YANGON — Monday night’s successful location of a youth soccer team and their coach who had been missing in a flooded cave complex in northern Thailand has put the spotlight on a local monk who had earlier predicted that the group would be found alive.
Phra Khuva Boonchum hails from northern Thailand, and is already known to a number of prominent leaders in Myanmar, including State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. In this country he is known as Maing Hpone Sayadaw.
The monk visited the Tham Luang cave complex in Chiang Rai late last week, by which time the 12 soccer players and their coach had been trapped for several days.
Braving monsoon rains on Friday, the 54-year-old monk performed religious rites and prayed for the wellbeing of the missing youth and their coach, as well as cave-dwelling spirits. On his departure, the monk told Thai journalists, “They are all still there; they will be found in one or two days,” according to Thai media.
The rain that had been pouring in the area for days stopped the next day; the hiatus lasted until Monday night, when the missing group was found. Many Thais believe it was the monk’s intervention that stopped the rain.
Maing Hpone Sayadaw visited the cave again on Saturday and repeated the prayers. Asked about the trapped soccer players, he stood by his prediction.
On Monday night, two British cave-diving experts who have been working alongside Thai rescue teams since the search-and-rescue mission was launched more than a week ago came into contact with the missing group. Later, to the relief of those following the news, which by this time was being reported around the world, the Thai government announced that all 13 missing people had been found alive — and the monk was vindicated.
“I was really surprised; it happened just as the monk said,” a Thai volunteer rescue worker said outside the cave on Monday night.
He said the rain had stopped after the monk visited and said his prayers, adding that this had helped the rescue mission greatly.
“When the rain stopped it made it much easier to pump water from the cave. Earlier, the rain made things really difficult for us; it flooded the cave and forced the divers to retreat,” he told The Irrawaddy.
A woman at the scene told The Irrawaddy the incident had boosted her belief in monks.
“I have heard that when people are in trouble, he [Maing Hpone Sayadaw] always appears [to help them]. Now he’s done just that. I was so happy [for the boys] that I cried,” she said.
A lifelong vegetarian famous for his long, solitary periods of meditation in caves in Thailand, Bhutan and Myanmar’s Shan State, the monk’s Burmese name derives from Mong Phong (pronounced “Maing Hpone” in Burmese) village in eastern Shan State, where he spent time at a forest retreat when he was 16. Revered for his highly moral conduct, Maing Hpone Sayadaw has many devotees in Myanmar, Thailand and Laos. He survives on fruits and biscuits, and always walks barefoot, no matter the weather. Many of his followers believe he has psychic powers.
Apart from his solitary retreats, during which he maintains total silence, Maing Hpone Sayadaw or Phra Khuva Boonchum is well known for his generosity; he donates everything that is offered to him to others. Among his followers is Myanmar’s former Military Intelligence chief General Khin Nyunt. Before his fall from power, Gen Khin Nyunt used to donate large amounts of money to Maing Hpone Sayadaw, but the monk simply gave it all to his followers.
Not everyone in Myanmar has held the monk in such high regard, however. The former military government accused him of helping ethnic Shan leaders attempt to secede from the Union in 2004 and tried to arrest him. Heeding his followers’ requests that he avoid arrest, the monk stayed in Thailand until 2013, when he was allowed to return to Myanmar.
He recently paid a visit to ailing former Senior General Maung Aye, once the second-most powerful man in the military regime.
State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi paid a visit to Maing Hpone Sayadaw during his trip to Naypyitaw last year.
Irrawaddy reporter Kyaw Kha contributed to this story from Tham Luang cave in Chiang Rai, Thailand.