The incident that struck the Thai Football Team, Wild Boars, was clearly a situation that was out of hand. On June 23rd, a bunch of 12 excited youths and their coach set foot for a trip to explore the cave of Tham Luang Nang Non. However, their adventure was cut short due to the monsoon flooding which got them trapped deep beneath the cave complex. Rescuers took 10 days to discover the helpless youths and their coach as all their source of food, drinks and flashlights slowly faded.
After the 18 days of torment, the boys and their coach were removed unharmed with the exceptional assistance from a team of doctors, divers and support staff. Over 10,000 brains across the world participated in executing a plan to make this rescue mission a success by using plastic cocoons, floating stretchers and a rope line to lead the victims out of the confined cave.
These victims may look ordinary but if it wasn’t for their willpower, they would have not survived. In the aftermath, journalists dug out details of the boys previous hardships as refugees and how that unexpectedly helped in their rescue… Here’s a round-up of 4 key take-aways…
1. The key team member who could speak English is a top student…
14-year old, Adul Sam-on was one of the 13 victims that was saved and played a significant role in overcoming the language barrier when communicating with British rescue-divers. He acted as the voice of the Wild Boars, interpreting and filling the blanks with details on their hapless tragedy and needs like food.
From the young age of 6, Adul escaped into Mae Sai, as a refugee from a Myanmar-territory known for guerrilla warfare, opium cultivation and methamphetamine trafficking. Together with his parents, Adul fled to Thailand in hopes of a better future. He now lives at a church in Mae Sai with the church’s pastor and his wife who act as his guardians. Quality education is not available for him in Myanmar and there’s the risk of being forcefully drafted into one of the local guerrilla groups.
A descendent of the stateless Wa ethnic tribe, who were formerly-known for headhunting, Adul was surprisingly multilingual–proficient in English, Thai, Burmese, Mandarin, and the Wa dialect.
In his class at the Ban Wiang Phan School in Mae Sai, Adul is a top student who is also active in sports–earning him free tuition and daily lunch from the school. The school’s principle had said, “Stateless children have a fighting spirit that makes them want to excel” and that “Adul is the best of the best.”
2. The incident will renew faith in Thailand towards the well-being of its refugees
There are at least 440,000 stateless people in Thailand, many of whom have fled Myanmar after long years of ethnic strife, according to the UN refugee agency. However the actually number could be as high as 3 million even though the Thai government has refused to agree to the UN’s convention guaranteeing rights for these refugees, of whom many are trapped in human trafficking or working for deceitful employers.
Located in a country that has been tolerating military governance for the past 4 years and growing in rural-urban divide, Mae Sai is a Thai border town that has been sidelined because of it’s lack of Thai Pride but following the cave rescue, things may change.
Nearby, where Myanmar, Laos and Thailand meet, is The Golden Triangle–popular for its drug empire and human trafficking. It is also home to most of the refugees who have made it across the Thai border, increasing Thailand’s skepticism of them. Mae Sai’s community is made from members coming from different ethnic militias that have been battling for autonomy from the government in Myanmar.
Coach, Ekkapol Chantowang and 3 boys from the team are stateless ethnic minorities who routinely skip across the Myanmar border, and then return for soccer games back in Thailand. Their stateless presence undermines Thailand’s nationhood which is centred around the military, the monarchy and the Buddhist monastery.
Since this incident, the military got the chance to boost their image as Thai Navy SEAL divers were the main face of the rescue force. Retired Thai SEAL diver, Saman Gunan, 38, who died while bringing in air tanks into the cave for the rescue became a national hero. The Monarchy also gained attention when King Maha Vajiralongkorn contributed 2000 rain coats. A morale-boosting letter by his 13-year-old son to the rescue team was also sent out.
3. They strive hard for balance in their studies and outdoor activities
20% of students at Adul’s school are stateless and half are ethnic minorities, which pushes them to excel in anything they do considering their status and lack of privilege. Makes sense now how their fighting spirit allowed them to survive in the cave for almost 18 days. The Guardian did a full story on the team members, and from the looks of it, everyone seemed very driven in sports and their studies.
The Wild Boars football club provided a safe haven for both the stateless and Thai children from the province, often organising trips in nearby jungles. They knew about the upcoming monsoon, but it did not stop them as they have discovered the caverns before. Some say it was foolish and something that the coach should have advised against, but knowing their surroundings well it was an underestimated mistake that most villagers could have made.
4. Their coach, a former monk helped keep them calm by meditation
The parents of the boys thanked Coach Ekkapol for taking care of their sons and helping them stay safe in the dark as if it wasn’t for him, the boys would have not had any guidance and might have panicked. Ekkapol himself has had a grim past, losing both his parents at a young age and joining the Buddhist monk-hood in Thailand although being stateless. It was the only option at that time for children without any financial support and soon after being ordained, his duty was to care for younger novices.
During crucial moments in the cave, he taught the boys to meditate so they remain calm and unstressed. Mr. Ekkapol blamed himself for endangering the boys and sent out a note of apology to the boys’ parents through the navy divers for leading them astray. Head coach, Mr. Nopparat who did not join the trip, mentioned that Mr.Ekkapol even excluded food and water for himself, to offer the boys, and would rather die than lose any of the boys. A mindful and strong attitude had to be kept by their coach throughout as he was leading the Wild Boars.
In a recent interview with The Guardian at the hospital, the Wild Boars’ boys looked fitter as they expressed their gratitude towards all the doctors, divers and support team who helped save them as well as their eagerness to satisfy their cravings once they fully recover and get discharged. Check it out here: