Traditional boxing in Myanmar involves punches, kicks and headbutts

HLAINGBWE: After Hlaing Htet Aung landed another vicious kick to his opponent’s chest, the referee ended the match of traditional Myanmar boxing, the crowd cheered and the ringside band finished their tune with a flourish.

The 22-year-old strutted out of the ring victorious at the end of a five-day traditional Lethwei tournament, now in front of large crowds again in the wake of the pandemic.

He just beat the current champion for his weight and has the bruises and bumps on his face to prove it.

“It’s nothing,” he said of his swollen face. “It’s normal in Lethwei to get hit like this.”

“I’m happy because I won.”

Lethwei is considered one of the most aggressive martial arts in the world, with fighters forgoing boxing gloves and wrapping thin gauze bandages around calloused ankles.

Feet, knees, elbows and even the head can also be used to punch an opponent.

The fighter’s mother, Chit Htwe, 52, gave her son an ice cube to cool his wounds and was unfazed by his injuries.

“Nothing happened. He’s a man, isn’t he? A Lethwei fighter is used to going home injured.”

She later listed his winnings – 900,000 kyat ($430).

The tournament also featured children as young as 10 years old, brawling in a whirl of skinny arms and legs.

Many Lethwei fighters begin training and competing at a young age.

“I was scared going into the ring… I had no fighting experience at the time,” said Hlaing Htet Aung.

Lethwei has a long history, with carvings in temples in Myanmar showing pairs of men fighting, suggesting the sport is over a thousand years old.

In modern times it has been kept alive in the eastern border states of Karen and Mon, where fights are held to celebrate everything from monks’ funerals to New Year celebrations.

More than 1,000 people came to watch the end of the tournament in Hlaingbwe township, Karen state, sitting on plastic chairs under a huge wooden canopy.

In the crowd, about a dozen monks watched as the violence unfolded while flutes played, drums and cymbals clattered and a commentator used a microphone to encourage the fighters.

Fighters from the local Border Patrol Force — former ethnic insurgents now loosely allied with the military — stood guard outside with guns or rode in jeeps with machine guns on the back.

– ‘Not afraid’ –

The state of Karen has been torn by conflict since independence from Britain in 1948, in which ethnic rebels fight the military and each other.

The largest of the ethnic rebel groups, the Karen National Union, has repeatedly clashed with the military since the junta’s coup two years ago and bloody crackdown on dissidents.

But on Sunday, officers and senior figures from rival groups sat in the same crowd to watch the spectacle.

Not far from the boxing ring, thousands prayed at a Buddhist pagoda in a ceremony to celebrate the raising of an auspicious golden umbrella at the top of its tower.

One of the few fighters on the bill, Dawna Bo Ma, 16, hails from Myawady on the Thai border.

Like Hlaing Htet Aung, her father was a Lethwei fighter.

In her match, she went the full five rounds with her taller and heavier Thai opponent.

After the fight, her team took her bandages off her hands and applied petroleum jelly to a cut above her eyebrow.

She had tied that match but had big ambitions for her fighting ability.

“I have to beat fighters in Myanmar first and if there is no one to challenge me, I will go to Thailand to fight,” she said.

“I’m a fighter… I’m not afraid of getting hurt.” Traditional boxing in Myanmar involves punches, kicks and headbutts

Grace Reader

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