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Unhindered By Privilege: Thai cave rescue mission may have succeeded because subalterns were involved


The technology, skill and courage that saved 13 young people of a football team from inside the Tham Luang Cave in northern Thailand has rightly drawn international applause. The way Thai Navy Seal personnel found their way through narrow crevices in pitch darkness was like threading a needle blindfolded, only way more dangerous.

But this episode was not just about the rescue team’s heroism and technological readiness, there was a lot more besides, most of it sociological. One needs to take into account these social features because they profoundly contributed to this amazingly skilled and well executed feat.

At first sight it would appear that facts of class, status and nationality were stacked against the trapped young people in the cave. The boys along with their football coach came from poor, marginalised backgrounds. Normally this would have been enough to make the state machinery sluggish and unwilling to exert itself.

In general, media and administration take notice only when families upward of posh middle class are involved. Yet, this time around the Thai navy came out promptly, and in full force. They used their training to advantage and did their job in the way they knew best.

What is more, Mae Sai, the region this football team is based, is actually hostile towards the Thai state. Finally, as if poverty and belonging to belligerent territory were not enough, the formal nationality of many of the boys was also in question; four of the 13, coach included, were clearly stateless.

Members of this young football team come from the region where Thailand, Myanmar and Laos meet. They slip in and out of these three countries for this is a rather disturbed zone. Yet the boys continued to lead as normal a life as possible, including going to school and playing football. These kids had none of the trappings of middle class security, or even the safety of belonging to a country. Perhaps it was all this that built a strong ethical character in them.

The Thai state too acted as if the backgrounds of the boys made no difference and their ethnicity of no consideration; they were all worthy in themselves. Thailand came together as one and in this process overcame cultural prejudices and political calculations. This helped institutional efficiency to function optimally and unconditionally.

In this connection one needs to add that none of the parents pressured the authorities to rescue their child before all others, or get preferential treatment. They were just not influential enough to interfere with standard operating procedure.

The rescue team could thus concentrate on its task without making room for extraneous considerations. As the navy did not have to reckon with social notables, or those with connections, they were infinitely more effective at their work. One of the greatest escapes ever was conducted by fully relying on institutional norms and established procedures, undiluted by political, personal, or status-class interference.

Had the children come from a more privileged background they would have perhaps panicked, or felt dispirited because their sense of entitlement would have been offended. Their family members may have held demonstrations trying to influence politicians, even the navy. There could also have been a competition between parents regarding whose child gets out first.

In this case, on the other hand, the parents decided among themselves that identities of the ones who were rescued earlier would not be revealed to them till the entire mission was over. These boys and their parents were used to hardship and unused to preferential treatment.

The 12 boys were in their mid teens, no more, and the youngest was only 11 years old. Yet they stood firm probably because they had seen hard times. Among them was young Adul Sam-on, just 14 years of age, who spoke five languages, including Chinese and English, and ably communicated their problems to the first divers who spotted them.

What astonished the rescue team was the amazing calm and fortitude that the boys displayed. Normally, one would have expected hysteria, disorder and pure fear, yet none of that was in evidence.

This is not meant to knock down kids from well-to-do backgrounds, but one cannot help noticing that as these boys lived with uncertainty and want they were able to cope with the situation better. The trapped members of the football team were surely very apprehensive, but if they had let this emotion overwhelm them their evacuation from the cave would have been far riskier. Panic had to be kept out.

From start to finish, the boys kept their equanimity and composure. The Thai Navy Seal team found them gaunt, underfed and weak, but many of them displayed huge grins on their faces; some also flashed victory signs. They still did not know if a rescue was possible. All they were certain of was that monsoon waters were flooding in and could soon squeeze out the oxygen from the cave.

In this forbidding atmosphere, their coach taught the boys to meditate in the dark and stay positive for the entire period lasting over 15 days. It is the sum of these non-technical elements that complemented the technical skills of the rescue mission. While we cheer the efficiency with which the evacuation took place, one must also note the social factors which allowed this to happen.

Privilege can cause more harm than good especially in times of crisis.

Source: Economic Times