BANGKOK (AFP, REUTERS) - The 12 Thai boys and soccer coach who were rescued from a flooded cave will be discharged from hospital on Wednesday (July 18) and hold a news conference in the evening to satisfy huge media interest in their story, a government official said.
The Thai government will allot 45 minutes’ airtime on its Thailand Moves Forward programme for the soccer team’s news conference.
The show, which will be recorded at Chiang Rai’s provincial hall at around 6pm local time after the evening national anthem, will also be broadcast live across dozens of channels.
“The reason to hold this evening press conference is so media can ask them questions and after that they can go back to live their normal lives without media bothering them,” Thailand’s chief government spokesman Sunsern Kaewkumnerd said.
The boys, aged 11 to 16, and their 25-year-old coach were safely brought out of the Tham Luang mountain cave complex near the border with Myanmar last week after a perilous rescue operation that drew global media attention and hundreds of journalists to the scene.
The boys and their coach have been in hospital in the northern town of Chiang Rai since they were rescued.
The authorities have been concerned about the impact of sudden fame and media attention on the boys' mental health, so Wednesday's news conference will be carefully controlled.
Journalists will submit questions in advance which will be vetted by a psychologist. Approved questions will be put to the boys by a moderator.
"We arrange it so that, after that, the boys can go back to their regular lives," Major General Sansern said.
But with experts warning of possible long-term distress from the ordeal inside the Tham Luang cave in northern Thailand, the briefing will be closely watched.
The public relations department in Chiang Rai province solicited questions from news outlets in advance and they will be forwarded to psychiatrists for screening.
Called Sending the Wild Boars Home and broadcast on major television channels, the session will last for about 45 minutes, Maj Gen Sunsern said, adding that it would be conducted in an informal style with a moderator.
“They are likely to return home immediately after the press conference,” he said.
Thailand’s junta leader Prayut Chan-o-Cha urged media on Wednesday to be “cautious in asking unimportant questions” that could cause unspecified damage.
“Today everything is already good, including the perception in foreign countries,” he told reporters in Bangkok. “Nothing is better than this so we should not make it get worse.”
“The media know that the children are in a difficult situation, they have overcome peril and if you ask risky questions then it could break the law,” Mr Tawatchai Thaikaew, deputy permanent secretary at the Justice Ministry, told reporters on Wednesday.
“We don’t know what wounds the kids are carrying in the hearts,” he added.
Doctors have advised families of the boys, aged 11 to 16, that they should avoid letting them contact journalists for at least one month after they are discharged.
Though they and their coach are all said to be in good mental and physical health, health officials say that additional psychological monitoring will be provided to detect lingering trauma.
The boys and their coach had planned to explore the cavern for about an hour after soccer practice on June 23. But a rainy season downpour flooded the tunnels, trapping them.
Some Thai television personalities joked that the boys will help ratings of the otherwise dull Thailand Moves Forward television show, which is usually reserved for monotonous conversations about the military government’s performance.
“This is the story all Thais want to hear. Don’t switch it off, don’t put it on mute,” joked a presenter on VOICE TV, a television station that is often critical of the military government.
“It should help the Thailand Moves Forward show’s ratings shoot through the roof,” he added.
The sleepy, northern town of Chiang Rai kicked into action again on Wednesday ahead of the boys’ much-anticipated appearance.
“I pass the hospital where the children are staying every day and every day I say a prayer to thank Lord Buddha for their return,” said Duang, a noodle vendor, who only wanted to be identified by her first name.
“The reporters are back. I had to pick a Japanese reporter up from the airport at 2am,” said Mr Manop Netsuwan, a Chiang Rai resident and tour operator.
At Chiang Rai Airport, a screen welcoming visitors shows a cartoon of the group with rescuers and the words: “Our Heroes”.
Two British divers found them on July 2 squatting on a mound in a flooded chamber several kilometers inside the complex. Rescuers then had to work out how to get them out through the tunnels, some of which were full of fast-flowing floodwater.
Their dramatic story is already set for a retelling by Hollywood, with two production companies looking to put together movies about the boys and their rescue.
Mr Passakorn Bunyalak, deputy governor of the province of Chiang Rai, said the boys would be sent home after the news conference and he was requesting their parents and journalists to hold off interviews for about 30 days.
"At this early stage, we are trying to get media not to bother the boys," he told Reuters, adding that they were protected by Thailand's Child Protection Act.
An article in the act protects those under 18 from media coverage that would cause emotional and reputational injury.