CHIANG RAI: For nearly a month, the world has been transfixed by 13 young men from Thailand’s rural north - 12 schoolboys and their coach from a local football team, the Wild Boar Academy.
Their story – from the moment they went missing in a massive cave complex to their miraculous discovery, dramatic rescue and cheerful journey home – was remarkable. Even more extraordinary was the happy ending to their awful ordeal and the Herculean rescue mission, where threats were real and death was a constant possibility.
For 17 days, millions of people across the world went on an emotional rollercoaster as they followed developments. Worried about the missing junior football team. Jubilant when they were found. Anxious about the rescue. Heart-broken by a rescuer’s death. Thrilled to read their hand-written letters. And, eventually, ecstatic to see the boys' happy faces and hear their voices after they were brought out alive and well.
When events capture the public's attention, the appetite for information is enormous. So is media interest, as newsrooms across the world try to keep up with growing demands for details of what is happening.
Since the Wild Boars disappeared into the Tham Luang cave network on Jun 23, journalists from around the world have flocked to the small remote district of Mae Sai on the Thai border with Myanmar. Hotel rooms were sold out. Rental cars were fully booked. And restaurants were swarming with customers whose job was to keep the public updated on the plight of the trapped 13.
News updates streamed across the world from the boggy base camp of the Tham Luang – Khun Nam Nang Non Forest Park, where the junior footballers huddled with their coach on a muddy ledge some 600 metres beneath the earth. Even more journalists came when the rescue operation began on Jul 8.
As attempts were made to win exclusive interviews with the 13 survivors, Thai health officials requested that the media allow them privacy and a chance to return to their normal lives. Concerns have also been raised over potential post-traumatic stress disorder, given their terrifying experience that lasted more than two weeks.
Yet, interviews have been carried out by some news organisations with the child survivors after their first public appearance, where they relived their ordeal.
“The foreign media’s handling of the child victims is below the standard it should uphold. The action is sad and should not be forgiven,” Justice deputy permanent secretary Thawatchai Thaikiew said on Friday (Jul 20).
It’s a shame to see foreign media, which we thought would know and fully understand the Convention on the Rights of the Child and youth protection protocol, to uphold a standard lower than our expectation, as if it lacked the common sense ordinary human beings should have as well as responsibility.
In response to the interviews, Chiang Rai governor Prajon Pratsakul called for a meeting between local officials and family members to discuss protection measures for the young survivors. Their parents later agreed not to allow any more interviews with the children, while Thai authorities expressed concerns.
According to Chiang Rai’s Public Relations Office, a child protection sub-committee from Mae Sai district and a team of professionals have been assigned to oversee the matter.
A NIGHTMARISH REALITY
On Jun 23, the 13 Wild Boars went missing in the caves after a monsoon downpour flooded their way out. Worry gripped the nation as news bulletins and social media erupted with news of an excursion-turned-disaster.
In no time, the world also turned its attention to the missing – 12 schoolboys who dream of becoming professional footballers, and their young coach, a stateless orphan from Myanmar who has spent years studying Buddhism in Thailand and training young football enthusiasts.
Following the successful rescue operation – which needed thousands of security personnel, engineers, geologists, medics, multinational world-class cave divers and other volunteers to complete – many people were astonished to see the 13 survivors so lively and carefree in their first public appearance after being discharged from hospital.
Sporting colourful football jerseys, the Wild Boars looked nothing like traumatised victims of a terrifying ordeal. On the contrary, they were all smiles in front of hundreds of journalists and cameras as they recounted their near-death experience.
“I was dizzy, weak and starving,” said the youngest one, 11-year-old Chanin Vibulrungruang, or Titan. “I tried not to think of food, like fried rice or northern chilli paste, because it’d make me even hungrier.”
The media roared with laughter and the boy smiled timidly. For many, it is hard to fathom how the 13 footballers managed to keep up the courage and will to survive in the face of likely death.
“Thai Navy SEALs always came up with fun activities for us and told us stories,” said 13-year-old Sompong Jaiwong. “The boys didn’t even mind being trapped a bit longer because they’d grown so fond of the SEALs,” their coach Ekapol Chanthawong said, recounting what happened after they had been found.
The Wednesday news conference was light-hearted and filled with laughter. But under the happy grins lay the daunting possibility of ongoing psychological trauma from the ordeal.
Their first-hand accounts revealed vivid details of being trapped in a massive labyrinth of narrow underground tunnels, frightening darkness and cold, creeping water.
“Four to five days after we became trapped, we heard the sound of water flowing towards us, forcing us to climb to a higher area,” coach Ekapol recounted. “In less than an hour, the water rose by 3 metres. By then, we knew there was no way out. All we could do was wait for people to find us.”
Before they were found by British cavers John Volanthen and Richard Stanton, the stranded 13 had spent nine days in the dark without food. All they could consume was water that trickled down stalactites and the floodwater that trapped them.
Medical personnel who treated the boys at Chiang Rai Prachanukroh Hospital have admitted they were worried about the young survivors after such an ordeal. As a result, various psychological tests were carried out on the 13 footballers to assess their reactions. A team of psychologists, psychiatrists and other health professionals have also laid out a plan to monitor their developments after being discharged from hospital.
Concerns remain over their vulnerability to trauma and overexposure to public attention now that the Wild Boars have gone home. Clinical psychologist Patchaneewan Inta emphasised the boys and their coach should live normal lives without any special treatment from society.
Privilege and questions could make them uncomfortable. We should give them personal space so they can spend time with family, go to school and do what they love.
COURAGE, HOPE AND FEAR
Back in the caves, courage shone bright in the dark.
Before they were found, the Wild Boars would take turn digging holes in the cave wall with pieces of rock, some as deep as four metres, in a bid to escape. Before beginning the daily toil, each of them would fill their empty stomach with water.
From day until night, they dug. When bedtime came, everyone would stop to drink and sleep.
“Back then, I feared I wouldn’t be able to go home,” Monkol “Mark” Boonpiam said, describing his pessimism before help arrived.
The 13-year-old did not get to come out until the final day of the rescue operation. Along with three Thai Navy SEALs, he stayed with the Wild Boars until the mission was completed.
“On the last night, Mark murmured in his sleep: ’I want to eat porridge’,” army medic Pak Loharnshoon said, adding he had doubted the boys could go out the way they came in, given the complexity of the evacuation through submerged passages and tough terrain.
“But then I noticed they had gained strength and started to chat more after 3-4 meals. They were ready to return to their normal lives and often talked about coming out of the caves and eating delicious food together.”
The Wild Boars were trapped inside the Tham Luang cave complex for nine days before they were found. During that time, they were starved and anxious as hope of going home began to drift away.
On Jul 2, the football team was sitting high on the rocks, away from floodwater, when they heard people talking. Everyone went quiet and listened carefully before rushing down with their torches. What would happen later was filmed by one of the British divers and shown to the world.
“It was a miracle,” left-winger Adul Sam-on described. The 14-year-old was the one who communicated with Volanthen in English, telling him everyone was fine and they were hungry.
“At first I thought they were Thai. So I shouted ‘Officer! Officer!’. But when they resurfaced, I realised they are foreigners. So I said ‘Hello’. I didn’t know what else to say. My brain was slow after so many days inside the caves.”
“It was the first ray of hope in days,” added his friend, 16-year-old defender Pornchai “Tee” Kamluang. “Everyone was just so happy.”
READ: Commentary: Praise for a heroic Thai cave rescue, but time to let the boys return to their normal lives?
A TEARFUL FAREWELL
After a successful rescue operation, the 13 survivors were admitted to Chiang Rai Prachanukroh Hospital, where a team of doctors, nurses, psychologists and psychiatrists closely monitored their health for ten days.
On their last night at the hospital, the Wild Boars participated in a psychological exercise designed to boost their morale and prepare them for their social reintegration.
In a video released by the hospital, each was seen walking through rows of health officials who had nursed them back to health. They were hugged before joining their family members at the other end of the room. Some of the boys were emotional as they thanked the medical team for looking after them.
“Thank you for taking care of all of us,” one of them said in tears. “Everyone of you has been so concerned about our health,” teary Adul added.
“I really don’t know what to say. I love you all."
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