As the world marvels at the daring rescue of the Wild Boars soccer team from a flooded cave this week, it has emerged that three of the boys and their coach are stateless and live in Thailand as residents with few rights.
Young players Pornchai Kamluang, Adul Sam-on and Mongkhol Boonpiam, as well as 25-year-old coach Ekaphol Chantawong, all are technically stateless and not considered citizens under Thai law.
The three have Thai ID cards granting them some basic rights, but Mr Ekaphol, known to the team as Ek, has no legal status, making him vulnerable to deportation and technically ineligible to receive some public services.
Ek was the last of the 13 people to be brought out of the Tham Luang cave in a perilous rescue mission Tuesday night, ending a 17-day ordeal deep under a mountain in the northern Chang Rai province.
While the team and coach recuperate in hospital on Friday, Thai officials are now looking into the possibility of granting the five stateless members citizenship and allowing them the same rights as their teammates.
Ek is a member of the Tai Lue minority, one of several groups whose people for generations have moved across the open borders in remote hills between Thailand, southern China, Myanmar and Laos.
Weenat Seesuk, an interior ministry official in Bangkok, confirmed Ek and three of the boys rescued from the cave were stateless.
“They are not Thai citizens,” Mr Weenat told Reuters, adding that officials were checking to see if they qualified for citizenship.
Venus Sirsuk, the director of the Bureau of Registration at the Thai interior ministry, confirmed his office was looking into granting citizenship to the group.
“Right now, the officials in Mae Sai district office are looking into their birth evidence. We have to see whether they were born in Thailand, and whether they have either a Thai father or mother,” he told The Guardian.
Asked how long it would take, he said: “I have no idea. It depends on whether we find the documents.”
Many Thais on social media have lobbied for four to be given citizenship following their ordeal.
The only boy that was able to communicate with the British divers when the group was discovered was Burmese born Adul Sam-on. He speaks several languages and is stateless.#Thamluangcaverescue #thaicaverescue pic.twitter.com/eZLncSkpU4
— ThaiMythbuster (@thaimythbuster) July 10, 2018
Earlier this week it was revealed that 14-year-old Adul had eight years ago escaped a territory in Myanmar known for guerrilla warfare, opium cultivation and methamphetamine trafficking.
His parents slipped him into Thailand, in the hopes that proper schooling would provide him with a better life than that of his illiterate, impoverished family.
One of Ek’s relatives, Charoenpol Rattanaweerachon, 52, said one of his nephew’s dreams had always been to achieve citizenship.
Recounting Ek’s life, Mr Charoenpol said he was ordained as a novice Buddhist monk at the age of 10 after his father died and stayed at a temple in Chiang Mai province until he was 20.
“Ek is a kind and humble man,” Mr Charoenpol said.
“He loves sports, cycling and football since he was young. He’s a country boy so he enjoys nature.”
ปฏิบัติการที่โลกต้องจดจำThe operation the world never forgets.18 วัน ที่ผู้คนทั้งโลกรวมใจมาอยู่ด้วยกัน รวมพลังช่วยกันพานักฟุตบอลทีมหมูป่าอะคาเดมี 12 คนและโค้ช กลับบ้านและเราจะจดจำความเสียสละ ความงดงามในจิตใจของเรือโทสมาน กุนัน ตลอดไป“ภารกิจไม่สำเร็จ ไม่พบเราไม่เลิก”Hooyah Hooyah Hooyah
Posted by Thai NavySEAL on Wednesday, July 11, 2018
Chanta Chaichim, the mother of Duangpetch Promthep, 13, the rescued captain of the “Wild Boars”, said the young coach was like a father to her son.
“He even washes his clothes after practice,” Ms Chanta told Reuters.
Mr 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 to fear. His goodness will shine through,” he said.