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Uproar over Thai child fighting culture

Thousands of child boxers compete in Thailand’s traditional martial art with dreams of belts, glory and prize money, but the death of a 13-year-old has lit up a sensitive debate over whether competitors start too young.

Centuries-old Muay Thai, known as the art of eight limbs for the different ways opponents can strike each other with knees, fists, kicks, and elbows, is the country’s de facto national sport and remains a source of immense pride.

But new research within Thailand suggests that the earlier Muay Thai boxers begin, the more prone they are to a range of injuries.

Lawmakers under the country’s military leaders have also drafted revamped legislation that would bar children under 12 from competing in the contact sport.

Brain cell damage

The push has gathered new momentum in light of the death of 13-year-old Anucha Tasako, who died from a brain haemorrhage after his similarly aged opponent struck him with multiple blows to the head at a Saturday charity fight near Bangkok.

Anger erupted on social media where footage of the critical moments of the bout was uploaded. Deputy prime minister Prawit Wongsuwan instructed the sports ministry to review the legislation, which also requires parental consent for those between 12 and 15 and “physical safety measures”.

“The competitions must have appropriate, protective gear from the arena manager,” Prawit said according to a spokesperson. It is common for Muay Thai fighters to start young and Anucha embarked on his career when he was eight years old.

He grew up in the northeastern province of Kalasin and after his parents parted ways he spent time with a relative who had a Muay Thai gym. Gripped by the sport, Anucha moved to Bangkok to stay with an uncle and train.

By the time he got to the charity match in Samut Prakan on Saturday he had fought 170 times, according to local media reports. Critics point to alleged child exploitation as gamblers bet on bouts or promoters shave off prize money.

Health consequences

But it is the unseen health consequences that have received the most attention. A five-year study from 2012 by the Child Safety Promotion and Injury Prevention Centre at Ramathibodi Hospital carried out MRI scans on the brains of 335 child boxers and compared them with 252 non-boxers of the same ages.

Hospital director Adisak Plitponkarnpim said it was “clear” that child boxers suffered more brain cell damage and ruptures, and also had lower Iqs.

“Their young age increases the damage because their skull and muscles are not yet fully developed.”

He said that accumulative injuries could put them at higher risk for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases as adults.  -AFP

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