Coach Ekkapol, the unlikely stateless hero of Thai cave drama

Thanaporn Promthep, mother of one of the 12 boys, displays an image believed to have been taken in 2017 of her son and his football coach Ekkapol Chantawong (right). PHOTO: AFP

MAE SAI, THAILAND (AFP) - 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 fixated a country that does not recognise them as citizens.

Coach Ekkapol, the 25-year-old who was among the last to emerge from the cave on Tuesday (July 10), has been lauded for keeping the the young footballers - aged 11 to 16 - calm as starvation loomed in the dark.

He was the only adult with the boys when 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 he awaited his turn to undertake the dangerous exit from the Tham Luang complex, 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 on July 7.

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.

The UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency, says 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 are Mr Ekkapol and three of the boys who were trapped in the cave alongside him - Dul, Mark and Tee - the founder of the Wild Boars club Nopparat Khanthavong told news agency Agence France-Presse (AFP).

"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," he added, because of travel restrictions that accompany their lack of status.

Without passports, they are unlikely to be able to take up an invite from Manchester United Football Club to visit next season.

"They also can't become professional football players because they don't have the (correct) status," Nopparat said, adding that the process has begun to try to get them nationality.

There are hopes that the boys' ordeal will lead to a change of policy.

"The issue of the boys in the cave should give Thailand a wake-up call... to grant the stateless nationality," said Mr Pornpen Khongkachonkiet of Amnesty International Thailand.

Coach Ekkapol, who is ethnic Tai Lue, is yet to give his version of the remarkable events of the past few weeks.

A novice monk for several years from the age of 10, Mr Ekkapol left the Buddhist clergy before becoming a full monk in order to look after his grandmother in Mae Sai.

He later became a coach with the Wild Boars.

He is fond of meditation, trekking and the outdoor life, according to monk Ekkapol Chutinaro, who roomed with his namesake as a novice.

"We would trek to the jungle. He would always bring a thumb-size parcel of chilli paste and sticky rice, and we would stay there for a couple of days," he recalled of his friend.

As a football coach, he is 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 Wild Boars' founder Nopparat.

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