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Child Fighting and the Victorian Cult of the Child

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On 6/27/2016 at 9:54 PM, muaythailand-jitsinbrazil said:

Experts fear boxing children risk brain damage 



Some real issues and concerns on this topic ,being a father and muay thai fan I struggle with what is right.



I've been following this study by Jiraporn Laothamatas for a few years now. The original study, about 4 years ago, seemed to have very few examined young Nak Muay (if I recall, maybe 20, working from my memory) so the results seemed inconclusive when compared to a control of over 200 non-Nak Muay, apparently adjusted for age and socio-economic class. Then from reading various new sources in 2014 she seemed to have more results, and updated her study (I believe with around 100 young Nak Muay). And now in May she seems to have presented a new paper, with over 300 young Nak Muay examined. So while I was predisposed to doubt the application of her original findings, she seems to be on very solid ground here. The problem that I have with the study at this point is that as I can't read the paper itself it's very hard to assess just what she's discovered. The only qualitative conclusions that I've seen drawn are related to IQ tests among the longest range sub-sample (fighting for 5 years). I've seen small excerpts which include brain scans which show neurological changes (including the increase spatio-temporal development), but it is difficult for a layman to judge just what risks are involved, at a qualitative level: ie, what is the Quality of Life (QoL) change reflected in young Nak Muay brain scans? This is a really important lack in the studies, though I understand that this may be the hardest to measure. The ethical issues is essentially one that hinges on of QoL,.

I think this is an amazing ethical question because it pulls on so many threads of social judgement: how middle and upper class Thais view lower class Thais (Muay Thai is a sport of the lower classes largely), how westerners view Thais, ideals of childhood and development. As a westerner who has seen a lot of cultural good coming out of the very fabric of Muay Thai how does one weigh the development of children in the art vs the value of the art itself? There is no doubt in my mind that Muay Thai holds its very special place as the supreme combat art, a living martial art, because Muay Thai is fought at a young age, and has been for many decades if not centuries. It allows fighters a very early inoculation against the fear of contact, something that just cannot be mimiced. And it allows the sport itself (all the techniques, both in terms of pedagogy and of fighting) to develop in the real context of fights. The fact is: it is dangerous. And the Thais are the best in the world, raising a sport to the level of art - a living art - because they are exposed to danger early.

If we took it in another direction, by analogy: If there was a (mythical) country which 200 years ago had the best sailors in the world, and the art of sailing was raised especially here because high-sea sailing began at a very young age, exposing young boys to many potential hardships, injuries and even deaths, the height of the art of sailing achieved in that country would be through the risk to children. Muay Thai reminds me of this. It has the best fighters in the world because and through this reason of risk. How does one balance the QOL of living within an art, a woven piece of your culture, with real, but unqualified diminishments? 

As a natural bias, I am suspect of much of the Western ideology of the Innocence of Children which has grown out of it's own unease with 19th century industrialization: The Victorian Cult of the Child. <<<< To understand the full scope of the ethical question, and how we have inherited particular perspectives of childhood (and how it relates to Industrialized Capitalism), do read this piece.

Which is not to say that motivations for the protection of children are wrong, but insofar as they come out of pictures of childhood like those of Victorian/Industrial motivations, they should at least be critiqued. There is something about how middle classes everywhere project concern for lower class children that gives me pause. The bottom line for me is ultimately found in meaningfulness. How meaningful is Muay Thai? Unlike just blanket poverty, or disease or lack of education (in the general sense) - all of which tend strongly towards meaninglessness, suffering without redemption, arts like the fighting art of Muay Thai feels meaningful. It's an achievement of a people, a culture, embodying high values, praiseworthy states of mind and body. And largely its an achievement by the less economically advantaged of that culture. It's pretty amazing.

This isn't to say that there is nothing worth critiquing or plain worrying about when it comes to young Nak Muay. Surely there is. There no doubt are many situations of great risk and injustice within the ad hoc system of youth fighting as it exists today. There are nefarious, cruel realities within the sport at the local and wide-scale levels, but I resist the sense that just because there is risk, or even in this case documented damage, it is simply judged as "brutal" or "bad". I come from a place where I feel that the fighting arts are noble, and their nobility is born of their engagement and ultimate mastery of risk.

I do wonder if Muay Thai for Thai children is getting younger (perhaps there is more organized or prevalent gambling opportunity now?). I have no evidence to support this other than it just a question being raised. I see fighters from the Golden Age say that they began fighting when they were 13 (Karuhat) or 11 (Sagat), but I've never heard of legends say that they began fighting at 8, which seems sometimes the case now. This could of course be a difference in description, when people mark the beginning of their fighting, or anecdotal difference. Only people who have lived through it could say.

The problem with this issue I think is that most of those who oppose child fighting in Thailand seem to do so from a very powerful, and emotion place. So it is difficult to come to a point of agreement, or a direction forward. I will say this. The sort of motivated resistance to child fighting seems to resemble the long time resistance to females fighting. This is not to equate the two ethically, there are clearly important differences, but only to diagnosis some of the gut-level judgement that may be involved.

I'm not a father of a child, and if I was I may be moved to think differently, but I've often thought that if I did have a kid having him/her be raised in a camp like kaimuay I've seen a few western boys experience, seems like an amazing childhood to have, even if there be risks. Of course being able to pick and choose what camp, or which caretakers to watch over a boy (or girl) is not a luxury that many Thai parents have.

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  • 4 years later...

I'm going to manually add some Reddit conversation here that is pretty good:



[–]Buckhum 6 points 8 hours ago:

Wall of text warning. I just find this topic super interesting (and it's probably why we are all here right?)

I don't know, maybe this is just the cynic in me speaking, but if anything I feel like poverty is under-stated as a motivation for why Thai people become professional fighters.

You say that it is part of the culture, and to that I agree. Still, it is worth pointing out that this culture is quite specific to poor / rural Thailand. While fighters from middle-class backgrounds certainly exist, I hope you can agree with me that the vast majority of professional 'nak muay' came from poorer backgrounds and fighting is one avenue through which they can escape from poverty and have a chance of gaining fame and fortune.

I tried Googling around a bit but cannot find any useful statistics to back up this claim. Instead, here are some interesting passages (that I shamelessly admit are cherry-picked to support my view):

In the poorer and more rural regions of Thailand, where child boxing has its strongest following, that money can become an important buoy. Compared with families that may earn an average of $200 a month working farms and rice paddies, a budding child fighter can bring in $60 to $600 for a victory — or even more for a knockout.

Like many camp owners, Pramote Sang-a-roon, the owner of Mor Ratanabandit Boxing Camp and a World University muay thai instructor, is far from happy with the idea and insists that boxers were safe if properly trained.“They’ve learnt how to protect themselves and won’t get hurt so easily if they are physically tough,” said Pramote, who has around 50 boxers at his camp in Nong Chok.

Poor children would be affected if they were deprived the boxing stage, he said.“How would they put food on the family table? Remember that these children have difficult lives,” added Pramote. Boxers at his camp are guaranteed a high education with at least a BA degree if they are well disciplined.

This one I found especially cool because it tells the story of Pattana Kitiarsa, a researcher who studies Thai culture and masculinity (and who himself is the son of a former nak muay & referee).

[p15] Poor country boys were particularly keen on and fond of muai Thai. They gradually learned through the experience of annual temple fairs that their boxing skills could earn some much-needed cash. If they were brave, not easily frightened by opponents, and trained properly, they too could show off their muai Thai skills in the ring in front of their village neighbours. Most boy fighters have their fathers or male relatives as their amateur coaches and corner men. During my childhood in the mid-1970s, young boy fighters were featured in the ‘pre-game show’ bouts and each one could earn Baht30–50 for his three-round efforts. Of course, if one could not stand a fierce knockout, the fight ended prematurely.

My father was very knowledgeable about and well connected in the local world of muai Thai. He earned most of his high school payments from boxing. He even went to fight in Bangkok’s prestigious Ratchadamnoen Boxing Stadium a number of times in the early 1960s. He has been a die-hard follower and enthusiast of the sport throughout his life, and has engaged with his favourite pastime through daily and weekly boxing news reports in the local Thai periodicals and live muai Thai shows on TV over the weekend. When he became a village schoolteacher in 1964, he went on to serve his school and local village committees as a boxing referee, competition organizer and promoter. However, he never taught or encouraged me to pursue a career in muai Thai. He simply said that it was too harmful and dangerous a sport. One could easily become paralysed or disabled from this physical game. It was reserved for those boys from poor families who had real talent and genuine fighting spirit.

It is part of some painful reality in the imbalanced socioeconomic development of Thailand that the poor countryside has supplied unskilled and cheap workforces to the urban and industrial sector. This is also true in the Thai boxing industry, where most, if not all, muai Thai boxers come from poor rural or working-class backgrounds

And since we are on the topic about kids fighting, here is another section in the same article. It's the opinion of Choi Phuangthong, a veteran muai Thai camp owner/manager and trainer in Khorat.

A twelve-year-old boy is at his best time to begin his muai Thai training. At this age, the boy is obedient. He listens to and remembers by heart whatever we instruct him. If I had to start over my muai Thai camp again, I would not want to train a boy from a well-to-do family background. I want boys from very poor families.

I believe poor boys take boxing more seriously than well-to-do boys. They are more perseverant and able to endure hardship and suffering. They see their parents’ difficulties before their eyes, so they will use their parents’ real life lessons as incentives to train themselves harder and make every fight a fight for their lives. I myself did not operate my boxing camp as a business unit. I do really care about all the boys under my supervision.

I remembered a poor boy boxer from Buriram. He was exceptionally good. When I ordered him to go jogging or forced him into extra sessions of hard training drills, he obeyed without a second thought. He was twelve–thirteen years old then. When you have many kids under your roof, they will compete against each other to the death in order to be successful.



my responses were as follows:



I'm glad you find this interesting. it's a super interesting topic to me as well. Maybe if you bring this conversion over a longer context space, for instance this thread I started over on our forum. Reddit just is hard to enter into richer discussion, and this deserves rich conversation.


The above is where I dropped the beginning of this discussion a few years ago.

As to the topics you bring up though quotation, its difficult because you seem like someone who hasn't been in Thailand and spent time in Thai gyms that raise up Thai boys, so you are building a picture around a few essays, some of them written decades ago. You are not wrong to do so, but you can imagine all the aspects that you might be losing out on.

If you would like to go point by point we can, hopefully in a longer form context, but maybe just to start with your intuition:

" I hope you can agree with me that the vast majority of professional 'nak muay' came from poorer backgrounds and fighting is one avenue through which they can escape from poverty and have a chance of gaining fame and fortune."

I'm not really sure what the "vast majority" consists of, or of what the qualification of "escape from poverty" might be. Part of the issue with the way that the West likes to broad brush Thailand, especially child fighting of Thailand, is that things get reduced to a fantasy image. For instance some have responded to the photo above with the thought: "This poor child is fighting to avoid starvation", not knowing anything at all about him at all (and highly unlikely to be true). This is a fantasy of the West, a kind of poverty porn story we tell about Thailand and Muay Thai. As with all fantasies there are seeds of truth to be dug out, but also we have to picture why we are drawn to these images of the Other. To me, the West has an ideological need to see large parts of Thailand as resolutely poor, unevolved, uneducated...and innocent. This is an old Colonialist trope of course. Thailand has been fighting this view from the West since the early 1900s when it first put boxing gloves on its fighters so it wouldn't appear beastial and uncivilized to European powers, by a Thai King, King Vajiravudh, who literally grew up in England (you can see more about this development in this timeline: https://8limbsus.com/blog/modernization-muay-thai-timeline ). The entire development of modern Muay Thai that we have was born out of the desire to appear more civilized to Western "concern". So, just when we start out discussing these topics I think we have to take some care as to how we build the frame.

Even a common phrase like "escape from poverty" is a complex one. We use it like such things are obvious. Everyone fighting is trying to "escape from poverty". First of all, let's stop the idea that "escaping from poverty" is largely "fighting to put food in the mouth". The broad swath of rural Thai fighting is coming out of living communities of people, out of ways of life. They maybe over-fantasized as rural simplicity, or stigmatized as cultural dead-ends, but these are living communities of people, with values, traditions and beliefs.

Secondly, to understand "escape from poverty" it needs to be put in the larger idea of sports in general. The best parallels for Thai fighting should probably be the favelas of Brazil and soccer/football greatness, or urban inner city street American Basketball greatness. Is favela or street basketball filled with kids trying to "escape from poverty"? Sure. The dream of greatness is there in every dusty field, every chainless hoop. But it would be borderline absurd to REDUCE what is happening in those fields and courts as ONLY an bid to escape poverty. All of the poetry of those players that came out of those circumstances came out of a subculture of those sports in development. And, as much as we would like to erase the plague of true poverty (disease, lack of education, homelessness, etc), the poetry of sport actually is often born out of less affluence circumstances. This is very much the truth in the history Western Boxing as well. The great boxers came out of populations of the disadvantaged. Out of the races and ethnicities that had struggle. It was not the rich boys who produced great fighters. And, if one caringly looked at the "escape from poverty" trope one would realize that the real world "escape from poverty" that is happening in small communities isn't that of becoming a star in the sport, but rather the way that Muay Thai (or other sports) often provides structure and learning to children, instilling values, in the face of much more wide spread dangers of rampant poverty's drug use and gangs.

Which brings us back to why we value the fighting arts in the first place. What is it about fighting at high levels that speaks to us? What values are preserved and celebrated in fighting? And why do we feel that we need those values? These are worthy questions. To me though, the particular story of Thailand child fighting has a great deal to add to this discussion of the worth of fighting arts and sports, in particular the way that Muay Thai acts as a maturation process, a rite of passage in boyhood to manhood in some subcultures, and how the aims of fighting are not really aggression and violence per se, but rather the control of the self.

This isn't to even bring up the biggest issue for me, which is that the lens through which we see Thailand child fighting from the West is incredibly distorted by the way Western culture fantasizes about the Innocence of the child, from Victorian times. The "Child" as fantasy grow up in parallel to the Industrial revolution, and is part of our ideological picture of what Labor and Adulthood is. This makes it very difficult to see what is happening with childhood fighting in cultures that are not ours. It doesn't make us wrong, but we do want to take stock of how and why we are seeing things.




I should add this, as an additional note on the rural nak muay picture, that complicates stories about it. Advocates for communities of Muay Thai may paint strong poverty pictures because these are the things that Westerners empathize with and respond to. It doesn't mean that there isn't poverty, or much fewer economic means, or that there isn't important ethical work to be done, but it does mean that the conversation can get starkly oversimplified.

Secondly and this is pretty important, farming is cyclical. We tend to think of young nak muay fighting in "poverty" in a fixed way. The economic conditions are horrible year round and people must fight, in a kind of post-apocalyptical Thunderdome dystopia. I'm not an expert in this at all, these are not communities I've lived in, but in rural communities that depend on farming, the work is seasonal. You plant the rice, and wait. There are extended periods of time when there is much less to do, there is no income. Making money is ad hoc and then at harvest and market there is a boom of income. This is part of the farming cycle. As explained to us by the legend Yodkhunpon, becoming a fighter, fighting in festival fights which are also seasonal, was basically what was done in relative "down time". It's not either fight and farm. It's fight when the season for fighting comes.

I've run into Thais who have talked about how this cycle of fighting actually is centuries upon centuries old. I've not seen research on this, and I've searched for it, but it was told to us that in Southeast Asia, anciently, there was "war season", which is when villages would war/raid in the downtime between planting and harvest. If this is historically true, today's festival and fight seasons grew out of this deep patterned agrarian cycle. Festival fighting may be seen as a formalization and ritual expression of much older war season farming cycles.

Now, if a harvest is very poor for a family or a community - farming life is hard and can be boom and bust - the down season waiting for the next planting and harvest can be a time of distress. But, I think it is important to see that the Muay Thai of rural Thailand is part of much larger cycles and in relation to economies, part of communities. it is not just "poor people" > "fight"

And, we from afar also have to appreciate just how much Muay Thai has seeped into Thai culture over the last century, how much it represents the Nation and its values. There is great pride in it. Outside of the wealthier urban elite (who view Muay Thai as dirty and disreputable, and may bring their kids to TKD classes where they can wear nice clean uniforms), many middle class and lower-class city families still see bringing their boys to learn to become fighters, or at least be exposed to the discipline to gain control over themselves, as part of becoming a man, in an Old Fashioned way. This actually is where most of my experience of young Thai fighting has been. In small city gyms where Thai boys come to undergo a maturation process, and maybe fulfil a dream or earn some extra money. I've seen that process, that training. Those parents. It's not a small segment of what Muay Thai is. Youth fighting is not just a rural phenomena in Thailand. I do think that ultimately, historically it is quite tied to the rural cycles of farming, perhaps going back centuries.



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In adding the above, the topic of the ethics of Child Fighting in Thailand actually brings much more series light onto the pressures from the West (and by Internationalization) to make Thailand's Muay Thai much more aggressive and violent (ie, changing the format, the scoring criteria) to fit in the world wide aggro fighting for commercial viability reasons. What makes Thailand's pedagogy of Muay Thai of value to child fighters, one could substantively argue, is that the principles of traditional Muay Thai are aesthetics of self-restraint. The Muay Thai taught and fought in rural Thailand, and in festival rings around Thailand exactly ISN'T the aggro-Muay Thai that many westerners (and some Thais) are advocating for. Part of the reason why Westerners object to Child Fighting is that fighting in the West is principally seen as a realm of violent emotions. Just the things child should be protected from. As the West pressures Thailand to exhibit more aggressive fighting aesthetics, it is altering the very fabric that makes child fighting have value: the communication and discipline of Buddhistic culture principles. Ironically enough, the West is essentially arguing against itself as it pressures Muay Thai to become more "aggro", but also to exclude Thai children from fighting. It is imposing its own vision of Fighting, and then saying "this is inappropriate for children". What is risked to be lost is that traditional Thai skills and scoring aesthetics have much greater cultural value, both in the National rings, and in festival rings where youth learn to express those forms of masculinity, the cool, jai yen, yen heart, the self control and control over your space, and the priority of defense and composure. Both cultural positions seem to be in agreement. Westerners and Thais believe that children should be protected from "violent emotions". But in traditional Thai fighting aesthetics this is what the art of fighting is. Learning to overcome and insulate oneself against violent emotions, because violent emotions are not what fighting is about.

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A really important passage authored by Sylvie, in an article on the nature of Muay Thai, Buddhism and Masculinity. Sylvie and I both wrote on this article, but the portion was by Sylvie:



A number of the practices are not directly Buddhist, but because it is a Buddhistic culture these precepts, practices, behaviors, and social interactions are all woven into the fabric of Thai life and identity. The experiences I’ve had within my participation and investigation into rituals and teachings have had strong impact on me and I’m grateful for them.  I also struggle with and against some of the traditions and beliefs, which is an experience that is endemic to being a critically-thinking person.  I’m grateful for that part as well.

Monks are said to offer the laity a “field of merit”: by performing good deeds for monks and the temple, lay devotees are able to accrue bun, religious merit.  Without overly belaboring a tenuous point, I would point out that boxers, during a performance, offer something structurally similar: the opportunity for spectators to bet, which, as I’ve suggested in chapter four, may be related to notions of power and karma.  Wagering on boxing does for bettors what making merit does for lay practitioners: it provides them the opportunity to increase and test their power and merit. (p. 5)

For a long time I did not want to think about gambling in regards to my performance in fights because it was too much mental/emotional pressure to think that people were losing money if I failed… that the loss of a bet that was placed on the belief in me is an extension of my failure to win a fight.  And that feeling probably was borne of an understanding of gambling being a signature of belief in a fighter, which ought to fill one with confidence or pride to some degree, and shame is appropriate when you fail.  But I’ve become more acquainted with the importance and prominence of gambling in Muay Thai and so I’ve been forced to face it more directly.  In the process, I’ve come to appreciate it.  Gamblers placing their belief in a fighter, enough to offer a bet that’s more substantial than just giving a once-over glance at who looks better when entering the ring, is a social mechanism.  As a fighter in a given area over a period of time, gamblers will learn how you fight, what your strengths and weaknesses are, and most importantly: whether or not you have “heart.”  Gamblers will believe in a fighter who has heart, even if she has had a tough time in fights; even if she is up against a formidable opponent.  And at the gym I’m training now, the discussion of money placed on fights is fairly open – Kru Nu will tell me how much money is being placed on a fight, how much was lost on a fighter, etc.  It’s part of the discussion of the fight because it’s inseparable from the fighter’s performance.  One of our gym’s top fighters lost a fight and with it a great deal of Kru Nu’s uncle’s money.  Our fighter kind of choked in the fight – he didn’t fight hard – so the loss of money is misplaced belief and the shame is on the fighter.  It doesn’t mean that they never trust in this fighter again, but if he had fought hard and done his all, then the loss of money is just the outcome of having taken a risk – it’s “bad luck.”  But if you fight hard and you win, belief in you goes up, “stock” in you as a fighter goes up and confidence and pride that your team, coaches, gym, and gamblers have profited off of you is a very positive experience. Here I am inverting the “field of merit” concept Vail uses, making it reflexive. Not only is there is merit in building up a fighter, but the fighter his- (or her-) self becomes a karmic field, which can be harvested, a field of luck, which is then transferred to those who bet on him (her). The community participates and grows rich (spiritually, materially) through the boon of the fighter.

Later in the essay the topic of young boys being brought to gyms to learn how to fight in order to “learn to be a man” comes up.  The money earned from fighting is part of this:

The primary reason they brought their sons to box was “for the experience”, an experience which inculcates the values I have been discussing: independence, composure, and the ability to cope with pain and confrontation.  The same is true for boys who are brought to boxing camps.  Boxing is deemed a career (or at least an experience, for non-professionals) that will build character (as well as earn cash–which is not unrelated). (p. 40)

The earning of money through Muay Thai is not incidental.  From a Western standpoint, this feature of the Muay Thai way of life features heavily in disapproval of child-fighters.  The “amateur” is regarded as the highest moral position in what we consider “sport” over a job, and children working – literally child labor – is heavily coded as being immoral from the Western position.  In my article reviewing the documentary film following two 8-year-old girls who are professional Muay Thai fighters, “Buffalo Girls” by Todd Kellstein, I argue that earning money for the family is a point of pride and high self-esteem for children.  In Thailand, due to the Theravada Buddhism and how it influences culture, earning money for one’s parents is a way of making merit – it is literally creating a more ordered world and giving good Karma to the earners.  There’s no “down side” from this view point.  For Thais who are introducing their children into Muay Thai camps – either peripherally or for the purpose of becoming career fighters – the fact that Muay Thai earns an income, even if it’s incredibly small, as is the case with the vast majority of fight money offered for young fighters, the act of earning even a single Baht that can be offered to the parental figure of the camp or actual parents is to the Karmic benefit of the fighter.  This translates to the grander scale of a fighter who can earn money, through gambling, for their gym and for their family and gamblers in the crowd. Even if a kid is only making a pittance for what he’s paid to fight, a fighter “with heart” who the family and gym believes in can be an earner for the social community of the gym.  It is akin to what the author calls the “field of merit” provided by monks.

Dangerous confrontation, and the self control it necessitates, both psycho and somatic, was a crucial method of developing mindfulness.  It also forced the monks to be independent from their instructors.  The key to surviving a confrontation with a tiger or a wild elephant was to maintain composure — a “cool heart” (jai yen).  Thudong monks were thus pushed to actively seek out such confrontational situations: Ajan Man for example, often sent disciples out to face their fears alone, and suggested that “living among tigers and hearing them roar nearby was the best thign that could happen to a thudong monk.”   Negotiating danger and fear was thus something of a rite of passage for forest monks, teaching them important lessons in meditation, self control, and independence.      (p. 14)



You can find the full article, including a link to a chapter of Peter Vail's dissertation here:


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