Beyond the call of duty: Coach Ek, the stateless ex-monk

Thanaporn Promthep, mother of one of the 12 boys who went missing in a Thai cave, shows a photo believed to have been taken in 2017 of her son Duangpetch Promthep, (second right with light) and his coach Ekkapol Chantawong (right). PHOTO: AFP

MAE SAI (Thailand) • Schooled as a monk and now hailed a hero, football coach Ekkapol Chantawong is one of several stateless members of the Wild Boars, a team whose survival after days trapped in a flooded Thai cave captured the attention of a country that does not recognise them as citizens.

Mr Ekkapol, or Coach Ek, was among the last to emerge from the cave on Tuesday. The 25-year-old has been lauded for keeping the young footballers - aged 11 to 16 - calm as the threat of starvation loomed in the dark.

He was the only adult with the boys from the time they entered the cave on June 23 until they were found nine days later by British divers on a muddy bank deep inside the cave complex.

As Mr Ekkapol awaited his turn to undertake the dangerous exit from Tham Luang cave, Thais on the outside celebrated him as a modest, devout and duty-bound member of the Mae Sai community.

"From all the parents, please take care of all the children. Don't blame yourself," said a letter to him from the boys' relatives released last Saturday.

In reply, he scrawled a note apologising to the parents, and vowing to take "the very best care of the kids". The touching note won the hearts of the Thai public - a group to which he is yet to officially belong.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Thailand is home to around 480,000 stateless people. Many are from nomadic hill tribes and other ethnic groups who have for centuries lived around Mae Sai, the heart of the "Golden Triangle" - a lawless wedge of land bisecting Thailand, Myanmar, Laos and China.

Among the stateless were Mr Ekkapol and three of the boys who were trapped in the cave alongside him, known as Dul, Mark and Tee, Mr Nopparat Khanthavong, founder of the Wild Boars club, told Agence France-Presse.

"To get nationality is the biggest hope for the boys... In the past, these boys have problems travelling to play matches outside of Chiang Rai," Mr Nopparat added. This was because of travel restrictions that accompanies their lack of status.

Mr Ekkapol, who is ethnic Tai Lue, is fond of meditation, trekking and the outdoors, said monk Ekkapol Chutinaro, who roomed with his namesake as a novice.

As a football coach, he is also regarded as a generous and patient teacher willing to help even the least skilled children.

But as a citizen of nowhere, he cannot yet gain his full coaching qualifications.

"He is stateless. No nationality. No country," added Mr Nopparat.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 12, 2018, with the headline Beyond the call of duty: Coach Ek, the stateless ex-monk. Subscribe