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Born Warriors: Fighting For Survival

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Burma is now officially known as Myanmar. It was one of the countries least influenced by the West, virtually sealed off from the outside world, when a brutal military dictatorship took control of the government and economy in 1962 and never let go. Five decades later, the epic and often bloody struggle for democracy remains a constant uphill battle. Burma itself remains one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world. While Burmese constitute the largest ethnic group in the country, comprising 68% of the population of 42 million, 8 other major ethnic groups and 135 subgroups form much of the rest.

The viewing audience is probably most familiar with the art of Lethwei from the annual Songkran, or Thai New Year, Burma vs. Thailand card, which televises bare-knuckle fights from the north of Thailand. The matches commemorate the many battles fought against one another in antiquity and are allowed to be held in the old bare-knuckle format, even though these types of bouts were outlawed and banned long ago in modern Thailand.

Burmese Lethwei, or Burmese traditional boxing, is one of the oldest practiced combat sports in Burma. It was once referred to as the “sport of warriors” and was taught to military personnel and princes and noblemen in the royal court. It kept soldiers healthy with active competition during idle times between wars that would often break out at any moment. Since the days of King Anawrahta great fighters and athletes were called “mighty men” for their spectacular displays of physical prowess. But it was with the farmers and peasants who kept the sport alive throughout Burma that Lethwei maintained its prominence. Up until the time of the last Burmese king in the late 1800s, distinguished fighters were often designated royal boxers, and their names were carried on the treasury rolls.

In these earlier times during the golden era of Lethwei, lavish fight tournaments saw winners awarded large sums of money, as well as horses. Lethwei tournaments were often held during pagoda festivals, monks’ funerals, and on other holidays and special events, like Union Day and Armed Forces day. The largest of these rural tournaments were traditionally fought once a year for the various pagoda festivals and during the extended Thingyan New Year holiday festivities.

In the Colonial period that began after the British invasion in 1885, Burmese boxing went into serious decline. It was embargoed, oppressed, looked down upon, and used primarily as entertainment for British officials and rich merchants who often imported Indian fighters from India to take part in the tournaments. It remained an active sport in the rural villages, where it was quietly propagated and kept alive, despite British suppression that saw Burmese boxers classed as vagrants and habitual criminal offenders subject to arrest.

During this period in the Kayin and Mon States, farmers staged traditional nightly Lethwei matches around massive bonfires as tribute to the goddess of rice in hopes that she would bless their crops during harvest time. The fights were held in the natural elements on a ground of dirt or sand. Naban, or Burmese wrestling matches, often began the early evening festivities prior to the bare-knuckle match-ups. These older tournaments also emphasized the importance of the music and songs that accompanied each bout.

In the early Lethwei matches, no hand wraps were used. There were very few rules. A grudge or a debt could be settled with a Lethwei match. The ugly side of a harmonious and beautiful sport could quickly become a nasty, fatal affair.

In Thailand, the ancient bare-knuckle fighting systems, simply called Muay, began to fade in the late 1920s when political reforms saw the outlawing of the older brutal forms of fighting. A newer sport, bolstered by westernized rules of sportsmanship—including a ring, a referee, judges, weight classes, rules, and gloves—gave rise to a much safer modern ring art called Muay Thai, or Thai Boxing. Burma, resistant to bow to any rules of the West, maintained bare-knuckle fighting, while Laos and Cambodia followed Thailand decades later and crafted modern ring arts out of their ancient bare-knuckle fighting systems.

After World War II and decades of turbulence, Lethwei began a steady bid for revitalization within the country. Although it never really disappeared, maintained by the rural villages on tribal land, Lethwei needed the fiscal support of the larger supporting government and sports bodies to once again rise to prominence.

During the sport’s revitalization, changes and variations emerged. Lethwei could now be fought in several different types of platforms from old to new. In its oldest form with few rules, Lethwei was fought in the sand or dirt with an endless final round that saw some bouts last all day into sundown after the natural light had faded; or in a more modern context, it was fought in major cities, like Mandalay and Rangoon, in a full-size ring with a single referee, coupled with further efforts to ensure the safety of the fighters. In traditional bouts and most of the early Thailand vs. Burma contests, there were usually two referees in the ring. But in recent years, the push has been to use one referee, as in any regular modern contest. Even though the Burmese resisted the pull of the West, the rules slowly infused more safety protocols and formats easily palpable to international competitors and matches.

Special rest, or second chance, is a unique rule to Lethwei that often appears in challenge matches. If one of the fighters is knocked out, his corner is given two minutes to resuscitate and rejuvenate the fighter so he can continue with the match. This can happen only once during a match. In a three-round fight, the knockout must happen during round one, or the rule is not in play. In a four- or five-round fight, it can only happen up to round two or only during the first two rounds. It takes a tremendous amount of willpower and strength to recover from a knockout and go back into the fight with the vigor to win. Some say this rule extended from the days of grudge matches when an opponent would be given any opportunity to avenge his wrong, including a second chance after being knocked out.

Burmese Lethwei has never permanently embraced judging and a point system to determine a winner. The only way to win a Lethwei contest is by stoppage, often from a cut or excessive bleeding, knockout, or forfeit. The outcome decides the fighter’s paycheck, unless he is a successful fighter who has negotiated a set fee. The fighter will receive one amount to win or a much lesser amount if he draws with his opponent. If there is no winner, the bout is called a draw, and each fighter is paid accordingly. The use of a point system has been attempted with ringside judges but has never really taken hold. It would entail training ringside judges and coming up with the criteria for what the point scoring will be. The Thais use their own system, as do judges in the West.

Burmese boxing generally has no weight classes. Fighters are sized up and matched by experienced promoters or referees. This type of matchmaking goes back to ancient times when many sports, such as Kushti or Indian wrestling, as well as bare-knuckle fighting throughout Southeast Asia, employed similar methods. The Gold Belt matches starting in 1996 brought an attempt to find national champions in specific weight classes with more organized rules. Another similarity with ancient fighting sports is that the fighting only stops when both of an opponent’s shoulders touch the ground. Fighting can continue until this happens. One must protect himself at all times, even as he falls or tumbles to the ground.

Lethwei fighters can use fists, palm strikes, throws, knees, elbows, kicks, head butts, and some joint manipulations during a match. A groin shot is considered legal in the old system rules, since the fighter wore a cup and was told to protect himself just like he would protect his throat or head. In the modern fight arena, the groin shot is frowned upon. There are generally warnings before any disqualifications. No gouging, hair pulling or fish hooking is permitted, though they were legal in the ancient variant of the sport.

Training for a fight usually ramps up close to a tournament. A call goes out for fighters. More fighters submit themselves than there are opportunities to fight. Fighters train throughout the year, but most do so on a part-time basis. Some fighters, especially in the rural villages, fight for fun or when they can, in order to make some extra money.

There are major fight camps throughout Burma where fighters maintain an active fighting stable with excellent coaches and year-round training, but these camps are nothing compared to what exists in neighboring Thailand.

Thailand has a huge Muay Thai infrastructure with outlets to fight any day of the week throughout the kingdom, a multitude of camps to train in from raw to fancy, training equipment that can easily be purchased or acquired, big yearly and monthly tournaments including amateur level competitions, as well as a physical education Muay Thai program for those who want to teach at any of the education levels.

In Burma, there are barely any camps that can rival even the most basic Thai camp, unless they have access to a university, church, or Olympic training ground. The camps sometimes, if they are lucky, have a single heavy bag, a pair of pads, gloves, and nothing more. However, diligence and hard work, no matter what camp you visit in Burma, are present. Most work like Muay Thai training camps, with two training sessions a day.

Training can vary from camp to camp. Some use fast intervals, moving from station to station. Others use grueling, lengthy and physically demanding sessions that stick primarily to basics.

The bigger, higher-paying tournaments are sporadic. One year might have more than the next. If mass gatherings are banned by the military for political reasons, there might only be one or two major fights a year. The military controls and oversees most big tournaments. Their controlling hand is often felt, even in the match-ups, especially when foreigners are involved. Everything is used for propaganda. They let nothing slip from their grasp. Promoters must work with the military to ensure success for each tournament.

The lifeblood of Lethwei though has always rested with the various ethnic groups that kept it alive during the many decades of suppression and control. Many of these groups claim the Burmese government has pursued a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing against them. The ethnic minorities have long resisted the centralized control of the government and, thus, feel free to stage as many Lethwei tournaments as they please on their tribal land. They believe they have the sovereignty and inherent authority to govern themselves, despite the military junta’s continuous fight against them. In reality, the many bouts they stage during the year are the breeding ground for future champions and also an outlet for the youth to compete. It is an opportunity for them to fight and celebrate their ethnic background and community. Key to this are the Thingyan celebrations throughout Myanmar that feature Lethwei bouts, followed by the Pagoda Festival fights.

Earning a living as a Lethwei fighter can be a very difficult and frustrating road. You can age quickly, as the years fly by. You are only able to fight in a limited amount of tournaments throughout the year. A top pay scale often falls around $1,500 to $2,000, but there have been attempts at large-scale fight tournaments with pay scales rising to almost double the standard.

There are no amateur-level fights in Lethwei as we know them in the West. Amateur fights are usually fought with the safety of the young fighters in mind and use safety gear, including headgear. In Lethwei, the same rules are in play for a beginner or amateur as a professional, but they will only fight 3 rounds instead of 5. A fighter is brought up the ranks and pay scale by starting in three-round fights, then graduating to four-rounders, and finally into the major league five-round wars. Although there are no weight divisions in most Lethwei tournaments, fighters can be ranked by skill in the first, second, and third-class divisions. They are matched accordingly.

The fights begin with each fighter displaying his Lethwei Yei or Lethwei dance. This is very different from the Thai, Cambodian, and Laotian dances that are similar in composition to one another. The Yei is a sharp explosion of movements. It closely resembles actions seen from fighters in India or Mongolia prior to a bout. It is an act of respect toward the opponent, coaches, spectators, and the spirits they believe in. Musical accompaniment by a small Burmese orchestra is integral to every Burmese Lethwei fight, both big and small. Music is important to all the fighting arts of Southeast Asia, although the music is distinct for each country.

Traditional fighters were all distinctly tattooed on their upper thighs to help inspire skill, courage, and protection in life. The tattoos were considered an act of manhood and were always proudly displayed. They were also a mandatory element of Lethwei. In the modern era, the tattoos that take a long and painful process to apply are not as prominent as they once were. The respect for their spiritual prowess is less acknowledged or understood by younger fighters.

The fights themselves are generally fast and explosive. One might quickly judge it as a crude and brutal brawl, akin to a street fight, but there is much more going on than meets the eye. The fighters often throw volleys of attack combinations, then retreat, and press again. One famous Saya (Burmese teacher) said that his fight combination tactics followed the ancient Burmese maxim that says, “The wave of water is harder than the edge of stone.” There are a multitude of different fighting styles and approaches within Burmese Lethwei. It takes time to understand and see the applied tactics within the fast explosive blur. Because there is no point system, a fighter is generally not trying to steal the round or impress the judges. He is looking to stop his opponent and get the higher money win. His performance is not based on how he looks or how he builds up points, but rather by his ability to get the stoppage and win.

Women and children are often allowed to fight in the major tournaments. Some of the actual bouts, usually reserved for the earlier parts of the show, are quite spirited and fiercely contested.

There are many ways to participate in and view Burmese Lethwei. It has produced many outstanding fighters in recent years, like former Middleweight Champion Lone Chaw, who has taken on all challengers, including several foreigners, while winning on major cards in Japan and throughout Burma. He is a classic example of a boy from a poor rural farm family who rose to the top ranks of his sport through hard work and determination.

Burmese Lethwei gives us a glimpse into the distant past. It is the last remnant of active bare-knuckle fighting culture in Southeast Asia. Its long, rich history shows us a world where gallant fighters fought as an act of manhood and pride and often as preparation for the horrors of the endless battlefields that were once part of Burma’s ancient past.

The original article was written in late 2008 for a special Vanishing Flame presentation in 2009 on Burmese Martial Arts that failed to happen. The article was finally published in 2012 by Robert Reiter who published it in Muay Thaimes Magazine. Many changes began happening within Myanmar, and I felt this article would reflect the period just before that and the new article after the opening of the country. I renamed the article Born Warriors: Fighting For Survival because the article like the documentary covered these early struggles that might not be so apparent now since the opening of the country. It a record of a time written about and shot as it was happening.

Story and Photos ©2015 Vincent Giordano. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited.

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