Breda O’Brien: Thai cave rescue masks larger scandals

If the children turned up on our doorstep in different circumstances, there would be little welcome

Empathy and compassion are some of the most powerful motivators. They were on display in abundance during the nerve-wracking rescue of the soccer team trapped in the Tham Luang cave in Thailand.

They led former Thai navy Seal Saman Kunan to lay down his life for strangers.Volunteer divers came from all over the world, including Belgian-born Irish resident Jim Warny.

Aside from the frontline teams, people carried out all sorts of undramatic but important kindnesses. They washed uniforms, cooked thousands of meals (including halal meals for Muslims) and transported people, all for free.

Even Donald Trump declared the success of the mission to be "beautiful". But empathy is easier to sustain in acute rather than in chronic situations.


And the situation in Thailand and neighbouring Myanmar is indeed chronic. For example, some of the rescued boys and coach Ekkapol Chantawong will not be able to take up Manchester United's kind offer to come and visit, because they are stateless. Stateless individuals have no birth certificate or ID card and cannot legally travel, get a job or even marry.

Dubious distinction

Take Adul Sam-on, who acted as an interpreter when the British divers finally discovered the boys. At 14, he can speak English, Chinese, Burmese, Thai and Wa. The latter is the language of the ethnic minority to which he belongs.

The unofficial but effectively autonomous Wa state in Myanmar has the dubious distinction of being a major producer of illegal synthetic drugs such as methamphetamine. It is also home to the United Wa State Army, Myanmar's largest non-state militia, which grew with Chinese support and funding from narcotics.

There have been evangelical Christians in Thailand since the 1900s and some of the first converts were Wa. As a child, Adul was entrusted by his parents to Maesai Grace evangelical church in Thailand, which runs a school for migrant children.

Adul’s sporting prowess and academic excellence have won him free tuition and school meals in his current school, where about a fifth of the pupils are stateless and about half are from ethnic minorities.

Stateless people

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimates there about 440,000 stateless people in Thailand, but other NGOs’ estimates range from one million to three million. What is certain is that many of them are children, perhaps not as gifted as Adul, but also lacking even the right to be a citizen of any country.

The coach, who reportedly ate little while in the cave, preferring to see the boys take the meagre amount of food, is also stateless. Ekkapol belongs to a different ethnic minority, Tai Lu. Some years after his parents died unexpectedly from an illness that swept his village he entered a Buddhist monastery.

Perhaps we could expand our empathy to encompass those who are invisible to the media

Until relatively recently, virtually every Thai Buddhist boy spent time in a monastery, from as little as a week to as long as a year. But today, impoverished Burmese young men such as Ekkapol are more likely to be found in Thai monasteries, as Thailand has secularised rapidly in the last decade.

It is striking how little recrimination there has been from the boys’ parents about the fact that Ekkapol took the boys into the caves in the first place. Perhaps they recognise his genuine devotion to the boys, which included meditating with them to keep them calm and conserve energy.


He reportedly saw sport as a means of motivating the boys to achieve and given the precarious nature of some of the boys’ lives, no doubt parents are very grateful.

Thailand’s military dictatorship has promised on many occasions to regularise the citizenship status of stateless refugees. But the process is complex and ethnic minorities have little reason to trust the Thai state.

No doubt the dictatorship has enjoyed getting positive publicity in recent weeks.

Similarly, neighbouring Myanmar, under the leadership of State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, has repeatedly claimed to want to end ethnic conflict. (A peace conference is ongoing.)

There, too, Myanmar’s credibility is strained by the brutal repression of the Muslim Rohingyas and other minorities.

Little welcome

It is easy to point the finger at repressive governments. But the reality remains that if the stateless children turned up on Trump’s doorstep in circumstances other than having been rescued, there would be little welcome.

Nor would there be much of a welcome in Ireland or in many European states.

Many people care at local and voluntary levels, such as Maesai church and the Buddhist monastery where Ekkapol Chantawong spent 10 years. NGOs, including Trócaire which works in Myanmar, also do sterling work.

But even if the Thai government regularises the situation of those trapped in the cave, statelessness will continue to be a punishing reality for thousands of children and adults.

While rejoicing because of the rescue, perhaps we could expand our empathy to encompass those who are invisible to media but no less worthy of compassion.