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)

Australia says no timeframe to decide case of Saudi teen asylum seeker

Australia's Foreign Minister Marise Payne speaks during a news conference at Australian Embassy in Bangkok, Thailand, January 10, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

By Panu Wongcha-um and Patpicha Tanakasempipat

BANGKOK (Reuters) – Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said on Thursday there was no timeframe for the assessment of the case of Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, a Saudi woman who fled to Thailand saying she feared her family would kill her.

The U.N. refugee agency has referred Qunun to Australia for consideration for refugee resettlement.

“Following the UNHCR referrals, Australia is now going through the steps we are required to do in relation to the assessment process and then when that is complete an announcement will be made,” Payne said in Bangkok, after arriving on a visit arranged before Qunun sought asylum.

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

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

Qunun is staying in a Bangkok hotel under the care of the UNHCR.

She arrived in Thailand on Saturday and was initially denied entry. She had been intending to fly from there to Australia to seek asylum.

She soon started posting messages on Twitter from the transit area of Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport saying she had “escaped Kuwait” and her life would be in danger if forced to return to Saudi Arabia.

Within hours, a campaign sprang up, spread by a loose network of online activists, and the world watched as she refused to board a flight to Saudi Arabia and barricade herself inside a transit lounge hotel room.

On Monday evening, Thai authorities allowed her to enter the country.

Her case has drawn 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.

It comes 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 Istanbul in October and over the humanitarian consequences of its war in Yemen.

‘AUSTRALIA’S CONCERN’

Payne’s visit has also thrown a spotlight on another refugee case, involving Bahrain footballer Hakeem AlAraibi, who has refugee status in Australia but was arrested at Bangkok airport last year after arriving for his honeymoon.

Bahrain made a request to have him extradited and he is in jail, waiting for a hearing to decide his case.

Payne withheld talks with Thai Deputy Prime Minister Prajin Juntong, who is also justice minister, and Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai.

“I also appreciate the opportunity … to raise Australia’s concern about the detention of and possible return of Mr Hakeem AlAraibi to Bahrain,” Payne told reporters after the meeting.

“The Thai government is aware of the importance of this matter to Australia.”

AlAraibi was convicted for vandalizing a police station in Bahrain and sentenced to 10 years in prison in absentia.

“He has denied all wrongdoing as accused by the Bahrain government,” Nadthasiri Bergman, AlAraibi’s lawyer in Thailand told Reuters.

“He would be put in danger if he is sent back to Bahrain.”

World football governing body FIFA says AlAraibi should be freed and allowed to return to Australia where he plays for Melbourne football club Pascoe Vale in the second tier of the Australian League.

Activists have called on Thai authorities to “show humanity” to AlAraibi in the same way that they did to Qunun.

(This version of the story adds dropped word ‘agency’ in paragraph 2)

(Additional report by Panarat Thepgumpanat, Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Robert Birsel)

#SaveRahaf: Activists’ lightning campaign made Saudi teen’s flight a global cause

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 and Panu Wongcha-um

BANGKOK (Reuters) – On Sunday morning, a new Twitter account was created by an 18-year-old Saudi woman denied entry into Thailand as she fled from what she said was an abusive family.

The first message from Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, in Arabic, was at 3:20 a.m. Thai time (2020 GMT Saturday) and posted from the transit area of Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport. It said: “I am the girl who escaped Kuwait to Thailand. My life is in real danger if I am forced to return to Saudi Arabia.”

Within hours, a campaign sprung up on Twitter dubbed #SaveRahaf. Spread by a loose network of activists around the world, within 36 hours it prompted Thailand’s government to reverse a decision to force the young woman onto a plane that would return her to her family.

Qunun was allowed to enter Thailand and on Tuesday was beginning the process of seeking asylum in a third country through the U.N. refugee agency.

“Everybody was watching. When social media works, this is what happens,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, of the international outcry.

Qunun’s family could not be reached to respond to her allegations of abuse. Reuters could not directly contact Qunun, but spoke to several confidants who described how the dramatic campaign unfolded across the world.

After her initial Tweet, Qunun posted nearly non-stop for five hours, saying she had been abused and threatened by her family.

Halfway around the world, retweets by Saudi Twitter users were noticed by Egyptian-American activist Mona Eltahawy in Montreal who began translating and retweeting Qunun’s Arabic tweets at 4 a.m. Thailand time, even though she was initially unsure if the account was authentic.

“(I was) doing my best to get attention to her because I could not live with myself if she was real and I ignored it,” Eltahawy told Reuters in an e-mail.

BANGKOK, MONTREAL, SYDNEY

About two hours later – 6 a.m. Sunday morning in Thailand but mid-afternoon in Australia – a Sydney-based video journalist noticed and retweeted Eltahawy’s translated messages.

The journalist, Sophie McNeill of Australia Broadcast Corp., began tweeting back to Qunun, and later the two began privately corresponding by direct message.

At 11 a.m. on Sunday in Thailand – eight hours after Qunun began tweeting – Human Rights Watch’s Robertson, who is based in Bangkok, also began tweeting about the case.

He also contacted Qunun directly and she replied.

“She said very clearly that she has suffered both physical and psychological abuse. She said she has made a decision to renounce Islam. And I knew once she said that, she is in serious trouble,” Robertson told Reuters.

Renouncing Islam is a crime punishable by death under the Saudi system of sharia, or Islamic law, though the punishment has not been carried out in recent memory.

By early Sunday afternoon, Robertson had notified the U.N. refugee agency in Thailand and several foreign embassies about the unfolding case, and they began to contact Thai authorities.

BARRICADED DOOR

At around the same time, journalist McNeill decided to fly to Thailand and try to meet Qunun.

“I’d never spoken to her before,” she told Reuters. “For me, it was so important that this was documented, and I wanted to be there and witness it.”

While McNeill boarded a flight from Sydney to Bangkok, Qunun was holed up in an airport transit hotel and afraid she would be forced onto the next flight back to Kuwait. She continued tweeting and also corresponding with Robertson of Human Rights Watch.

At around 5 p.m. Sunday, she was taken out of her room by Thai officials but later allowed to return.

“She filmed these two people talking to her,” said Robertson. “They said to her very clearly that they will put her on the Kuwait Airways flight KU 412 leaving (Monday) at 11:15 a.m.”

By this time, global media outlets had picked up on the story and Thai immigration officials were confirming that Qunun was to be expelled on Monday morning.

At about 1 a.m. Monday morning, Qunun posted a video of herself pushing a table to barricade her hotel room door.

Saudi teen Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun is seen with Thai immigration authorities at a hotel inside Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok, Thailand January 7, 2019. Thailand Immigration Police via REUTERS

Saudi teen Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun is seen with Thai immigration authorities at a hotel inside Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok, Thailand January 7, 2019. Thailand Immigration Police via REUTERS

THREATENING LANGUAGE

McNeill arrived in Thailand early on Monday and managed to join Qunun in her hotel room.

“When it became clear that she wasn’t going to leave, I decided it was important to stay and have someone documenting what was going on,” McNeill said.

Qunun refused to open the door when various officials came to escort her to the Kuwait Airways flight.

“We were inside the room and there were numerous people coming to the door … There were several Arabic speakers who came and were using threatening language to try and force her back on the plane,” McNeill recalled.

The flight to Kuwait City left without Qunun.

At 3:30 p.m. on Monday, Thailand’s immigration chief Surachate Hakparn held a press conference at the airport for dozens of Thai and international media representatives gathered in the transit area.

After a day of insisting that Qunun must be sent back under Thai law, Surachate said she would not be immediately be expelled since she could be in danger and he would meet U.N. officials to discuss her case.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) country representative Giuseppe de Vincentiis arrived at the airport at about 5 p.m. on Monday to meet Thai officials and Qunun herself.

By about 7:30 p.m on Monday, Surachate told reporters Qunun would be allowed to enter Thailand and apply for asylum in a third country.

The UNHCR said on Tuesday that it would take time to process Qunun’s application, and its officials continued to interview her at an undisclosed location.

Saudi Arabia on Tuesday denied on its Twitter account that its embassy in Thailand had asked for Qunun to be extradited, although Surachate had said the previous day the embassy had been in contact with Thai immigration before her arrival from Kuwait.

The Saudi embassy in Bangkok declined to comment on Qunun’s case when contacted by Reuters on Monday and could not be reached on Tuesday.

But on Tuesday, the Thai immigration office released a video clip of its officials meeting Saudi diplomats to discuss the case.

“When she first arrived in Thailand, she opened a new site (account) and the followers reached about 45,000 within one day,” a Saudi official speaking in Arabic through a translator tells Thai officials in the video.

“I wish you had taken her phone, it would have been better than (taking) her passport,” the official said.

(Additional reporting by Stephen Kalin in Riyadh, Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

‘They will kill me’: Saudi woman to seek asylum after fleeing family to Thailand

Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, a Saudi woman who claims to be fleeing her country and family and is currently in Bangkok, Thailand, is shown in this undated photo obtained by Reuters from social media. @rahaf84427714/via REUTERS

By Patpicha Tanakasempipat

BANGKOK (Reuters) – An 18-year-old Saudi woman who fled her family and barricaded herself inside a Bangkok airport hotel to prevent being expelled by Thai authorities has left the airport after talks with the United Nations refugee agency, an official said on Monday.

Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun has been at Bangkok’s international airport since Saturday when she arrived from Kuwait, saying she fears her family will kill her if she is forced to return home. Her relatives have not commented on her accusations of abuse and Reuters was not able to reach them.

A hotel inside transit area at Suvarnabhumi Airport where Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, an 18-year-old Saudi woman who claims to be fleeing her family has barricaded herself inside a room in Bangkok, Thailand January 7, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

A hotel inside transit area at Suvarnabhumi Airport where Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, an 18-year-old Saudi woman who claims to be fleeing her family has barricaded herself inside a room in Bangkok, Thailand January 7, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

The case has drawn new 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.

It comes at a time when Riyadh is facing unusually intense scrutiny from its Western allies over the killing of a journalist at its consulate in Istanbul in October and over the humanitarian consequences of its war in Yemen.

Thai immigration officials had planned to put Qunun on a flight back to Kuwait on Monday but relented after her online pleas drew international attention.

She told Reuters via text and audio messages she had fled Kuwait during a family visit there and had planned to travel to Australia to seek asylum. She said she was held after leaving her plane in Bangkok and told she would be sent back to Kuwait.

“They will kill me,” Qunun told Reuters. “My life is in danger. My family threatens to kill me for the most trivial things.”

A representative of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) met Qunun at the airport and also discussed the case with Thai immigration officials. After the meeting, Thailand’s immigration chief said she would not be expelled.

“We will take her into Bangkok and provide her with safe shelter under the care of the UNHCR,” immigration chief Surachate Hakparn told reporters on Monday evening.

He said the UNHCR would work on processing Qunun’s request for refugee status. Giuseppe de Vincentis, the UNHCR representative in Thailand, said the Thai government had given assurances Qunun would not be expelled to any country where she might be in danger while her case was being processed.

“PHYSICAL, EMOTIONAL ABUSE”

Qunun posted a video on Twitter on Monday of her barricading her hotel door with a table and a mattress. She said her family was powerful in Saudi society but she did not identify them.

Asked why she was seeking refuge in Australia, she told Reuters: “Physical, emotional and verbal abuse and being imprisoned inside the house for months. They threaten to kill me and prevent me from continuing my education.

“They won’t let me drive or travel. I am oppressed. I love life and work and I am very ambitious but my family is preventing me from living.”

The Saudi foreign ministry said in a tweet that its embassy was in touch with the woman’s father and the Thai government, but its diplomats had not met or communicated with her.

New York-based Human Rights Watch said Thailand should not send Qunun back to her family because she says she faces danger.

Qunun said she had obtained an Australian visa and booked a flight. She said she had planned to spend a few days in Thailand so she would not spark suspicion when she left Kuwait.

Thai immigration chief Surachate, however, said that Qunun did not have a visa for Australia. The Australian Embassy said it had no immediate comment.

Contradicting earlier accounts from Thai officials, Surachate said Thai authorities had been contacted by the Saudis before deciding to deny Qunun entry to the country.

“The Saudi Arabia embassy contacted the immigration police … and said that the girl had run away from her parents and they fear for her safety,” he said.

“We acknowledged this and checked her paperwork. She had a passport but no return ticket, no travel plan, and no destination or hotel reservation in Thailand … so per airport security procedures, immigration denied her entry.”

(Additional reporting by Panarat Thepgumpanat and Panu Wongcha-um in BANGKOK and Ghaida Ghantous in DUBAI; Editing by Nick Macfie and Peter Graff)

Not a baby factory: South Korea tries to fix demographic crisis with more gender equality

A volunteer takes care of a baby who was left in the baby box at Jusarang Community Church in Seoul, South Korea, December 18, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

By Joori Roh

SEOUL (Reuters) – In just over a decade, South Korea has spent the equivalent of a small European economy trying to fix its demographic crisis, yet birthrates have dropped to the lowest in the world.

This year, President Moon Jae-In, who describes himself as a feminist president, is testing a new angle: showing women more respect.

At the end of last year, South Korea announced plans to remove some of the disincentives for employing women, allowing both parents to take parental leave at the same time and extending paid paternal leave. Employers also get incentives to allow either parent to work fewer hours.

“Efforts on gender equality are very timely,” said Shin Eun-kyung, an economist with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. South Korea is the worst place for women to work in the OECD, despite women being among the organization’s best educated, and more highly so than men.

But the measures go beyond the workplace: mothers can choose to give the baby their own last name and a tickbox on birth certificates showing whether a baby was born outside marriage will be removed.

Fertility treatments will be offered to single women and unmarried couples as well. Social campaigns will encourage men to participate more in child care and household chores.

Contrast that with a 2016 effort by the previous government, run by the country’s first woman president, Park Geun-hye, which launched a website carrying a real-time statistical heatmap of women of child-bearing age, marriages and births in the hope of spurring competition between cities and regions.

The website was taken down after one day, with women complaining it made them feel like “reproductive organs”.

“The country sees women as baby factories,” says Hong Sook-young, who produces the country’s most popular children TV show. Asked about the latest measures, Hong said “at least pretending to hear what people really want is a start toward change”.

 

TEMPLE BONDING

South Korea’s demographic time bomb is ticking louder. The government’s latest forecast sees its population declining from 2027, and a presidential committee said the country’s economic growth potential could fall to below 1 percent.

Birth rates have long been a policy priority: since 2006, the government has spent 152.9 trillion won ($135.65 billion) – about the size of an economy like Hungary or Nevada – on perks for families and subsidies for children from birth through university and beyond. Last year’s 26.3 trillion low birth policy budget was more than half the defense spending of a country technically still at war with its northern neighbor.

But demographic experts say money is not the main issue: the experience of advanced countries with higher birth rates, such as France or Sweden, shows gender equality plays a crucial role.

The previous allocation of resources drew criticism as well.

The government went far beyond child allowances and subsidizing care and education. For instance, it funded temple stays for family bonding and financed youth seeking brief jobs abroad.

Many such programs will end, with the 2019 birth-support budget cut by a quarter, to 20.5 trillion won.

“It should have been cut a long time ago,” said Jung Jae-hoon, social welfare professor at Seoul Women’s University.

Jung cautioned, however, the signal the government was finally sending will take a long time to filter through the conservative East Asian society.

Births outside marriage, for instance, are so widely frowned upon that they amount to only 1.9 percent of the total, the lowest anywhere. Experts compare that to France, where the ratio is over 50 percent and the birth rate is 1.9 versus South Korea’s 1.05. Abortion is illegal and adoption rules very strict.

The stigma of out-of-wedlock babies has seen Seoul’s Jusarang Community Church build an oven-sized “baby box”, with cushions and a heating system into its outside wall.

Last year, 261 children were abandoned across the country, according to Statistics Korea.

JOBS FOR MEN

About 56 percent of women aged 15-64 work in South Korea, below the OECD average of almost 60 percent, and 72-75 percent in Denmark and Sweden, where birth rates are among the highest of advanced economies.

Recruiters say married young women are less likely to get job opportunities due to discrimination.

In November, the Supreme Court upheld a four-year jail sentence against a former CEO of state-run Korea Gas Safety Corp over manipulating interview scores to knock women out of the hiring process.

While Samsung Electronics has a more balanced gender ratio than Apple globally, with women accounting for 45 percent of the staff versus a third at its U.S. rival, only one in four staff at its Korea headquarters are women. None of the nine board members at Hyundai Motor Co are women, versus six out of 12 at General Motors.

“The whole period of before, during and after childbirth weighs on our career,” said a female assistant manager at Hyundai Motor. The pay gap between sexes only makes it harder, she added.

South Korea’s gender wage gap is highest among advanced countries at 34.6 percent, above OECD average of 13.8 percent.

A Hyundai Motor spokeswoman said the firm was committed to providing equal opportunities to all employees and opposes discrimination. A Samsung Electronics spokeswoman said the company has been recruiting more females, including in managerial positions, and that most staff return to work after parental leave and its daycare centers can look after 3,000 children.

WEAK ECONOMY

Still, critics say while Moon’s approach to birth rates is an improvement, his job and housing policies discourage parenthood. Minimum wage hikes have led to higher unemployment, while larger downpayment requirements have made homes unaffordable for many.

“Creating a structure that enables us to have our own house is mostly needed,” said Lee Kyoung-min, a store manager at Lotte Mart, a father of three.

Some also argue work-life balance could be better: Moon in July cut the working week to 52 hours from 68, but South Koreans still work 15 percent longer than the OECD average.

If birth rates don’t improve, South Korea’s economy could be 5 percent smaller by 2060, as productivity falls and higher spending for elderly care leaves less room for investment, the National Assembly Budget Office estimates.

Industries catering for babies are struggling. Seoul has lost one in four maternity wards and in 2018 the capital sacked more than half its teachers.

Ryu Won-woo, manager of baby fair organizer BeFe, praised the government’s measures, especially those encouraging more responsibilities for dads. But he does not expect quick results.

“More local baby-product companies may disappear before Korea sees more babies,” Ryu said.

(Reporting by Joori Roh; Editing by Marius Zaharia and Lincoln Feast.)

‘Stateless’ Thai cave boys and coach granted citizenship

FILE PHOTO: Rescue workers at the Tham Luang cave complex in Thailand on, July 10, 2018, the day 12 boys were rescued after nine days trapped in the caves. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun/File Photo

BANGKOK (Reuters) – Three boys from a soccer team who were rescued from a flooded cave in northern Thailand last month were granted Thai citizenship on Wednesday, authorities said.

Their 25-year-old coach, Ekapol Chanthawong, also gained citizenship.

Ekapol and 12 boys had gone to explore the Tham Luang caves in Chiang Rai province on June 23, 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. An international effort to rescue them ended on July 10 when they all were brought out safely.

Three of the boys and Ekapol were considered stateless, even though they were born in Thailand, until local authorities checked their qualifications, including birth certificates, and approved their requests for Thai citizenship.

The four were also given Thai national identification cards on Wednesday.

“They have all the qualifications,” said Somsak Kanakam, chief officer of Mae Sai district in Chiang Rai. “All children born in Thailand must have Thai birth certificates in order to qualify for Thai citizenship.”

Citizenship requests for some twenty other people, most of them children, were also approved, Somsak added.

Many stateless people in Thailand come from areas where national borders have changed, leaving their nationality in question. Some belong to “hill tribes” living in remote areas with limited access to information about nationality procedures, according to the United Nations refugee agency.

The cave ordeal highlighted the plight of people from Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar living in Thailand who are denied some rights and opportunities because they are not citizens.

More than 486,000 people are registered as stateless, according to official data. Of that number 146,269 are younger than 18 years old.

(Reporting by Patpicha Tanakasempipat, editing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Larry King)

‘It was magical’: Thai boys relive moment of discovery by divers during cave ordeal

The 12 boys and their soccer coach who were rescued from a flooded cave arrive for a news conference in the northern province of Chiang Rai, Thailand, July 18, 2018. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

By Amy Sawitta Lefevre

CHIANG RAI, Thailand (Reuters) – The 12 boys and their soccer coach rescued from a flooded cave in Thailand recounted details of their ordeal on Wednesday, at their first public appearance, during which they waved, smiled and offered traditional “wai” greetings on a national broadcast.

Doctors, relatives and friends, some in yellow traditional garb, greeted the boys, aged 11 to 16, and their 25-year-old coach, who wore T-shirts emblazoned with a red graphic of a wild boar and carried in footballs they kicked gently on the set.

“Bringing the Wild Boars Home,” read a banner in Thai that used the name of the soccer team to welcome them on the set, designed to resemble a soccer field, complete with goalposts and nets.

Coach Ekapol Chantawong introduces himself during the news conference in the northern province of Chiang Rai, Thailand, July 18, 2018. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

Coach Ekapol Chantawong introduces himself during the news conference in the northern province of Chiang Rai, Thailand, July 18, 2018. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

A crowd of media and onlookers was penned behind barricades as the boys arrived in vans from the hospital where they had stayed since last week’s international effort to extricate them from a flooded cave complex in which they had been trapped.

“I told everyone fight on, don’t despair,” said one boy, describing how the group had battled to stay alive during the excruciating days spent in the cave in Thailand’s northern province of Chiang Rai.

Another, Adul Sam-on, 14, recalled the moment when two British divers found the group on July 2, squatting in a flooded chamber several kilometers within the cave complex.

“It was magical,” he said. “I had to think a lot before I could answer their questions.”

That discovery triggered the rescue effort that brought them all to safety over the course of three days, organized by Thai navy SEALs and a global team of cave-diving experts.

The order in which the boys eventually left the cave did not depend on the state of their health, said their coach Ekkapol Chantawong, whose efforts have been credited by some parents with keeping the boys alive.

“The ones whose homes are the furthest went first, so they could tell everyone that the boys were fine,” he added.

The 12 soccer players and their coach react as they explain their experience in the cave during their news conference in the northern province of Chiang Rai, Thailand, July 18, 2018. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

The 12 soccer players and their coach react as they explain their experience in the cave during their news conference in the northern province of Chiang Rai, Thailand, July 18, 2018. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

“WE ONLY DRANK WATER”

The group had planned to explore the Tham Luang cave complex for about an hour after soccer practice on June 23. But a rainy season downpour flooded the tunnels, trapping them.

“We took turns digging at the cave walls,” Ekkapol said. “We didn’t want to wait around until authorities found us.”

One of the boys added, “We used stones to dig in the cave. We dug 3 to 4 meters.” That represents a depth of 3.3 to 4.4 yards.

But their efforts were to no avail, Ekkapol said, adding, “Almost everyone can swim. Some aren’t strong swimmers, however.”

The group, which had eaten before going into the caves, took no food on an excursion that had been intended to last only an hour, and had to subsist on water dripping from stalactites in the cave, he added.

“We only drank water,” said one of the boys, nicknamed Tee. “On the first day we were OK, but after two days we started feeling tired.”

The team’s youngest member, who goes by the name Titan, added, “I had no strength. I tried not to think about food so I didn’t get more hungry.”

Thoughts of their parents also preoccupied the boys, with one admitting, “I was afraid. That I wouldn’t go home and I would get scolded by my mother.”

The boys, who return home on Wednesday night, all apologized for being naughty, admitting to having told their parents only that they were going to soccer practice, but not about the plans to go into the cave.

The boys, who sported crisp haircuts, had gained 3 kg (6.6 lb) each on average since the rescue, and ran through confidence-building exercises ahead of Wednesday’s event, said hospital director Chaiwetch Thanapaisal.

The rescue effort drew global media attention and hundreds of journalists. Excitement picked up again in the usually sleepy town of Chiang Rai ahead of the much-anticipated 90-minute live broadcast on dozens of channels.

“We don’t know what wounds the kids are carrying in their hearts,” said justice ministry official Tawatchai Thaikaew, who asked for the boys’ privacy to be respected after the discharge, for fear the media attention could affect their mental health.

But the moment was bittersweet, as two of the boys held up a framed pencil sketch of Samarn Kunan, 38, the former Thai navy diver who died while he worked underwater, laying oxygen tanks along a potential exit route.

“Everyone was very sad,” said the coach, Ekkapol, adding that the boys would spend time as novice Buddhist monks to honor the diver’s memory. “They felt like they were the reason he had to die and his family had to suffer.”

(Additional reporting by Pracha Hariraksapitak, Vorasit Satienlerk, Chayut Setboonsarng, Patpicha Tanakasempipat and Panarat Thepgumpanat in BANGKOK; Writing by Clarence Fernandez; Editing by Darren Schuettler)

Thai soccer team planned to be inside the cave for only an hour

Boys from an under-16 soccer team and their coach wait to be rescued after they were trapped inside a flooded cave in Chiang Rai, Thailand, July 3. Thai Navy Seal Facebook/via REUTERS

By Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Panarat Thepgumpanat

BANGKOK (Reuters) – Twelve boys and their soccer coach rescued from a flooded cave in Thailand planned to explore the cavern complex for only about an hour before treacherous flood waters rose to trap them for more than two weeks, one of the boys’ fathers said.

All 12 of the boys and their 25-year-old coach were brought to safety over the course of a three-day rescue, organised by Thai navy SEALs and an international team of diving and caving experts, that ended on Tuesday.

They had gone into the Tham Luang cave in the northern province of Chiang Rai on June 23, for a quick excursion after soccer practice, when a rainy season downpour flooded the tunnels.

“He told me that as soon as they finished practice they went to play at the cave. They thought they’d only be an hour,” Banpot Korncam, father of the 13-year-old captain of the “Wild Boars” team, told media.

“While they were inside the cave it rained, water flowed in and everyone took off,” Banpot said.

Two British divers found the boys on July 2, squatting on a muddy mound in a flooded chamber several kiometres inside the complex, nine days after they went for their quick jaunt.

Then the problem became how to get them back out through the tunnels, some completely full of fast-flowing flood water.

The boys, aged 11 to 16, had to dive for part of their journey out before they were put on green plastic toboggan-like stretchers and carried, at times through steep, rocky tunnels, with ropes strung overhead.

Many people in Thailand have credited the coach, Ekkapol Chantawong, or Ek as he is known, for keeping the boys safe during the ordeal.

“They just sat quietly without doing anything because it was dark,” said Banpot, recounting what his son, who is still in hospital, had told him.

“When they were hungry Coach Ek would use a flashlight to shine on the stalactites above,” he said.

‘CALCULATING, CALM’

The group survived by drinking water that dripped off the stalactites and the cave walls, rescue officials said.

Initially isolated in hospital in Chiang Rai because of fears of infection, the boys have now been allowed to meet their families. They will stay in hospital at least a week.

“The boys’ health is improving … relatives can now visit them in close proximity,” said Thongchai Lertwilairatanapong, a health ministry inspector.

The rescue gripped the world, with much praise focusing on the navy SEALs and international team of divers who helped them, toiling for days in dangerous conditions to get the boys out. A former Thai navy SEAL diver died during the mission.

John Volanthen, one of the two British divers who found the boys, played down the gallantry.

“We’re not heroes,” he told the BBC after arriving back in London.

“What we do is very calculating. It’s very calm, it’s quite the opposite … But it’s really the international team I would like to focus on and the Thai SEALs.”

Volanthen was the first person the boys heard after nine days trapped in the flooded cave. A video posted by the Thai SEALs captured the moment.

“How many of you?” he asked, a torch beam scanning the boys crowded on the bank.

“Thirteen? Brilliant.”

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said on Thursday international members of the rescue team would be given a “Thailand Elite” card worth 500,000 baht ($15,000) with benefits including a 5-year visa in thanks.

(Writing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre; Editing by)

Make the most of your lives, rescued Thai cave boys told

The Thai Navy pose for photo as they depart from Chiang Rai International Airport after finishing the rescue mission for 12 soccer players and their coach in Chiang Rai, Thailand July 12, 2018. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

By Panarat Thepgumpanat and John Geddie

BANGKOK/CHIANG RAI (Reuters) – The head of a Thai navy SEAL diving team that helped lead 12 boys and their soccer coach through a flooded cave complex to safety urged the boys on Thursday to “make the most” of their lives and be a force for good.

The first footage of the boys, aged 11 to 16, convalescing in hospital in the northern city of Chiang Rai emerged on Wednesday, with some, wearing face masks and hospital gowns, giving peace signs to the camera.

Health officials said the boys would spend at least a week in hospital and around 30 days recovering at home following more than two weeks trapped inside the flooded Tham Luang cave complex.

Thirteen foreign divers and five Thai Navy SEALs guided boys and their coach out in a complicated three-day operation that ended on Tuesday.

“Make the most of your lives. Be good people, be a force for good for your country,” Rear Admiral Apakorn Yuukongkaew, commander of Thailand’s navy SEALS unit, said in a message to the boys before boarding a flight from Chiang Rai.

“Hooyah!” Apakorn shouted before flying out, using a morale-building navy term.

Footage released by the SEALs showed parts of the rescue operation that captivated the world.

The boys were held close to the divers and remained motionless for parts of the journey where they had to dive. They were then carried on stretchers through dry parts to the cave’s entrance.

Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan said on Wednesday the operation was nothing short of a miracle.

Families of the 12 boys have been allowed to visit them.

A statement from Thailand’s public health ministry on Thursday said two boys from the first group rescued on Sunday who were diagnosed with a lung infection were recovering well. Three boys from the last group saved have ear infections.

The boys’ families can visit them wearing protective gowns and masks, it added.

At U-Tapao civil-military airport in Rayong province, near where the Royal Thai Navy operates out of Sattahip Naval Base, Thai navy SEALs and some foreign military personnel were given a hero’s’ welcome when they touched down on Thursday.

Those involved in the rescue were give large garlands made from marigolds as navy officers and proud civilians stood by. Some well-wishers at the air base prepared red roses.

“All Thais are proud of you … You have made a name for the SEALs unit,” a senior navy official told those gathered.

The Tham Luang cave complex will remain closed to the public for at least six months, said Chongklai Worapongsathorn, deputy director-general of the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation.

(Reporting by Pracha Hariraksapitak, Panarat Thepgumpanat, Aukkarapon Niyomat and Amy Sawitta Lefevre in BANGKOK, John Geddie and Patpicha Tanakasempipat in CHIANG RAI; Writing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre; Editing by Nick Macfie)