Escaping from Poverty in the Ring: Thailand’s Child Fighters
For young men living in the poorer communities around the world, sports are viewed as one of the only ways to escape poverty. While the sport of choice in the United States is football, Thailand’s national sport is Muay Thai.
Muay Thai is a form of boxing that well is beloved for the athleticism and strength it requires. However, there are many activists who worry about the roughly one-hundred thousand child fighters in Thailand.
Many begin training as early as five years old, commencing grueling physical challenges and diets that one might associate more with people ten years their senior. While not all children are pushed to this extent, the practice is fairly common in poor communities.
For these children, ten-kilometer runs, intense strength training, and daily practices are the norm. In terms of nutrition, they are given diets to keep them lean and help them build muscle. However, Professor Sombat Ritthidech from Ramajitti Institute noted in one region that “many of the children showed stunted growth because of measures taken by trainers to control their weight.”
Training aside, by the far most worrying aspect of this lifestyle is how young some children enter the ring. Boys and girls as young as age as seven are engaging in full-fledged attacks on each other. While it is not technically legal for children under 15 to enter the ring, access is easily granted to those who obtain a parent’s approval.
Aside from boxing gloves, the attire provides no protection or padding for these children and generally consists of shorts with the addition of a sports top for the older girls. Neither head protection nor mouthguards are used
The incentive for many to enter the ring comes from the potential to win large sums through gambling on the fights. Although small children might only win a few dollars, the winnings from their bouts as they improve can become substantial to the family’s income. When the child fighters become teenagers, the money passing between hands can total up to 10,000 pounds.
In 2016, one young twelve-year old name Boosang was earning about four times as much as his father earned for every fight he participated in. The more popular and skilled a fighter, the more they can expect to make.
Many of these kids have parents who were fighters themselves and who have also made a living off of Muay Thai. Their success, family, and future all hang in the balance of their abilities. Thus, for many, this lifestyle is not something they choose, but rather something they must do for their families.
However, some children, such as twelve-year-old fighter Siripat, are eager to enter the ring. Siripat dreams of his professional fighting career. When asked why he fights he responded, "Because I love it. I want to be a professional Muay Thai fighter in the future." He has already fought in around thirty flights, of which he has won about twenty.
Besides the tremendous amount of pressure these children experience, other neurological issues may also arise from the fights. Relatively recent research points towards the hits taken in the ring being potentially irreparably damaging to these children’s brains.
There are also more apparent tolls. Videos have been uploaded on the Internet showing young kids vomiting or crying, only to be sent back into the fight. A young girl was shown suffering a seizure from the blows she took, while others are visibly battered and bruised.
In the very worst of cases, some kids don’t leave the ring at all. In 2004, a child named Chhu Thon died in the ring. While death is seemingly uncommon, in some of the poorest communities, it is likely that a number of incidents are simply not reported.
However, the issue is difficult to tackle or oppose in many ways. After all, the alternatives for the ring include sweatshop labor or, even worse, the Thailand sex trade. Families suffering from poverty simply cannot survive without the money.
But still, the dangers are not lost on the parents. One mother of three fighters, fifteen-year-old Amarin, thirteen-year-old Namchoke, and eight-year-old Thanapat, stated: “The money the boys bring in to me is invaluable but I really worry about their injuries.”
Muay Thai has also been ingrained into Thai culture since the 12th century and is unlikely to ever leave, and nor should it completely.
Certainly, systemic social changes and stronger economic growth are the kinds of solutions that will prevent this tragic side to the sport. However, even in the short term, it is possible for the government to make a change. Passing and enforcing new safety standard regulations and controlling the gambling circles could make an enormous difference.
Although we look towards Thailand, it is important to remember that this issue is not isolated to one region or to even just developing nations. Children all over the world are put through strenuous training regimes for sports, and it seems as good a time as any to decide how much is too much.