Inspiring cave rescue cannot obscure society’s darkness

“We are not sure if this is a miracle, a science, or what”. You will recognise this Facebook post by Thai Navy SEALS. It signalled the completion of a daring operation to rescue the 12 Wild Boar soccer players and their coach from the Tham Luang Nang Non cave system in the Mae Sai district of Chiang Rai province of northern Thailand.

We witnessed an amazing mobilisation of knowledge, both scientific and practical, from around the world. Individuals brought extraordinary skills to bear.

The sad death of a retired Thai navy diver and volunteer, 38-year-old Saman Kunan, drove home a terrible truth. Hundreds of volunteers – including the Thai doctor who stayed with the boys for the eight days from their discovery until the last, doctors with decades of diving experience, geologists, Japanese irrigation experts, Chinese lifesaving specialists – risked everything.

Devising a plan to escort youths, weakened by days without food, who could not even swim, through treacherous tunnels passable in places only by diving with breathing apparatus, took exceptional daring, attention to detail and determination. 

Divers installed guide ropes and transported heavy breathing equipment and other necessities through the four kilometres of dangerous tunnels as massive amounts of water were pumped out.

That this human ingenuity and ability, this propensity for decency, is possible in this society, which cramps the potential of the vast majority of humanity and relentlessly emphasises greed and self-interest, is truly inspiring.

But even as you watched in awe, the darkness of this mean society seeped to the surface.

Julie Bishop wore her usual mask of indifference to the plight of the mass of people for days. When she broke her silence, the foreign minister, always finding ways to cut aid to poor countries, pronounced:

“Under our aid program, we have tragically many opportunities to support neighbours in times of crisis and so this is just another example of Australia being a good friend, a good neighbour.”

Actually, 14-year-old Adul Sam-on is from the Wa, an ethnically oppressed minority. His parents, in an effort to save him from illiteracy and poverty, smuggled him at age six from Myanmar into Thailand, and left him with a Baptist church. 

Had he instead been placed on a boat headed to the “good neighbour” for help, it’s likely he would have ended up in another dark and dangerous place with no international teams to free him.

Adul, a stateless refugee, played a critical role in the rescue, acting as interpreter for the divers, explaining how long they’d been there and their need for food. He communicates well in English, Thai, Burmese, Mandarin and Wa.

Three others are stateless, members of ethnic minorities accustomed to slipping across the border into Myanmar one day and returning for a soccer game in Thailand the next. Their coach, Ekkapol Chantawong, is of the ethnic Shan minority oppressed by the Thai state. 

At the Ban Wiang Phan School, which Adul attends, 20 percent of students are stateless, and half are ethnic minorities. The principal, Punnawit Thepsurin, thinks that “stateless children have a fighting spirit”. I like to think this helps explain their composure, which contributed to their rescue.

The media, in their profound ignorance, chattered about the unfolding drama “uniting Thai society”. Chiang Rai is a sanctuary for members of various ethnic militias that have fought for decades against state repression facilitated by a triumvirate of the military, the monarchy and Buddhist monasteries.

Even as he oversaw the rescue, the local governor, Narongsak Osotthanakorn, was sacked, out of favour because he has opposed corruption in the state.

Some fear that these events have given the military an opening to subjugate this rebellious area after having imposed control over this rescue with 1,000 Navy SEALs. Edoardo Siani, writing at New Mandala, introduced a sombre note:

“Our genuine rejoicing at the successful outcome should not prevent us from acknowledging its politicisation in a narrative that mobilises support for a history of state violence.”

Closer to home, Malcolm Turnbull gushed about how wonderful Australians are at this sort of thing, as if the other nationals were irrelevant.

I can’t help but celebrate the technical know-how, determination and dedication that freed those boys. But that cannot obscure the crimes perpetrated against children like these who end up on boats asking for help from their “good neighbour”.