Fists of Pride
In the 18th century, a Thai soldier named Nai Khanom Tom was taken prisoner in Burma. Shortly after that, at a boxing tournament organized by the King, the Thai prisoner consecutively beat ten of the army’s best fighters. As a reward, the prisoner was granted his freedom and so he returned home to Thailand. Still today, fighting continues to be an important part of Thai culture. There are a number of spots where animals are pitted against each other and people make big bets in favor of their favorite bull or cock. Young boys go to boxing camps where they learn to defend themselves against child traffickers and prepare to compete against other young boxers.
Burma has a lot of social and political problems and thousands of families flee to Thailand seeking better living and financial conditions. Most of the migrants
remain in poverty for the rest of their lives, with very little hope of ever making enough cash to live a decent life. During the annual Water Festival Thai and Burmese boxers fight each other. A win means a whole lot to them because as children of poor illegal workers, they don’t have much and a cash price is always a huge advantage. It means that there will be enough rice and curry on the table for everyone to eat.
A lot of the Burmese migrants end up in Mae Sot district. Close to 50,000 children live there. The majority of the adults work at the local factories, but quite a few end up in the fields or even the streets. It has been estimated that about 5% to 10% of the workers are children, due to the fact that 75% of them have no access to school.
The Thai boys are afraid of the Burmese boys because they are fast and can easily knock them out within the first two rounds, but training Burmese boys can be challenging at times because most of them aren’t fluent in Thai and can’t understand all the instructions.
It’s hard to tell what is a good age to begin training young boys. Most coaches agree that between 16 and 25 is best, but many of the boys at the camp are much younger than that.
One young boy known as Tiger started training when he was only eight years old. At first he was only there to accompany his older brother and he would imitate the moves his brother was being taught. Over time, the coaches noticed that he had skills. Tiger saw how his brother was making money from his matches and decided to give it a try. His brother says that Tiger’s heart isn’t really in it, probably because he’s still too young to know for sure what he wants to do with his life.
Boxing is a way of escape for Burmese boys because it allows them to make enough money to afford their education or to contribute to their families.