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Miracle at Tham Luang is a Feel Good Story for a Beleaguered Thailand

Commentary by Zachary Abuza
2018-07-11
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In this undated photo released by the Royal Thai Navy on July 11, a member of the “Wild Boars” youth soccer team is moved on a stretcher during the rescue operation at Tham Luang cave in Thailand’s Chiang Rae province.
AFP/Royal Thai Navy

It began as a calamity. It ended as a miraculous rescue.

On July 10, an international team of rescue divers completed bringing out all 12 members of a Thai youth soccer team and their coach from a flooded underground cave complex in northern Thailand.

A former Thai navy SEAL died in the heroic rescue. It was the only loss of life, one that demonstrated just how complex an operation it would be.

The rescue has captivated the world. At the height of the World Cup, the world was pulling for one team, the Wild Boars.

The kids displayed enormous fortitude and mental strength. They had been trapped for more than two weeks inside the cave that suddenly filled with monsoon rainwater on June 23.

Most could not swim, let alone scuba dive. And the rescue team, which included some of the world’s top cave divers, described the caves some of the most challenging they had ever dived in. The kids had to come out more than 2 km (1.2 miles), mostly in zero visibility.

It is a feel good story for a beleaguered Thailand.

The country has been in a malaise for more than 12 years. Bitter partisanship has led to two military takeovers, in 2006 and 2014, overthrowing two democratically elected governments.

A boon for the junta

The rescue was clearly a boon to Gen. Prayuth Chan-o-cha, who has made clear that he intends to continue as prime minister once “democracy” is returned.

The junta has delayed returning power to civilians five times already. Although Prayuth promised elections by February 2019, there have been some indications that they will be delayed yet again.

The junta rammed through its hand-picked parliament a constitution that is all about constraining democratic governance.

The senate will be selected by the military. Most power will be in the hands of unaccountable elites. The prime minister can be appointed. There are all checks and no balances.

At the same time, the military government has done little to reconcile the deep divisions in society. It has banned any political gatherings, so there is a veneer of stability.

Thailand’s GINI coefficient, which measures inequality, has steadily declined almost every year since the military took over in 2006. In 2016, Thailand had the highest inequality rate in Southeast Asia, with the richest 1 percent owning over 58 percent of the nation’s wealth.

The military government continues to focus infrastructure funding on Bangkok and a few other urban centers, further alienating the rural population. Eighty percent of the poor live in rural areas, and yet the junta has done little for them.

Its management of the economy has been mixed.  Though the economy grew at around 3.9 percent in 2017, it was largely buoyed by Thailand’s resilient tourism sector.  And the economy is being surpassed by lower-cost producers like Vietnam and the Philippines.

Thailand is ill-prepared to take the economy to higher-value added production, which it has to do, with its low rate in population growth. Only Singapore’s fertility rate is lower than Thailand’s.

The junta has prioritized the inculcation of “Thai values,” which are patriarchal and feudal, ahead of analytical skills, creative thinking, science and technology. Although education receives the highest level of government funding, the results are decidedly mixed.

Corruption, ostensibly one of the justifications of the last coup, has soared under military rule.  The members of the junta and its hand-picked national legislative assembly were instructed to disclose their assets. No one, including Prayuth, could explain their vast wealth, making a mockery of any pretense of combatting corruption.

The military has pushed through repressive media and cyber security laws to quash dissent. It has detained more than 100 people in the past few years for violations of Article 112 of the Criminal Code, which forbids any criticism of the monarchy.

Under an international spotlight

The rescue at Tham Luang cave was important for another reason. The junta has been fairly isolated diplomatically.

Prime Minister Prayuth has been trying to make more overseas visits to burnish his legitimacy as he prepares to run for office once elections are set. He recently traveled to the United Kingdom and France.

Angered by international opprobrium, Thailand’s leaders have become more xenophobic and shrill. So it was so important that they willingly allowed an international rescue team to take the lead in the rescue.

There were 90 divers, including 50 from 18 countries. The boys were discovered by a team of British cave divers. An Australian doctor went for each rescue, to ascertain the health of the boys and their coach. Divers from the U.S. helped organize the rescue.

National pride can never be an impediment when lives are at stake.  Knowing when to ask for help, to defer to expertise, is never easy, especially for a government whose legitimacy is in question.

The coach of the Wild Boars, along with several of the boys, is himself stateless, a member of a hill tribe. His commitment to the boy’s health and safety is another reminder of the role that immigrants and marginalized people play in our society.

Prayuth should use this opportunity to address the lingering issue of statelessness among the north’s remaining hill tribes.

The former Thai SEAL who died during the rescue, is truly a model of self-sacrifice, public service, and selflessness. He was truly a welcome juxtaposition against the self-serving Thai elites who have bitterly clung to power.

Now can Thailand be rescued from its malaise?

Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College in Washington and the author of “Forging Peace in Southeast Asia: Insurgencies, Peace Processes, and Reconciliation.” The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Defense, the National War College or BenarNews.

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