Thailand is considering giving citizenship to the coach and three stateless members of the Wild Boars football team who were rescued from the flooded Tham Luang cave complex after more than two weeks underground.
The players Pornchai Kamluang, Adul Sam-on and Mongkhol Boonpiam, plus their coach, Ekaphol Chantawong, whose families come from northern Thailand’s porous and largely lawless border regions abutting Myanmar’s Shan state, are technically stateless and not considered citizens under Thai law, leaving them without many of the rights their teammates enjoy.
The three boys have Thai ID cards, which grant them some basic rights, but the coach has no legal status, making him vulnerable to deportation and technically ineligible to receive some public services.
Venus Sirsuk, the director of the Bureau of Registration at the Thai interior ministry, confirmed his office was looking into granting citizenship to the four. “Right now, the officials in Mae Sai district office are looking into their birth evidence. We have to see whether they were born in Thailand, and whether they have either a Thai father or mother.”
Asked how long it would take, he told the Guardian: “I have no idea. It depends on whether we find the documents.”
How the Thai cave rescue unfolded
Puttanee Kangkun, a Thai human rights specialist for Fortify Rights, said a lack of citizenship meant the four had limited rights.
“Under Thai law, stateless persons are still able to obtain some basic rights such as the right to education and access to health service. This is why some of these boys who are stateless are able to go to school, despite their status.
“Their rights are, however, limited in other areas – mainly the right to work and freedom of movement, as they need to seek permission to travel outside of their province and will also face difficulties applying for a passport.”
The interior ministry investigation could put to rest much of the confusion about the status of the four swirling around the Mae Sai district for the last two weeks. The confusion deepened on Wednesday night when the provincial governor and rescue commander, Narongsak Osatanakorn, gave his final public address on the successful rescue operation.
He said: “I believe they will grow up to be great citizens of Thailand,” appearing to imply that the boys and their coach would receive citizenship.
However, when asked by the Guardian if that was the case, the governor appeared unfamiliar with the three members’ statelessness, saying only: “Everything will have to proceed according to the law. There is the Nationality Act. If they are legally entitled to the right, they will get it. It depends on whether they have the right.”
While international media have been paying close attention to the question of the Wild Boars’ statelessness, the issue was barely raised in the Thai media until Thursday.
“I don’t think Thai media presents this issue much, and if they did, they do not understand the issue well,” said Pim, a campaigner for the rights of stateless people in northern Thailand, who uses one name. She explained that many stateless people eligible for citizenship in Thailand failed to get it because they lacked legal knowledge and faced a system that she said was corrupt and discriminatory.
“I read that some people called the coach Burmese, just because he doesn’t have a Thai ID,” she said.
Applications under Thailand’s Nationality Act are generally considered on a case-by-case basis, but the international attention given to the rescue could allow the three team members to bypass many of the hurdles.
Thailand cave rescue boys being carried on stretchers
“If there is strong political will from high-ranking state officers, the process could hasten, and the boys would be able to get Thai nationality in short period of time,” said Kangkun. “Of course, I’m very happy if the boys get Thai nationality, as they will be able to access full citizenship rights.”
She added: “I wish the Thai government would do the same to other stateless persons without delay and no discrimination.”
Pim agreed: “It’s good for them. I’m happy for them. It’s just a shame that we have to wait for them to risk their lives and be in the dark for weeks first before they will get what they are entitled to.”