Countries threaten jail for April Fools’ Day jokes about coronavirus

By Emma Batha

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – From Thailand to India, countries have told people not to make April Fools’ Day pranks related to coronavirus, with some threatening jail time as they seek to prevent the spread of rumours which could put lives at risk.

Tech giant Google, which is famous for its annual spoofs, has cancelled the tradition because of the pandemic which has killed about 40,000 people worldwide.

Thailand said on Tuesday that April Fool’s Day jokes about the virus could be punished under a law carrying a sentence of up to five years in prison.

“It’s against the law to fake having COVID-19 this April Fools’ Day,” the government said on Twitter.

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen took to Facebook to tell people not to prank about the virus, adding that anyone spreading rumours or false information could face up to three years in jail and/or a fine of up to NT$3 million ($99,200).

In India, Maharashtra state’s cyber security unit said it would take legal action against anyone spreading fake news on April Fools’ Day.

“The state govt won’t allow anyone to spread rumours/panic on #Corona,” Maharashtra Home Minister Anil Deshmukh tweeted, adding that he had instructed the authorities to “act swiftly & strongly (against) such miscreants”.

Under the heading “Corona is no joke”, Germany’s health ministry also urged the public not to make up stories related to the virus.

With people relying on the internet and media for vital information about coronavirus, there are fears that jokes could fan the spread of misinformation.

From drinking cow urine to sleeping by chopped onions, myths about how people can catch and cure COVID-19 are already widely circulating.

The World Health Organization has described it as an “infodemic”, which could increase the spread of the virus among vulnerable people.

Google said it had suspended its annual April Fools’ tradition “out of respect for all those fighting the COVID-19 pandemic”.

“Our highest goal right now is to be helpful to people, so let’s save the jokes for next April, which will undoubtedly be a whole lot brighter than this one,” it said in an internal email to staff.

In previous years Google has advertised fictitious jobs at a new research center on the moon, turned Google Maps into a game of Where’s Waldo – also known as Where’s Wally – and claimed its search technology uses trained pigeons to rank pages.

Taylor Herring, a British PR agency whose clients include TV channels and international brands, advised all companies to ditch the jokes this year.

“Tip for any brands planning an April Fool’s Day stunt. Just. Don’t,” it said on social media.

Others commented on twitter that April Fools’ Day had been cancelled because no one could make up anything more unbelievable than what is currently happening in the world.

(Reporting by Emma Batha @emmabatha; Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

Mass shooting puts Thai army officers’ side deals under scrutiny

By Panu Wongcha-um

NAKHON RATCHASIMA, Thailand (Reuters) – A Thai soldier’s killing of 29 people in a rage over a housing deal involving his superior officer has brought attention to the business dealings of army personnel in a country that just emerged from direct military rule.

Thailand’s army chief has promised to investigate and also acknowledged a wider problem of inappropriate business deals involving army officers and their subordinates, vowing to root out the practise.

The military, which staged its latest coups 2006 and 2014, wields extraordinary power in Thailand and proclaims its discipline to justify repeatedly overthrowing elected governments, but the killings on the weekend put a spotlight on some of its own members’ questionable dealings.

Sergeant Major Jakrapanth Thomma was meeting on Saturday with his commanding officer and the officer’s mother-in-law to discuss their dispute when he opened fire, killing both of them. He then drove to his army camp, a Buddhist temple and a shopping mall, gunning people down until security forces killed him on Sunday morning.

Hours before, Jakrapanth had posted on Facebook denouncing people who cheated others to become wealthy.

“Do they think they can spend the money in hell?” Jakrapanth asked.

The military has a long tradition of involvement in business and it has been an open secret that some officers branch out into private business deals.

“It is actually quite common for senior military officers to be involved in real estate, especially in Thailand’s rural areas,” said Paul Chambers, a politics expert at Naresuan University in northern Thailand.

The military is one of the largest land-holders in some provinces, controlling vast bases that also can be mini-cities unto themselves.

“Many officers tend to want to supplement their meager salaries with money they can easily make through military power regarding real estate,” Chambers said.

Military discipline is regularly extolled by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who launched the last coup in 2014 and last year retained power by leading a pro-army party to victory in an election opposition parties said was engineered to cement army influence.

One prominent opposition group, the Future Forward Party, has openly opposed military influence over politics, arguing for changes in the military-written constitution, an end to conscription and cutting the army budget.

‘INJUSTICE’

Army chief General Apirat Kongsompong has said he will set up a direct line for soldiers who feel they are being exploited by superior officers.

“The cause and reason for the perpetrator in this incident were the injustice he received from his commanding officer and relatives,” Apirat said in a press briefing on Tuesday.

He also acknowledged wider reports of officers exploiting a system of military housing loans and welfare schemes for personal gain.

“There are cooperation between units and private contractor that lobby for deals,” Apirat said

“I know about this and I want to assure that in the next three months some generals and colonels will lose their jobs,” he said.

Details of the deal that enraged Jakrapanth are not clear, but it appears to have involved his purchase of a house, brokered by the mother-in-law of his commanding officer, Colonel Anantharot Krasae.

Police told Reuters that Jakrapanth argued he was owed 50,000 baht ($1,600) by the mother-in-law, whose husband said she had already given the money to an agent who failed to pass it on to the soldier. Members of the family did not respond to messages from Reuters.

However, lawyer Atchariya Ruangrattanapong, said the dispute may have been over a larger amount – 375,000 baht ($12,000) – and said he has been approached since the shooting by 20 other members of Jakrapanth’s unit complaining about the same scheme.

“Apart from this group, I have been informed that there are hundreds of other soldiers who are scammed in a similar situation,” said Atchariya.

‘CLOSED KINGDOM’

Defense Ministry spokesman Kongcheep Tantrawanit acknowledged reports of officers profiting from sweetheart deals but said the issue was endemic in society.

“All this is an ongoing problem that not just the army but also the government faces,” Kongcheep said.

But the military has a lack of transparency beyond other institutions that makes it easier to exploit the system, said Anusorn Unno, a lecturer at Thammasat University.

“The army is like a closed kingdom,” Anusorn said.

“Those with higher ranks have the advantage in doing business within this closed system.”

The Bangkok Post said in an editorial that questionable personal deals were “the tip of the iceberg” and argued the military budget should be subject to independent audits, instead of the internal ones established by the last ruling junta.

“Without allowing greater external audits, the army risks harboring more and more shady operations.”

(Writing by Kay Johnson; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Facebook’s ‘double-edged sword’ in Thai carnage

By Patpicha Tanakasempipat

NAKHON RATCHASIMA, Thailand (Reuters) – Facebook celebrity doctor Parkphum Dejhutsadin said his phone suddenly started pinging on Saturday – scores of his two million followers in Thailand were desperate and they needed his help.

With nowhere to turn as they cowered in a shopping mall from a rogue soldier who had already killed more than two dozen people, they looked to Facebook and other social media to send their pleas and to try to find escape.

Parkphum could help – and said for the next 16 hours that’s all he did: living up to his panda-eyed Facebook persona as sleepless doctor “Mor Lab Panda”.

“They told me where they were and sent me pictures of their hiding places. Authorities didn’t know where anybody was hiding. But I knew everything,” said Parkphum. “I didn’t sleep a wink. I didn’t want them to die.”

While social media have been accused of exacerbating or even encouraging mass shootings such as last year’s mosque massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand, in Thailand they were also crucial to pulling off a safe and dramatic rescue from the shopping mall in Nakhon Ratchasima city.

Before 32-year-old killer Jakrapanth Thomma was cornered in a basement and shot dead, Thai commandos managed to coordinate raids into the mall to spring hundreds of people to safety.

“We were communicating on Facebook with the people inside to exchange information,” Pongpipat Siripornwiwat, deputy commander of Nakhon Ratchasima police, told Reuters. “Without it, our work would’ve been very difficult and we wouldn’t have had any idea how many were trapped and what was going on inside.”

FACEBOOK LIFE

The tragedy underscored the extent to which Facebook is the communication platform for daily life in the country of 69 million which has about 56 million active users a month and where the average person spends three hours a day on social media. Most social media activity is on mobile phones.

And it was on Facebook that the killer, apparently angered by a property deal gone sour, first signaled his intentions.

“Do they think they can spend the money in hell?” his post ended, roughly three hours before he opened fire at a house, then moved to an army camp, a temple and then the shopping mall – leaving a trail of murder behind him.

At one point he posted a selfie in front of a fire.

His last message before his Facebook account was shut down – “Should I give up?” – came nearly four hours after the first shot.

But after facing criticism for failing to take down the Christchurch shooter’s livestream quickly and when a Thai father murdered his child on Facebook Live in 2017, the world’s biggest social media company moved faster once it heard what was happening.

It shut his Facebook and Instagram accounts and then worked to remove anything that he had posted and was being shared by others – including by spoof accounts apparently set up in his name by other people after his own was blocked.

“There is no place on Facebook for people who commit this kind of atrocity, nor do we allow people to praise or support this attack,” a Facebook representative said in a statement, adding that it worked closely with Thai authorities to take down content that violated its policies.

“We also responded to emergency requests from the Royal Thai Police to share information related to the shooter to prevent further harm,” it said, without giving further details.

Twitter, where graphic videos of the incident were circulated, said it also took action – a company representative said it monitored its platform to remove video content of the attack and to shield graphic content from view.

But police said the shooter, who killed at least 29 people and wounded 57 before he was stopped, had not only used social media to publicize what he was doing but also to track police movements through online news sites.

“Social media was a double-edged sword. It helped police rescue people, but it also helped him keep up with our movements,” said Pongpipat.

“PANDA EYES”

Parkphum, a medical technologist working for Thailand’s National Blood Center, is so famous he even has his own set of stickers for social media messaging apps with his trademark “panda eyes” and white coat.

“Every message from the people about where they were hiding and how many were with them all turned out to be true when police got there. People were hiding in (fashion store) H&M, Eveandboy (a cosmetics shop), a gym. I now know the entire floor plan of the mall,” he said.

Other Facebook celebrities with millions of followers also stepped in to coordinate and reassure.

“I told them to stay as quiet as possible and mute their phones, to send their locations and phone numbers,” said Witawat Siriprachai, 36, known by Thais as the “Sergeant” of the social commentary page “Drama-addict”.

“I warned them not to livestream from their locations, because the shooter was also using Facebook during the rampage,” said Witawat, who is not a sergeant in real life.

At the shopping mall, 42-year-old Pat said she had just finished a meal when she heard the first shots and ran to hide in a mobile phone store. She said she was still traumatized and did not want to give her full name.

For five hours she said she scrolled through her Facebook newsfeeds to keep up with what was happening. Afraid to make the slightest noise she messaged friends who told her where to contact the police.

“I waited in complete darkness, and then the police replied to ask my exact location,” she said.

Police worked with the information she gave to coordinate an escape route and timing for people on that floor – and when they gave clearance that the shooter was three floors down, everybody just sprinted to the fire exit.

At a crouching run, masked commandos led them to safety.

Just before 11 p.m., she posted to friends that she was safe.

(Editing by Matthew Tostevin)

Soldier kills 29 people in Thailand before being shot

By Panu Wongcha-um and Patpicha Tanakasempipat

NAKHON RATCHASIMA, Thailand (Reuters) – A soldier angry over a property deal gone sour killed at least 29 people and wounded 57 in a rampage that spanned four locations in and around the northeastern Thai city of Nakhon Ratchasima before he was shot dead early Sunday.

Most of the victims were at the city’s Terminal 21 shopping center, where the shooter held out against an overnight siege with an assault rifle and ammunition stolen from his army base.

An image of a suspect on a wanted poster, after a shooting rampage in the city of Nakhon Ratchasima, in a document released by the Thai Crime Suppression Bureau in Thailand February 08, 2020. THAI CRIME SUPPRESSION BUREAU/Handout via REUTERS.

Police named him as 32-year-old soldier Jakrapanth Thomma. He initially posted written messages on Facebook during the attack before his account was shut down by the company.

“It was a personal conflict…over a house deal,” Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha told reporters on Sunday from Nakhon Ratchasima after traveling there to meet wounded survivors.

Prayuth added that the conflict was with a relative of the soldier’s commanding officer.

Thailand’s worst mass shooting prompted soul searching in the southeast Asian country of 69 million, where the army has long styled itself as the protector of the nation and dominated politics for decades either overtly or from behind the scenes.

Prayuth, a former military ruler, came in for criticism over his handling of the incident after he waved and smiled during a visit to the scene and made a heart gesture with his fingers. The hashtag #RIPPrayuth was trending on Thai social media.

“If you have a heart like kind Thais, you should respect relatives of the deceased with a calm and mournful manner,” commented Jirayu Houngsub, an opposition member of parliament.

At a morgue in Nakhon Ratchasima, the family of 13-year-old Ratchanon Karnchanamethee sobbed as they identified his body.

“He’s my only son. He hasn’t even had dinner,” said his father, Natthawut Karnchanamethee. “I allowed him to do anything he wanted to. I never set expectations for him. I only wanted him to be a good person.”

Led by police and soldiers, hundreds of shoppers fled the mall during the 12-hour standoff. Crouching low, they escaped in small groups, dazed and exhausted. At one point, armed forces emerged at a run carrying small children.

“It was frightening because I could hear the occasional gunshot…we waited a long time for the police to come and help us, many hours,” said Suvanarat Jirattanasakul, 27, her voice trembling.

Another survivor told local Amarin TV that the shooter was “aiming for the heads” and said his colleague died on the scene.

“He was shooting everywhere and his shots were very precise,” said the man, identified as “Diaw”.

The province’s governor, Wichien Chantaranochai, on Sunday night said a total of 29 people had been killed and 57 were wounded.

Also known by the historical name Korat, Nakhon Ratchasima has a population of about 250,000. It is close to a national park popular for its wild elephants but the relatively poor northeastern region is one of the less visited areas for Thailand’s tens of millions of tourists.

STOLEN ARSENAL

CCTV footage from inside the mall posted on social media showed the gunman dressed in black and wearing a mask, his gun slung over his shoulder with no sign of other people around.

According to local media, Jakrapanth worked at an army base close to Nakhon Ratchasima, which is about 250 km (155 miles) from the capital Bangkok.

He was a sharp shooter and took many special courses on carrying out attacks, including planning ambushes, army sources said. Thai media reported he often posted photos of weapons on social media.

The killings began at around 3 p.m. (0800 GMT) on Saturday when the soldier opened fire in a house before moving to an army camp and then driving to the mall in a stolen Humvee.

The soldier’s commanding officer was one of the people reported killed before the soldier moved on to the shopping mall and began shooting.

At some point during the day, the soldier raided the army camp’s weapons storage to arm himself, said Lt. General Thanya Kiatsarn, Commander of the Second Area Command.

“He attacked the guard to the weapon arsenal, who later died, and he stole an official jeep and an HK33 gun and an amount of ammunition to do what he did,” Thanya said.

‘SPEND THE MONEY IN HELL’

Hours before he began shooting on Saturday, Jakrapanth had posted on his Facebook account denouncing greedy people.

“Rich from cheating. Taking advantage of other people. Do they think they can spend the money in hell?” read one post in Thai.

He later posted written updates during the attack.

“Death is inevitable for everyone,” he wrote. Later, he complained about his fingers cramping and asked “Should I give up?” before the account was no longer available.

Hours after the mall siege began, Facebook <FB.O> said it had removed the suspect’s account.

“There is no place on Facebook for people who commit this kind of atrocity, nor do we allow people to praise or support this attack,” a Facebook representative said in a statement.

Major shootings are rare in Thailand other than in the far south, where a decades-old insurgency persists.

(Additional reporting by Athit Perawongmetha, Jiraporn Kuhakan, Prapan Chankaew and Patpicha Tanakasempipat in Nakhon Ratchasima; Panarat Thepgumpanat, Orathai Sriring and Juarawee Kittisilpa in Bangkok; Writing by Kay Johnson; Editing by David Gregorio, Simon Cameron-Moore, Jacqueline Wong, Alex Richardson and Philippa Fletcher)

Thai navy SEAL who took part in cave rescue dies after year-long infection

BANGKOK (Reuters) – A Thai navy SEAL who took part in the dramatic rescue of 12 boys and their soccer coach from a flooded cave in northern Thailand last year has died from a blood infection he contracted during the operation, the Royal Thai Navy said on Friday.

Petty Officer Beiret Bureerak had been receiving treatment, but his condition worsened, the navy said in a statement.

Another rescuer, former navy diver Sergeant Saman Kuman, died during the rescue operation.

Wild Boars Academy’s coach Ekapol Chanthawong and 12 boys had gone to explore the Tham Luang caves in Chiang Rai province on June 23, 2018, when a rainy-season downpour flooded the cave system and trapped them underground.

They survived for nine days on water dripping from rocks before they were discovered. Volunteers from abroad joined the rescue effort, which ended on July 10 when the boys and their coach were all brought out safely.

(Reporting by Jiraporn Kuhakanand Chayut Setboonsarng; Editing by Frances Kerry)

‘I’m still scared’ – Asia remembers tsunami that killed 230,000

By Prapan Chankaew

PHANG NGA, Thailand (Reuters) – Communities across Asia commemorated the more than 230,000 victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami on Thursday, the 15th anniversary of one of the world’s most deadly disasters.

On the morning after Christmas Day in 2004, a 9.1 magnitude quake off northern Sumatra island triggered a tsunami with waves as high as 17.4 meters (57 feet) that swept over vulnerable coastal areas of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Thailand and nine other countries.

“It still haunts me … I can remember it all the time,” said Suwannee Maliwan, 28, who lost both parents and five other relatives when the tsunami hit the Thai province of Phang Nga.

“Sometimes I dream that a wave is coming. I’m still scared,” she said. “Sometimes I want to move somewhere else, but it’s not possible because I was born here, my mom and dad passed away here.”

FILE PHOTO: Submerged buildings are seen near the pier at Ton Sai Bay in Thailand’s Phi Phi island, December 28, 2004 after a tsunami hit the area. REUTERS/Luis Enrique Ascui/File Photo

Memorials were scheduled in the Indonesian province of Aceh, where entire villages were flattened and more than 125,000 people perished in the giant waves. Since then, the area has been largely rebuilt, with some 25,600 residential, commercial, government and school buildings constructed inside a high-risk zone, that had suffered virtually total devastation in 2004.

In Thailand, where more than 5,300 people were killed, including tourists visiting resort islands in the Andaman Sea, officials held a memorial ceremony and called for more awareness and preparedness for disasters.

“The government wants to lift safety standards… and build awareness across all sectors in preparing and protecting people against disasters,” Deputy Interior Minister, Nipon Bunyamanee, said at an opening ceremony. He said Dec. 26 had been designated national accident prevention day.

Officials later laid wreaths at a memorial center in Phang Nga province to pay tribute to King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s nephew, Bhumi Jensen, who was last seen jet-skiing off the coast when the tsunami hit.

An interfaith service for Muslim, Christian and Buddhist victims was also scheduled.

Survivors from Ban Nam Khem, the worst hit Thai village, will hold a candlelight vigil in the evening. At least 1,400 people were killed when waves struck the fishing village.

In India, where more than 10,000 people died in the tsunami, survivors also were to hold memorial ceremonies. More than 35,000 people died in Sri Lanka.

(Writing and additional reporting by Chayut Setboonsarng in Bangkok; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

Gunmen kill 15 in southern Thailand’s worst attack in years

Gunmen kill 15 in southern Thailand’s worst attack in years
By Surapan Boonthanom

BANGKOK (Reuters) – Suspected separatist insurgents stormed a security checkpoint in Thailand’s Muslim-majority south and killed at least 15 people, including a police officer and many village defense volunteers, security officials said on Wednesday.

It was the worst single attack in years in a restive region where a long-running Muslim insurgency has killed thousands of people in a fight against central government rule in overwhelmingly Buddhist Thailand.

The attackers, in the province of Yala, also used explosives and scattered nails on roads to delay pursuers late on Tuesday night.

“This is likely the work of the insurgents,” Colonel Pramote Prom-in, a military regional security spokesman, told Reuters. “This is one of the biggest attack in recent times.”

There was no immediate claim of responsibility, as is common with such attacks in the region.

A decade-old separatist insurgency in predominantly Buddhist Thailand’s largely ethnic Malay-Muslim provinces of Yala, Pattani, and Narathiwat has killed nearly 7,000 people since 2004, says Deep South Watch, a group that monitors the violence.

Many of the dead at the checkpoint were members of the Village Defence Volunteers, a community-watch type organization, who were believed to be giving information to the local police and military.

“Normally the insurgents don’t hit these village volunteers because they are considered civilians, unless they crosses the line and become part of state apparatus,” Don Pathan, an expert on Thailand’s deep south, told Reuters.

The population of the provinces, which belonged to an independent Malay Muslim sultanate before Thailand annexed them in 1909, is 80 percent Muslim, while the rest of the country is overwhelmingly Buddhist.

Some rebel groups in the south have said they are fighting to establish an independent state.

Authorities arrested several suspects from the region in August over a series of small bombs detonated in Bangkok, the capital, although they have not directly blamed any insurgent group.

The main insurgency group, the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), denied responsibility for the Bangkok bombings, which wounded four people.

In August, the group told Reuters it had held a secret preliminary meeting with the government, but any step toward a peace process appeared to wither after the deputy prime minister rejected a key demand for the release of prisoners.

(Additional reporting by Panu Wongcha-um, and Panarat Thepgumpanat; Editing by Paul Tait, Clarence Fernandez and Alex Richardson)

Thailand unveils ‘anti-fake news’ center to police the internet

Thailand unveils ‘anti-fake news’ center to police the internet
By Patpicha Tanakasempipat

BANGKOK (Reuters) – Thailand unveiled an “anti-fake news” center on Friday, the Southeast Asian country’s latest effort to exert government control over a sweeping range of online content.

The move came as Thailand is counting on the digital economy to drive growth amid domestic political tensions, following a March election that installed its junta leader since 2014 as a civilian prime minister.

Thailand has recently pressed more cybercrime charges for what it says is misinformation affecting national security. Such content is mostly opinion critical of the government, the military or the royal family.

Minister of Digital Economy and Society Puttipong Punnakanta broadly defined “fake news” as any viral online content that misleads people or damages the country’s image. He made no distinction between non-malicious false information and deliberate disinformation.

“The center is not intended to be a tool to support the government or any individual,” Puttipong said on Friday before giving reporters a tour.

The center is set up like a war room, with monitors in the middle of the room showing charts tracking the latest “fake news” and trending Twitter hashtags.

It is staffed by around 30 officers at a time, who will review online content – gathered through “social listening” tools – on a sweeping range of topics from natural disasters, the economy, health products and illicit goods.

The officers will also target news about government policies and content that broadly affects “peace and order, good morals, and national security,” according to Puttipong.

If they suspect something is false, they will flag it to relevant authorities to issue corrections through the center’s social media platforms and website and through the press.

Rights groups and media freedom advocates were concerned the government could use the center as a tool for censorship and propaganda.

“In the Thai context, the term ‘fake news’ is being weaponized to censor dissidents and restrict our online freedom,” said Emilie Pradichit, director of the Thailand-based Manushya Foundation, which advocates for online rights.

Pradichit said the move could be used to codify censorship, adding the center would allow the government to be the “sole arbiter of truth”.

Transparency reports from internet companies such as Facebook and Google show Thai government requests to take down content or turn over information have ramped up since the military seized power in 2014.

A law prohibiting criticism of the monarchy has often been the basis for such requests for Facebook. In Google’s cases, government criticism was the main reason cited for removal of content.

(Reporting by Patpicha Tanakasempipat; Editing by Kay Johnson and Frances Kerry)

A year later, Thailand’s rescued ‘cave boys’ honor diver who died

Members of the Wild Boars soccer team pose for a photo during their return to the Tham Luang caves, where they were trapped in a year ago, in Chiang Rai, Thailand, June 24, 2019. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

By Prapan Chankaew

CHIANG RAI, Thailand (Reuters) – A Thai soccer team trapped in a cave last year for 17 days returned there on Monday to perform Buddhist rituals honoring a former navy diver killed in the dramatic effort to rescue them that captivated the world.

A year after their ordeal, the team of 12, wearing yellow T-shirts, accompanied by their coach, gave alms to monks in honor of Sergeant Saman Kunan, who died while he worked underwater.

“I want to thank Sergeant Sam,” Ekkapol Chantawong, assistant coach of the Wild Boars soccer team, told Reuters Video News, as the group placed flowers before a portrait of the diver, set beside a row of shaven-headed monks in orange robes.

“Without him, I and the boys would not be standing here.”

The team, aged between 11 and 16, were trapped with their coach on June 23, 2018 when a rainy season downpour flooded the tunnels of a cave complex they were exploring in the northern province of Chiang Rai.

The race to rescue them gripped public attention as experts from around the world volunteered to help.

Saman Kunan, a former member of an elite Thai Navy SEAL unit, died on the night of July 5 after entering the cave to place oxygen tanks along a potential exit route.

Saman’s wife, Waleeporn Kunan, said the boys always expressed their gratitude to her when they crossed paths in the district where they all live.

“Every time they see me, they would run over just like back then right after their rescue,” she said.

The boys received soccer shirts and offers of tours and match tickets as their rescue unfolded during the World Cup.

A year later, fascination with the saga has yet to die down.

Netflix said in April it had signed a deal to make a miniseries about the rescue, to be directed by “Crazy Rich Asians” director Jon M. Chu and Nattawut “Baz” Poonpiriya.

Two books about the rescue have been published, and a feature film by British-Thai director Tom Waller, “The Cave”, wrapped shooting in December, the Hollywood Reporter has said.

The boys, regarded as national treasures in Thailand, declined to be interviewed and referred questions to their soccer coach.

“Life is the same but now more people know about me,” said Ekkapol, who founded a new soccer team, Ekkapol Academy, for underprivileged and stateless children.

Ekkapol, who is from a minority group in Myanmar, was granted Thai citizenship after the rescue, as were several of the rescued boys who were also stateless.

“The football team is to encourage the boys, especially the border boys, to have somewhere they can play football. To have their own field and a brighter future,” he said.

(Reporting by Prapan Chankaew, Panu Wongcha-um and Panarat Thepgumpanat; editing by Darren Schuettler and Clarence Fernandez)

Saudi teen to depart Thailand for Canada asylum-Thai immigration chief

Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, a Saudi woman who claims to be fleeing her country and family, is seen in Bangkok, Thailand January 7, 2019 in this still image taken from a video obtained from social media. TWITTER/ @rahaf84427714/via REUTERS

By Patpicha Tanakasempipat

BANGKOK (Reuters) – A Saudi woman who fled to Thailand saying she feared her family would kill her has been granted asylum in Canada and is traveling there on Friday, the Thai immigration chief told Reuters.

Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, 18, will board a Korean Air flight from Bangkok to Seoul on Friday night, immigration chief Surachate Hakpark said, before boarding a connecting flight to Canada.

“Canada has granted her asylum,” Surachate told Reuters. “She’ll leave tonight at 11.15 p.m.

Canadian authorities said they could not confirm that Qunun had been granted asylum in Canada.

“We have nothing new to add on this right now,” a spokesman for Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said.

Qunun arrived in Bangkok on Saturday and was initially denied entry but after a tense 48-hour stand-off at Bangkok airport, some of it barricaded in a transit lounge hotel room, she was allowed to enter the country and has been processed as a refugee by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

Qunun has accused her family of abuse and has refused to meet her father and brother who arrived in Bangkok to try to take her back to Saudi Arabia.

Her case has drawn global attention to Saudi Arabia’s strict social rules, including a requirement that women have the permission of a male “guardian” to travel, which rights groups say can trap women and girls as prisoners of abusive families.

Qunun’s plight has emerged at a time when Riyadh is facing unusually intense scrutiny from its Western allies over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Instanbul in October and over the humanitarian consequences of its war in Yemen.

Australia had said on Wednesday that it was considering taking in Qunun.

(Reporting by Patpicha Tanakasempipat; Additional reporting by David Ljunggren in OTTAWA, Editing by William Maclean)