BANGKOK: The discovery that the soccer coach who was trapped in a Thailand cave for two weeks, and three of the boys he teaches, are stateless has surprised many in the country – who are now calling for them to be given citizenship following their ordeal.
“They are not Thai citizens,” said Weenat Seesuk, an interior ministry official in Bangkok, adding that officials were checking to see if they qualified for citizenship.
Coach Ekkapol Chantawong, or Ek as he is known, is a member of the Tai Lue minority, one of several groups whose people have over generations moved around the region, across open borders in remote hills between southern China, Myanmar and Laos, and into northern Thailand’s ethnic patchwork of communities.
Many such people do not have Thai citizenship papers and are officially stateless.
“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 would love to become a Thai citizen,” said Charoenpol.
The “Wild Boars” coach has come under scrutiny as the only adult in the group of 13 who became trapped on June 23 during an expedition in a cave in the northern province of Chiang Rai when rainfall caused the cave to flood behind them.
All 13 were finally brought out after a dramatic rescue through flooded tunnels this week.
Ek, 25, along with the 12 boys, has been in hospital since being extracted and has not spoken publicly about the ordeal, or about how the group got trapped by floodwaters after a rainy season downpour.
He showed remorse in a note to the boys’ parents that rescuers brought out of the cave, apologising and vowing to take “the very best care” of the boys.
Recounting Ek’s life, Charoenpol said he ordained as a novice Buddhist monk at the age of 10, after his father died.
He stayed at a temple in Chiang Mai province until he was 20, when he left the monkhood to take care of his grandmother.
Ek did odd jobs and lived a simple life, often sleeping at a monastery high on a hill or with friends in the town of Mae Sai on the Myanmar border, not far from the cave complex.
Some people have wondered whether Ek’s background as a Buddhist monk had helped him stay calm, and help the children, during their ordeal in the flooded Tham Luang cave.
“I think he helped the children a lot, being a novice monk for 10 years,” said Charoenpol.
Ek’s Facebook page is full of photographs of him with the boys playing sports.
Hours before he and the boys became trapped, he posted a last video of the “Wild Boars” practising under a cloudy sky.
Charoenpol said Ek would be warmly welcomed back into the community when he left hospital.
“He must be feeling guilty right now but I would say he has nothing fear. His goodness will shine through,” he said. — REUTERS