July 3, 2006

Thai school gives youngsters a fighting chance

By Tanny Chia

NOEN MAPRANG, Thailand (Reuters) - Dawn breaks over a rice
field in rural Thailand as a dozen barefooted children jog
along a dirt track.

Among the small figures silhouetted against the slowly
brightening sky is Phannipa Chaithes, a shy 12-year-old girl
whose quiet voice and skinny build belie her ranking as a
national Muay Thai champion.

"Every time I fight, I want to win so I will have money,"
said Phannipa, whose winnings support her family and pay for

"That's why I like fighting."

Phannipa and her twin sister Sawinee are among 40 students
who juggle schoolwork with training in Muay Thai, a native
martial arts form, at the Suksawittaya school in the north
central province of Phitsanulok.

The six-km morning run is only the start of their punishing
daily routine that ends at sunset.

After regular school lessons end, Phannipa and the other
boxers embark on four hours of rigorous circuit training.

It includes another barefoot run under a scorching
afternoon sun, weight training and practicing punches, kicks
and knees to the groin.


Nearly 70 percent of the 1,200 pupils came from broken
homes or were abandoned by their parents, school director
Chuchart Khumpuang said.

"This is why we worry about the children, that they mix
with the wrong company or do drugs," said the former Muay Thai
fighter who knows only too well the challenges they face.

Chuchart, 45, boxed his way through school and he says a
specialized sports program -- ranging from Muay Thai and
wrestling to soccer and basketball -- can give students a
chance in life.

"They can find some money for themselves and go on to a
professional career," he added.

Muay Thai is wildly popular in the predominately Buddhist
country of 64 million people, tracing its roots back hundreds
of years through a period when Myanmar and Thailand fought wars

Professional fighters start training as early as eight
years old, most of them from poor rural backgrounds and
dreaming of fame and a modest fortune earned in Bangkok's
sweaty arenas.

Despite having shed its more deadly past, injuries are
still common and fighters learn to live with the cuts and
broken bones caused by flying feet, knees and fists.

Phannipa and her sister are lucky that they have suffered
nothing more than bruises so far.


Amanda Bissex, a child protection officer with the United
Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) in Bangkok, worries that
boxing at such a young age could hurt the physical development
of adolescent girls.

"If it's a form of labor that increases the risk of health
or developmental problems for the child, then we would be
concerned about the school promoting it," she said.

The twins say the 1,000 baht ($26) they each earn from
fighting once a month supports their 59-year-old grandmother
and three cousins who live with them in a bare wooden house.

"It's a little painful, but I can make money for my
grandmother," said Phannipa, who took home a national title in
her 34-kg weight class in March.

Lubhiyat Chaithes still finds it hard to watch her
granddaughters in the ring.

"I feel for them every time they fight because I'm afraid
they will get hurt," she said. "But if they don't fight,
they'll have no money," she adds, tears welling.

She can take heart from one thing though.

Phannipa may have a lot of potential, but she has no
intention of making a career out of boxing.

"I want to be a doctor. I want to finish school and have a
good job."