For thousands of years, traditional boxing has been one of Burma"s primary national sports. But when the Southeast Asian Games are held in December, it will be conspicuously missing, as no other country fights in that style. The more internationally recognized Thai boxing, also known as Muay Thai, will be featured instead.
“I was very keen on boxing, so I had sacrificed a lot. Finally, I earned a gold belt,” says Saw Ohn Myint, a former gold belt national champion in Burmese boxing.
He says he would have loved to represent his country — officially known as Myanmar —before a home crowd at the upcoming Southeast Asian Games. But for now he’s focusing on local competitions. “I am not very keen on Muay Thai,” he says. “I don’t want to fight. I just like Burmese traditional boxing.”
Burmese boxing is nearly three times older that Thai boxing. Both sports are unarmed martial arts akin to kickboxing, but Myanmar style is fast and more violent. The match is decided, in fact, when an opponent is knocked out.
Traditionally, there were no rules, and the winner was the first to draw blood.
In an earlier attempt to promote the sport internationally, rules were introduced, together with a scoring system.
As a trainer of Burmese boxers, U Hla Soe Oo has been campaigning for the sport to be represented in the Southeast Asian Games.
“When we told the Myanmar Boxing Federation about our boxing, they said they didn’t know the style and so they couldn’t compete against us,” the trainer says. “They just want to compete in Muay Thai. Our traditional boxing isn’t well known in Southeast Asian countries.”
What’s more, the sport gets little support from the government and minimum sponsorship. Hla Soe Oo would like see traditional boxing be promoted in neighboring Thailand: “Let’s say we can open a training school in Thailand,” he says. “We can hold competitions. People can come to learn to fight in our style. This way, our boxing can become well-known. It just needs marketing.”
Dawn Nyo Lay, a famous traditional boxer who is trying to promote the sport, has set up a boxing club called “Top One” with the help of a local businessman. “We support young boxers as much as we can,” he says. “Though I am not very well off, our rich friends help our club. The club has the potential to improve in the future … I will never give up, neither will my students.”
But boxer Saw Ohn Myint says that it’s impossible to make a career in the sport, and is therefore retiring soon. “I dreamed of setting up another business,” he says. “As there is no support from the government in our country, traditional boxing isn’t popular. We also have to take care of our families.”
There are 12 Burmese boxers competing in the Southeast Asian Games this year — but they will be competing in the Thai style. They hope one day they can compete internationally in their own Burmese fighting style.