The 32nd SEA Games in Phnom Penh, Cambodia is underway, and if you’re observant, you might have noticed the conspicuous absence of one sport — Muay Thai.
It has been replaced by the Cambodian kickboxing sport Kun Khmer.
As you can imagine, it has caused a fair bit of drama.
The decision to replace Muay Thai with Kun Khmer was made by host country Cambodia in January.
Cambodian newspaper The Khmer Times reported that the change in name “serves as an honor for Cambodia as the host of the Games”, reasoning that the martial art sport originated from Khmer culture — the Khmers are native to Cambodia and make up over 90 per cent of the country’s population.
That decision sparked a raging cultural debate and war of words.
For both Cambodia and Thailand, the choice of name is a matter of national pride.
As pointed out by the South China Morning Post, Muay Thai is a key part of Thailand’s soft-power marketing and it is more widely known around the world.
But there are some, especially Kun Khmer fighters, who claim that the sport is actually based on Kun Khmer.
Check out this clip of a Kun Khmer match between Cambodia’s Prom Samnang and Myanmar’s Tun Tun Min on May 11.
You’ll find that Muay Thai and Kun Khmer are very similar in terms of their moves, strategy, and rules (Nation Thailand put together a very nifty comparison between the two martial art forms, if you’re interested).
Experts believe both share the same cultural origins.
But don’t for a minute think that they are interchangeable.
Amid the uproar over Cambodia’s decision to switch out Muay Thai for Kun Khmer, the Cambodians and Thais took to the internet to defend their respective cultural heritage (almost like how Singaporeans and Malaysians quibble over the origins of nasi lemak).
Thai media Khaosod English reported that following Cambodia’s decision to axe Muay Thai in the Games, the Thai Army sent a “symbolic message” by performing a mass traditional pre-match dance, featuring Muay Thai boxing legend Buakaw Banchamek and 3,650 Thai soldiers.
On the Cambodian side of the border, the honorary chairman of the Khmer Boxing Federation, Oknha Srey Chanthorn, put up his US$270,000 (S$359,875) villa, a car, and cash as a reward for any Cambodian boxer who could defeat Buakaw, reported The Khmer Times.
In a Facebook post, he wrote:
“In my name, as the honorary vice president of the Khmer Boxing Federation, Khmer people are also strong, Cambodia also has strong people. If Khmer Waibukhao wins, they will give you a villa, a car and additional money for 10 years. 🙏🏻❤️🇰🇭 This is an encouragement to Khmer players to fight for our motherland. 🙏🏻🇰🇭❤️ I love Cambodia 🙏🏻🙏🏻🙏🏻”
The fever pitch went up a notch when a Cambodian internet idol joined in the fray and offered her hand in marriage to the Cambodian boxer who could best Buakaw, reported Khaosod English.
On his part, Buakaw simply said to the media that it’s Cambodia’s right to replace Muay Thai with Kun Khmer:
“We do not have to worry about it because we are paying more attention to the Olympic level.”
Tensions were also fraught on social media, with people from either side slinging insults at each other and poking fun at Cambodian or Thai culture.
In February, the International Federation of Muaythai Associations (Ifma) warned six member-countries from Southeast Asia — Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, and Singapore — not to send their Muay Thai athletes to the 2023 SEA Games to compete in the Kun Khmer competition or risk being banned from Ifma competitions and activities for two years.
Ifma chairman Sakchai Thapsuwan said the move was not a boycott but framed it as a decision to protect the integrity of the martial art competition, citing issues such as “prohibited substances, fair judging and athletes’ safety”, reported Nation Thailand.
The National Olympic Committee of Thailand also confirmed that no Thai athletes would be competing in Kun Khmer at the 2023 SEA Games.
Sakchai also explained in January to Nation Thailand that Cambodia’s decision was “wrong” because it disregarded internationally-accepted practices:
“In hosting any international sport event, the organiser must coordinate with the international authority responsible for that sport, such as Fifa for football, Aiba (Association Internationale de Boxe Amateur) for boxing, and Ifma for Muay Thai. Furthermore, the organiser must follow the rules and regulations of the respective authority. This is an internationally accepted practice.”
This explains why Singapore did not send athletes to compete in Kun Khmer this year even though the sport is very similar to Muay Thai.
From the perspective of Muay Thai athletes and the federation, it’s a different sport.
Despite this, the Kun Khmer International Federation announced on Feb. 12 that seven ASEAN countries would be participating in Kun Khmer at the 2023 SEA Games: Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, Myanmar, the Philippines and Vietnam.
All seven are members of the Kun Khmer International Federation.
Cambodia’s National Olympic Committee (NOCC) secretary-general also claimed that since the issue gained publicity, more than 20 new countries have formed Kun Khmer federations.
Top image: YouTube