BANGKOK, Thailand — What is known as the Science and Art of Eight Limbs is the national sport of Thailand. Trumpeting a 700-year history, Muay Thai is an arguably notorious sport that governs both the underbelly and summit of Thailand. Each match is clocked in five rounds lasting 3 minutes each, during which is a free-for-all of thrashing elbows, fists, knees and feet.
Muay Thai upholds a traditional and fundamental belief in Thailand’s culture as the sport is heralded as a true game for true men. It is a demonstration of utmost masculinity and dignity, and children believe it is an honorable career. Fighters are viewed in the same light as celebrities. With lights, cameras, deafening chants and a pre-fight dance around the ring, it’s easy for the national audience to esteem Muay Thai as an entertainment as much as a sport.
Amateur Muay Thai falls in the jurisdiction of the International Federation of MuayThai Amateur (IMFA) where fighters 16 years of age or over are allowed to participate. Conversely, Professional Muay Thai is predominantly organized by gangsters in the country’s capital, Bangkok. Professional Muay Thai is the division where children under 15 years old contend; the youngest challengers are barely 8 years of age.
This is where talk of the sport gets even more uncomfortable, building on to the criticism stirred by the blatant sexist attitudes dominating the sport.
Human rights activists call out Muay Thai as a venture of child labor and exploitation. Since the 1990s, advocates of child’s rights have struggled to lobby the government to ban child boxing or to introduce tougher sanctions to protect children. In Muay Thai, there is very little protection: no headgear and most of the body is bare.
Moreover, sometimes child boxers must drop 20 pounds on a last-minute notice by their coach. When comparing the brain scans of fighters and non-fighters under 16 years of age, results reveal damage in the brains of the fighters, which causes poor memory responses. The severity of the damage has been compared to the trauma found in car accident victims.
However, the story goes beyond the performance in the ring. These children are from impoverished rural villages where their parents work in rice fields, a future both the children and their families want to avoid. In a single day, the amount of prize money, or “purses,” a child boxer receives for a tournament can overshadow the earnings their parents squeeze out of a month. Despite protests that involvement in muay Thai distances children from school and pushes them closer to seedy influences, supporters insist that money earned from the sport actually helps the children continue their education.
Furthermore, fulfilling the time commitments of the sport will encourage children to avoid trouble in the rural community. The central argument in favor of practicing the sport is the idea that Muay Thai is a celebration of culture. But is this a pleasant excuse or an irony?
Muay Thai breeds a lucrative business entwining coaches and gamblers. At temple fairs where matches are popularly held, gamblers enjoy violent entertainment and haggling in the sanctuary of Buddha. The cheers bubbling from the audience around the ring are not cries of support but chants of each individual anticipating profit and victory. Child boxers have a title and a prize to win but much more to lose. Their pride, their village bets and the reputation of their training gym are all thrown on the table when the match bell tolls.
Much of the criticism directed at Thailand’s unabashed child boxing comes from the West. The human rights are a Western construct, so there is a question of whether Western principles should be implemented in other cultures. The assumed universality of Western ideologies often renders people ignorant. People dismiss traditional values of other cultures and believe those cultures require Western correction and guidance.
Ethical scrutiny across cultures is a delicate issue. Tate Zandstra directs “Torn Cloth,” a documentary aiming to present an unbiased glimpse into the nature of Muay Thai. Phunyanuch Pattanotai is a Tokyo-based researcher who explores the issue in his paper “Child Boxing in Thailand: Preserving National Heritage vs. Exploiting National Future.” He proposes that child boxing should not necessarily be banned, but instead, the 1999 Boxing Act should account for the safety of child boxers and to remove them from fighting under unscrupulous intentions such as gambling.
However, in order to do so, the government must alleviate the economic rut in which the country sits. This requires that the government provide more opportunities to rural communities and better working conditions in order to stop families from relying on the children for fast income. From a neutral perspective, these activists try to preserve culture while promoting safety and understanding.
The lesson here is that people must understand both ends of an issue, especially when the issue is about a cultural tradition. Debates pertaining to the morality of a culture’s age old practices become sensitive as the arguing parties’ passion and certainty of their respective world views mount and vie for leverage. People must learn to listen and respect each other in order to offer appropriate aid to a supposed issue. Dismissing, accepting or eradicating a problem is not solving it. Peace starts with education and support.
– Carmen Tu