The Thai Boys’ Rescue: a Lesson in Compassion

By Andrew Hamilton SJ.  A version of this article was originally published by Eureka Street, 11 July 2018. 

Most of us were surely moved by the plight and rescue of the boys marooned in the North Thailand cave. Those of us who have been similarly touched by the lives of people who seek protection from persecution were also struck by the contrast between the reception received by the boys in Thailand and children who have come to Australia to seek protection.

In Australia we see children suffering mental illness on Nauru, children having to have recourse to the High Court to receive medical care in Australia, children deprived of support by the withdrawal of benefits in Australia. They are trapped in a culture of inhumanity 

How different it was in Thailand. The boys met a more mature human response to misfortune and a more sophisticated culture. The news that the boys were lost in the cave generated concern and attention throughout Thailand. These boys were everyone’s sons. Volunteers flowed in from all parts of Thailand, offering their labour and their gifts to the people who could rescue them. International volunteers also offered their services, and were welcomed for the skills they brought and incorporated into an international team that worked cooperatively and tirelessly at the risk of their lives. Here was a society working effectively out of compassion.

The events in Thailand also disclosed a deeper culture.  Its strength can be gauged when we ponder how the boys apparently emerged undamaged after spending more than a week together in a dark cave, without light, with very little food, without the support of family, and unsure whether their whereabouts would be known or they would be found alive. That is the stuff of nightmares and of isolation. Yet they seem to have been brought together rather than isolated by the experience.

Their resilience speaks of a strong Buddhist culture embodied in their coach who fasted in order to keep them nourished, taught them meditation and whom they called ‘Brother’. His first message from the cave was to apologise to the parents for the distress the cave expedition had caused, and he was the last to be rescued. His thought was consistently for others.

This culture of compassion and of community based on respect was also displayed in the handling of the rescue and the subsequent care for the boys. It spoke deeply, perhaps reproachfully, to those of us who watched from a distance. It should encourage us in doing all we can to ensure that children who need protection receive it, and that our nation treats all children in need compassionately and decently.