By Panu Wongcha-um and Patpicha Tanakasempipat
CHIANG RAI, Thailand (Reuters) - A soccer coach rescued with a 12-member squad of boys this week from a flooded cave in Thailand is a kind and humble young man who loves sports and hopes to become a Thai citizen, a relative and friend said on Thursday.
The coach, Ekkapol Chantawong, or Ek as he is known, has come under scrutiny as the only adult in the group of 13 who got trapped in the cave in the northern province of Chiang Rai on June 23 during an expedition.
All 13 were finally brought out after a dramatic rescue through flooded tunnels this week.
Ek, 25, along with the 12 boys, has been in hospital since being extracted and has not spoken publicly about the ordeal, or about how the group got trapped by flood waters after a rainy season downpour.
He showed remorse in a note to the boys' parents that rescuers brought out of the cave, apologising and vowing to take "the very best care" of the boys.
"Ek is a kind and humble man," said one of his relatives, Charoenpol Rattanaweerachon, 52. "He loves sports, cycling and football since he was young."
"He's a country boy so he enjoys nature."
Attention has also focused on Ek's status in Thailand.
He is a member of the Tai Lue minority, one of several groups whose people have over generations moved around the region, across open borders in remote hills between southern China, Myanmar and Laos, and into northern Thailand's ethnic patchwork of communities.
Many such people do not have Thai citizenship papers and are officially stateless.
Weenat Seesuk, an interior ministry official in Bangkok, said Ek and three of the rescued boys from the "Wild Boars" soccer team were stateless.
"They are not Thai citizens," Weenat told Reuters, adding that officials were checking to see if they qualified for citizenship.
'LIKE A FATHER'
Many Thais on social media say the boys and their coach should be given citizenship following their ordeal.
"He would love to become a Thai citizen," said Charoenpol.
Recounting Ek's life, Charoenpol said he ordained as a novice Buddhist monk at the age of 10, after his father died.
He stayed at a temple in Chiang Mai province until he was 20, when he left the monkhood to take care of his grandmother.
Ek did odd jobs and lived a simple life, often sleeping at a monastery high on a hill or with friends in the town of Mae Sai on the Myanmar border, not far from the cave complex.
Some people have wondered whether Ek's background as a Buddhist monk had helped him stay calm, and help the children, during their ordeal in the flooded Tham Luang cave.
"I think he helped the children a lot, being a novice monk for 10 years," said Charoenpol.
Chanta Chaichim, the mother of Duangpetch Promthep, 13, the rescued captain of the "Wild Boars", said the young coach was like a father to her son.
"He even washes his clothes after practice," Chanta told Reuters.
Ek's Facebook page is full of photographs of him with the boys playing sports.
Hours before he and the boys became trapped, he posted a last video of the "Wild Boars" practising under a cloudy sky.
Charoenpol said Ek would be warmly welcomed back into the community when he left hospital.
"He must be feeling guilty right now but I would say he has nothing fear. His goodness will shine through," he said.
(Additional reporting by Panarat Thepgumpanat and Amy Sawitta Lefevre in BANGKOK and John Geddie in CHIANG RAI; Writing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre; Editing by Robert Birsel)