For two weeks or more the world held its collective breath. People watched with growing anxiety as this heartrending story unfolded hoping that it would not turn into tragedy. As it is, the perilous rescue mission launched by Thailand with the welcome and ungrudging help of expertise from several countries to save 12 young boys [...]


Dramatic rescue and the great escape


For two weeks or more the world held its collective breath. People watched with growing anxiety as this heartrending story unfolded hoping that it would not turn into tragedy. As it is, the perilous rescue mission launched by Thailand with the welcome and ungrudging help of expertise from several countries to save 12 young boys and their football coach reached a successful denouement.

Rescue personnel are seen during preparations for transport for the evacuation of the boys and their soccer coach trapped in a flooded cave, in the northern province of Chiang Rai, Thailand

Global jubilation greeted the rescued and the rescuers as news of the successful mission filled the airwaves and cyber space. Even that belligerent and abrasive President of the US, Donald Trump, on a European visit and ready to harangue friend and foe had an economical two word comment to make as the mission was accomplished. “Great job”, he said while wife Melania was more gushing in her praise for the “amazing and heroic global effort.”

Even the embattled British Prime Minister Theresa May, herself struggling to stay alive politically and awaiting the arrival of Trump to London on a two-day visit, was not spared the terse remarks of a president who shoots from the lip before shooting from anywhere else, had time to sing the praises of those who were in the frontline of this daring mission fraught with ever increasing danger.

May’s congratulatory comments were not a pro forma exercise. Two British expert divers Richard Stanton and John Volanthen were the first to locate and make contact with the huddled group from the “Wild Boars” team running out of food and time.

I followed the story closely on multiple news channels not only because it was a bold and innovative humanitarian operation to which many from around the world contributed their expertise but also because Chiang Rai in northern Thailand is a province I had visited when I was working in Thailand.

Moreover we had a testing time seven years ago when we were becoming increasingly ‘marooned’ as waters from one of the worst floods in recent Thai history flowed inexorably towards Bangkok’s inner city where many of the diplomatic missions were located and many diplomats lived.

Also there were other Sri Lankans living and working in the area, particularly students and teachers at the Asian Institute of Technology (AIT). If I remember correctly there was a group of 80 or more. Already some of the walls of AIT had been breached and the approach to AIT was considered impassable.

The Ambassador to Thailand at the time was former Sri Lankan army commander Gen. Shantha Kottegoda. Although the main road to AIT was under several feet of water and the institute’s library and other ground floor areas were flooded, Ambassador Kottegoda was determined to rescue the AIT attendees and locate them elsewhere or arrange for them to return to Sri Lanka.

Ambassador Kottegoda and career officer Niluka Kadurugamuwa who I think was Counsellor at the time, went on a ‘recce’ while I was minding the store. Like any professional military man the former general wanted to see for himself and test the waters, so to say.
They managed to wade through and having spoken to some of the students it was decided that those who wanted to get home would be sent and accommodation would be found for teh others.

This Ambassador Kottegoda did with help from Sri Lankan businessmen living in Bangkok who were ready to come to the assistance of fellow countrymen and women.

There was a critical question we could hardly answer. Although the embassy was on the 13 floor of a building in Sukhumvit Soi 19 and the ambassador’s official residence was in Soi 22 (if I remember correctly) if the floods reached that area the mission would be completely cut off as would the entire staff. I was living about five minutes from the embassy and Niluka about two minutes from my apartment bloc.

As deputy chief of mission I would write daily — and sometimes twice daily- reports on the developing situation which was getting worse with every few hours. The reports went on behalf of the ambassador to the foreign minister, monitoring MP, the president’s secretary and ministry officials. Thankfully Thai officials from the Flood Relief Operation Centre briefed the diplomatic community almost every day to apprise them of the situation.

At one briefing the Thai officials said they had reassessed the situation and now believed the entire city was under threat and not just parts of it. One of the immediate problems was that rising sea water levels due to high tides expected in the days ahead the flood waters could not empty into the sea, causing the flood waters to spill over across the entire city.

The fact is that Bangkok is below sea level. There was the imminent possibility of Bangkok’s 9 million residents having their essential utilities such as electricity, water, telephone and other communications being cut off or severely disrupted by sweeping flood waters.
The shelves in all the super markets were emptying fast or were already empty as concerned citizens stocked up not knowing what was in store — no pun intended — for them. In most stores there was no bottled water, dry rations, vegetables, meat and other essentials.

With the flood waters came crocodiles and serpents washed away from crocodile and snake farms and several persons were reported having fallen victim to attacks. With waters now about two kilometers away from where we were in inner Bangkok the then foreign minister hastily summoned a diplomatic briefing at which we were told that 12 hours notice would be given to gather at our respective missions with one piece of baggage each ready for evacuation. They said army vehicles would be deployed to move the diplomats to accommodation where essential utilities will be made available. Naturally we dreaded the idea of living out without knowing how long it would be.

I was lucky in a way because of the generosity and essential humility of the Thai people. About 200 yards from my apartment on Soi 19 was a Beer Garden and Restaurant. One of the young boys working there was telling me he wanted to move his mother from one flooded area and bring her to stay with him. But the boat operators wanted a lot of money he could not afford. I asked him how much they asked for. He said it was 1000 Baht. I gave him the money and asked him to bring his mother down.

He thanked me profusely and in the worsening situation I forgot all about it. The Beer Garden still had beer left but no bottled water, but that too was running out. One day the security man at the front gate called me to say there were two packages for me. I went down to the gate. There was that boy from the restaurant and a friend with two crates of bottled water. He said he had managed to get the water through another friend and it was for me.

I asked him where his mother was. She had arrived safely and was staying with him. It was a simple gesture of support that the boy did not forget. Anyway we were saved from evacuation as the Thai engineers and other professionals went to work and saved inner Bangkok from being inundated. What would have happened had Bangkok gone entirely under water I dread to think.

In my 3 ½ years in Bangkok sometimes as charge’ d’ affaires, one cannot forget the quiet efficiency of the Thai diplomats and other officials and their humility and kindness to others. The Thai Foreign Ministry used to organize visits to other provinces for heads of missions and their spouses. One of those visits was to Chiang Rai and that is how my wife and I were able to see some of the Buddhist temples such as the Wat Rong Khun better known as the White Temple.

There are those who believe that only western countries are capable of efficiency and organising events while we in Asia are a muddlesome lot. Why we have heard recently monks, punks and others make adulatory noises about Hitler and later try to explain away their earlier remarks.

One wonders what would have happened if such a rescue operation had to be mounted in Sri Lanka. There would be politicians scrambling to get on TV and claim victory if all went well. At the same time there would have been other politicians criticizing the organizers of the rescue mission and turning a humanitarian operation into a political circus.

The Thai operation went well because it was out of the hands of politicians and a single individual, the Governor of Chiang Rai, was in charge of coordinating the Thai and international effort. There were no committees appointed — interim or otherwise — no speeches by politicians of any side, no blame game and no bureaucrats and doctors unions — trying to make capital of a situation that required a co-operative effort and not blocking Lotus Road with demonstrations — who probably wanted a piece of the action if they got duty free vehicles in exchange.

Had it been in Sri Lanka the coach who accompanied the kids into the cave would have been castigated, his family threatened or intimidated and perhaps the parents of the beleaguered children exploited by self- serving politicians of varying hues. On the contrary the parents outside and still separated from their children (but unlike the separation effected by Trumpian politics) praised the coach for his concern for his team and his fortitude at a time of adversity. That is because there is no obvious ‘blame culture’ in Thai society.

One wonders whether even a brief two-day visit to Colombo by the Thai prime minister last week taught our swollen-headed law-makers some lessons in humility, civility and humanitarianism.

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