Where Sport & Poverty Intersect, Kids Suffer
When I was five years old, I would dream of being an astronaut, or a policeman, or a footballer. I would run around with my friends playing make-believe, watching cartoons, playing with action figures and toy cars, going to school every day, and taking all of these things for granted.
I had a meal on the table every night, a roof over my head and clothes on my back, and I’d take all of these things for granted, because I was raised with these privileges. I wouldn’t have to worry about where my next meal came from, or how we’d pay the rent, or how – or if – I’d get to school the next day.
Children in Thailand start fighting as young as five years old. They experience grueling sessions of bag drills, 10 km runs, and a regime fit for an army camp, all part of a daily routine. Their future as a nak muay already decided by their father, they’re pitted against other young children on an almost daily basis. Serious injuries are common: these children can end up bruised and battered for £80 a fight. Their fathers only earn around £20 a day anyway, so this is a fortune for their families.
“I don’t mind the bruises – the worst part is not being able to eat what I like all the time. I hope that one day I will be a champion and build a better life for me and my family”
In the stadiums, the crowds roar and people lay cash bets totaling 50,000 baht ($1500 USD) on which child will win. Screeching music tries to drown out action in the ring, but there is no missing the sound of clashing limbs as kids go head to head.
Child rights activists in Thailand pushed for stricter control of child boxing. In 1999, the Boxing Act set the minimum age for professional boxers at 15. All this did was bar them from the ring unless their parents signed a letter of permission, which they inevitably would. Professor Sombat Ritthidech of the Ramajitti Institute surveyed child boxers and found that many were often absent from school due to training. The study concluded that“many of the children showed stunted growth because of measures taken to control their weight. It is also very possible that boxing for years might cause brain damage in later life.”
“Everybody wants more money – and we’re no different.”
Whilst some children have the “benefit” of being trained well to be a fighter, some are less fortunate. Their parents will bet their savings on their child losing, and will force them to go into the ring and let themselves be knocked out, so that they can reap a huge amount of money in return, with little to no regard for their child’s safety.
The extent of poverty in Thailand is grossly misunderstood. People see flourishing cities like Bangkok and gorgeous tourist destinations like Phuket and Ko Samui. These spectacles conceal a grimmer circumstance for Thai families. Whilst poverty has decreased from 21% in 2000 to 12.6% in 2012, the fact remains that one eighth of the population is still living below an already very low poverty line.
There is a huge lack in secondary education, and the infant mortality right now is 0.94%. Even though the poverty rating has dropped, there is still a gross amount of inequality in the country, with over 35% of the country’s earnings going to the top 1% of the population.
What if the income stopped for a month?
On the 29th of September 2017, letters from the government were sent out revoking all gambling permits for the entire month of October. No gambling permits means no Muay Thai in Thailand.
The Thai Monarch H.M. Bhumibol Adulyadej passed away last October and there has been mourning across the country every since. In preparation of his cremation, the country has postponed all festivities until November. This includes concerts, temple fairs, and sporting events. In Thailand, Muay Thai is essentially the equivalent of gambling. The main stadiums such as Lumpinee, Omni and Rajadamnern ceased operation on the 1st of October and the others in the countryside followed suit soon after.
Gambling on Muay Thai is how a lot of people make their money. Not only young children providing for their families, but established fighters working to feed their families as well. It’s a hard hit for the Muay Thai community, but one it will take in stride. The ban was expected, though locals were hoping for just two to three weeks as opposed to the whole month. It’s a difficult time for fighters who were expecting things to pick up in October as the monsoon season comes to a close and Vassa (Buddhist Lent) draws to an end.
- Ben Evans is a 17-year-old Brit with a year of Muay Thai training under his belt. His experience in martial arts so far has inspired him to continuing learning and helping to teach others about the sport.