Picture two prepubescent boys soaking with sweat, slugging it out in a ring under blinding fluorescent lights as spectators cheer and taunt them.
This image evokes immediate questions about the morality and intentions behind a sport which pits the most fragile of humans, some as young as seven years old, into battle. For some, this form of entertainment could not possibly be seen as acceptable or humane.
The boys’ juvenile bodies are developed to work as weapons, their feet and hands like daggers and swords. Their forearms and shins are hardened in training to act as the armour against heavy blows from their opponents.
While it’s easy to make negative assumptions, this scene is not necessarily reflective of the Muay Thai industry and fails to take into account the positive impact the sport has on thousands of rural children from impoverished backgrounds. Many of the boys have family problems stemming from social issues such as broken homes, unemployment, and exposure to crime and drugs. This can lead to children leaving their homes at a very young age to seek a better life, while at the same time shouldering the obligation to support their families. This may be unsettling for some, however, as it would appear that one of the few options for these children to escape from a life of poverty is to have their faces bashed in for the amusement of others.
Opponents of child fighting argue that it impedes education, exposes children to gambling and unsavoury characters, and encourages parents to rely on the child’s income. In some cases, parents put pressure on their children to learn Muay Thai, and send them away to live in gyms where they train hard for years.
A child fighter, age 13, is massaged in oil backstage before a fight in Chiang Mai
Chai (not his real name) never wanted to enter the fight game; his dream was to become a footballer. But at the age of nine, his dad essentially sold him to a gym for 20,000 baht. When Chai was at school, promoters would come to get him to compete, and he would run away and hide in the storage area. Constantly at the mercy of his owners, he would endure beatings and starvation to meet the weight requirements for fights. Ironically, he eventually became a famous champion and now runs a gym in Chiang Mai. To this day he will publicly deny his past experiences, though a close friend told Citylife about the hardships he suffered as a child.
In 1999, efforts were made to ban child boxing after human rights activists issued a petition to the Thai government claiming that it fosters child abuse and infringes upon basic human rights. The Boxing Act of 1999 is a half-hearted law that sets 15 as the minimum age to compete professionally – anyone younger requires a parental letter of consent. The act did little, however, to secure the children’s health and financial wellbeing. Even so, when it was passed, rural families protested that it would further damage an already bleak economic situation and destroy the national heritage of Muay Thai. It appears that a blanket ban on children participating in the sport is not a realistic solution.
Piak and his trainer Ping at the Team Quest Gym
For 18-year-old Pomsili “Piak” Meesati and his younger brother, Surilarn, 12, Muay Thai was a choice they made on their own. It was an opportunity for them to flip their family crisis into some fortune. With another brother suffering from drug use, Piak did not want Surilarn to be dragged down the same path, and introduced him to the sport. Piak had previously held several full-time jobs including repairing motorcycles and cleaning dishes, but he never earned more than 4,000 baht a month. When he realised that he could make more by fighting – even if he lost – Piak moved from his home in Chiang Mai’s Om Koi District to Bangkok to start his Muay Thai career. He was 16. hSoon, he was picked up by a trainer who, within five days of training, decided to throw him into the ring. Piak suffered a severe blow to the head, and still bears a scar on his forehead from being forced back into battle having only just received temporary stitching. This was his first fight, and his first defeat.
After a few more fights, a sympathetic referee and trainer named Ping noticed the way Piak had been mistreated and urged the boy to return to Chiang Mai and train with him. Piak and Surilarn, who joined him later, now live at the foreign-owned Team Quest gym in Chiang Mai, where they attend school and are cared for by the staff and trainers while training, fighting and earning money.
Surilarn Meesati, age 12, trains for his first fight
Many gyms around Chiang Mai train and house young fighters. Santai Gym accommodates boys aged eight to 14, providing food and schooling and allowing them to keep all the proceeds from their fights. The gym itself is well-built and boasts new equipment, providing a solid platform for the children to become champions. Owner Jiraphan “Ood” Hjalmarsson, supports her gym financially by training westerners.
“As far as the children are concerned, the gym is run as an act of charity,” says Ood. She and her Swedish husband, along with the Thai trainers, care for the children while instilling the fundamentals of Muay Thai – discipline, honour and respect.
A moment to take a rest during training at the Santai Gym
While some gyms may provide a decent environment, this does not mean that boxing from a young age cannot have severe long-term negative effects. Dr Jiratorn Laothatmatas from Bangkok’s Ramathibodi Hospital researched the issue by looking at brain scans of children aged seven to 15, comparing those of boxers with regular children from the same background to see the results of repeated blows to the head. The preliminary findings of the research suggest that “boxers can suffer similar head injuries over time to that of a sudden motorcycle accident.” This, in the long term, can lead to a decreased IQ, memory deficits, brain haemorrhaging and early dementia. But rather than suggesting a ban on children in the sport, Dr Jiratorn recommends padded helmets for fighters below the age of 16. She says she is aware of the cultural and economic significance of Muay Thai in Thai society, and wouldn’t want to take that away.
To view child boxing as barbaric is to ignore a society’s traditions and beliefs that have become an integral part of its history. To apply westernised notions of human rights as a universal concept is perhaps not appropriate when one culture’s outrages are another’s norms.