U Soe Than Win is one of the pioneering forces in the promotion of Lethwei, and his unbridled love of the sport has been unwavering for the last three decades. He was born in Myaungmya, a town in the Irrawaddy region, in 1975. His Lethwei training began in Yangon under Saya U Win Zin Oo and Lethwei Champion Maung Maung Gyi at the famed KLN Lethwei Club in 1995.
His enthusiasm for the sport led him to begin promoting Lethwei events in 1996, while he was still a young man in his 20s. He felt that training camps were essential to the growth of Lethwei, and so he went on to lead and manage several clubs. He formed his most recent club, the Shwe Thaton Lethwei Club, in 2016.
He has been successfully running his own company, T & T Logistics, for decades through the highs and lows of a changing Myanmar landscape. In 2017, he joined the WLC (World Lethwei Championship) as a Vice President to serve primarily as an advisor to help with the growth of the sport both nationally and internationally. U Soe Than Win is also the joint secretary of the English Boxing Federation of Myanmar. He currently resides in Yangon with his wife and three children.
How did this all begin for you?
I have a deep love for Lethwei. Not only as a sport but as something that is a part of our culture. I began training at the KLN club in Yangon in 1995, then I moved into promotion, as well as leading and managing training camps and clubs to help develop fighters.
When did your promotional career kick off?
I started TNT promotion in 1996 with Saw Nyi Nyi and Thant Zin and began organizing Lethwei Competitions from there.
If I remember correctly, there weren’t too many promoters at the time. How many promoters were there?
It was just me and Sai Zaw Zaw, really.
How many events have you promoted over the past two-and-a-half decades?
I lost count, actually, but maybe close to 100.
What were some of your most memorable early promotions?
One of the events that I was most proud of was the Myanmar vs. Thailand show — Myanmar fighters and Thai fighters. The Myanmar vs. Japan show was another one. Because doing things back then was not like today. Nowadays, the country is open; you can get a Visa easily. And if you bring in international fighters, there is no problem. But in those days, it was very risky from several different angles: the personal safety and security, the legal issues, and the political ramifications. It was challenging. I successfully brought in the Thai fighters and Japanese fighters for the organized fights between Myanmar and Thailand, as well as Myanmar and Japan, but it was a lot of work.
Doing these large events back in the 1990s had to be extremely difficult. What were some of the problems you faced?
Organizing fight cards like those between Myanmar and Thailand presents a huge set of problems. As you know, at the time, Myanmar was not well-integrated with other Asian countries, and even the relationship between the two governments was not that great compared to now. To get permission from the government or the cabinet, it took a while. The cabinet is a team of the government ministers. You need approval not only from the Sports Minister but also from the cabinet. And then the very tough question they ask is, “Are you [the Burmese] going to win? Are you going beat the Thai fighters?” Frankly speaking, it is very difficult to predict. We don't know. That's the most truthful answer I could give them. We tried to make exciting matchups that would make for a great show. The outcome, you can never predict.
How long did it take to get that permission? Did it take a long time?
Sometimes, it took up to three months. At that time, information and communication were not that great compared to nowadays, so it generally took several months.
When you were promoting these events, did you have to put a lot of money upfront as a guarantee?
Yes. It was a very big risk, and I had to spend a lot of money on preparation and logistics. I even had to give a certain amount of money to the authorities, because to get the proper license or permission, you have to make an authorized payment to them. There are usually unofficial payments under the table, as well, to make sure things get done on time. I had to spend a lot of money upfront. We only know the profit of a show after it ends, and the proceedings are all tallied up. Between 12PM-3PM is when fights are held, and only after that will I know for sure how we did. And for different reasons, the fights can be postponed or canceled. So, the risk was very great.
How did that show turn out?
It was not an easy show, but I got it done, and it went well. There was a lot of negotiation and administration involved. To find proper fighters in Thailand, you need to communicate. There was a communication barrier. There are some people you may know in Mae Sot, for example. They are good intermediaries. But that's just one side of it. And then here's the most difficult question: On one hand, the audience wants to see an even fight, but on the other hand, some of the people involved keep asking, “Are we going to win?” And sometimes, it’s very difficult to say, “Yes, we are going to win,” when it’s not true. But sometimes, just as a blind reassurance, I will agree, so the show will go on. You have to take all the risks to overcome the challenges in addition to the financial investment.
Do you know what year that show took place?
When you are risking so much, what happens when some of these shows get canceled? Because I remember a lot of times, the government would just shut down a show. Did you lose a lot of money in instances like that?
There was one particular experience I had that was very difficult. I think it was in 2008. There was some sort of personal disagreement in Thailand between the Myanmar and Thai senior officials. It was just a personal thing, but it had huge impact on my proposed fight card. The whole show was eventually postponed, so I couldn’t proceed. I suffered in this instance financially. I lost a lot of my investment; not only in terms of money but also the time and energy I invested in it. It was not a direct cancellation the first time, so I rescheduled the event and put in yet another application to get the necessary permission. I went through all this a second time, only to have it postponed again. You have to sort of interpret for yourself what is going on. Is it really postponed again? Or do they really not want this to happen at all? At times, it can be very disappointing and frustrating on my end.
I know travel was difficult during this period. Did you take any international trips?
There were two trips that I remember. The first trip was to attend the World Muay Thai Championships in Thailand. I think this was around 1998. And the second trip was to North Korea, DPRK, which was a sports-related mission.
Through all your years of promoting, there have been a lot of ups and downs. What about when the country opened? How did this affect the sport?
It’s good. The opening of the country led to a certain amount of economic growth, and more investment opportunities. Before that, the country was quite closed, and the market demand for Lethwei was not that high. There was not much international interest. In Lethwei, the number of qualified fighters could fill the market demand very well in the past. But when the country opened, a lot of the younger people in Myanmar went to other countries. Not for Lethwei but for other, more lucrative opportunities. And for example, in the Karen and Mon states, where a lot of good fighters come from, there are not many younger fighters who want to get involved in Lethwei. They want to go to other countries with their friends to find work, so that's a different type of challenge: How do we draw the younger generation back to the sport?
Young people today want to experience the bigger world — especially because of what they see on social media. They want new experiences. Lethwei and the fighting game doesn’t offer them that excitement or financial reward right now, it seems.
Yes. Hopefully, that will change in the future as the sport grows, and we develop new heroes and sports figures that shine. Not only in Myanmar, but internationally.
When did you become involved with the WLC?
We are seeing a new presentation of Lethwei with adjusted rules and bigger shows. How do you feel about this modern evolution of Lethwei?
It’s good. It updates the sport for the modern era. One thing I forgot to mention was one of the major challenges in the olden days, which was that sponsorship was hard to find. There were no steady or dependable sponsors for us. Now, there are many more sponsors who are willing to invest in the sport. Recently, the unfortunate COVID situation around the world has changed the sponsorship landscape. So, now there are potential shows that can be regarded as international events, which are organized by the WLC and Myanmar media groups. But as you mentioned, the challenges will now be the availability of qualified fighters and building a future investment for the sport. The market supply may not reach the level of market demand — not even for the local fights, let alone the international ones. In my opinion, there are not many qualified fighters available. We need to expand the pool of Burmese fighters, so we will have enough to fill all the fight cards we have planned. Because of the openness of the investment sector, you can go across borders; you can invest in other places and businesses, which may be more lucrative. Now, it is more of a fight to acquire the investment funds that we need to grow.
Is that why WLC used foreigners to push and promote the sport, as well as to make up for the lack of a deep Burmese fighter pool?
There are two reasons; that's one. Another is that the level of foreign fighters is also high. We have a large, eager pool of fighters to draw from. So, to make a good fight, you have to consider that, as well. We need to make exciting matches to promote and sell the fight cards to a wide audience.
Do you feel like there are more foreign fighters coming into the sport now?
I feel like that is due to the lack of availability of qualified fighters from Myanmar. The point I am trying to make is that, for the majority of Myanmar youth, the focus is not on Lethwei. Their focus is on other things.
You sponsored and led many Lethwei clubs to help build future Lethwei competitors. Why was this important to you?
I love being involved in all aspects of the sport. The camps are very important to encourage people to train and compete. We need to keep building a future generation of fighters and competitors. The last camp I developed was the Shwe Thaton Club, which was started in 2016 and sponsored by my company, T & T. In 2019, Royal D, a large energy drink company in Myanmar, took over sponsorship of the camp.
People are being drawn to Lethwei, especially internationally. So, now there is an interest in the past, specifically the older fighters and fight cards. Is anybody doing any archival or restoration work? Because many of the old fights are going to be lost.
The quality of the shooting and recording in the past was not great. I don’t believe at this point there has been anyone attempting to restore or archive any of the old fights, unfortunately. The only person who I think could be doing something like this is Sai Zaw Zaw, so maybe check with him. I think so much of the focus now is on going forward. So, the past gets left behind.
Who is your favorite fighter, past or present?
Tway Ma Shaung. He is also a close, dear friend of mine.
Do you feel Lethwei would benefit from a live weekly TV broadcast that could be streamed live, like what they have in Thailand and Cambodia?
I think Lethwei would benefit from it, but it’s not an easy thing to get funded right now. If we could get the sponsorship and investment for it, then we could possibly do something similar to what they have in Thailand and Cambodia.
How do you balance your professional life with your personal life, in terms of running your company and participating in your Lethwei activities?
When I was very involved in Lethwei as a promoter, I was single at the time, so I didn’t have the headache of looking after a family. Now, I have a wife and kids, and I have to keep up with the demands of my family. The role I am playing in the WLC as the Vice President is more of an advisory role. I am not very involved in the management. And I am not investing financially in the WLC functions, so it is not a financial burden on me. I continue to run the T&T logistical company, and that is my livelihood, and how I earn my income. However, I love Lethwei, so I continue to devote as much time as I can to help it grow and develop.
What do you think the future of Lethwei holds?
It is very difficult to predict what the situation will be in the coming months, as well as into next year, due to the global COVID situation, and its impact on the economy. The WLC are planning to organize indoor fights — even if they have to do them without an audience. This is all we can do for now. We just have to keep growing the sport. I have been involved with Lethwei for most of my life, and I will continue to do my best to support its growth and evolution.
© 2019, Vincent Giordano. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without the express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited.