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Thai Olympic Committee mum after Cambodia says kickboxing name dispute was settled

UPDATED at 2:11 EST on 01/27/2023
Thailand’s Olympic Committee was mum Friday after a top Cambodian sports official declared that a dispute between the two countries over the name of a kickboxing event at the Southeast Asian Games had been resolved.

Thailand had threatened to boycott the event at the May 5-17 games in Cambodia to protest that the host nation would call it “Kun Khmer” instead of the Thai name of “Muay Thai.” The row reflects how sports can translate into strong feelings of patriotism or ethnic rivalry.

On Thursday, Vath Chamroeun, the secretary-general of the Cambodian Southeast Asian Games Organising Committee and the National Olympic Committee of Cambodia, said Thailand withdrew its protest after the Cambodian side explained that using a Khmer language name for the name of a Khmer martial art had no effect on the name or the form of any Thai sport.

He also said that even if Thailand had kept its kickboxers out of the event, it would still go on as planned, and under the name Kun Khmer because in addition to Cambodia, six countries – Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam – had already agreed to participate, and only four are necessary to keep it on the schedule.

“We are following the rules of the sport, which states that the host country has the right to participate in the tournament, but must have four countries agree to also participate, and we were able to resolve this peacefully,” said Vath Chamroeun.

Reported Thai denial

But on Friday, a Thai media report said the head of the Amateur Muaythai Association of Thailand, or AMTAT, had denied that the boycott threat had been called off.

“The reports were inaccurate. Cambodia made it up by themselves,” said Secretary-General Charoen Limwattana, according to Thairath, a Thai-language daily. “Thailand won’t send athletes to compete in the competition in accordance with the International Federation of Muaythai Associations, which has sent the warning letter to the associations because the [Kun Khmer] is not an IFMA sanctioned sport.”

Officials at the National Olympic Committee of Thailand contacted by BenarNews, a news organization affiliated with Radio Free Asia, said they were aware of the reports but had no information or comment about them.

Muay Thai2.jpg
Buakaw Banchamek (left) demonstrates the sport of Muay Thai to APEC summit attendees in Bangkok, Nov. 16, 2022. (Nontarat Phaicharoen/BenarNews)

The IFMA is the sole recognized governing body for amateur and professionals competing in Muay Thai and Muay Boran – which is what Thais call Kun Khmer – and consists of 130 member countries with five continental federations.

Earlier, the IFMA had threatened that it would fine and ban other countries from future Muay Thai events if they participated in the event at the SEA Games.

Long-standing row

The dispute is more than a matter of simple linguistic differences. The names stoke the flames of nationalism and rivalry in both countries, which have seen friction in many other arenas, including a decades-old border dispute over the area surrounding an ancient temple and World Heritage Site that resulted in bloody skirmishes as recently as 2011.

The dispute over the proper name for the sport, which involves punching, kicking and jabbing one’s knees into an opponent’s stomach, has raged for years.

Muay Thai is the national sport of Thailand, and is widely known around the world by that name. But the Cambodian organizing committee for the games claimed Cambodia has cultural ownership of Kun Khmer and it would use that term to avoid confusion.

Vath Chamroeun, the Cambodian Olympic official, called for restraint among the heated factions, asking that they calm down and refrain from accusing each other of causing problems. “Instead, we should develop what is ours, and they should develop what is theirs,” he said.

Contacted again Friday by RFA, Vath Chamroeun confirmed that the dispute had been settled and that Thai boxers would be coming to the event.

Asian MMA, a media outlet that covers mixed martial arts news in the region, treats them as if they are the same sport.

“The two sports are basically identical but while Muay Thai is globally recognized, Kun Khmer is completely unknown outside of Cambodia,” a report published Wednesday on the website about the SEA Games dispute said.

A 2019 Phnom Penh Post report said that “there are no major differences between the two combat sports – the rules are the same, with a slight difference in how they score the match,” it said. “Also, Thai fighters are more technical while their Cambodian counterparts are known for their brutal elbows and knees.” 

The name has caused conflicts at previous SEA Games, according to Asian MMA. 

In 2005, Cambodia refused to send its team in protest that the kickboxing event was called Muay Thai, and in 1995, at an ASEAN meeting, Cambodia petitioned unsuccessfully to change the official name of the sport to the more neutral “Sovannaphum Boxing” or “SEA Boxing,” arguing that the sport has origins in Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar, in addition to Thailand. 

Translated by Sum Sok Ry. Nontarat Phaicharoen for BenarNews in Bangkok contributed to this report. Edited by Malcolm Foster.

Updates story to clarify that Thai sports officials have not confirmed that the dispute was resolved.

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