Three boys from the Wild Boar soccer team and their coach, who were rescued from deep within a flooded cave in Thailand last month, have been granted Thai citizenship.
In a ceremony in Chiang Rai province Wednesday, the Mae Sai district chief approved citizenship for Ardoon Sam-aon, Mongkol Boompiam, Ponchai Khamluang, and assistant coach Ekkapol Ake Chanthawong.
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The Wild Boar team attracted international attention in late June when 12 young players and their coach ventured inside a cave in northern Thailand for an afternoon excursion but found the exit blocked by rising floodwater.
The team was trapped for almost three weeks, before cave diving experts from around the world led a complex operation to bring them out on stretchers carried through narrow tunnels.
Ardoon, the 14-year-old soccer player who spoke English to British cave divers when they were found, was born in neighboring Myanmar, and taken into care by a local Mae Sai Grace Church group as a child.
Mae Sai sits at the very edge of the border between Thailand and Myanmar, and it's not unusual for families to cross the border to search for work or go to school. Many in Mae Sai are members of minority groups, and sit at the crossroads of the two countries.
There are 430,000 stateless people living in Thailand, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). People may be registered as stateless if their Thai parents cannot be found, if they come from areas where national borders have changed, or if they live in remote areas without information about nationality procedures.
The Thai government has worked to reduce statelessness in recent years — more than 27,000 stateless people have been granted Thai citizenship since 2011, according to UNHCR. Just this February, the government held a group ceremony granting citizenship to 342 stateless people, most of them students.
On Wednesday, the boys were among 30 stateless people granted Thai rights.
After the team was rescued from the cave, the officials had promised to start the process of granting the stateless boys Thai citizenship.
During the ceremony, they were handed Thai ID cards, which grants them access to public services such as healthcare and freedom of movement.
After the dramatic rescue, the team spent about a week in the hospital, where they were carefully monitored for possible infections or pneumonia. Upon their release, the team recounted their ordeal and thanked their rescuers at a press conference, wearing matching Wild Boars team shirts.
Twelve of the thirteen members then spent a week as Buddhist novices at a monastery, and are returning to normal life in their small town surrounded by friends and family.