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Why the Thai soccer boys are crawling through fake caves instead of recovering

Thai boys soccer team attend exhibition to celebrate their dramatic rescue
WATCH ABOVE: Twelve boys of a soccer team rescued from a flooded cave during the summer were honoured on Thursday after facing a dramatic rescue when they became trapped in the cave during the summer. It took two weeks for them to be rescued.

The 12 Thai soccer players rescued from a cave in July opened an exhibit about their rescue last week, held a Q&A with the press, appeared as guests of honour at a banquet for 10,000 and toured Thailand’s Royal Palace — all over the course of three days.

The boys also crawled through a replica of the cave where they spent two weeks huddled together.

Thailand initially said the boys would go through a six-month psychological monitoring period, but the government has thrust them back into the spotlight just two months after their ordeal.

And experts say the government and the king are eager to capitalize on the feel-good story now, regardless of whether the children are prepared.

READ MORE: Here's how the Thai cave boys became trapped in the first place

Last week’s “United as One” media blitz was sponsored by Thailand’s new monarch, King Maha Vajiralongkorn, and the country’s unelected government, a military junta that seized power in 2014 and has yet to declare an election.

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Thailand expert Kevin Hewison says the government needs the publicity ahead of an anticipated election that it hopes to win.

“This is almost an opportunity that the military junta can’t resist,” said Hewison, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Contemporary Asia and a retired political science professor.

“It does look like this is being manipulated by the military for its own purposes, but also for promoting the current king.”

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The junta has repeatedly delayed plans to hold an election, and the new king is not nearly as popular as his late father, Hewison said.

“It makes him look good, [and] it makes the junta look good,” Hewison told Global News from Australia. “This is an opportunity to reinforce a good news story for the junta internationally, which then makes them appear more legitimate within Thailand.”

READ MORE: Thai king turns over royal family fortune to himself, will allow assets to be taxed

The junta has also tried to use the cave story to distract from talk of an election, according to Amy L. Freedman, a political science professor at Columbia University’s Weatherhead East Asia Institute.

“This is a military regime, and any PR that they can use to manufacture something that shows their credibility and their legitimacy, I think they’re going to do,” Freedman told Global News.

WATCH BELOW: Thai cave boys talk about miracle rescue after leaving hospital in July

Thai cave boys leave hospital, talk about miracle rescue
Thai cave boys leave hospital, talk about miracle rescue

Hewison says the junta has been trying to position itself to win the eventual election, by silencing opposition and promoting itself through the media. The junta has said the election will come in late February, but no concrete date has been set.

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“The junta is campaigning pretty hard on the election trail when no other party is allowed to campaign at the moment, so this is another way to campaign,” he said.

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Thailand has also celebrated other aspects of the July rescue. It hailed several foreign rescue divers as heroes, ordered a museum built about the event, and made a national hero out of Samarn Kunan, the former Navy SEAL who died during the recovery operation.

READ MORE: How divers saved 13 lives in a 'unique' cave rescue

The boys are being shepherded around by two government committees that control access to them. They’re scheduled to speak to the press again on Sept. 15-16.

The boys were permitted to answer questions at the opening of the cave rescue exhibit last Wednesday. When asked how they were doing, at least five of them delivered versions of the same answer: “My life is the same, but more people are approaching me.”

Members of Wild Boar youth soccer team and their coach-turned-Buddhist monk Ekapol Chantawong (back, C) visit Wat Phra Kaew or Temple of the Emerald Buddha within the Grand Palace complex in Bangkok, Thailand, 07 September 2018. EPA/RUNGROJ YONGRIT

Lt. Gen. Werachon Sukondhapatipak said all press questions are screened “to ensure there are no violations of their rights by an over-inquisitive media,” according to the Bangkok Post.

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The boys also posed last week with a massive portrait of the king.

“The image that appeared in the Thai media was one of these kids — some of whom are still not Thai citizens — before a huge picture of the king, and the first thing that they’re doing is thanking the king for his efforts,” Hewison said.

“This is an opportunity for the palace PR machine to get to work and try and build an international profile for him.”

Members of Wild Boar youth soccer team who were rescued from Tham Luang cave, say thank to everyone, in front of a large portrait of Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun (C) as they attend the ‘United as One’ event at the Royal Plaza of Dusit Palace area in Bangkok, Thailand, 06 September 2018. EPA/NARONG SANGNAK

The Wild Boars also appeared in public in early August, when all but one of them attended a ceremony to become Buddhist monks. They said the gesture was to give thanks for their return and to pay tribute to the rescuer who died.

WATCH BELOW: Thai cave survivors to become Buddhist monks

Members of freed Thai soccer team to become Buddhist monks
Members of freed Thai soccer team to become Buddhist monks

The Thai government said after the rescue that the boys, who are between the ages of 11 and 16, would be monitored for six months for signs of psychological trauma.

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“The boys need to go back to their normal life, to their daily routines, in order to fully appreciate that the threat is over,” Dr. Andrea Danese, of the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience in London, told Reuters in July.

Danese suggested that up to 20 per cent of the boys might develop longer-term psychiatric disorders such as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the incident.

The boys are also at risk of suffering withdrawal, according to Dr. Paul Auberbach, of the Department of Emergency Medicine at Stanford University’s medical school.

“On the bright side, it is predictable that not all will be adversely affected – perhaps only about a third of them – and in those cases only a few might require professional psychological or psychiatric intervention,” he told The Associated Press in August.

One boy skipped the Buddhist ceremony in August, but all were present at last week’s events.

READ MORE: Thai boys rescued from cave now face battle with fame, family says

A group of Chilean miners who went through a similar ordeal in 2010 warned the boys about the brief fame they would encounter after their rescue.

“Almost every miner has psychological issues,” foreman Luis Urzua, 62, told Reuters in July.

“They don’t sleep or feel well. It’s not well known in Chile but they are in despair.”

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Urzua’s fellow miner, Jorge Galleguillos, said he was invited to Hollywood, the Vatican, Israel and the Chilean presidential palace after the rescue.

“In the moment, everyone is talking about you – in the press, on television you are front page news everywhere –and then … nothing,” he said.

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“So many promises were made to us and then we were abandoned. Now we are forgotten. I hope the same does not happen to them.”

— With files from the Associated Press and Reuters