Myanmar traditional boxing packs a punch, kick and headbutt

After Hlaing Htet Aung delivered another furious kick to his opponent’s chest, the referee called a stoppage of the traditional Myanmar boxing bout, the crowd cheered, and the ringside group finished their tune with a flourish.

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

He just defeated the reigning champ and the bruises and bumps on his face prove it.

“Nothing,” he said of his swollen face. “In Lethwei, getting hit like that is normal.”

“I’m happy because I won.”

Lethwei is considered one of the most aggressive martial arts in the world, where fighters ditch boxing gloves in favor of thin gauze bandages wrapped around hardened knuckles.

Legs, knees, elbows and even the head can also be used to strike the opponent.

Handing her son an ice cube to cool his wounds, the 52-year-old fighter’s mother, Chit Htwe, ignored his injuries.

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

Later, she calculated his winnings – 900,000 kyats ($430).

Children around the age of 10 also took part in the tournament, fighting in a whirlwind of skinny arms and legs.

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

“I was scared when I entered the ring…I didn’t have any fighting experience back then,” said Hlaing Htet Aung.

Lethwei has a long history, with temple carvings in Myanmar depicting pairs of men grappling in battle, suggesting the sport is over a thousand years old.

It has survived into the modern era in the eastern border states of Karen and Mon, where fights are held to mark everything from monks’ funerals to New Year’s holidays.

More than 1,000 people gathered to watch the end of the tournament in the town of Hlaingbwe, Karen State, sitting on plastic chairs under a huge wooden roof.

In the crowd, about a dozen monks watched the violence unfold as flutes played, drums and cymbals chimed, and a commentator cheered the fighters over a microphone.

Soldiers from the local border troops – former ethnic rebels now loosely connected to the military – stood guard outside with rifles or rode in jeeps with machine guns in the back.

– ‘Not afraid’ –

Karen State has been torn by conflict since independence from Britain in 1948, with ethnic rebels fighting the military and each other.

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

But on Sunday, officers and dignitaries from the rival factions gathered in the same crowd to watch the spectacle.

Not far from the boxing ring, thousands of people prayed at a Buddhist pagoda as part of a ceremony to raise a golden umbrella to the top of the spire.

One of the few female fighters, 16-year-old Dawna Bo Ma, hails from Myawaddy on the border with Thailand.

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

In her match, she went the full five rounds with her taller, heavier opponent from Thailand.

After the fight, her team removed the bandages from her hands and applied Vaseline to the cut above her eyebrow.

She drew in that match, but she had big ambitions for her fighting skills.

“First, I have to beat the women fighters in Myanmar, and if no one challenges me, I will go to Thailand to fight,” she said.

“I’m a fighter… I’m not afraid of pain.”

bur-hla / pst


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