thai culture is based on maintaining dignity, and thus so much violence results from people losing face. Police officers are human beings, and their contribution to the rescue effort was magnanimous. How they can stand by and allow one man to send their reputation crashing down like a house of cards is baffling.

We must remain positive. We can only hope the cave incident is the catalyst that shows how important it is to reform the police force and to enable new, cleaner blood to rise towards the top. It also serves as a reminder that, following the national park incident earlier this year that to this day remains unmediated, a leopard may be able to be shot dead, but it cannot change its spots.

ACT TWO: Coach Ake

The dust is settling on Tham Luang, the Chiang Rai cave that stopped the world for two weeks.

Now that the emergency is over, it is time for the world’s armchair critics to cast sage analysis on the situation. Notice the word “sage” isn’t capitalized. There is no reason for it to be, for it adorns that sentence only to add an element of sarcasm.

This column was written last Wednesday. No doubt since then many details have emerged about the incident, such as the fact the boys were sedated on their way out, or that three of the boys aren’t even Thai. They are stateless, and the one that spoke English so well when first discovered is in fact Burmese, living in a church in Mae Sai while his parents work in Myanmar.

It isn’t just the boys, either. Another stateless individual is the coach, which brings us to the pivot of our story.

It is easy for us to waggle fingers as we sit in our easy chairs, as opposed to a dank pitch-black oxygen-starved cave filling up with fetid water. The surge of collective humanity that was evidenced worldwide, as we prayed for the safety of the boys, was a rare and uplifting phenomenon.

At the same time there was an undertow of blame being apportioned to that stateless coach, whose name is Ekkapol Chantawong, or Coach Ake.

For many he was to be saddled with blame. Would he face criminal charges, it was asked? He flew in the face of warnings against entering the cave, after all. Just this morning in the Bangkok Post, Letters to the Editor featured one breathless, indignant correspondent: “Had his team stayed out of the cave, none of this would have happened.”

It is such sentiment that evokes in me an immediate pang of regret towards those beautiful trees that are felled and turned into newspaper for the purpose of printing such diatribe. I am reminded of my youth when, late at night, TV channels would wind down their broadcast and the screen would flick to discordant static that begged to be promptly switched off. Nobody likes loud, incessant clamor that serves no useful purpose.

While it may be a nice use of time for more idle types, playing the “what if” game is one that is as pathetic as it is futile.

It is also very self-serving. It is a venture into self-aggrandizing analysis of the past, not to learn lessons or formulate steps to prevent such situations re-occurring, but to apportion blame and throw lightning bolts.

It feels good to see somebody else slip up. For many it feels good to throw stones, too. Scour social media and you’ll find Coach Ake being described as careless, foolhardy, and a “bloody idiot” for leading those boys into the cave. Some suggest a committee be set up to examine his actions, perhaps the foolhardiest suggestion of all, not just because it is a waste of taxpayer’s money, but also because the whole world already knows of his actions. Never in recent history has a man’s actions been more examined on a global scale!

Maybe it was remiss to venture into a cave one week before the rainy season started. Goodness. These are adventurous boys looking for fun. They want to explore. Isn’t that what boys are supposed to do? It reminds me of when my mother would send my brothers and I outside at 9 am and “don’t come back until dinner time”. As kids we had the whole nearby forest to explore. Granted there were no caves, but there were poisonous snakes and spiders and weird forest hermits lurking.

These are pastimes that boys enjoy, and sometimes out there in the big wide world, unexpected things happen. A snake bites. Flood waters cut off entrances.

And anyway, the alternative to adventure — lounging on a pillow in your bedroom, eyes staring blankly at a tiny screen, thumb endlessly flicking through friends’ Instagram accounts — may be a much safer and much more common alternative, but it sure as hell isn’t my idea of youthful exuberance.

And how easy it is to be wise after an event. Recently I purchased a pair of second-hand shoes at the Train Market on Srinakharin Road. They fell apart two weeks later. if only I’d stayed away from the Train Market that evening, none of that would have happened.

I once wrote a book that was a dismal failure. It sold a good 300 copies despite a print run of 5,000. The extra copies made great New Year and birthday gifts for a long time, until I ran out of friends to give them to, and indeed, my friend list diminished from the outrage some of them felt towards receiving such a parsimonious gift. I lost a lot of money on that, and the fallout prevented me from writing another book for two years. If only I’d not written that book, none of that would have happened.

You can play this game too, can’t you, dear reader? Our lives are littered with “if onlys” if we expend enough energy on that topic. We do foolish things all the time. We take risks. We ride the shoulder on the expressway, cross roads where we shouldn’t, drink and drug ourselves stupid. We are human beings on a life adventure.

And if sometimes we stuff things up, as the Wild Boar Team and its coach did, it is much more constructive to look forward and take positive steps to remedy the situation.

This is why we need to embrace Coach Ake and his actions, for it is his actions that ensured those 12 frightened boys didn’t perish in that cave within a few days.

Coach Ake, besides being stateless, is also an orphan. There is a photograph of him and his family doing the rounds of the media. It shows a young Ake, aged about 5 or 6, with his mother and father and little brother. By the age of 10 years, his entire family would be dead from disease. Left as an orphan, he spent eight years as a novice monk in a temple, as many poor children in rural areas do when there is nobody else to look after them. He left the monkhood to help take care of his ailing grandmother.

That experience, as a meditation monk, would ultimately save the lives of the 12 children, as he taught them how to meditate in that temple to save energy. While he was at it, he taught them how to find clean water, he gave his rations to the kids, and generally acted far and above the call of duty.

Imagine how wracked with guilt the guy was. Look at the early video clips, and Coach Ake is keeping way out of the limelight. In his first correspondence to the boys’ families, he asks for forgiveness. Now he is out, he also must cope with knowing a retired Navy Seal died during the rescue.

But you know what? You wanna play “what if”? What if he’d never gone in? What if he’d turned back after football practice, saying you guys go ahead, I’m going home. The outcome would have been very different, and far more tragic.

Make no mistake. He saved those boys. What a hero, and he sits there alongside those amazing Thai and foreign divers whom we take our collective hats off to.

Coach Ake, the stateless orphan who lives for football and gives his all to those kids, must now, even with all those setbacks, try to reassemble his life. This is no time for vociferous scribes to crucify. Show some humanity. Afford him some congratulations.

ACT THREE: Aftermath

The good times are over.

Last Wednesday’s press conference with the Wild Boar Team should have been a fitting curtain call. The world finally got to meet those kids for whom we collectively held our breath, and we weren’t disappointed.

For a little over an hour they related their experiences, apologized, expressed remorse, and paid homage to Saman Gunan who lost his life trying to rescue them. Dressed in football gear, the 13 boys looked fit and healthy and spoke with twinges of innocence and humor.

It was a reminder of the feel-good aura that accompanied the entire news story, when humanity dropped its tools and rushed to that cave in Chiang Rai to help get them out.

At that press conference the boys were accompanied by Navy Seals in dark glasses and caps, and Lt Col. Park Loharachun, who stayed with the boys in the cave and clearly had a good rapport with the kids.

Missing on the stage was the Chiang Rai governor, Narongsak Osotthanakorn, who on the same day of the press conference began duties in his new downgraded post of Phayao governor. In his place, in his stiff civil service uniform, was the brand new Chiang Rai governor, sitting like a proud father next to the boys, basking in the Wild Boar limelight, contributing nothing but a reminder of the hoary old cogs of the Thai civil service, which we will address in exactly five paragraphs’ time.

If only the press conference last Wednesday were the end. Now that the boys have been rescued, hospitalized, treated and paraded before the media in brand new football outfits, the next step is the most important and long lasting of all — normalcy.

These kids need to get back to soccer practise, school, homework and family life. Their brief glimpse of fame should, at their age, be just that. The media should leave them alone, but here in Thailand, like most of the world, the media is not going to go down without a fight. They are circling them like hawks right now.

It also means the good times are over. For a brief few weeks there, humanity was a uniting force that forgot about our foibles and shortcomings. We showed our very best side. It was a glorious time to be alive and to be human, albeit excruciatingly nerve-wracking.

Now that the story is over, however, our foibles and shortcomings are seeping back again.

The news that three of the wild boars, including Coach Ake and the star kid, Adul, are stateless highlighted the plight of so many stateless people in this country, unable to gain citizenship owing to archaic and cruel laws and the denizens in office who bask in their impossible intricacy. For any stateless person, poor and under-educated, the required proof and documents to become a Thai citizen fall far beyond their reach.

Ake and Adul charmed us all at last Wednesday’s press conference. What a perfect opportunity it would have been to have announced the instant approval of Thai citizenship. Let’s face it; Thailand’s image in the world received a healthy boost from this incident. Their being granted citizenship would have been an extra feather in the country’s cap.

It took one civil servant, high up, and one politician, also high up, to douse all that. There would be no special dispensation for the three Wild Boar boys.

This announcement came from Arthit Boonyasophat, who ushered in the end of the touchy-feely time, and brought us back crashing down to earth.

Arthit is director-general of the Department of Provincial Administration. His announcement was akin to a violent electrical storm breaking over your open-air beach wedding at a five-star Phuket resort, where you skimped on the umbrellas to save on the budget.

There would be no privileges. Arthit would act strictly according to the Nationality Act. Someone needs to find this man and quietly whisper “Section 44” into his ear. He went on to explain that it wasn’t his responsibility anyway — that belonged to the Interior Minister — but he had to “supervise the issue”.

Can’t you feel it, dear reader? The shackles of red tape slowly closing around those three boys? If rising cave waters couldn’t squeeze the life out of them, just watch government red tape finish off the job.

We then had deputy prime minister Prawit Wongsuwan reiterate that their cases would adhere strictly according to the law. Again, where is Section 44 when you need it?

There is a precedent for these three boys, unfortunately. Remember Nong Mong, the paper plane hero of Thailand? He featured in this column last September. Here was a boy who charmed the country with his paper plane prowess.

Mong was big news in September, 2009, when as a 12-year-old Northern boy he won the national paper airplane flying competition. He was born in Chiang Mai, but his parents were itinerant Burmese.

The irony was Mong, having won the national competition, was expected to go on to represent Thailand in the international championships in Japan. Being stateless, he couldn’t get a passport. Mong’s application to travel outside the country had to be processed by those hoary old grinding cogs of Thai bureaucracy for which Arthit and Prawit are responsible for giving grease and oil changes. The Interior Ministry said no.

Mong burst into tears on live television. In a rare show of sensibility the government stepped in and did the right thing. They didn’t do what Arthit espoused this week – they didn’t follow the strict letter of the law, because this is Thailand and thankfully, every law can be adjusted for the situation. It issued papers for Mong to travel.

Mong jetted off to Japan where he won bronze in the world championships. Upon his return he was greeted by every politician and civil servant of the day. Mong returned to Chiang Mai to continue his education.

It is now 2018, and Mong is 21 years old — and still stateless. If he couldn’t get an ID card, what chance do the Wild Boars have?

So we have moved from man’s humanity towards his fellow man to back to our regular state; that of man’s indifference to fellow man, especially those whose parents were born outside the country.

I’m not just talking about Thai bureaucracy either – what possessed Elon Musk to destroy his international reputation with that “pedo” comment? His allegation of pedophilia against a key member of the rescue was not just a slur on a local hero. It was a slur on Thailand.

Musk’s inference — that any western man living in Thailand was only there for to play with little boys — is a slur on Thailand more than western men. This is a situation that Thailand famously bristles at every time this dubious reputation arises.

And yet the government was quite happy to let that one pass by without a whisper. Musk’s little spat was wrong on all sorts of levels, and may we be reminded of it in the not too distant future, when electric cars replace gasoline ones, for my money will be going straight to Tesla’s immediate competitor.

So the feel-good era of those few weeks is over. May we reminisce about the time fondly, when for a moment we were decent human beings working and praying as one.

It’s over now. We are back to reality, which means school for the kids, bureaucracy for all, statehood for none, and immoral juvenile stabs by the likes of Elon Musk. I’m willing to tolerate it all — just leave those kids alone and let them get on with growing up.

NOTE: In September, 2018, Mong finally received his Thai citizenship papers.




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