Must Reads: In that cave, three Thai boys and their coach had no escape. Above ground, they have no country

Kong Kanthawong looks at photos of her grandson Chanin Wiboonrungrueng, 11, nicknamed Titan, the youngest Wild Boar to disappear into the caves last month.
(Matt Blomberg / For The Times)

After 18 days, they were known to much of the world simply as “the Cave Boys.”

But for at least three of the 12 young soccer players, as well as their coach, being trapped in a flooded underground cavern in the far north of Thailand is not the only hurdle that will define their lives.

They are stateless, with no official papers tying them to any lands or nation.


Of the 69 million people who live in Thailand, 486,000 are stateless, according to the United Nations. Local aid organizations say the true number could be in the millions.

The stateless cannot open bank accounts in Thailand. They cannot marry, buy land or vote.

They are barred from certain career paths, including medicine, the military, engineering and architecture. They have no access to the state health system, and educational opportunities are limited too.

Stateless children make easy prey for criminal gangs. Miserable lives trading drugs or sex are often the endpoint.

In the Thai district of Mae Sai, the Wild Boars soccer club offers children an alternative.

Among the players trapped in the Tham Luang Nang Non caves was 16-year-old Pornchai Khamluang, who goes by the nickname Tee.

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One of his teachers, Sangdao Kantasan, described him as a model student — quiet, tidy and willing. A classmate said he liked to play pranks. He is a member of the school council and helps direct traffic outside the school as students arrive each morning.

His parents are members of a minority group known here as the Tai Yai, a marginalized tribe originally from Shan state in neighboring Myanmar. For decades, armed militias there have waged guerrilla war against a brutal government.

Statelessness was his inheritance.

“Without documents, it’s only suffering,” said Kong Kanthawong, whose grandson was also trapped in the caves. “You can survive, but that is all.”

It is unclear how the international attention the team has received may change the fates of its stateless members.

The Wild Boars were promised seats at the soccer World Cup final this Sunday in Russia. They have also been offered a trip to Old Trafford, home of English Premier League giant Manchester United.

But even within Thailand, the stateless must request permission to travel abroad. And without a passport, an international trip is out of the question.

There have been rumors that the Thai government could grants citizenship to the stateless team members. Officials have been vague when asked about that possibility.

They would be treated like everyone else, the head of the rescue operation Narongsak Osatanakorn said soon after the rescue was completed.

Children play outside the home of 16-year-old Pornchai Khamluang, 16, who goes by the nickname Tee. He was among the group trapped in a flooded underground cavern in the far north of Thailand.
(Matt Blomberg / For The Times)

Since then, other authorities said that local officials would be ordered to examine the cases and find out why they have not yet been granted citizenship.

But Vithat Techaboon, the director-general of the Thai Department of Youth and Children, said the children would get no special treatment.

“Everything must be done according to the law,” he said.

One possibility is that the boys will be granted a residential identification card — known here as a “zero card” — that grants access to some state services as well as the right to work.

It also serves as a steppingstone to becoming a full citizen. But obtaining the zero card can be a long and expensive process, in part because corrupt officials may use their power as an opportunity demand bribes.

There are other ways to break the cycle of statelessness.

Kong, the grandmother, is stateless. But her daughter, who was born in Myanmar, married a Thai man and after three years became eligible for Thai citizenship herself.

Their son, 11-year-old Chanin Wiboonrungrueng, the youngest team member trapped in the caves, was born a Thai citizen. He is free to ride his bicycle back and forth across the border, visiting relatives on both sides.

His grandmother, however, enjoys no such privilege.

She had to apply for a visitor’s slip when she rushed across the border the day after her grandson went missing.

The pass expired after seven days. It can be renewed, but she lost track of time while the team was stuck underground.

Having overstayed by two weeks, she is now afraid to go back to Myanmar and face the border guards.

“I don’t know what will happen,” she said. “Maybe they will fine me, maybe something else.”

Blomberg is a special correspondent. Special correspondent Sasiwan Mokkhasen contributed to this article.