Coach Ekkapol, the unlikely stateless hero of Thai cave drama

Coach Ekkapol, the unlikely stateless hero of Thai cave drama
PHOTO: Facebook/Akkapol Chanthawong

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 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 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.

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ALSO READ: 'Hooyah!' Exhilaration and relief as Thai boys rescued from cave

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".

ALSO READ: Thai cave rescue: Many worry that coach may blame himself for ordeal

Thai cave rescue: How each boy is extracted in complex process

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    The 10-km long Tham Luang cave, which has been described as a labyrinth, sits near the Thai border with Myanmar.

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    Rescue divers began operations on Sunday (July 8) to extract the 12 boys and their football coach from the massive Tham Luang cave in Chiang Rai, Thailand.

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    Here's how the 12 boys might dive and walk out of the complex cave network. (Graphic Not drawn to scale)

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    The boys are located more than 4km from the mouth of the cave. Most of the boys don't know how to swim.

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    According to experts, divers required three hours to reach the boys from the mouth of the cave, Reuters reported. The boys' ordeal is expected to last 3 or more hours.

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    This undated handout photo taken recently and released by the Royal Thai Navy on July 7, 2018 shows a Thai Navy diver in the cave during rescue operations.

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    The boys will have to first dive for 400m before reaching Pattaya Beach, a chamber more than 4km from the cave's entrance. Then, they have to dive for another 130m before walking and climbing along a 400m-long dry area.

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    The first, nearly 1km-long section from where the boys have been huddling in darkness is believed to be the most difficult, requiring a long dive and crawling through mud and debris, with some crevices barely wide enough for a person.

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    The 5-km escape route cuts through dark, flooded and narrow passageways, as this still from a video circulating online shows.

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    How each boy will be tethered to the 2 adult rescue divers. Once past the first stretch, the boys' escape route forks east at a T-junction, and they must scrabble over some diverse terrain including giant boulders, sand and slippery rocks with sudden cliff-like drops and further submerged passageways.

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    The biggest crisis spot is a 38-cm-wide crevice close to the T-junction, known as Sam Yaek Junction.

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    The biggest crisis spot is a 38-cm-wide crevice close to the T-junction, known as Sam Yaek Junction.

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    "The hole is really small, I have to take off my air tank to crawl through it," a 25-year-old Thai Navy Seal told Reuters before the rescue attempt. "As I do, I feel the edges of the hole on both my back and chest."

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    Rescue divers will have to remove their scuba tanks and roll them along while guiding the boys through. After that though, the tunnels widen, the waters subside, and walking is even possible.

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    There are several 'choke points' in the complex cave network. After the dreaded T-junction, the rest of the journey is expected to be relatively safe as they will have reached a forward operating base inside the cave.

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    Ambulances wait at the mouth of the cave to whisk the boys away to hospital when they emerge.

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    Divers resuming the rescue mission on Monday (July 9).

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    Police and military personnel use umbrellas to cover around a stretcher near a helicopter and an ambulance at a military airport in Chiang Rai on July 9, 2018.

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    Rescuers venturing into the cave in a photo released on July 7 by the Thai Royal Navy.

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    The high-risk operation at the Tham Luang caves paused overnight on Sunday (July 8) as rescuers recovered and oxygen tanks were replenished along the route.

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    Torchlight only affords visibility up to three feet in the murky waters.

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    A nearby hospital ready to receive the boys after they are rescued.

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.

Touching memes celebrate success of #ThaiCaveRescue mission

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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