by Vincent Giordano
The sport of Lethwei has faced many challenges in the past. The recent 2021 coup following the tragic COVID-19 pandemic has once again put Lethwei into survival mode after a decade of growth and global support.
From 1999 through the opening of the country in 2011, I documented and trained in Lethwei. This was a different time for the sport. It was hard for Lethwei to move beyond its borders since it was mostly isolated and locked within Myanmar with little growth potential. Australian and Japanese promoters helped during this time by sending fighters to Myanmar, while attempting to hold their own events in their native countries whenever possible, but the struggles behind the scenes to secure permission from the authorities to hold major Lethwei events were often insurmountable, with many big shows canceled at the whim of the controlling powers.
However, there were still many highlights and great events, including the first Golden Belt Championship in 1996. This would help form a model for the modern Lethwei tournament, which would develop further and take hold two decades later.
Regardless of what happened with the big promotions and in the major arenas, Lethwei remained a firmly entrenched tradition in the rural communities. It was specifically in the Mon and Karen (Kayin) States that the sport was held consistently. Regardless of what happened within the country, Lethwei remained a tradition that could be celebrated freely.
After the 2011 political reforms that led to eased restrictions and the beginnings of a quasi-democracy, Lethwei came to be viewed as a potentially valuable export commodity. This led the way for newer, bigger promotions that sought to bring in a wider, global audience. In this new, open landscape, the 2014 One-on-One Fight demonstrated that there was great potential in holding large-scale, well-promoted fight cards, aimed at attracting a broader audience. This was followed by the reinvigorated 2015 and 2016 Golden Belt Championships, as well as major Japanese Lethwei fight cards held in Japan. In 2017, the World Lethwei Championship, founded by Yangon businessman Zay Thiha, held the first of several major events, which began building a massive fanbase for the sport. Lethwei began to receive worldwide recognition and soon realized its potential as a tough, durable sport that could reach a global audience.
However, tragedy soon struck, as the unfortunate COVID-19 pandemic reached Myanmar in early 2020, taking an enormous toll on the country. Many Lethwei camps were closed, and all fight events were canceled. Fighters with no further money-making opportunities were forced to return home to their rural communities to fend for themselves and their families.
The crisis was further exacerbated by the coup on February 1, 2021, staged by the military to topple the democratically elected government, thereby reversing 10 years of progress and reform. This unfortunately began a new chapter that closely mirrored the long, dark, troubling decades of control that began in the early 1960s.
In March 2022, WLC founder Zay Thiha and his father were arrested and jailed for allegedly failing to pay rent on the government-owned buildings that they were using for their business. One month later, Lethwei standout and World Lethwei Championship star Too Too was arrested on suspicion of taking part in anti-government demonstrations. In May, One Championship fighter Phoe Thaw was arrested after being critically injured in a bomb blast outside his gym. These troubling arrests—along with the passing of many competitors, trainers, and other Lethwei notables—have clearly had an impact on the sport.
Despite these harsh realities, Lethwei continues in rural communities. Promoters have held new events in Yangon and other regions, most of which have been broadcast live on the internet. These events have helped keep the sport alive in the public eye.
In November 2021, the WLC reached an agreement with Erik Alonso and his No Limit Sports Agency to organize future Lethwei events outside Myanmar. This becomes problematic, due to a dwindling Lethwei talent pool to draw from. It also ruled out a great deal of top Burmese fighters because, as in decades prior to the opening of the country, permission to travel was often denied to competitors.
There are other grassroots efforts underway, as well. Saya U Kyaw Soe and U Oscar have begun to host a weekly get-together for those interested in discussing Lethwei, and how they can promote and develop the sport during these troubling times. Many of the younger-generation trainers and competitors have gotten together to form small training camps that will help maintain a ready pool of fighters for future events.
Lethwei came into its own during the opening of the country and ushered in a new, more hopeful era for the sport. It became a symbol of empowerment and strength for the long-oppressed youth, who had few role models to look up to and emulate. Now, when there is little hope and optimism left; the sport continues to fight a battle for survival, supported only by the sheer will of those who have always believed in it and will continue to fight to keep it alive.
© 2022 Vincent Giordano