Jump to content

The Ethics of Children Fighting in Thailand - Conversation


Recommended Posts

this is transposed from a Facebook conversation

Hi Sylvie, finally getting to continue our Twitter chat!

Those readings you sent me were very interesting – I don’t think we are disagreeing actually. You’re coming I think from an anthropological place describing the system, and I’m more asking is this system really providing the best outcomes for people. It’s a strong strain in Thai thinking, going back to the 1932 constitution, and carried on by people like Pira Sudham (Monsoon Country), Aed Carabao (protest singer, you definitely know him!) or Voranai Vanijaka (columnist).

My issue with children fighting is not with the fighting it’s with the urgent need kids from some backgrounds have to earn money so their families can eat. I understand your point this fulfills the Buddhist precept of filial duty, but question the convenience of that construct in maintaining a very unequal society. If you are poor that’s your ‘bap’ or lack of merit speaking, so you and your children must fix this. If you are wealthy that’s your accrued merit speaking, and if you and your children continue to make merit you will stay rich.

MuayThai has a role in this of course. It’s fascinating to see how BuaKaw’s success and foreign fighters like yourself have brought the upper levels of Thai society into gyms - but wealthy Thai children who train rarely compete. Their experience of MuayThai is not as an opportunity to make merit by paying their family’s rent.

They find other less urgent ways of making merit. Even becoming a monk is dictated by finances –as it costs money for the ceremony and so on. (Women don’t have this option of course but that’s another story!)

Buddhism is not alone here - Catholicism has ‘redemptive suffering’ which also encourages poor people to see difficulties as merit making.

For poor boys and girls talented enough to make money from MuayThai of course they are going to do it, it’s life-changing! Just one example – an Isan boxer told me his dream is for his daughters to finish school, and not have to enter prostitution as his sisters did. He is proud of his stadium titles, proud he built a concrete home for his parents but he doesn’t want the same pressures for his children.

I think we’re thinking about the same issues from different paths?"

Link to comment
Share on other sites

this is transposed from a Facebook conversation

I appreciate your point that the issue is with poverty, but you very keenly point out that fighting is mostly relegated to the need of the family of poor children, whereas middle- and upper-class kids that might dabble in Muay Thai likely won't compete; certainly not at the level or frequency or under the same circumstances as poor kids who fight out of need. But there's a saying about "seeing how sausage is made," in that ignorance of the process of something is the only way it's palatable, and I think that plays into the west's very limited scope of Muay Thai in Thailand. We love Buakaw and Saenchai, or whatever other few names people can rattle off nowadays, but still cringe at child fighters. But there would be no Buakaw, Saenchai, Sakmongkol, Phetjee Jaa, et al. without child fighters. We want a pure-breed without acknowledging how many years of breeding and drowning took place to get that breed. And of course that doesn't mean that we shouldn't seek to amend practices, or to address the very difficult lives of poor families across Thailand. Poverty is a desperate situation with or without Muay Thai fights - kids who don't fight, who work or take care of their siblings or parents or who work in the fields... it's not necessarily less damaging or exploitative than Muay; and I argue that in many cases it's far worse. The kids I train with at my gyms come from a variety of backgrounds and social status, including middle-class kids and kids whose families are in a bad way. There are gradations far beyond what I'm exposed to at my gyms in Pattaya, for sure, but there's something about the community within the gym space between the haves and have-nots that's really beautiful. There is a distinct ethos in which kids are brought up in Muay Thai that I find admirable and their characters are absolutely formed through the training and child social order. And it wouldn't be the same without fights. The kids who don't fight aren't in the same world as those who do. Obviously there are tons of factors involved in that difference.

  • Like 1
Link to comment
Share on other sites

this is transposed from a Facebook conversation

Niamh, hope you don't mind me sharing my own thoughts. There are some big ideas here, but I think part of the problem when discussing these things from a western perspective is that we privilege our own position. No one can doubt that oppressive poverty is an ill, but there are fundamental values that grew out of class economics that help define a society or people, that give meaning to life and become culture. It's very difficult to just "cut out" the bad from the outside, and then try to leave the good. One of the most fundamental differences we've encountered in Thai society, with the west, is the way that monetary exchange is thought of. Generally, in the west we take a financial exchange to be the nullification of obligation between two parties. We each got what we wanted, we are "even" - nobody owes anybody anything. This produces a highly atomized view of the world, with strong individualistic expectations. In Thailand at it's varied roots, and probably throughout SEA, the financial exchange is the BEGINNING of obligation, the signal that we are, as families (of one kind or another), now investing in each other. This difference produces lots of miscommunication. The problem with thinking about child fighting from a western perspective is that we are seeing these children as "workers", antonymous agents, who are unfairly and prematurely being put into dangerous work, for their parents. This is far from the projections of innocence that we in the contemporary west place on childhood (Victorian Ideal) - in the west we largely try to insure that childhood is extended as long as possible, and if wealthy enough, we try to extend it well into adulthood. Working for others is seen as the end of innocence and delight. This is also pretty far from the concepts of care and merit that surround the meanings of financial obligations between family members or even connected parties. Of course there are lots of unjust circumstances where these obligations are not paid by some, and others are taken advantage of. This is abuse. But I'm not sure that the atomized, individualistic concept of work and freed obligation is the most meaningful road forward either. In the west while we celebrate our freedoms and autonomy, our bonds with family are weakening. Our aged parents end up living alone, in isolation, or in "homes", because we have an eroding obligation to them, so that we can live out our more antonymous lives. While we in the west are so drawn to the quiet beauty of very high levels of the Muay Thai fighting art - so balanced, so calm, so "brutal" - we are also quick to pull at all the cultural strings that have worked to bring it about. The truth is our own societies (western) could not come up with such an art. Having children and youths fighting for fun (with head gear on, and elbow pads for fear of law suits), in clubs or in school simply would produce what we already have - mall martial arts, imitations of older, Asian arts. We are drawn to Muay Thai in Thailand because it expresses something incredibly different, a beauty that tells us something I think that our own values could not get us to, even if they tried.

  • Like 1
Link to comment
Share on other sites

this is transposed from a Facebook conversation

Hey Sylvie, I don't disagree with any of that.I'm just asking is it right - in my original blog post I drew exactly the same comparisons you're making here between MT and regular work. Also drew a distinction between being against kids fighting (which you seem to think I am?) and being against having to fight for money from a very young age. I'm being an idealist I guess and you're coming at it ( I think!) from describing what you see.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

this is transposed from a Facebook conversation

Oh yes, I know I'm not telling you anything new  I do think there's a divide that might best be summed up by the distinction between being an idealist or not. It's very hard to argue against kids having a better (or easier) go of things so early in life.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

this is transposed from a Facebook conversation

Hey Kevin, the more the merrier! Yeah, of course I think like a Westerner - I am one  I guess my point is a lot of Thais think like I do, even about children fighting - it's about money not just culture. I watch kids fight, love it when they're talented - I just wish they didn't have to do it for money, that coudl just do it for improving and getting ready for making money out of it as a adult.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Yeah, of course I think like a Westerner - I am one  I guess my point is a lot of Thais think like I do, even about children fighting - it's about money not just culture. I watch kids fight, love it when they're talented - I just wish they didn't have to do it for money, that coudl just do it for improving and getting ready for making money out of it as a adult.

 

Well, this is the truly fascinating thing about this question. I'm a Westerner too. My thoughts are like this. I think that the reason many of us (Westerners) are drawn to Muay Thai, especially the Muay Thai of Thailand, is that it forms a kind of critique of Western values. The "exotic" appeal of it really points to deeper differences that underlie. Once we get over the exotic quality, and even the beauty of it, there are likely critical differences in culture, a way in which Muay Thai critiques the West, and this includes the way children are viewed both in society and as fighters. It isn't to say that the unspoken critique of the West from traditional Muay Thai is right, but it does suggest for us that are drawn to it that something about this critique is informing and powerful. The West isn't the only thing that can critique. The East can critique the West as well.

Now the question of Thais seeing things ethically aligned to your way, this too is such a complex idea. One assumes that most of this ethical agreement comes from a position of (mostly urban) middle class, towards a rural, agrarian lower classes. We know that it is not just the fighting of children as workers that is objected to by middle and upper class Thais. Middle class Thais also enroll their children in Taekwondo classes, steering clear of their National sport, notably because Muay Thai itself is read as socially "low". Children in Taekwondo classes (and there is one filled with Thai children just 5 minutes from Phetjee Jaa's gym here in Pataya, which blows my mind) get nicely pressed white uniforms, and nice clean belts, and not real contact. There is nothing dirty about it. If we took the social ethics of those parents as our guidepost of what is right and wrong about Muay Thai we would be turning our noses up at probably 99% of the Muay Thai in the country.

Of course there are other Thais that find other valuable objections, including the general progression of generations. We see this in the Petchrungruang gym. Pi Nu watched his family ox as a kid, as a young fighter. Now he has achieved middle class status and his son lives a much more comfortable life, as a young Lumpinee fighter who loves video games and fights only when he wants to. Pi Nu does not want his son to have the life he had. He wants a better life. But, as a Westerner, someone who has lived through the consequences of Western values over time, I wonder: is he also ready for his son to have less obligation to him when he is an old man, than he has for his own father (who lives in the house)? Are we all ready for a Thailand where old age homes multiply, and the aged live alone in the birth of a more western individualism?

In so many ways this is just the tide of capitalism and social change, but what I don't want to lose track of is how our love of Muay Thai is teaching us something about the West, a West that Thailand is being pulled towards, with good consequences and bad.

In terms of children not having to fight for money, I think we know that if money was not involved Muay Thai would not be the same at all. It's the string that if pulled would unravel the whole sweater. It's the motivation behind the set up of almost every fight in the country, from the smallest festival fight by a wat to a televised King's Birthday match. The gambling of money (the symbolic residue of luck and karma) is essential to Muay Thai culture. It the syntax of its language I suspect.

There's a great interview with Pi Dit of the Giatbundit Gym in Buriram which talks about many interesting things, but what struck me is how he says that the fighters of today simply can't touch the fighters of yesterday:

"I work with young fighters now, and some of them show a lot of promise. This new generation of fighters, though, can't touch the fighters of the previous generation. It's not because modern fighters aren't talented, but because most of them are not as hard-working. They don't have to be. Back then, it was so much harder to do anything related to Muay Thai. It was harder to find fights, harder to find someone to train you. The ones who fought at high levels were completely focused. No one could afford to half-ass it. Out here, fights were so hard to find that only the most dedicated would end up fighting and earning money. Only the best of the best, the ones with real passion, ever went anywhere."

When he says that the fighters of today can't touch the fighters of previous generations is he talking about poverty, is he not? Or at least the pressures of a lack of wealth. Whether we like it or not fighting as an art comes out of difficulty, out of pressure, out of strain. It is very, very hard to say that strain is a good thing, ethically. It feels wrong to say it. But I also think that sometimes as ethicists we think about problems as if we have a god's eye view on them, as systems that we can just intercede in like a mechanic looking at a car engine that won't start. We want to find the (ethically) faulty part and replace it. But life and culture isn't like that. I'm more of the position that I want to find out: Why does Muay Thai speak to me so powerfully? What is it about it that is so unearthly? What is Muay Thai saying, critically, about my own culture? And why, when I see the children fighters at the gym, children who fight for money, do I see a place where I would want to raise our kid, if we ever had one?

No. We don't want children fighting for food, but I think maybe that is different than children fighting for money, money bet, money gambled. I think we in the West, a money culture, have a very hard time thinking about how money is perceived in other cultures, and how children are perceived as well.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now
  • Most Recent Topics

  • Latest Comments

    • Just very briefly I want to take up one of the most interesting aspects of the fighting art of Thailand's traditional Muay Thai, an aspect that really cues for me how I watch fights and weigh the skills of fighters. Managing distance. Many people watch "strikes" and look for "points", but there is an under-fabric to strikes, a kind of landscape of them, no less than how a topography will influence how a battle is fought between armies. Even the most practiced strikes rise and fall to opportunity, and in Muay Thai a significant determination of opportunity is distance. Above is a quick edit of Sylvie's last fight up in Buriram, bringing out all the significant moments of engagement, telling the story in about a minute. (The full fight should be up in a few weeks with Sylvie's commentary, as usual.) I'm going to start with Entertainment Muay Thai as presenting an negative can often be the best way to bring out a positive. Entertainment Muay Thai (and there are many versions of it, so we have to be very broad here), is largely principled by eliminating the importance of distance. What is sought, again being very broad, is a more or less continuous trading in the pocket. The quest is for an easy to follow, by the casual eye, "action". Everything is about the distance of the pocket. Setting up outside of the pocket can be regarded as anti-action (so, if you do, you should regularly charge into the pocket...and trade). And fighting through the pocket, to clinch range, is also devalued by very quick clinch breaks, scoring biases (changing traditional aesthetics). Clinch, which historically is featured in some of the most technical fighting of the sport, in Entertainment Muay Thai is more and more understood as a stall of the main goal. Pocket trading. Much of the art of Muay Thai is actually organized around all those distances that border "the pocket", controlling distance through length, or through grappling. In this fight Sylvie is giving up between 8-10 kgs (perhaps more than 20% of her body weight). Now, imagine it being fought under Entertainment aesthetics. What would it be if she just stood in the pocket, bit down, and just traded over and over with Phetnamwan? Would there be any point of such a fight? Yet, as the Golden Age legend Hippy Singmanee once said when criticizing hyper-aggressive, pocket-trading Entertainment Muay Thai, "Muay Thai is the art where small can beat big." Hippy was one of the most renown undersized fighters of the Golden Era. He knows of what he speaks. This fight, in the broad brush, illustrates some of that. More and more we've come to realize that as traditional Muay Thai evaporates slowly from the urban stadia, the only traditional Muay Thai still being regularly fought is in the provinces of the country. It is there that fights are scored in keeping with the art, and fighters retain the all around, multi-distance skills that make that art happen. Clinch is allowed to unfold. Narrative fight arcs are told as principle to scoring. Ryan, a knowledgeable commenter on Twitter and a very good writer on the sport, right away noticed how the ref let clinch flow. You can see some of our discussion there. I recall a conversation I overheard when attending the funeral of the legend Namkabuan in Nongki. It was the passing of one of the greatest who ever fought. During the day-before cremation a casual conversation arose between other legends of the sport, and very experienced news reporters, people who had been a part of it for decades. One of them insisted, Muay Thai no longer existed in Thailand. Others knowingly nodded their heads. But a Muay Siam reporter objected. "No...it still lives in the provinces." And the others agreed. It still was there. We in the English speaking world tend to think the substance of something is what has been presented to us. The Muay Thai of Bangkok is the real Muay Thai of Thailand because that is what we see...and, historically, many decades ago, it did represent the highest skills of the country. But what largely remains unseen is that more and more of the sport is being designed for our eyes. It is less and less for Thais, and more and more for "us", so we can become quite disconnected from what is real and authentic in a cultural, and even efficacy sense. There rhythms and values of provincial Muay Thai, as it is fought, coached and reffed, are part of the rich authenticity of the sport which falls into the shadows when we just look at what is being shown to "us". This fight, how it is fought, shows "the art of where small can beat big", and it shows why. It's through the control of distance. If you are small you just cannot stand at range. You either have to explore the bubble outside of the pocket, too far, or at its edges, and fight your way in to score...or, you collapse the pocket, smother the strikes, and possess the skill to control a much larger bodied opponent. Clinch, historically, is kryptonite to the striker. Muay Maat vs Muay Khao battles are legendary in the sport.  Classic. Who is going to impose the distance which is best for them? It's a battle of distances. And, for this reason, Muay Maat fighters of the past were not experts in trading in the pocket. They were experts in managing clinch fighters, or even high level clinch fighters themselves...and they were experts at hunting down evasive femeu counterfighters as well. Muay Maat fighters were strong. They had to have so many tools in their tool box. In versions of the sport where both fighters are forced to "stand and bang" repeatedly, we have been taken quite far from the glories of Thailand's Muay Thai fighters, and that is because Muay Thai is an art of distance control. This goes to a deeper point about the sport. It isn't really a "sport" in the International, rationalist idea of a sport. Muay Thai is culture. It is Thai culture. Thousands and thousands of fights occur on temple grounds, far from Western eyes. It has grown up within the culture, but also expressive of that culture. And it is a culture unto itself. The more we try to extract from this rich fabric some kind of abstract "rule set" and "collection of techniques" that can be used in other cultures, expressing their values, favoring their fighters, the more we lose the complex art of what Muay Thai is...and in the bigger sense move away from the value it has to the entire world. It's value is that it has a very highly developed perspective on distance management and on aggression. It has lessons upon lessons to teach in techniques of control and fight winning, woven into the DNA of its traditional aesthetics. And these techniques embody the values of the culture. It's all of one cloth. Sylvie has chosen the path less traveled. She's fought like no other Westerner in history (a record 271 times as a pro), and she has devoted herself to the lessor style, the art of Muay Khao and clinch fighting. There are very, very few women, even Thai women, who have seriously developed this branch of the art in the way that she has. And she's done it as a 100 lb fighter, taking on great size disparities as she fights. Because Muay Thai is "the art where small can beat big" there is a long tradition of great, dominant fighters fighting top fighters well above their weight, and developing their in style the capacity to beat them. Fighting up is Muay Thai. Sylvie's entire quest has been to value what may not even be commercially valued at this time, the aspects of the art which point to its greater meaning & capacity. The narrative of scoring, the control of distance, the management of striking through clinch, in the heritage of what it has been. I'm not saying that this is the only way to fight, or that Entertainment Muay Thai has no value for the art and sport. It's not, and it does. But, we should also be mindful of the completeness and complexity of Muay Thai, and the ways that those qualities can be put at risk, as the desire to internationalize it and foreign values become more and more part of its purpose. If we love what we discover when we come to Thailand, we should fight to preserve and embrace the roots of Muay Thai, and the honored aspects of the culture/s which produced it. photos: Khaendong, Buriram, Thailand (temple grounds)    
    • Hi, this might be out of the normal topic, but I thought you all might be interested in a book-- Children of the Neon Bamboo-- that has a really cool Martial Arts instructor character who set up an early Muy Thai gym south of Miami in the 1980s. He's a really cool character who drives the plot, and there historically accurate allusions to 1980s martial arts culture. However, the main thrust is more about nostalgia and friendships.    Can we do links? Childrenoftheneonbamboo.com Children of the Neon Bamboo: B. Glynn Kimmey: 9798988054115: Amazon.com: Movies & TV      
    • I really appreciate your wave patterns analogy; it applies to a lot of interactions. 
  • The Latest From Open Topics Forum

    • Hi, this might be out of the normal topic, but I thought you all might be interested in a book-- Children of the Neon Bamboo-- that has a really cool Martial Arts instructor character who set up an early Muy Thai gym south of Miami in the 1980s. He's a really cool character who drives the plot, and there historically accurate allusions to 1980s martial arts culture. However, the main thrust is more about nostalgia and friendships.    Can we do links? Childrenoftheneonbamboo.com Children of the Neon Bamboo: B. Glynn Kimmey: 9798988054115: Amazon.com: Movies & TV      
    • Davince Resolve is a great place to start. 
    • I see that this thread is from three years ago, and I hope your journey with Muay Thai and mental health has evolved positively during this time. It's fascinating to revisit these discussions and reflect on how our understanding of such topics can grow. The connection between training and mental health is intricate, as you've pointed out. Finding the right balance between pushing yourself and self-care is a continuous learning process. If you've been exploring various avenues for managing mood-related issues over these years, you might want to revisit the topic of mental health resources. One such resource is The UK Medical Cannabis Card, which can provide insights into alternative treatments.
    • Phetjeeja fought Anissa Meksen for a ONE FC interim atomweight kickboxing title 12/22/2023. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cu92S6-V5y0&ab_channel=ONEChampionship Fight starts at 45:08 Phetjeeja won on points. Not being able to clinch really handicapped her. I was afraid the ref was going to start deducting points for clinch fouls.   
    • Earlier this year I wrote a couple of sociology essays that dealt directly with Muay Thai, drawing on Sylvie's journalism and discussions on the podcast to do so. I thought I'd put them up here in case they were of any interest, rather than locking them away with the intention to perfectly rewrite them 'some day'. There's not really many novel insights of my own, rather it's more just pulling together existing literature with some of the von Duuglus-Ittu's work, which I think is criminally underutilised in academic discussions of MT. The first, 'Some meanings of muay' was written for an ideology/sosciology of knowledge paper, and is an overly long, somewhat grindy attempt to give a combined historical, institutional, and situated study of major cultural meanings of Muay Thai as a form of strength. The second paper, 'the fighter's heart' was written for a qualitative analysis course, and makes extensive use of interviews and podcast discussions to talk about some ways in which the gendered/sexed body is described/deployed within Muay Thai. There's plenty of issues with both, and they're not what I'd write today, and I'm learning to realise that's fine! some meanings of muay.docx The fighter's heart.docx
  • Forum Statistics

    • Total Topics
      1.3k
    • Total Posts
      10.9k
×
×
  • Create New...