The coach and three of the 12 boys rescued from a flooded cave this week are officially stateless, but could be granted fast-track Thai citizenship in the wake of their 17-day ordeal.
Relatives and friends described Ekkapol Chantawong, 25, as a kind and humble young man with a passion for sports and a dream to one day become a citizen of the country of his birth.
Authorities in Bangkok confirmed that Mr Chantawong and three of the trapped boys were “not Thai citizens”, but officials have now promised to provide them legal assistance and say that, if there are no complications, all will have Thai nationality within six months.
As a member of the Tai Lue minority, rights groups say Ekkapol may otherwise have faced a wait of up to 10 years to achieve citizenship, in a process that involves proving his Thai lineage and which is seen as so laborious that many members of minority groups simply give up.
The Tai Lue are just one of a number of ethnic groups who, for generations, have moved across regions and borders in the remote hills between China, Myanmar, Laos and Thailand. They are among the estimated 500,000 people living in Thailand who are officially stateless.
Mr Chantawong, a former Buddhist monk, has received many plaudits for the way he looked after the boys after they became trapped by floodwaters during a visit to the Tham Luang caves on 23 June.
Also on Friday, members of the boys’ families told reporters that the team had only planned to spend “about an hour” in the caves before heading home on their bicycles.
Banpot Korncam, father of the 13-year-old captain of the Wild Boars team, said: “He told me that as soon as they finished practice they went to play at the cave. They thought they’d only be an hour. While they were inside the cave it rained, water flowed in and everyone took off.”
Mr Korncam also recounted what his son told him about the team’s time in the cave. They spent nine days surviving on only the snacks they brought with them and water dripping from the ceiling, until two British volunteer divers found the group. “They just sat quietly without doing anything because it was dark,” said Banpot. “When they were hungry Coach Ek would use a flashlight to shine on the stalactites above.”
Mr Chantawong has expressed remorse for taking the boys into the cave after a football match, in spite of warnings that they can be dangerous during monsoon season, writing in a letter to the boys’ parents that he only wanted to take “the very best care” of the Wild Boars team.
“Ek is a kind and humble man,” said one of his relatives, Charoenpol Rattanaweerachon, 52. “He loves sports, cycling and football since he was young. He’s a country boy so he enjoys nature.”
On the matter of his statelessness, Mr Rattanaweerachon told the Reuters news agency: “He would love to become a Thai citizen.”
The International Rescue Committee (IRC), directed by former Labour politician David Miliband, and perhaps better known for its work with the Rohingya community in Myanmar, is also supporting displaced peoples along the Thai-Myanmar border, helping them to understand and assert their rights.
IRC’s regional vice-president for Asia, Sanna Johnson, told The Independent the boys’ story offered “hope of a better life for all stateless people in Thailand”, who are unable to legally work or open a bank account, and therefore perpetually vulnerable to forms of exploitation like forced labour and sex trafficking.
“We are hopeful that this tale will shine a light on the dreadful challenges faced by stateless peoples both in Thailand and across the region,” Ms Johnson said.
The boys are not the only ones being recognised by the Thai authorities in the wake of the dramatic cave rescue operation, which gripped audiences around the world.
According to an announcement on Thai TV Channel 3, all of the foreign volunteers involved in the rescue will be awarded with prestigious Thailand Elite cards by the country’s interior ministry.
The cards grant the holder unlimited, visa-exempt travel to the kingdom for five years, and can cost up to a million baht (£22,800) depending on their level.
Those rescuers who have not left the country after their successful mission were also invited on a free tour of Chiang Rai and Bangkok before they go, Thai media reported.
And the rescuers have also been invited to return to visit Thailand, for an all-expenses-paid week-long holiday, at any time they like within the next five years.
The attention brought upon Thailand by the Chiang Rai cave story has not been lost on the authorities, and plans are in motion to turn the cave complex itself into a museum and tourist destination.
But for Santiphong Moonphong, chairman of a charity working to provide legal status to Thai minorities, the issue of the boys’s statelessness should be the take-home message from the saga.
He told Thailand’s The Nation newspaper that he hoped the boys’ situation would bring the problems of stateless people to wider public attention, and inspire the government to act on the issue.
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