Muay Thai draws families from the lower classes, pinning children against each other for an extra US$60.
The death of a 13-year-old Thai boxer last month has initiated a conversation on the country’s controversial culture of underage boxing and illicit gambling economy which accompanies it.
Muay Thai draws families from the lower classes, pinning children under the age of 15 against each other for the entertainment of the affluent, gambling classes.
“It’s child labor and child abuse,” Neuroradiologist Dr. Jiraporn Laothamatas told the New York Times.
“These kids earn. They feed their families and their promoters with their winning. We are destroying our children for sport,” said the doctor, who is the leading voice in a call to ban underage boxing.
Laothamatas released a seven-year study in November, charting the negative neurological effects on both IQ and brain function in child fighters.
“Remember that children are the future of our society. Imagine what will happen if 300,000 children, who are child boxers today, lose out on opportunities due to learning disabilities caused by brain damage at a very early age,” Laothamatas said.
The tragic death of Anucha Kochana, 13, who died after repeated head injuries in the third round of brutal kickboxing match triggered the drafting of a bill, banning children under the age of 12 from participating in the sport.
The vice chairman of Thailand’s National Legislative Assembly’s said, “Those aged 12 to 15 will need to registered, have permission of their parents, and wear protective wear for professional fights.”
Just over 10,300 youth fighters were registered between 2010 and 2017, a Thai journalistic investigation reported, adding that another 200,000 children under the age of 15 regularly visited the ring.
According to Thailand’s World Health Organization program officer, Dr. Liviu Vedrasco, the ban is essential to protect children, not only from the long term neurological effects, but also from child labor.
“These child boxers are encouraged by their parents and boxing camps to fight each other to earn money for their family and generate income for the camp. Gamblers also bet on them. This deplorable practice continues despite the fact that the sport damages the children’s still-developing brain and leaves them with incurable learning disabilities and other physical and mental health impacts for the rest of their lives.”
Despite rising criticism, many have defended the ancient martial arts as cultural heritage passed down and popularized for over 400 years. Known as the “art of eight limbs,” in a blur of wild kicking, punching, elbowing, and kneeing, Muay Thai fighters combat for five, three-minute rounds.
Dr. Sudhichai Chokekijchai, a sports phsyician said, “It’s in our blood to fight. We should be focused on prevention instead of pushing kids away. They are fighting for their lives. These laws will only push people away from doing it safely. These kids are healthy, they stay away from drugs and crimes. How will the government support them if they take fighting away?”
“This will destroy muay Thai,” said Chokekijchai.
Win or lose, a gifted fighter can bring as much as US$60 to US$600 to his family whose income, otherwise, would hover at an average of US$200 per month, The New York Times reports.