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Fighter Freedoms and Social Hierarchy: The Traditional "form" of the Thai Fighter's Obligation and Contract


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One of the most confused aspects of Western genuine interest in Thailand's Muay Thai is the invisibility of its social structure, upon which some of our fondest perceptions and values of it as a "traditional" and respect-driven art are founded. Because it takes passing out of tourist mode to see these things they remain opaque. (One can be in a tourist mode for a very long time in Thailand, enjoying the qualities of is culture as they are directed toward Westerners as part of its economy - an aspect of its centuries old culture of exchange and affinity for international trade and its peoples.). If one does not enter into substantive, stakeholder relations which usually involve fluently learning to speak the language (I have not, but my wife has), these things will remain hidden even to those that know Thailand well. It has been called, perhaps incorrectly, a "latent caste system". Thailand's is a patronage culture that is quiet strongly hierarchical - often in ways that are unseen to the foreigner in Muay Thai gyms - that carries with it vestigial forms of feudal-like relationships (the Sakdina system) that once involved very widespread slavery, indentured worker ethnicities, classes and networks of debt (both financial and social), much of those power relations now expressed in obligations. Westerners just do not - usually - see this web of shifting high vs low struggles, as we move within the commercial outward-facing layer that floats above it. In terms of Muay Thai, between these two layers - the inward-facing, rich, traditional patronage (though ethically problematic) historical layer AND the capitalist, commerce and exchange-driven, outward-facing layer - have developed fighter contract laws. It's safe to say that before these contract laws, I believe codified in the 1999 Boxing Act due to abuses, these legal powers would have been enforced by custom, its ethical norms and local political powers. There was social law before there was contract law.

Aside from these larger societal hierarchies, there is also a history of Muay Thai fighters growing up in kaimuay camps that operate almost as orphanages (without the death of parents), or houses of care for youth into which young fighters are given over, very much like informal adoption. This can be seen in the light of both vestigial Thai social caste & its financial indenture (this is a good lecture on the history of cultures of indentured servitude, family as value & debt ), and the Thai custom of young boys entering a temple to become novice monks, granting spiritual merit to their parents. These camps can be understood as parallel families, with the heads of them seen as a father-like. Young fighters would be raised together, disciplined, given values (ideally, values reflected in Muay Thai itself), such that the larger hierarchies that organize the country are expressed more personally, in forms of obligation and debt placed upon both the raised fighter and also, importantly, the authorities in the gym. One has to be a good parent, a good benefactor, as well as a good son. Thai fighter contract law is meant to at bare bones reflect these deeper social obligations.

It's enough to say that these are the social norms that govern Thailand's Muay Thai gyms, as they exist for Thais. And, these norms are difficult to map onto Western sensibilities as we might run into them. We come to Thailand...and to Thailand's gyms almost at the acme of Western freedom. Many come with the liberty of relative wealth, sometimes long term vacationers even with great wealth, entering a (semi) "traditional" culture with extraordinary autonomy. We often have choices outside of those found even in one's native country. Famously, older men find young, hot "pseudo-relationship" girlfriends well beyond their reach. Adults explore projects of masculinity, or self-development not available back home. For many the constrictures of the mores of their own cultures no longer seem to apply. When we go to this Thai gym or that, we are doing so out of an extreme sense of choice. We are variously versions of the "customer". We've learned by rote, "The customer is always right". When people come to Thailand to become a fighter, or an "authentic fighter", the longer they stay and the further they pass toward that (supposed) authenticity, they are entering into an invisible landscape of social attachments, submissions & debts. If you "really want to be 'treated like a Thai', this is a world of acute and quite rigid social hierarchies, one in which the freedom & liberties that may have motivated you are quite alien. What complicates this matter, is that this rigidity is the source of the traditional values which draws so many from around to the world to Thailand in the first place. If you were really "treated like a Thai", perhaps especially as a woman, you would probably find yourself quite disempowered, lacking in choice, and subject only to a hoped-for beneficence from those few you are obligated to and define your horizon of choice.

Below is an excerpt from Lynne Miller's Fighting for Success, a book telling of her travails and lessons in owning the Sor. Sumalee Gym as a foreign woman. This passage is the most revealing story I've found about the consequences of these obligations, and their legal form, for the Thai fighter. The anecdote of the disorienting photo op meet is exemplar. While extreme in this case, the general form of obligations of what is going on here is omnipresent in Thai gyms...for Thais. It isn't just the contractual bounds, its the hierarchy, obligation, social debt, and family-like authorities upon which the contract law is founded. The story that she tells is of her own frustrations to resolve this matter in a way that seems quite equitable, fair to our sensibilities. Our Western idea of labor and its value. But, what is also occurring here is that, aside from claimed previous failures of care, there was a deep, face-losing breech of obligation when the fighter fled just before a big fight, and that there was no real reasonable financial "repair" for this loss of face. This is because beneath the commerce of fighting is still a very strong hierarchical social form, within which one's aura of authority is always being contested. This is social capital, as Bourdieu would say. It's a different economy. Thailand's Muay Thai is a form of social agonism, more than it is even an agonism of the ring.

When you understand this, one might come to realize just how much of an anathema it is for middle class or lower-middle class Westerners to come from liberties and ideals of self-empowerment to Thailand to become "just like a Thai fighter". In some ways this would be like dreaming to become a janitor in a business. In some ways it is very much NOT like this as it can be imbued with traditional values...but in terms of social power and the ladder of authorities and how the work of training and fighting is construed, it is like this. This is something that is quite misunderstood. Even when Westerners, increasingly, become padmen in Thai gyms, imagining that they have achieved some kind of authenticity promotion of "coach", it is much more comparable to becoming a low-value (often free) worker, someone who pumps out rounds, not far from someone who sweeps the gym or works horse stables leading horse to pasture...in terms of social worth. When you come to a relatively "Thai" style gym as an adult novice aiming to perhaps become a fighter, you are doing this as a customer attempting to map onto a 10 year old Thai boy beginner who may very well become contractually owned by the gym, and socially obligated to its owner for life. These are very different, almost antithetical worlds. This is the fundamental tension between the beauties of Thai traditional Muay Thai culture, which carry very meaningful values, and its largely invisible, sometimes cruel and uncaring, social constriction. If you don't see the "ladder", and you only see "people", you aren't really seeing Thailand.

 

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