HONG KONG — Three of the 12 boys who were rescued from a flooded cave in northern Thailand last month have been granted Thai citizenship, along with their coach, the latest turn in a drama that captivated the world.
The move by Thailand’s military government is a stroke of luck for the boys, who play for a youth soccer team called Moo Pa, or the Wild Boars.
But it also highlights how common statelessness is in their landlocked corner of Southeast Asia, an impoverished region where a lack of citizenship routinely deprives people from ethnic-minority groups of basic rights. The three boys and their coach are members of the Shan minority, local news media reports said.
“For the Moo Pa team, it’s a really fast track” to citizenship, said Puttanee Kangkun, a specialist on human rights in Thailand for Fortify Rights, an advocacy group. But the process typically takes years, she added, and many stateless people in Thailand face restrictions on where they can work and travel.
“Basically, they are not considered as Thai,” she said.
The Wild Boars play in the northern town of Mae Sai. That is near a region at the borders of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos known as the Golden Triangle. The area is a sanctuary for members of ethnic militias that have long pushed for autonomy from the Myanmar government, and a haven for opium farmers and methamphetamine traffickers.
The 12 boys and their coach, Ekkapol Chantawong, were rescued last month by Thai Navy SEAL members, foreign military personnel and cave-diving experts after more than two weeks trapped underground. All but one were recently ordained (albeit temporarily) as Buddhist monks.
Twenty-eight children and two adults, including Mr. Ekkapol, were awarded citizenship by the local authorities on Wednesday. The three young Wild Boars were Mongkol Boonpiam, 13, Adul Sam-on, 14, and Pornchai Khamluang, 16.
“We are very, very happy,” Inn Khamluang, the father of the 16-year-old, said Thursday in a brief telephone interview. He said that his son was born in Mae Sai and that the family submitted citizenship paperwork three or four years ago, when he was in the sixth grade.
Carol Batchelor, the special adviser on statelessness for the United Nations refugee agency, applauded the government’s move.
“By granting them citizenship, Thailand has provided them with a formal identity that will pave the way for them to achieve their aspirations and to participate as full members of society, for them to belong,” Ms. Batchelor said Thursday in a statement.
Local officials could not be reached for comment.
On Wednesday, the chief of Mae Sai district, Samsak Khanakham, said that the boys, who were all born in Thailand, had not received special treatment.
“You were given citizenship because you are qualified,” Mr. Samsak told their coach, according to video footage posted by the Thai authorities. “It doesn’t mean you were given it because you were stuck in the cave.”
But in posts on Thai-language social media, some users were skeptical.
“They were lucky they were stuck in the cave, otherwise they wouldn’t get” citizenship, one user wrote on Facebook on Wednesday night. “Will other kids, who weren’t stuck in the cave, have the same opportunity as well?”
“Some people have to wait for over a year and there’s little update on their cases,” another user wrote. “It’s so difficult to get through each stage of the process.”
In Asia 2.2 million people are known to be stateless, more than half of the 3.9 million known worldwide, according to data provided by the United Nations refugee agency. That includes about 900,000 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh and an additional 600,000 Rohingya who remain in Myanmar.
More than three-quarters of the world’s known stateless populations belong to minority groups, the United Nations has said, and statelessness is often both “a symptom and a cause of their exclusion.”
The Thai government has granted citizenship to around 100,000 people since 2008, making it a leader among Southeast Asian governments in “taking action to end statelessness,” the refugee agency said Thursday.
Yet it says there are nearly half a million stateless people in Thailand, and the International Observatory on Statelessness, an international advocacy group, says the number there is likely two million to 3.5 million.
In 2016, the military government’s cabinet approved resolutions that the Foreign Ministry said would enable some “foreign children born in Thailand” to apply for Thai citizenship, and prevent them from “being criminalized as illegal immigrants.”
For stateless people living in northern Thailand, the prospects of obtaining citizenship are better now than only a few years ago, Ms. Puttanee of Fortify Rights said.
But they face a range of restrictions, such as having to obtain the government’s permission to travel to another province, she said, and many of them cannot easily return to where their families once came from.
“They can’t speak their original language and don’t have a house in their homeland anymore,” Ms. Puttanee said of stateless children. “They were born in Thai culture and go to Thai schools and have Thai friends.”
Mike Ives contributed reporting from Hong Kong and Ryn Jirenuwat from Bangkok.