CHIANG RAI – Muay Thai is the national sport of Thailand, with a 700-year-old history, and as with most sports, a yin and yang.
Known as the “science of eight limbs,” muay Thai allows striking by fists, elbows, knees and feet, in bouts of five three-minute rounds. As described by the Dictionary of Martial Arts: “… fights are often brutal and contestants are frequently injured. … Particularly devastating are the full-power kicks permitted to the legs, knees and thighs.”
Muay Thai comes with fierce action, and more. As an ESPN investigation shows, it brings entertainment, pride and hope to working class Thais, especially in the impoverished countryside. Yet E:60 discovered that it also comes with troubling questions about child labor and exploitation in its country of origin.
After years of global expansion, Muay Thai is knocking on the door of the International Olympic Committee, seeking permission into Olympic competition. The International Federation of Muaythai Amateur (IMFA) has mounted a campaign to sell the sport to the IOC. Even the prime minister of Thailand, Yingluck Shinawatra, has joined the effort.
“Muay Thai is an integral part of the ancient Thai cultural heritage, dating back to the kingdoms of Ayudhya and Sukhothai,” Shinawatra wrote on the IMFA website. “A unique form of martial arts for self-defense, the art of muay Thai has been passed down from generation to generation, giving rise to heroes in unarmed combat during times of war and legends of the sport in times of peace. It combines fitness and strength with artistry and culture.”
What she carefully omits is that Thailand embraces two cultures of muay Thai. One is amateur, bound by the IMFA’s pristine code of conduct, which requires fighters to be 16 and older for international competition. The other is professional, thick with gamblers — and likely gangsters — at its epicenter in the capital of Bangkok. Its greasy texture mirrors that of professional boxing around the world, except for one crucial difference.
Professional muay Thai bouts feature boys and girls under the age of 15, and sometimes as young as 7 or 8, who war without protective headgear. A 2009 study put the number of fighters under 15 at 20,000, though some estimates peg it as high as 30,000. In the rural countryside, they bang away, at temple fairs and fundraisers, for purses of $25 to $50, and a chance for a future beyond the rice fields.
“For some who show talent, or who come from boxing families, they may move to a boxing camp, where they then live and train in earnest,” said Peter Vail, a professor at National University of Singapore who has studied muay Thai. “That’s when things get more serious, and the bouts that such children fight in can be pretty intense.”
The best child fighters make their way to Bangkok, where their purses rise into the hundreds and even thousands of dollars.
The phenomenon of child pros took root in the 1960s and 1970s, when the sport “professionalized and rationalized,” Vail said.
By the early 1990s it was a concern of human rights advocates, who claimed it exploited children and ran afoul of international child labor guidelines. In 1992, Thailand signed the treaty of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which was supposed to curtail child labor and exploitation. Thailand muay Thai community resisted change, however.
In 1999, the Foundation for Child Rights Protection Centre in Bangkok petitioned the Thai government to ban child boxing. The motion failed when farmers argued that the rural economy would collapse without the purses their children brought home. A watered-down law — the Boxing Act of 1999 — required only a parental letter of permission for children under 15 to fight. Language to prohibit children from boxing for pay was put into the Child Protection Act of 2003, but the government continued to recognize the 1999 law. The push-and-pull over child pros has continued over the past decade.
Opponents argue that fighting impedes education, exposes children to unsavory people and conditions, and encourages parents to rely on their child’s income. Their primary argument, however, is that it violates the rights of children.
Proponents say muay Thai provides children a process of acculturation, and teaches them values of perseverance and self-reliance — not to mention that the money they earn can be the sole income for impoverished rural families during the wet season.
As Vail points out, “Children from poor backgrounds don’t have many opportunities, and the countryside is rife with problems — everything from drug abuse, hooliganism, to having to work in potentially dangerous and underpaid jobs. Conversely, children who box are often admired in school — which many can afford to go to only because of the money they earn boxing — and they have a strict training regimen that keeps many of them out of trouble.
“None of this is to advocate children’s boxing, mind you, or deny its very real dangers. But again I think it has to be seen in context.”
Context can be found in research of the late Dr. Pattana Kitiarsa, assistant professor of Southeast Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore. Kitiarsa, the son of an avid boxer, wrote a 2003 paper titled “Thai Boxers as National Heroes.”
In it, Kitiarsa connects muay Thai to Thai concepts of manhood and masculinity:
“For every muay Thai boxer and for many ordinary Thais, muay Thai rings are culturally sacred domains, traditionally reserved for men and their fight for masculine dignity. Fierce, full-contact strikes in muay Thai, which are considered brutal or devastating by many foreigners, are highly valued as the core symbols of the ‘true game of true men with dignity and pride’ by the Thais …”
At temple fairs, where muay Thai is a staple, “the ring announcer repeatedly reminds people that boxing is a sport by men and for men. On many occasions, the audience hears similar phrases over the ring’s public address system, that only men can box and fight so bravely,” Kitiarsa wrote.
Yet Kitiarsa cautions that muay Thai be seen for its “ironic and self-contradictory elements.”
“As the national pastime ‘by men and for men’ from different classes and socioeconomic backgrounds, muay Thai is a place where poor young men, dutiful trainers, managers, promoters and sport gamblers earn their easy, quick money by trying to outwit, outsmart or out-hustle other men in the name of fundraising for civic projects in their community. This is the place where people talk about the dignity and pride of Thai [gentle]men and the Thai nation, while they enjoy the violence, the gambling, and the masculine entertainment. This is the place where human cockfights and the large-scale gambling take place within the same compounds as Buddhist temples and the compassionate teachings of Buddha.”
More context comes from Phunyanuch Pattanotai, a researcher at Waseda University of Tokyo. In his 2009 paper, “Child Boxing in Thailand: Preserving National Heritage vs. Exploiting National Future,” Pattanotai writes that “cultural relativism holds that the existence and scope of human rights in a particular society are determined by the local culture traditions and values. Since culture is specific in nature and may vary from society to society, it is inaccurate to hold that human rights, as a product of western philosophical ideologies, are universally applicable.”
Many Thais believe that child fighters are integral to the preservation of national heritage, Pattanotai writes.
Yet the author recommends that the Boxing Act of 1999 be amended to provide children under 15 a separate section under the law, which would focus on their safety and welfare, require headgear, and prohibit them from fighting “for the purpose of business or gambling.”
In early October, Thai media reported on an ongoing medical study that mapped the brains of 13 fighters under the age of 16 and the brains of 200 non-fighters of similar ages. The study, conducted at Ramathibodi Hospital in Bangkok, showed abnormalities as well as inferior memory response among the fighters. Damage in the fighters’ brains resembled that caused by auto accidents, falls and assaults.
In mid-October, muay Thai was one of 15 martial arts represented at the second World Combat Games in St. Petersburg, Russia. Thailand had seven of the 86 muay Thai fighters entered in the amateur competition. Far removed from the controversy of professional muay Thai, IMFA president Sakchye Tapsuwan sounded a hopeful note.
“Speaking about the Olympic perspectives of muay Thai,” he said, “I can say that we are working toward recognition … we are doing our best and we have already done our best.”
Steve Marantz is an ESPN researcher and author, Lindos Suenos.” Joseph Svinth contributed to this report.