After the death of a child Muay Thai fighter, Thailand struggles to change

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After a young Muay Thai fighter died in the ring in late 2018, politicians and advocates called for new legislation to protect kids who kick-box. However, many fans disagree and on the ground, change remains slow.

Promo: After the death of a child boxer, is Muay Thai an ancient art form or child abuse? Watch Thailand's Child Fighters On Demand.

When 13-year-old Anucha Tasako was killed after a knock-out punch in a Thai boxing ring on the outskirts of Bangkok, it caused a shock around Thailand.

The sport of Muay Thai is highly-revered in parts of the country. It’s both a cultural tradition and national sport; where fists, knees, elbows and feet are used to strike blows in the ring – in front cheering, yelling, gambling, fans.

Tasako’s opponent that day was a 15-year-old and both entered the ring without protective gear. Minutes into the fight, Tasako went down from a legal blow from his rival. Knocked out from the hit, Tasako never regained consciousness.

Doctors attributed the young professional fighter’s untimely death to a brain aneurism; and it was reported he had competed in 170 Muay Thai fights between the ages of eight and thirteen.

At his funeral, his uncle said he died a ‘warrior’. Critics say young Muay Thai fighters like him are exploited.

Popularity and paypackets

In Thailand, it’s estimated between around 200,000 Thai children are training for kick-boxing combat, every day.

Kids as young as eight enter the ring without protective gear, often to earn money for their impoverished families.

Adults in Thailand receive just $15AUD as the minimum daily wage – if they can find work. This is stark contrast to the hundreds of dollars their children can earn for just fifteen minutes fighting in the ring.

The ultimate victory in this contact sport is by knocking out your opponent. Medical experts say those can be harmful, or even fatal, especially for children.

Dr Jiraporn Laothamatas has been leading the campaign to ban children from Muay Thai.

She has spent five years studying the brains of hundreds of child fighters.

“If you are boxer, kid boxer, you will have the IQ that lower than the child of the same socio-economic and same age,” she tells Dateline. “It's almost 10 points compared to the normal. The non-boxer kids. Ten points, it means a lot.”

She says Tasako’s death should be cause for change in the country.

“You look at the whole event. How can you let this child from eight years old box almost every two weeks?” she adds.

“We really ask the sport authority of Thailand or the law authority in Thailand just stops using the kids younger than 15 years old as a professional boxer.

“These kids, they are our future. They are future of our country. How can we let this kind of thing happen?”

Thailand's Professional Child Boxers
Young Muay Thai boxers fight each other during a Muay Thai boxing competition.

A call to change falls silent

Even before Tasako’s death, advocates were pushing for greater regulation of youth Muay Thai. The calls intensified after footage of his fight was shared online and news spread.

Thai Tourism and Sports Minister Weerasak Kowsurat committed to drafting an amendment to protect Thai children from the risks of professional boxing ‘as quickly as possible’.

But when Dateline meets another minister of the Thai National Assembly, Tuang Anthachai a few months later, the mood has shifted.

“Our intention is not to ban child boxing,” Tuang tells Dateline. “They will see it, as us being against the sport.”

It’s a troubling prospect for politicians that might back a ban. Muay Thai fights between young competitors are popular in rural communities, the same ones that show high voter turnout in national elections.

Among the rural fans that gamble on them, child fighters are widely seen as being more fierce and incorruptible - and therefore a more solid bet.

A battle against poverty

Despite the criticisms and risks, families like that of teenage fighter Tangkwa still rely on the sport as an opportunity to lift them out of poverty.

Her mother tells Dateline the money she earns from fights is used to support the family.

“When she boxes and gets some money, I’ll give her some to buy some things for herself,” she says.

“Sometimes, if I’m a bit short... I’ll borrow some to pay expenses.

“I’m proud of Tangkwa. She knows her duties. She really helps the family a lot.”

As she fights, members of her family wince with every hit.

But when she wins, the victory means more than just a paypacket or a risk averted. It’s an opportunity to make a name for herself in a sport that remains revered for its culture, and lauded by the locals and tourists that still flock to events.

“I feel glad and proud that I have won and become the champion,” she says.

“Thailand is proud of Muay Thai. It’s part of the national identity.”