11 July 2024

Narongsak Osatanakorn was appointed to oversee a supposedly sleepy province in the North but ended up having to supervise one of its most breathtaking events that will forever be recorded not just in local, but also in international history.

Narongsak passed away on June 21 at the age of 58. He will be remembered forever as the “Moo Pa” (Wild Boar) governor for his strong leadership throughout the search and rescue mission for the 11 young footballers and their coach. On June 23, 2018, Narongsak, then governor of Northern Thailand’s Chiang Rai province, was set to leave for his new post in Phayao, another quiet northern province, but extended his stay to head up an almost impossible mission.

The dramatic rescue mission began with the collective spirit of local volunteers and later grew into one of international cooperation that had people all over the world rooting for its success. The challenges were enormous and the stakes were high as the lives of 13 youngsters hung in the balance. At the heart of the operation was Governor Narongsak who handled the crisis with great professionalism. He worked tirelessly on the ground and held a daily press briefing to provide an official update on the latest situation of the cave mission.

Then Chiang Rai Governor Narongsak Osotthanakorn speaks during a press conference at a makeshift press centre in Mae Sai district of Chiang Rai province on July 11, 2018, after 12 boys and their coach were rescued successfully.

His strong leadership earned him respect and trust from all – from parents of the Wild Boar football squad and the international volunteers to the media from all over the world. There were hundreds of volunteers, military specialists and experts in various fields offering assistance over the course of two weeks in the operation at Tham Luang Cave. The operation was avidly embraced and followed live across the world.

The governor always looked worried and under a lot of stress (who wouldn’t?) during the operation. Perhaps the very first time people saw him smile was on the first day of the successful rescue on July 8. He was overjoyed on July 10 when the last kids and their coach were brought safely out from the cave.

“We are overjoyed,” he told a press briefing on the night of July 10. There were a few raised eyebrows when he had earlier tried to delay a press conference to announce the success of the operation. Later, people learned that he wanted to know that everyone in the operation – the international cave divers and Doctor Pak Lohamshoon were also safe. At the press briefing, he paused and apologised to the media before answering his cellphone then announcing that Dr. Pak and “3 Seals came out of the cave safe and sound”. The cheers were loud and the governor smiled broadly for the first time in 18 days since the Wild Boars members had become trapped in the cave.

Governor Narongsak dies of cancer at 58

On October 10, 2018 the “Moo Pa” governor received an award at the “Asia Game Changer Awards “in New York for his role in coordinating the rescue operation that saved those13 lives. As he received his award, he said the rescue operation at Tham Luang cave should be an inspiration for people all over the world to help others.

“I hope this experience inspires people to start living for others,” he said.

And the operation has indeed inspired. The nearly three-week-long story of survival, international collaboration and victory over the seemingly impossible that united people around the world and had them glued to their screens has been picked up and retold by authors and filmmakers. So far, there are six books in English about the cave and 7 films including “Thirteen Lives” by Ron Howard released last year and the Netflix documentary “The Trapped 13: How We Survived The Thai Cave”.

In those books and films, Governor Narongsak is immortalized as a “captain” of the rescue operation. In real life, his last post was as the 59th governor of Pathum Thani province just outside Bangkok. He has worked in various posts within the Interior Ministry and was the governor of Lampang, Chiang Rai and Phayao provinces. But at no other time during his career did he face an almost-impossible task. The rescue succeeded and 13 lives were saved.

Governor Narongsak will always be remembered as a Moo Pa Governor and a hero of the Tham Luang Cave mission. Our thoughts are with his family and friends during this sad time.

By Veena Thoopkrajae