Coach Ek the unlikely stateless hero of Thai cave drama

MAE SAI, THAILAND 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 Ek, the 25-year-old who was among the last to emerge from the cave on Tuesday, has been lauded for keeping the young footballers - aged 11-16 - 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.

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 July 7.

In reply, he scrawled a note apologising to the parents, and vowing to take "the very best care of the kids."

The touching note won the hearts of the Thai public - a group to which he is yet to officially belong.

Thailand is home to around 480,000 stateless people, according to UN figures.

Many are from nomadic hill tribes and other ethnic groups who have for centuries lived around Mae Sai, the heart of theGolden Triangle, a lawless wedge of land at the borders of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos.

Founder of the Wild Boars club Nopparat Khanthavong told AFP that among the stateless are Ek and three of the boys who were trapped in the cave along with him - Dul, Mark and Tee.- AFP